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OF PRESENTIVE AND SYMBOLIC WORDS,
225. 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 advance, 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 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 successive florets 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.
226. 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, flag-staff, barn-door; and then to turn his mind to such as the following, an, by, but, else, for, from, he, how, 1, it, if, in, not, never, on, over, since, the, therefore, they, under, who, where,yet, you. 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 fohn he. But there is a difference in nature between the word fohn and the word he. If I say at ferusalem .... there, the word ferusalem belongs to the one class, and the words at, there, belong to the other.
227. 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 any 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 dependent; we take our stand on the fact. Whether they can be shewn 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 distinction.
228. 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?
This is a clown's toy in Shakspeare:—
. . . for, as the old hermit of Prage, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of king Gorbuduc, That that is is.—Twelfe Night, iv. 2. 14.
It will therefore be desirable to attempt some understanding of the nature of this difference between presentiveness and symbolism. The difficulty and danger of confusion lies in the fact—That all language is symbolical. As the chief characteristic of human language in regard to its external form is this, that it should be articulate; so, in regard to its signification, the chief characteristic is that it should be symbolical. If a man barks like a dog or crows like a cock, or whistles, these utterances do not constitute language in any but a metaphorical sense. They might indeed carry a real signification,—might in conceivable situations be necessary as means of communication between man and man; they might serve the purpose of language: but they would not be language. When the bark of the dog is represented in articulate syllables, as bow-wow, there is an important step made towards the attainment of language. 'Bow-wow,' says the dog; and this bow-wow, in the human mouth may pass for speech, but it is not yet a true specimen of the relation in which mature speech stands to meaning. When however we advance another step, and call the dog a bow-wow, here we have language. A childish specimen, it is true; but still a real specimen of language. And the character which determines it is Symbolism. An understanding is established between minds that this articulate imitation of a dog's bark shall stand in human intercourse as the sign or symbol of a dog. And there is such a movement in language that, although at first bow-wow signified a bark, and so was a mere sound-word, yet it would be likely to move on a step and mean something else, as it actually has come to be used symbolically for a dog. Thus language is radically symbolical.
This fundamental truth is however overlaid and concealed from view by a mental habit which we call Association. We became acquainted with objects and ideas at the same time that we learnt how to name them, and the names have become so intimately identified with the things, that it is only by force of reflection we can separate them wide enough to verify their symbolic nature. This associative faculty is limited to words which express objects and ideas. When words express neither objects nor ideas they cannot be so associated; and their symbolic character is then patent, because it is their only character; insomuch that if it be fairly looked at, it must be immediately recognised. The difference then between the Presentive and the Symbolic words, is based, not upon the absence of symbolism in the former, but upon the absence of the presentive faculty in the latter, which leaves their unmixed symbolic character open to view.
When therefore we call a particular set of words Symbolic, we mean that they display in a clear and conspicuous manner that symbolism which is a pervading characteristic of all human language. And they display it in such a manner as to bear a great testimony to the fact that the symbolic tendency is infused into human language with its earliest germ. As a natural consequence of this innate