Immagini della pagina
PDF
ePub

word ‘table, is the difference which splits the whole vocabulary into the two divisions of the presentive and the symbolic. A child does not understand any of the symbolic words at all. Where it uses them, it is by unconscious imitation. This happens particularly in the case of the prepositions, which are to the opening intelligence not separate words at all, but mere appendages to the presentives which they understand. We sometimes talk of the speech of animals. It is hardly possible to deny them all share in this faculty. They certainly communicate their emotions by the voice. And this voice is not without discrimination. It is not to be supposed, for example, that they have merely a spontaneous and uniform utterance for each condition of feeling. The cry of the barn-door fowl at the sight of a fox or of a hawk is such as would tell an experienced person what was going on. The various accents of the Newfoundland dog, where he has a real understanding with his master, or of the collie among the sheep on the northern fells, are manifestations wonderfully like inceptive speech; and that everybody feels this to be so, is evidenced from the common meed of praise bestowed on a sagacious dog, that he all but talks. Whether the cries of animals are humble specimens of speech, or whether they are altogether different in kind, is however a question which we have not to solve. The subject has only been introduced in order that it might afford us another point of view from which to contemplate the important distinction between presentive and symbolic speech. If we estimate at its very highest the claims that can be made for the language of the beasts, it will always be limited by the line which severs these two kinds of expression. We can imagine an orator on behalf of the animals maintaining that their cries might represent to other animals not only emotions but also objects of the outer sense or even objects reflected in the memory. We should not think a man quite unreasonable if he imagined that a certain whinny of a horse indicated to another horse as much as the word stable. But we should think him talking at random, if he pretended to be able to imagine that a horse's language possessed either a pronoun or a preposition. Here then we consider ourselves to touch upon that in human speech which bears the highest and most distinctive impress of the action of the human mind. Here we find the beauty, the blossom, the glory, the aureole of language. Here we seem to have found a means of measuring the relative progress manifested in different philological eras. Among ancient languages, that one is most richly furnished with this element which in every other respect also bears off the palm of excellence. Dr. Arnold was not likely to have written the following passage unless he had been sensible of a very high intellectual delight. “There is an actual pleasure in contemplating so perfect a management of so perfect an instrument as is exhibited in Plato's language, even if the

matter were as worthless as the words of Italian music; whereas the sense is only less admirable in many places than the language.' Life, i. 387.

The admiration which is accorded on all hands to the Greek language is due to the exquisite perfection of its symbolic element. It is not that Aéyos or pāua or pová have any intrinsic superiority over ratio or verbum or wox, that dvåp or āvápotos is preferable to vir or homo; nor is it even that the music, sweet as it may have been, reaches so effectually to the ear of the modern scholar as to carry him captive and cause him to forget the more audible march of Ausonian rhythms. No ; it all lies in the coyness of those little words whose meaning is as strikingly telling as it is impalpably subtle. It is those airy nothings which scholars

have been chasing all these centuries ever since the revival of letters, every now and then fancying they had seized them, till they were roused from their sweet delusion by the laughter of their fellow-idlers. The exact distinction between piñ and oi, the precise meaning of dv and āpa and 8% must forsooth be defined and settled; and it is very possible that we have not yet seen the last of these futile lucubrations. These things will be settled when the truant schoolboy has bound the rainbow to a tree. As far back as 1829 Dr. Arnold wrote to a learned friend :“And can you tell me where is to be found a summary of the opinions of English scholars about 6mas and 3ra's un, and the moods which they require: and further, do you or he hold their doctrine good for anything? Dawes, and all men who endeavour to establish general rules, are of great use in directing one's attention to points which one might otherwise have neglected; and labour and acuteness often discover a rule, where indolence and carelessness fancied it was all hap-hazard. But larger induction and sounder judgment teach us to distinguish again between a principle and an usage: the latter may be general; but if it be merely usage, grounded on no intelligible principle, it seems to me foolish to insist on its being universal, and to alter texts right and left, to make them all conformable to the canon.’ Life, i. 24.I. There are still scholars who seek to render a firm reason for the Greek article in every place in which it occurs. But can they do so for their own language 2 Can they say, for example, what is the value of the definite article which

occurs three times in the following couplet? “And to watch as the little bird watches When the falcon is in the air.’ Where is the man who can handle language so skilfully as to describe and define the value of these articles 2 He may say they are equivalent to such a word in Greek or to such a word in French, but he cannot render an account of what that value is. And yet this word was once a demonstrative pronoun, and it is time and use that has filed it down to this airy tenuity and delicate fineness. The sense would be affected by the absence of these little words, and yet it cannot be said that they are necessary to the sense. They seem to be at once nothing and something. The gold is beaten out to an infinitesimal thinness. Indeed, it is with language as with glory in Shakspeare's description: “Glory is like a circle in the water,

Which never ceaseth to enlarge it selfe,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.”

1 Henry VI. i. 2. 133.

It is painful to think how much good enthusiasm has been wasted upon learning definitions which were not only unreal, but absolutely misleading as to the nature of the thing studied. So far from its being possible to define by rule the value of the Greek particles, it is barely possible to characterize them by a vague general principle. They were the product of usage, and usage is a compound made up of many converging tendencies, and that which was multitudinous in its sources continues to be heterogeneous in its composition. As usage produced it, so use alone can teach it. And this is why the skilled examiner will proceed to test a knowledge of Greek by selecting a passage not with many hard words in it, but with this symbolic element delicately exhibited. Hard and rare words are useful as a test whether the books have been got up, but even then the examination is no check on cramming. Whereas, it is a part of the distinct character and peculiar iridescent beauty of the symbolic element that it cannot be acquired by sudden methods; it can only be learnt by a process of gradual habituation, which is study in the true sense of the word, and which cannot fail to open the mind. You cannot tack on mechanically a given English word to a given Greek word in the symbolic element, as you do in the presentive. Symbolic words require different terms of rendering in different connections. They have a diversity of states and powers and functions like living things. This is in each language the pith, the marrow, the true mother tongue. This is the element which is nearest of kin to thought, so that the efficiency of a writer or speaker depends largely on his power over it. In the following quotation from a review, see how the symbolics too much enable the writer just to hit off the vague idea in his mind. “Coleridge, though he was as much at home as any man could be in

regions of mystery, found “Christabel” too much for him, for that we suppose to be the natural explanation of its unfinished condition.’

[ocr errors]
« IndietroContinua »