Immagini della pagina
PDF
ePub

priority thus attributed is one of thought, and derived from analysis, not a matter of the order of time. And when we find a language like the Gothic exhibiting a regular vowelsystem markedly based on the three primary vowels, we only conclude that a vigorous speech-instinct must have been for a long time at work upon this element of pronunciation.

The vowels which claim our attention after A I U are o and e. The natural relation of these inferior vowels to the Three, may be rudely figured as in the subjoined diagram:

I e A o U

Of the O it has already been incidentally shewn that it has grown out of the A and out of the U, and therefore it appears intermediate to these two.

121. The E is the most frequent of all the letters of the English alphabet. This is well known to printers, and also to decipherers of cryptograph. It occasions the weak point of any simple cypher. If a person attempts concealment by merely substituting some fixed letter or figure in place of each letter of his words, the decipherer will at once detect every E in the performance: first by their numerical preponderance, and then by their position. As o between 'a' and 'u,' so E has its seat between 'a' and 'i': and it is easy to point to instances in which it has been produced by the enfeeblement of one or other of these cardinal vowels. Of the derival of E from A we have an instance in the words England, English; the people from whom these names are derived being written down in the Saxon Chronicles as Angel cynn. The relation of E to i is sufficiently indicated by the pronunciation of England, in virtue of which it has an i in some of its foreign translations, as in the Italian Inghilkrra. But the use of E that tends more than any to the overwhelming preponderance of this character in our books, is the ^-subscript. Of this E no particular origin can be assigned; it may be the relic of any one of the vowels.

E has many varieties of sound: it has the sound of a, as in there; it has the sound of 'i,' as in England, English; when doubled it has the sound of long ' ?',' as in seen; lastly, as e subscript, it has no sound of its own at all. Here is a single line which contains three of these uses, while at the same time it shews with what a frequency this character is capable of appearing:

Seen here and there and everywhere.

H. W. Longfellow, Tales of a Wayside Inn.

122. And if we turn, as we have done before, from the evidence of language to observe the organs of speech, we shall by a new path reach the same end; namely this—that the order I E A O U is the order not only of the instinct of speech but also of acoustical science.

'The vocal mechanism,' says Professor Willis1, 'may be considered as consisting of lungs or bellows, capable of transmitting, by means of the connecting windcavity pipe> a current of air through an apparatus contained in the upper part of the windpipe, which arynx is termed the larynx. This apparatus is capable 8. of producing various musical (and other) sounds,

"g which are heard after passing through a vari

£ able cavity consisting of the pharynx (the cavity

Longs behind the tongue), mouth, and nose.' If the or whole of this arrangement is required for the vocal mechanism, it is only the outer part of it which we shall regard as the instrument of speech, namely,

1 Quoted in The Cultivation of the Speaking Voice, by John Hullah, Clarendon Press Series, 1870.

the larynx and the variable cavity. Of these two, the larynx is. to the variable cavity or oral tube what the vibrating mouthpiece which generates the note is to the variable tube of some wind-instruments. Our power of observation is practically confined to the oral tube, and it is on this most accessible part of the speech-organs that Helmholz and Koenig have made their wonderful experiments. Helmholz struck a tuning-fork and held it to the mouth when it was ready to utter each particular vowel. Thus it was quickly discovered what musical note was reinforced by the airvibrations in that particular position of the oral cavity. He had no tuning-fork high enough for the I; but Koenig having made one, he completed and essentially confirmed the results of Helmholz. The vibrations per second for the several vowels are proximately as follows:—

U O A E I

450 900 1800 3600 7200

From these experiments it appears, that the five vowels are musically separated from each other by distances as regular and as well defined as those of the ordinary scale in music1. And we observe herewith, that E and O stand to the Cardinal Vowels precisely in that alternating position and relation which the purely philological evidence would assign to them.

Of the Ablaut.

123. At some distant time, before the historical era of the Gothic languages, the primitive community became aware that they might enlarge the range of their speech, if they only spaced their vowels well; and they prosecuted this sentiment until they actually multiplied three-fold, or even

1 Comptes Rendus, April 1870.

four-fold, the expressive powers of their inherited vocabulary. The German name of Ablaut has become so established, and it is so widely used, that it seems better to adopt it with an explanation than to seek a vernacular substitute for it. Glossarially, it would be represented by Off-Sound; and the name imports a certain offing or distancing of vowel-sounds, whereby simple words have been provided with a ready change of form, and have thus been promptly qualified to express a contrast of signification. Relics of this method of variation are strewn about our vocabulary. There is the verb to bind, and the substantive band, and another substantive bond. Or compare the verb to shear with the substantive share and the adjective sheer, and another substantive shire, and yet another shore,— and we see what a variety of service one consonantal framework may perform, with the aid of a well-defined voweldifferentiation.

124. But it was in the verbal conjugation that the Ablaut found its peculiar home, and there it took formal and methodical possession. In that position it became the chief means of expressing the distinction of Time, superseding almost entirely the previous habit of denoting the Past by Reduplication. The clearest examples of this systematic vowel-change that the English language affords are to be found in the old verbs, and in those especially which have their chief time-distinctions based upon the vocalic series i, a, u; as the following:—

[table]

125. In these examples the regularity of the Ablaut is manifest, even in the literary language. If we take account of the inroads that time and neglect have made on this ancient structure, we may often supply the slight restoration that is required to bring many other verbs into this table. Thus, if we remember that the verb to run is originally rin, we have at once the series, rin, ran, run. After this pattern we may sometimes reconstruct old verbs that have had their conjugation modernised. When we read in Chaucer of the feelings of the woman who was ready to burst till she had told her secret, how that

Hir thoughte it swal so soore aboute hir herte,

Wif of Bath's Tale, 967.

we may surmise not only that our preterite swelled is a modernism, but also that the spelling of swell was formerly swil; and then if we compare the Mcesogothic we actually find swil, swal, swul, to have been the Ablaut of that verb.

Analogies are often caught beautifully by children. I have heard dag as the preterite of dig. Also the original preterite of the verb to sling I heard from the mouth of a little maid of four years old, who said to her father, in rich tones of genial enquiry which writing cannot render: 'If a bee stang you, dad, would you cry?'

Enough has now been said to indicate that the Ablaut is a vowel-differentiation of words, and that its character depends upon that distinctness of the vowels from which it obtains its value, and force, and title. They need not always be quite so chromatically distinct as A, I, U. A humble instance of Ablaut may be quoted which took place in the seventeenth century, when the word then was differentiated into the two forms then and than. The term Ablaut may comprehend all such instances of differentiation.

« IndietroContinua »