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harmonious in their speech. The civilised nations are converging towards an agreement on both these heads; but they will sooner be at one on the matter of music than they will on the modulation of speech. In the very elements of the melody of language, namely the tones which are proper to the several vowels, there is an hereditary difference which, though of the most delicate and subtle kind, yet produces by combination great divergences in the modulation of speech. Each separate nation has in fact a vowel-gamut of its own. The following paragraph, which is borrowed from the Academy (December, 1870), gives the results of some minute investigations which have recently been made in the gamut of the North German dialect:—
“THE NATURE of Vowel-Sounds.—A discovery announced in the Comptes rendus for the 25th of last April, by Rudolf Koenig, the well-known maker of acoustical apparatus, seems likely to have an important bearing on some points of philology. It is known that Helmholtz has shown that the distinctive character of the vowel-sounds is due to fixed tones characteristic of each, and that he has investigated the pitch of the tones proper to the different vowels, by examining the resonance of the cavity of the mouth, when adjusted for whispering them, by means of vibrating tuning-forks held near the opening of the lips. In this way he arrived at the following results:—
Vowel . . . . . . U O A E I
“Koenig, on repeating Helmholtz's experiments with more complete apparatus, has entirely confirmed his general result, but has arrived at slightly different conclusions as to the characteristic tones of the vowels U and I, which he finds are respectively lower and higher octaves of the tones of the intermediate vowels. For the North German pronunciation (to which Helmholtz's results also refer) the vowels are accordingly characterised as follows:— Vowel . . . . . . U O A E I Characteristic tone . . bb bib biib bilib bivb Simple vibrations per second o 450 9oo 1800 3600 72Oo
As Koenig points out, it is more than probable that the physiological reason of the occurrence of nearly the same five vowels in different languages, is to be sought for in the simplicity of these ratios, just as the simplicity of the ratios of the musical intervals explains the adoption of the same intervals by most nations.”
In consonants there is a great difference as regards national standards of taste. The Gothic ear enjoys a precipitous consonantism, while the Roman family prefers a smooth and gentle one. And as a natural consequence of this difference, we, when we were most Gothic, could endure an abruptness of consonants which now that we have been Frenchified in our tastes, is displeasing to our national ear.
Thus, we now count it vulgar to say ax, and yet this sound was quite acceptable to the most cultivated Saxon, We have transposed the consonants, and instead of Ås we say sk; instead of ax we say ask; and we prefer tusks to the Saxon tuxas. In like manner, we now say grass, cress, where the elder forms were gars, cars. Reversely, however, we say bird, third, cart, in preference to the elder forms brid, thridde, crael. There is observable at different eras in the language of a nation a certain revolution of taste in regard to sounds; and this exhibits itself in modifications of the vowel-system, and in conversions or transpositions of old established consonantisms. It is not possible (apparently) to reduce such cases to any other principle than this, that it has pleased the national ear it should be so.
This national taste is inherited so early, and rooted so deep in the individual, that it becomes part of his nature, and forms the starting-point of all his judgments as to what is fitting or unfitting in the harmony of sound with sense. The association between his words and his thoughts is so intimate, that to his ear the words seem to give out a sound like the sound produced by the thing signified; nay, further, that his words seem like the thing signified even where it is an abstract idea or some other creation of the mind. So that it becomes a difficult matter to say how far certain words are really like certain natural sounds, for instance; or whether it is only an inveterate mental association which makes us think so. That is the first difficulty about the onomatopoetic theory of the origin of language. That theory appeals to a sense which we have of likeness between many of our words and the natural sounds of the things signified. Sir John Lubbock, in his recent work On the Origin of Civilisation &c., has given lists of words of which, in his opinion, there can be no doubt that the origin is onomatopoetic. That is to say, they were coined at a blow in imitation of audible sounds. Now the fact is, that many of them are resoluble in earlier forms, which had meanings distinct from the present meanings; and the onomatopoetic appearances are the results of that instinctive attention to fitness of sound, which is one of the habitual accompaniments of linguistic development. An example will make it clearer: Sir John Lubbock says,
“From pr, or prut, indicating contempt or self-conceit, comes proud, pride, &c.
From fie, we have fiend, foe, feud, foul, Latin putris, Fr. puer, filth, fulsome, fear. In addition I will only remark that,
From that of smacking the lips we get YAvkiss, dulcis, lick, like.’ p. 282.
We shall all as Englishmen be ready to acknowledge that proud and pride do sound like the things signified. But how are we to reconcile the supposed onomatopoetic origin of these words with the fact that they have an earlier history, which may be seen in Diez, Lexicon Linguarum Romanarum, and which leads us far enough out of the track of the idea here assigned to pr. They are traced either to Old French prude, moral, decorous; or to the Latin prudens, providus, prudent, provident.
It is not too much to say that all of these examples rest upon the ground of a superficial appearance, and that their onomatopoetic origin will not bear inspection. Let us proceed to the last of the series. The work like is here derived from the sound of smacking the lips. It is in fact the old Saxon word for ‘body,' lic, which in German is to this day £eid), pronounced almost exactly as our like. Great as the distance may seem between body and the liking of taste, it is measured at two strides. There is but one middle term between these wide extremes. From substance to similitude the transition is frequent and familiar; and so lic, ‘body, easily produced the adjective like. That likeness breeds liking is proverbial. This fact has been used by Dr. Trench, Parables, p. 24, to explain the natural delight of the human mind in the method of teaching by similitude or parable; where also is added the following note, so germane to our present study:— ‘This delight has indeed impressed itself upon our language. To like a thing is to compare it with some other thing which we have already before our natural or our mind's eye; and the pleasurable emotion always arising from this process of comparison has caused us to use the word in a far wider
sense than that which belonged to it at the first. That we like what is like is the explanation of the pleasure which rhyme gives us.”
If the reader desires to enquire further into the onomatopoetic theory, he will find all that can be said in its favour in the philological writings of Mr. Wedgwood; and there is a judicial examination of onomatopoeia by Professor Max Müller in the ninth lecture of his First Series.
Our present interest in this theory is rather incidental. It bears by its very existence a valuable testimony to that principle which we are just now concerned to elucidate. It proves that several men of the best and most highly exercised faculties do perceive throughout language such a harmony of the sound of words with their sense, that they not only would rest satisfied with an account of the origin of language which referred all to external sound, but that it appears to them the only rational explanation. Those who reject the onomatopoetic theory need not discredit the phenomenon on which it relies. They may admit that there is, running through a great part of human speech, a remarkable chime of sound with sense, and yet doubt whether language was founded upon an imitation of external sounds. The phenomenon itself may not have been primitive and original, but rather the ripe fruit of late efforts of the genius of speech. At every stage in the development of every word, there are a great number of possible variations or alternative modes of utterance; and before a word settles down into an established position, it must have been (unconsciously) recognised as the best for that particular purpose of all those that were in the field of choice; and among the qualifications and conditions of the competition, the satisfaction of the ear has never been absent, though it may have been little noticed. When we speak of the satisfaction of the ear, we of course mean a mental gratification; namely, that which arises from a sense of harmony between Voice and meaning. There is a pleasure in this, and as there is a pleasure in it, so there is naturally a preference for it, and, other things being equal, the utterance which gives this pleasure will survive one that gives it not. One of the words which has been thought to favour the Onomatopoetic origin is squirrel. If this word had been destitute of a pedigree, and had been dashed off at a moment of happy invention, then its evidence might have been invoked in that direction. But when we perceive that it has a long Greek derivation, and that the idea upon which the word was moulded was that of umbrella-tail, we can only marvel at the sonorous fitness of the word to express the manners of the funny little creature, after all traces of the signification of the word had been forgotten; and we must allow that somewhere in the speech-making genius there