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The Temple of Nature, Edited by Martin Priestman

ADDITIONAL NOTES. XIV.

THE THEORY AND STRUCTURE OF LANGUAGE.

Next to each thought associate sound accords,
And forms the dulcet symphony of words.               CANTO III. 1. 366.

 

         IDEAS consist of synchronous motions or configurations of the extremities of the organs of sense; these when repeated by sensation, volition, or association, are either simple or complex, as they were first excited by irritation; or have afterwards some parts abstracted from them, or some parts added to them. Language consists of words, which are the names or symbols of ideas. Words are therefore properly all of them nouns or names of things.
         Little had been done in the investigation of the theory of language from the time of Aristotle to the present era, till Mr. Horne Tooke, the ingenious and learned author of the Diversions of Purley, explained those undeclined words of all languages, which had puzzled the grammarians, and evinced from their etymology, that they were abbreviations of other modes of expression. Mr. Tooke observes, that the first aim of language was to communicate our thoughts, and the second to do it with dispatch; and hence he divides words into those, which were necessary to express our thoughts, and those which are abbreviations of the former; which he ingeniously styles the wings of Hermes.
         For the greater dispatch of conversation many words suggest more than one idea; I shall therefore arrange them according to the number and kinds of ideas, which they suggest; and am induced to do this, as a new distribution of the objects of any science may advance the knowledge of it by developing another analogy of its constituent parts. And in thus endeavouring to analyze the theory of language I mean to speak primarily of the English, and occasionally to add what may occur concerning the structure of the Greek and Latin.

I. Conjunctions and Prepositions.

         The first class of words consists of those, which suggest but one idea, and suffer no change of termination; which have been termed by grammarians CONJUNCTIONS and PREPOSITIONS; the former of which connect sentences, and the latter words. Both which have been ingeniously explained by Mr. Horne Tooke from their etymology to be abbreviations of other modes of expression.
         1. Thus the conjunctions if and an are shown by Mr. Tooke to be derived from the imperative mood of the verbs to give and to grant; but both of these conjunctions by long use appear to have become the name of a more abstracted idea, than the words give or grant suggest, as they do not now express any ideas of person, or of number, or of time; all which are generally attendant upon the meaning of a verb; and perhaps all the words of this class are the names of ideas much abstracted, which has caused the difficulty of explaining them.
         2. The number of Prepositions is very great in the English language, as they are used before the cases of nouns, and the infinitive mood of verbs, instead of the numerous changes of termination of the nouns and verbs of the Greek and Latin; which gives greater simplicity to our language, and greater facility of acquiring it.
         The prepositions, as well as the preceding conjunctions, have been well explained by Mr. Horne Tooke; who has developed the etymology of many of them. As the greatest number of the ideas, we receive from external objects, are complex ones, the names of these constitute a great part of language, as the proper names of persons and places; which are complex terms. Now as these complex terms do not always exactly suggest the quantity of combined ideas we mean to express, some of the prepositions are prefixed to them to add or to deduct something, or to limit their general meaning; as a house with a party wall, or a house without a roof. These words are also derived by Mr. Tooke, as abbreviations of the imperative moods of verbs; but which appear now to suggest ideas further abstracted than those generally suggested by verbs, and are all of them properly nouns, or names of ideas.

II. Nouns Substantive.

         The second class of words consists of those, which in their simplest state suggest but one idea, as the word man; but which by two changes of termination in our language suggest one secondary idea of number, as the word men; or another secondary idea of the genitive case, as man's mind, or the mind of man. These words by other changes of termination in the Greek and Latin languages suggest many other secondary ideas, as of gender, as well as of number, and of all the other cases described in their grammars; which in English are expressed by prepositions.
         This class of words includes the NOUNS SUBSTANTIVE, or names of things, of common grammars, and may be conveniently divided into three kinds. 1. Those which suggest the ideas of things believed to possess hardness and figure, as a house or a horse. 2. Those which suggest the ideas of things, which are not supposed to possess hardness and figure, except metaphorically, as virtue, wisdom; which have therefore been termed abstracted ideas. 3. Those which have been called by metaphysical writers reflex ideas, and mean those of the operations of the mind, as sensation, volition, association.
         Another convenient division of these nouns substantive or names of things may be first into general terms, or the names of classes of ideas, as, man, quadruped, bird, fish, animal. 2. Into the names of complex ideas, as this house, that dog. 3. Into the names of simple ideas, as whiteness, sweetness.
         A third convenient division of the names of things may be into the names of intire things, whether of real or imaginary being; these are the nouns substantive of grammars. 2. Into the names of the qualities or properties, of the former; these are the nouns adjective of grammars. 3. The names of more abstracted ideas as the conjunctions and prepositions of grammarians.
         These nouns substantive, or names of intire things, suggest but one idea in their simplest form, as in the nominative case singular of grammars. As the word a stag is the name of a single complex idea; but the word stags by a change of termination adds to this a secondary idea of number; and the word stag's, with a comma before the final s, suggests, in English, another secondary idea of something appertaining to the stag, as a stag's horn; which is, however, in our language, as frequently expressed by the preposition of, as the horn of a stag.
         In the Greek and Latin languages an idea of gender is joined with the names of intire things, as well as of number; but in the English language the nouns, which express inanimate objects, have no genders except metaphorically; and even the sexes of many animals have names so totally different from each other, that they rather give an idea of the individual creature than of the sex, as bull and cow, horse and mare, boar and sow, dog and bitch. This constitutes another circumstance, which renders our language more simple, and more easy to acquire; and at the same time contributes to the poetic excellence of it; as by adding a masculine or feminine pronoun, as he, or she, other nouns substantive are so readily personified.
         In the Latin language there are five cases besides the nominative, or original word, and in the Greek four. Whence the original noun substantive by change of its termination suggests a secondary idea either corresponding with the genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, or ablative cases, besides the secondary ideas of number and gender above mentioned. The ideas suggested by these changes of termination, which are termed cases, are explained in the grammars of these languages, and are expressed in ours by prepositions, which are called the signs of those cases.
         Thus the word Domini, of the Lord, suggests beside the primary idea a secondary one of something appertaining to it, as templum domini, the temple of the Lord, or the Lord's temple; which in English is either effected by an addition of the letter s, with a comma before it, or by the preposition of. This genitive case is said to be expressed in the Hebrew language simply by the locality of the words in succession to each other; which must so far add to the conciseness of that language.
         Thus the word Domino, in the dative case, to the Lord, suggests besides the primary idea a secondary one of something being added to the primary one; which is effected in English by the preposition to.
         The accusative case, or Dominum, besides the primary idea implies something having acted upon the object of that primary idea; as felis edit murem, the cat eats the mouse. This is thus effected in the Greek and Latin by a change of termination of the noun acted upon, but is managed in a more concise way in our language by its situation in the sentence, as it follows the verb. Thus if the mouse in the above sentence was placed before the verb, and the cat after it, in English the sense would be inverted, but not so in Latin; this necessity of generally placing the accusative case after the verb is inconvenient in poetry; though it adds to the conciseness and simplicity of our language, as it saves the intervention of a preposition, or of a change of termination.
         The vocative case of the Latin language, or Domine, besides the primary idea suggests a secondary one of appeal, or address; which in our language is either marked by its situation in the sentence, or by the preposition O preceding it. Whence this interjection O conveys the idea of appeal joined to the subsequent noun, and is therefore properly another noun, or name of an idea, preceding the principal one like other prepositions.
         The ablative case in the Latin language, as Domino, suggests a secondary idea of something being deducted from or by the primary one. Which is perhaps more distinctly expressed by one of those prepositions in our language; which, as it suggests somewhat concerning the adjoined noun, is properly another noun, or name of an idea, preceding the principal one.
         When to these variations of the termination of nouns in the singular number are added those equally numerous of the plural, and the great variety of these terminations correspondent to the three genders, it is evident that the prepositions of our own and other modern languages instead of the changes of termination add to the simplicity of these languages, and to the facility of acquiring them.
         Hence in the Latin language, besides the original or primary idea suggested by each noun substantive, or name of an entire thing, there attends an additional idea of number, another of gender, and another suggested by each change of termination, which constitutes the cases; so that in this language four ideas are suggested at the same time by one word; as the primary idea, its gender, number, and case; the latter of which has also four or five varieties. These nouns therefore may properly be termed the abbreviation of sentences; as the conjunctions and prepositions are termed by Mr. Tooke the abbreviation of words; and if the latter are called the wings affixed to the feet of Hermes, the former may be called the wings affixed to his cap.

III. Adjectives, Articles, Participles, Adverbs.

         1. The third class of words consists of those, which in their simplest form suggest two ideas; one of them is an abstracted idea of the quality of an object, but not of the object itself; and the other is an abstracted idea of its appertaining to some other noun called a substantive, or a name of an entire thing.
         These words are termed ADJECTIVES, are undeclined in our language in respect to cases, number, or gender; but by three changes of termination they suggest the secondary ideas of greater, greatest, and of less; as the word sweet changes into sweeter, sweetest, and sweetish; which may be termed three degrees of comparison besides the positive meaning of the word; which terminations of er and est are seldom added to words of more than two syllables; as those degrees are then most frequently denoted by the prepositions more and most.
         Adjectives seem originally to have been derived from nouns substantive, of which they express a quality, as a musky rose, a beautiful lady, a stormy day. Some of them are formed from the correspondent substantive by adding the syllable ly, or like, as a lovely child, a warlike countenance; and in our language it is frequently only necessary to put a hyphen between two nouns substantive for the purpose of converting the former one into an adjective, as an eagle-eye, a May-day. And many of our adjectives are substantives unchanged, and only known by their situation in a sentence, as a German, or a German gentleman. Adjectives therefore are names of qualities, or parts of things; as substantives are the names of entire things.
         In the Latin and Greek languages these adjectives possess a great variety of terminations; which suggest occasionally the ideas of number, gender, and the various cases, agreeing in all these with the substantive, to which they belong; besides the two original or primary ideas of quality, and of their appertaining to some other word, which must be adjoined to make them sense. Insomuch that some of these adjectives, when declined through all their cases, and genders, and numbers, in their positive, comparative, and superlative degrees, enumerate fifty or sixty terminations. All which to one, who wishes to learn these languages, are so many new words, and add much to the difficulty of acquiring them.
         Though the English adjectives are undeclined, having neither case, gender, nor number; and with this simplicity of form possess a degree of comparison by the additional termination of ish, more than the generality of Latin or Greek adjectives, yet are they less adapted to poetic measure, as they must accompany their corresponding substantives; from which they are perpetually separated in Greek and Latin poetry.
         2. There is a second kind of adjectives, which abound in our language, and in the Greek, but not in the Latin, which are called ARTICLES by the writers of grammar, as the letter a, and the word the. These, like the adjectives above described, suggest two primary ideas; and suffer no change of termination in our language, and therefore suggest no secondary ideas.
         Mr. Locke observes, that languages consist principally of general terms; as it would have been impossible to give a name to every individual object, so as to communicate an idea of it to others; it would be like reciting the name of every individual soldier of an army, instead of using the general term, army. Now the use of the article a, and the in English, and o in Greek, converts general terms into particular ones; this idea of particularity as a quality, or property of a noun, is one of the primary ideas suggested by these articles; and the other is, that of its appertaining to some particular noun substantive, without which it is not intelligible. In both these respects these articles correspond with adjectives; to which may be added, that our article a may be expressed by the adjective one or any; and that the Greek article o is declined like other adjectives.
         The perpetual use of the article, besides its converting general terms into particular ones, contributes much to the force and beauty of our language from another circumstance, that abstracted ideas become so readily personified simply by the omission of it; which perhaps renders the English language better adapted to poetry than any other ancient or modern: the following prosopopœia from Shakspeare is thus beautiful.

She let Concealment like a worm i' th' bud
Feed on her damask cheek.

         And the following line, translated from Juvenal by Dr. Johnson, is much superior to the original, owing to the easy personification of Worth and Poverty, and to the consequent conciseness of it.

Difficile emergunt, quorum virtutibus obstat
Res angusta domi.

Slow rises Worth by Poverty depress'd.

         3. A third class of adjectives includes what are termed PARTICIPLES, which are allied to the infinitive moods of verbs, and are formed in our language by the addition only of the syllable ing or ed; and are of two kinds, active and passive, as loving, loved, from the verb to love. The verbs suggest an idea of the noun, or thing spoken of; and also of its manner of existence, whether at rest, in action, or in being acted upon; as I lie still, or I whip, or I am whipped; and, lastly, another idea, of the time of resting, acting, or suffering; but these adjectives called participles, suggest only two primary ideas, one of the noun, or thing spoken of, and another of the mode of existence, but not a third idea of time; and in this respect participles differ from the verbs, from which they originate, or which originated from them, except in their infinitive moods.
         Nor do they resemble adjectives only in their suggesting but two primary ideas; but in the Latin and Greek languages they are declined through all the cases, genders, and numbers, like other adjectives; and change their terminations in the degrees of comparison.
         In our language the participle passive, joined to the verb to be, for the purpose of adding to it the idea of time, forms the whole of the passive voice; and is frequently used in a similar manner in the Latin language, as I am loved is expressed either by amor, or amatus sum. The construction of the whole passive voice from the verb to be and the participles passive of other verbs, contributes much to the simplicity of our language, and the ease of acquiring it; but renders it less concise than perhaps it might have been by some simple variations of termination, as in the active voice of it.
         4. A fourth kind of adjective is called by the grammarians an ADVERB; which has generally been formed from the first kind of adjectives, as these were frequently formed from correspondent substantives; or it has been formed from the third kind of adjectives, called participles; and this is effected in both cases by the addition of the syllable ly, as wisely, charmingly.
         This kind of adjective suggests two primary ideas, like the adjectives, and participles, from which they are derived; but differ from them in this curious circumstance, that the other adjectives relate to substantives, and are declined like them in the Latin and Greek languages, as a lovely boy, a warlike countenance; but these relate to verbs, and are therefore undeclined, as to act boldly, to suffer patiently.

IV. Verbs.

         The fourth class of words consists of those which are termed VERBS, and which in their simplest state suggest three ideas; first an idea of the noun, or name of the thing spoken of, as a whip. 2. An idea of its mode of existence, whether at rest, or in action, or in being acted upon. 3. An idea of the time of its existence. Thus "the beadle whipped the beggar," in prolix language might be expressed, the beadle with a whip struck in time past the beggar. Which three ideas are suggested by the one word whipped.
         Verbs are therefore nouns, or names of intire ideas, with the additional ideas of their mode of existence and of time; but the participles suggest only the noun, and the mode of existence, without any idea of time; as whipping, or whipped. The infinitive moods of verbs correspond in their signification with the participles; as they also suggest only the noun, or name of the thing spoken of, and an idea of its mode of existence, excluding the idea of time; which is expressed by all the other moods and tenses; whence it appears, that the infinitive mood, as well as the participle, is not truly a part of the verb; but as the participle resembles the adjective in its construction; so the infinitive mood may be said to resemble the substantive, and it is often used as a nominative case to another verb.
         Thus in the words "a charming lady with a smiling countenance," the participle acts as an adjective; and in the words "to talk well commands attention," the infinitive mood acts as the nominative case of a noun substantive; and their respective significations are also very similar, as whipping, or to whip, mean the existence of a person acting with a whip.
         In the Latin language the verb in its simplest form, except the infinitive mood, and the participle, both which we mean to exclude from complete verbs, suggests four primary ideas, as amo, suggests the pronoun I, the noun love, its existence in its active state, and the present time; which verbs in the Greek and Latin undergo an uncounted variation of termination, suggesting so many different ideas in addition to the four primary ones.
         We do not mean to assert, that all verbs are literally derived from nouns in any language; because all languages have in process of time undergone such great variation; many nouns having become obsolete or have perished, and new verbs have been imported from foreign languages, or transplanted from ancient ones; but that this has originally been the construction of all verbs, as well as those to whip and to love above mentioned, and innumerable others.
         Thus there may appear some difficulty in analyzing from what noun substantive were formed the verbs to stand or to lie; because we have not properly the name of the abstract ideas from which these verbs arose, except we use the same word for the participle and the noun substantive, as standing, lying. But the verbs to sit, and to walk, are less difficult to trace to their origin; as we have names for the nouns substantive, a seat, and a walk.
         But there is another verb of great consequence in all languages, which would appear in its simplest form in our language to suggest but two primary ideas, as the verb to be, but that it suggests three primary ideas like other verbs may be understood, if we use the synonimous term to exist instead of to be. Thus "I exist" suggests first the abstract idea of existence, not including the mode of existence, whether at rest, or in action, or in suffering; secondly it adds to that abstracted idea of existence its real state, or actual resting, acting, or suffering, existence; and thirdly the idea of the present time: thus the infinitive mood to be, and the participle, being, suggest both the abstract idea of existence, and the actual state of it, but not the time.
         The verb to be is also used irregularly to designate the parts of time and actual existence; and is then applied to either the active or passive participles of other verbs, and called an auxiliary verb; while the mode of existence, whether at rest, or in action, or being acted upon, is expressed by the participle, as "I am loving" is nearly the same as "I love," amo; and "I am loved," amatus sum, is nearly the same as amor. This mode of application of the verb to be is used in French as well as in English, and in the passive voice of the Latin, and perhaps in many other languages; and is by its perpetual use in conversation rendered irregular in them all, as I am, thou art, he is, would not seem to belong to the infinitive mood to be, any more than sum, fui, sunt, fuerunt, appear to belong to esse.
         The verb to have affords another instance of irregular application; the word means in its regular sense to possess, and then suggests three ideas like the above verb of existence: first the abstracted idea of the thing spoken of, or possession; secondly, the actual existence of possession, and lastly the time, as I have or possess. This verb to have like the verb to be is also used irregularly to denote parts of past time, and is then joined to the passive participles alone, as I have eaten; or it is accompanied with the passive participle of the verb to be, and then with the active participle of another verb, as I have been eating.
         There is another word will used in the same irregular manner to denote the parts of future time, which is derived from the verb to will; which in its regular use signifies to exert our volition. There are other words used to express other circumstances attending upon verbs, as may, can, shall, all which are probably the remains of verbs otherwise obsolete. Lastly, when we recollect, that in the moods and tenses of verbs one word expresses never less than three ideas in our language, and many more in the Greek and Latin; as besides those three primary ideas the idea of person, and of number, are always expressed in the indicative mood, and other ideas suggested in the other moods, we cannot but admire what excellent abbreviations of language are thus achieved; and when we observe the wonderful intricacy and multiplicity of sounds in those languages, especially in the Greek verbs, which change both the beginning and ending of the original word through three voices, and three numbers, with uncounted variations of dialect; we cannot but admire the simplicity of modern languages compared to these ancient ones; and must finally perceive, that all language consists simply of nouns, or names of ideas, disposed in succession or in combination, all of which are expressed by separate words, or by various terminations of the same word.

Conclusion.

         The theory of the progressive production of language in the early times of society, and its gradual improvements in the more civilized ones, may be readily induced from the preceding pages. In the commencement of Society the names of the ideas of entire things, which it was necessary most frequently to communicate, would first be invented, as the names of individual persons, or places, fire, water, this berry, that root; as it was necessary perpetually to announce, whether one or many of such external things existed, it was soon found more convenient to add this idea of number by a change of termination of the word, than by the addition of another word.
         As many of these nouns soon became general terms, as bird, beast, fish, animal; it was next convenient to distinguish them when used for an individual, from the same word used as a general term; whence the two articles a and the, in our language, derive their origin.
         Next to these names of the ideas of entire things, the words most perpetually wanted in conversation would probably consist of the names of the ideas of the parts or properties of things; which might be derived from the names of some things, and applied to others, which in these respects resembled them; these are termed adjectives, as rosy cheek, manly voice, beastly action; and seem at first to have been formed simply by a change of termination of their correspondent substantives. The comparative degrees of greater and less were found so frequently necessary to be suggested, that a change of termination even in our language for this purpose was produced; and is as frequently used as an additional word, as wiser or more wise.
         The expression of general similitude, as well as partial similitude, becomes so frequently used in conversation, that another kind of adjective, called an adverb, was expressed by a change of termination, or addition of the syllable ly or like; and as adjectives of the former kind are applied to substantives, and express a partial similitude, these are applied to verbs and express a general similitude, as to act heroically, to speak boldly, to think freely.
         The perpetual chain of causes and effects, which constitute the motions, or changing configurations, of the universe, are so conveniently divided into active and passive, for expressing the exertions or purposes of common life, that it became particularly convenient in all languages to substitute changes of termination, instead of additional nouns, to express, whether the thing spoken of was in a state of acting or of being acted upon. This change of termination betokening action or suffering constitutes the participle, as loving, loved; which, as it expresses a property of bodies, is classed amongst adjectives in the preceding pages.
         Besides the perpetual allusions to the active or passive state of things, the comparative times of these motions, or changes, were also perpetually required to be expressed; it was therefore found convenient in all languages to suggest them by changes of terminations in preference to doing it by additional nouns. At the same time the actual or real existence of the thing spoken of was perpetually required, as well as the times of their existence, and the active or passive state of that existence. And as no conversation could be carried on without unceasingly alluding to these circumstances, they became in all languages suggested by changes of termination; which are termed moods and tenses in grammars, and convert the participle above mentioned into a verb; as that participle had originally been formed by adding a termination to a noun, as chaining, and chained, from chain.
         The great variety of changes of termination in all languages consists therefore of abbreviations used instead of additional words; and adds much to the conciseness of language, and the quickness with which we are enabled to communicate our ideas; and may be said to add unnumbered Wings to every limb of the God of Eloquence.

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Published @ RC

October 2006