Manual Report on American manuscripts in the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Volume I: 1747-1779

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If, with all these difficulties and drawbacks, I do not shrink from opening to-day this course of lectures on mere words, on nouns and verbs and particles,—if I venture to address an audience accustomed to listen, in this place, to the wonderful tales of the natural historian, the chemist, and geologist, and wont to see the novel results of inductive reasoning invested by native eloquence, with all the charms of poetry and romance,—it is because, though mistrusting myself, I cannot mistrust my subject.

The study of words may be tedious to the school-boy, as breaking of stones is to the wayside laborer; but to the thoughtful eye of the geologist these stones are full of interest;—he sees miracles on the high-road, and reads chronicles in every ditch. Language, too, has marvels of her own, which she unveils to the inquiring glance of the patient student.

There are chronicles below her surface; there are sermons in every word. Language has been called sacred ground, because it is the deposit of thought. We cannot tell as yet what language is. It may be a production of nature, a work of human art, or a divine gift. But to whatever sphere it belongs, it would seem to stand unsurpassed—nay, unequalled in it—by anything else. If it be a production of nature, it is her last and crowning production which she reserved for man alone. If it be a work of human art, it would seem to lift the human artist almost to the level of a divine creator.

If it be the gift of God, it is God's greatest gift; for through it God spake to man and man speaks to God in worship, prayer, and meditation. Although the way which is before us may be long and tedious, the point to which it tends would seem to be full of interest; and I believe I may promise that the view opened before our eyes from the summit of our science, will fully repay the patient travellers, and perhaps secure a free pardon to their venturous guide. The Science of Language is a science of very modern date. Its very name is still unsettled, and the various titles that have been given to it in England, France, and Germany are so vague and varying that they have led to the most confused ideas among the public at large as to the real objects of this new science.

In France it has received the convenient, but somewhat barbarous, name of Linguistique. If we must have a Greek title for our science, we might derive it either from mythos, word, or from logos, speech. But the title of Mythology is already occupied, and Logology would jar too much on classical ears. We need not waste our time in criticising these names, as none of them has as yet received that universal sanction which belongs to the titles of other modern sciences, such as Geology or Comparative Anatomy; nor will there be much difficulty in christening our young science after we have once ascertained its birth, its parentage, and its character.

I myself prefer the simple designation of the Science of Language, though in these days of high-sounding titles, this plain name will hardly meet with general acceptance. From the name we now turn to the meaning of our science. But before we enter upon a definition of its subject-matter, and determine the method which ought to be followed in our researches, it will be useful to cast a glance at the history of the other sciences, among which the science of language now, for the first time, claims her place; and examine their origin, their gradual progress, and definite settlement.

The history of a science is, as it were, its biography, and as we buy experience cheapest in studying the lives of others, we may, perhaps, guard our young science from some of the follies and extravagances inherent in youth by learning a lesson for which other branches of human knowledge have had to pay more dearly. If we read such works as Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences or Humboldt's Cosmos, we find that the origin, the progress, the causes of failure and success have been the same for almost every branch of human knowledge.

There are three marked periods or stages in the history of every one of them, which we may call the Empirical, the Classificatory, and the Theoretical. However humiliating it may sound, every one of our sciences, however grand their present titles, can be traced back to the most humble and homely occupations of half-savage tribes. It was not the true, the good, and the beautiful which spurred the early philosophers to deep researches and bold discoveries.

The foundation-stone of the most glorious structures of human ingenuity in ages to come was supplied by the pressing wants of a patriarchal and semi-barbarous society. The names of some of the most ancient departments of human knowledge tell their own tale. Geometry, which at present declares itself free from all sensuous impressions, and treats of its points and lines and planes as purely ideal conceptions, not to be confounded with those coarse and imperfect representations as they appear on paper to the human eye; geometry, as its very name declares, began with measuring a garden or a field.

It is derived from the Greek g , land, ground, earth, and metron, measure. Botany, the science of plants, was originally the science of botan , which in Greek does not mean a plant in general, but fodder, from boskein, to feed. The science of plants would have been called Phytology, from the Greek phyton, a plant. It was he who calculated their risings and settings with the accuracy of a merchant and the shrewdness of an adventurer; and the names that were given to single stars or constellations clearly show that they were invented by the ploughers of the sea and of the land.

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The moon, for instance, the golden hand on the dark dial of heaven, was called by them the Measurer,—the measurer of time; for time was measured by nights, and moons, and winters, long before it was reckoned by days, and suns, and years. Moon2 is a very old word. It was a most unlucky assertion which Mr. Harris made in his Hermes, that all nations ascribe to the sun a masculine, and to the moon a feminine gender.

For month we have in A. In Greek we find m n, a masculine, for month, and m n , a feminine, for moon.

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Now if the moon was originally called by the farmer the measurer, the ruler of days, and weeks, and seasons, the regulator of the tides, the lord of their festivals, and the herald of their public assemblies, it is but natural that he should have been conceived as a man, and not as the love-sick maiden which our modern sentimental poetry has put in his place. Horne Tooke, p. See Curtius, Griechische Etymologie, s. Navigation in the Greek waters was considered safe after the return of the Pleiades; and it closed when they disappeared. This name was given to them by the Italian husbandman, because in Italy, where they became visible about May, they marked the return of summer.

The astronomer retains these and many other names; he still speaks of the pole of heaven, of wandering and fixed stars,6 but he is apt to forget that these terms were not the result of scientific observation and classification, but were borrowed from the language of those who themselves were wanderers on the sea or in the desert, and to whom the fixed stars were in full reality what their name implies, stars driven in and fixed, by which they might hold fast on the deep, as by heavenly anchors.

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But although historically we are justified in saying that the first geometrician was a ploughman, the first botanist a gardener, the first mineralogist a miner, it may reasonably be objected that in this early stage a science is hardly a science yet: that measuring a field is not geometry, that growing cabbages is very far from botany, and that a butcher has no claim to the title of comparative anatomist. This is perfectly true, yet it is but right that each science should be reminded of these its more humble beginnings, 5 Ideler, Handbuch der Chronologie, b.

See Humboldt, Cosmos, vol. A science, as Bacon says, should be a rich storehouse for the glory of God, and the relief of man's estate. Now, although it may seem as if in the present high state of our society students were enabled to devote their time to the investigation of the facts and laws of nature, or to the contemplation of the mysteries of the world of thought, without any side-glance at the practical result of their labors, no science and no art have long prospered and flourished among us, unless they were in some way subservient to the practical interests of society.

It is true that a Lyell collects and arranges, a Faraday weighs and analyzes, an Owen dissects and compares, a Herschel observes and calculates, without any thought of the immediate marketable results of their labors. But there is a general interest which supports and enlivens their researches, and that interest depends on the practical advantages which society at large derives from their scientific studies. Let it be known that the successive strata of the geologist are a deception to the miner, that the astronomical tables are useless to the navigator, that chemistry is nothing but an expensive amusement, of no use to the manufacturer and the farmer—and astronomy, chemistry, and geology would soon share the fate of alchemy and astrology.

As long as the Egyptian science excited the hopes of the invalid by mysterious prescriptions I may observe by the way that the hieroglyphic signs of our modern prescriptions have been traced back by Champollion to the real hieroglyphics of Egypt7 —and as long as it instigated the avarice of its patrons by the promise of the discovery of gold, it enjoyed a liberal support at the courts of princes, and under the roofs of monasteries. Though alchemy did not lead to the discovery of gold, it prepared the way to discoveries more valuable.

The same with astrology.

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Astrology was not such mere imposition as it is generally supposed to have been. It is counted as a science by 7 Bunsen's Egypt, vol. In our time the very rudiments of astrology are lost and forgotten. When after the Reformation our churches and chapels were divested of their artistic ornaments, in order to restore, in outward appearance also, the simplicity and purity of the Christian church, the colors of the painted windows began to fade away, and have never regained their former depth and harmony.

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  • I speak somewhat feelingly on the necessity that every science should answer some practical purpose, because I am aware that the science of language has but little to offer to the utilitarian spirit of our age. It does not profess to help us in learning languages more expeditiously, nor does it hold out any hope of ever realizing the dream of one universal language. But no one cares to let his studies be known, so great is the prejudice that confounds an art requiring the highest education with the jargon of the gypsy fortune-teller.

    There are problems, however, which, though apparently of an abstruse and merely speculative character, have exercised a powerful influence for good or evil in the history of mankind. Men before now have fought for an idea, and have laid down their lives for a word; and many of these problems which have agitated the world from the earliest to our own times, belong properly to the science of language. Mythology, which was the bane of the ancient world, is in truth a disease of language. A myth means a word, but a word which, from being a name or an attribute, has been allowed to assume a more substantial existence.

    Most of the Greek, the Roman, the Indian, and other heathen gods are nothing but poetical names, which were gradually allowed to assume a divine personality never contemplated by their original inventors. Eos was a name of the dawn before she became a goddess, the wife of Tithonos, or the dying day. Fatum, or fate, meant originally what had been spoken; and before Fate became a power, even greater than Jupiter, it meant that which had once been spoken by Jupiter, and could never be changed,—not even by Jupiter himself.

    Zeus originally meant the bright heaven, in Sanskrit Dyaus; and many of the stories told of him as the supreme god, had a meaning only as told originally of the bright heaven, whose rays, like golden rain, descend on the lap of the earth, the Danae of old, kept by her father in the dark prison of winter. No one doubts that Luna was simply a name of the moon; but so was likewise Lucina, both derived from lucere, to shine.

    Hecate, too, was an old name of the moon, the feminine of Hekatos and Hekatebolos, the far-darting sun; and Pyrrha, the Eve of the Greeks, was nothing but a name of the red earth, and in particular of Thessaly.

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    This mythological disease, though less virulent in modern languages, is by no means extinct. During the Middle Ages the controversy between Nominalism and Realism, which agitated the church for centuries, and finally 13 prepared the way for the Reformation, was again, as its very name shows, a controversy on names, on the nature of language, and on the relation of words to our conceptions on one side, and to the realities of the outer world on the other. Men were called heretics for believing that words such as justice or truth expressed only conceptions of our mind, not real things walking about in broad daylight.

    In modern times the science of language has been called in to settle some of the most perplexing political and social questions. Never do I remember to have seen science more degraded than on the title-page of an American publication in which, among the profiles of the different races of man, the profile of the ape was made to look more human than that of the negro. Lastly, the problem of the position of man on the threshold between the worlds of matter and spirit has of late assumed a very marked prominence among the problems of the physical and mental sciences.