« IndietroContinua »
OF PRESENTIVE AND SYMBOLIC WORDS,
AND OF INFLECTIONS.
PHILOLOGY makes more use of the signification of words than grammar does. For grammar deals only with the literary forms, functions, and habits of words ; philology deals with the very words themselves. Grammar regards words as the instruments of literature; philology regards them as the exponents of mind. Philology has to do with language in its fullest sense, as being that whole compound thing which is made up of voice and meaning, sound and signification, written form and associated idea.
It appertains to philology to omit none of the phenomena of language, but to give them all their due consideration. Hence it comes to pass that the outward and the inward, the form and the signification, will come by turns under review. And though the inward or mental side of language will occupy less of our space than its correlative, yet each reference to it will be more in the nature of a reference to principle, and will score its results deeper on our whole method of proceeding.
As we proceed, the subject grows upon our hands. We cannot treat of our native language in a philological manner
without getting down to some fundamental principles. In the present work we began like a botanist with the flower; but the progress of the enquiry leads in due time through the whole economy of the plant, and will at length bring us to its root. While we dwelt over the historical circumstances in the midst of which our language first expanded to the light, while we noted the source from which it was supplied with alphabetic characters, while we surveyed its spelling and pronunciation, and its homely interjections, we were acting like a botanist examining a particular floret of the multitudinous head of some grassy inflorescence. But now we move down the stalk which bears many such florets, and we have to admit principles which embrace the systems of many languages. At this point we enter upon the very heart of the subject; and the growing importance of the matter makes me fear lest I should fail in the exposition of it. All things cannot be rendered equally easy for the student, and I must here ask him to lend me the vigour of his attention while I try to expound that upon which will hinge much of the meaning of chapters to come.
There is a distinction in the signification of words which calls for primary attention in philology. I would ask the reader to contemplate such words as spade, heron, handsaw, pike-staff, barn-door ; and then to turn his mind to such as the following, I, you, they, of, in, over, but, where, never, how, therefore. It will be at once felt that there is a gulf between these two sorts of words, and that there must be a natural distinction between them.
The one set presents objects to the mind, the other does not. Some of them, such as the pronouns, continue to reflect an object once presented, as John he. But there is a difference in nature between the word John and the word. he. If I say at Jerusalem .... there, the word Jerusalem
belongs to the one class, and the words at, there, belong to the other class.
We will call these two classes of words by the names of PRESENTIVE and SYMBOLIC.
The Presentive are those which present an object to the memory or to the imagination; or, in brief, which present any conception to the mind. For the things presented need not be objects of sense, as in the first list of examples. The words justice, patience, clemency, fairy, elf, spirit, abstraction, generalization, classification, are as presentive as any words can be. The only point of difference between these and those is one that does not belong to philology. It is the difference of minds. There are people to whom some of the latter words would have no meaning, and therefore would not be presentive. But every word is supposed by the philologer to carry its requisite condition of mind with it.
The Symbolic words are those which by themselves present no meaning to the mind, and which depend for their intelligibility on a relation to some presentive word or words. We enter not at present into the question how they became so limited; we simply take our stand on the fact. Whether they can be shown to be mere altered specimens of the presentive class, or whether there is room to imagine in any case that they have had a source of their own, independent of the presentives, the difference exists, and is most palpable. And the more we attend to it, the more shall we find that broad results are attainable from the study of this great distinction
What, for example, is the joke in such a question as that which has afforded a moment's amusement to many generations of youth, Who dragged whom round what and where? except this, that symbols which stand equally for any
person, any thing, or any place, are rendered ludicrous by being employed as if they presented to the mind some particular person, some particular thing, or some particular place? The question is rather unsubstantial, simply because the words are symbolic where they should be presentive. It is not utterly unsubstantial, because the verb dragged round is presentive. Put a more symbolic verb in its stead and you have a perfectly unsubstantial question: Who did what, and where did he do it? Who's who? To this class of words ignorance and vacancy of mind necessarily resort, as the Israelites, when they saw manna, said Man hu, What is it?
And here it will be very desirable to establish a clear understanding of the general difference between presentiveness and symbolism. For this purpose it may be useful to notice a few cases which are more or less analogous. When barbers' poles were first erected, they were presentive, for they indicated by white bands of paint the linen bandages which were used in blood-letting, an operation practised by the old surgeon-barbers. In our time we only know (speaking of the popular mind) that the pole indicates a barber's shop, but why or how is unknown. And this is symbolism.
The twelve signs of the zodiac are expressed by two sets of figures, the one presentive of a ram, a bull, a crab, &c., the other set only symbolical of the same, with a traceable relationship between the symbols and the pictures.
But the most appropriate illustration may be gathered from the letters of the Alphabet. The letter A once was a picture, and it represented a bull's head, as may more easily be believed by the youthful reader if the letter is put before him in the form of A, with its two horns. And the ancient name of the letter, Aleph, in Hebrew (whence Alpha in Greek) signifies a bull. Now it has long ago
ceased to picture the animal, and we are in the habit of calling it a symbol of the vowel-sound with which the name of the animal began.
The consonant B was once a picture of a house, and that is the meaning of its Hebrew name Beth, whence the Greek name Beta. And in like manner D is an old picture of a door, which is the sense of its name Daleth in Hebrew, whence the Greek name Delta. But these two letters (like the vowel above) have long ago lost all but an archæological connection with the objects they once pictured, and they are now the mere symbols of the consonantal sounds which were initial to the names of the represented objects. And so through the whole Alphabet. It began in presentation and has reached a state of symbolism.
Here we perceive that there has been a complete change of nature. The pictorial character with which the intention of the first artist invested the figure has gradually and undesignedly evaporated from that figure, and has left a mere vague phantom of a character in its place, a thing which is the representative of nothing. And if we set the gain against the loss of such a transition, we find that the symbol has gained enormously in range, to make up for what it has lost in pictorial force. While it was presentive, it was tied to a single object: since it became a symbol, it is ubiquitous in its function.
These observations will apply also in some degree to our two systems of numeration, the Roman and the Arabic. The numerals I and II and III and IIII are presentive of the ideas of one and two and three and four, as truly as the holding up of so many fingers would be presentive of those ideas. The numeral V is practically a mere symbol, though it began in presentation, if it be true that it is derived from the hand, the thumb forming the one side, and the four