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Language, Artistic, Needs Cultivating

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

At a recent centennial celebration of one of our colleges, a professorial friend of mine was seated next to a scientist. They were listening to a brilliant speech from a prominent clergyman. The scientist was to follow. Before he did so, he made a disparaging remark, indicating that he felt that he should be commended because he could not, and would not, attempt anything resembling what had immediately preceded. My friend in repeating his remark indicated that he also agreed with the scientist in this self-commendation. Neither, apparently, was able to perceive his own limitations sufficiently even to regret them. . . . Is it necessary to argue that when such sentiments prevail and are expressed by those who desire to make themselves popular, no great efforts will be expended upon the methods of presenting thought; and if so, that no high standards will be reached in the spheres peculiar to literature, whether of prose or of poetry? You cannot expect art to be manifested in the use of language in any college or country where there is general disparagement of endeavors to make language artistic. Essay on Fundamentals in Education.


The earliest sounds made by a babe are instinctive, by which is meant, that they are allied in nature to expressions of instinct, due, even in a rational being, to the operation less of conscious rationality than of natural forces vitalizing all sentient existence. These instinctive sounds seem to be accepted as words in fulfilment, mainly, of the principle of association. The child cries and crows while the mother hums and chuckles, and both understand each other. They communicate through what may be termed ejaculations or interjections. This kind of language is little above the level of that of the brutes; in fact, it is of the same nature as theirs. The sounds seem to have a purely muscular or nervous origin; and for this reason may be supposed to have no necessary connection with any particular thought or psychic state intended to be expressed by them. Nevertheless, we all understand the meanings of them when produced by the lower animals, as well as when made by man. Everywhere, certain ejaculations are recognized to be expressive of the general tenor of certain feelings, as of pleasure and pain desire and aversion, surprise and fright. This fact shows that there is a true sense in which these utterances are representative.

The principle of association in connection with the use of natural exclamations accounts probably for the origin not only of actual interjections, but of other sounds also, like the sibilants, aspirates, and gutturals, giving their peculiar qualities to the meanings of syllables like those in shoo, hist, and kick. Some, too, think that it accounts for the origin of words like is, me, and that, cognate with the Sanskrit, as, ma, and ta; the first meaning to breathe, and indicating the act of breathing; the second closing the lips to shut off outside influence, and thus to refer to self; and the third opening the lips to refer to others. In the same way, too, because the organs of speech are so formed that the earliest articulated sound made by a babe is usually either mama or papa, and the earliest persons to whom each is addressed are the mother and father, people of many different races have come to associate mama, which, as a rule, is uttered first, with an appeal to the mother, and papa with an appeal to the father.

In order, however, that utterances springing from exclamations may be used in language, it is evident that men must begin to imitate them, which they can do as a result only of comparison. This principle, therefore, as well as that of association, must have been closely connected with the formation of the earliest words. Ejaculations, as has been said, are instinctive. As such, they come first in the order of time. The imitations of them with the purpose of making them accepted as words do not appear till the reflective nature begins to assert itself and then they soon extend to the reproduction of other sounds besides ejaculations—sounds that are representative of natural effects external to man, and that become accepted as words as a still more immediate result of comparison. These latter sounds are first heard when the child is led to notice external objects. Then, unlike the animal which can only ejaculate, but just like his reputed father Adam, the first who had a reflective nature, he begins to give names to these objects, or to have names given to them for him by others. These names, ac-cording to the methods controlling the formation of nursery language, are always based upon the principle of imitation. Certain noises emanating from the objects designated, the chick-chick of the fowl, the tick-tick of the watch, the cuckoo of the bird over the clock, the bow-wow of the dog, and, later, the clatter of the rattle, or the rustle of the silk or satin, are imitated in the names applied to them; and this imitative element enables the child to recognize what the object is to which each name refers. The existence of hundreds of terms in all languages, the sounds of which are significant of their sense, like buzz, hiss, crash, slam, bang, whine, howl, roar, bellow, whistle, prattle, twitter, gabble, and gurgle (many of which are of comparatively recent origin), is a proof that the principle of imitation is an important factor in the formation of words.—Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture as Representative Arts, I.


This theory, that the very earliest words were ejaculatory and imitative, seems to accord with the commonly accepted view, that language is a gift from God, recognizing it to be so in the sense that, whereas beasts and birds are endowed with the power of representing only a few sensations through a few almost unvarying sounds, man can represent any number of thoughts and emotions through articulating organs capable of producing almost phraseology. If it exist in only the conception, we have representation in plain language, or direct representation; if in the phraseology, by which is meant now the words or expressions illustrating the main thought, we have representation in figurative language, or illustrative representation. If all the significance expressed in a passage be represented, the form of the representation will in this work be termed pure; if a part of the thought be merely presented, the representation will be termed alloyed; and in the degree in which this is the case, it will be shown by and by that the whole is prosaic.

Pure representation is pictorial in character, as we should expect from the pictorial tendency of which we have found it to be an outgrowth, and its methods are not wholly unlike those of painting. When composing in accordance with them, the poet indicates his thought by using words refer-ring to things that can be perceived; and in this way he causes the imaginations of those whom he addresses to perceive pictures. Alloyed representation, while following in the main the methods of that which is pure, always contains more or less of something which cannot be supposed to have been perceived, at least not in connection with circumstances like those that are being detailed. For this reason, that which is added to the representation is like alloy, interfering with the pureness and clearness of the pictures presented to the imaginations of those addressed. It appeals to them not according to the methods of poetry, but of science or philosophy, or of any kind of thought addressed merely to the logical understanding.

The distinction between pure and alloyed representation lies at the basis of all right appreciation of poetic effects. Poetry as a Representative Art, XIX.

The object of language is to cause others to share our mental processes, to communicate to them the substance of our ideas and their associated feelings. In doing this, it represents both what a man has observed in the external world and what he has experienced in his own mind—not in either the one or the other, but invariably in both of them. If a man, for instance, show us a photograph of something that he has seen, he holds before our eyes precisely what has been before his own eyes; but if he describe the scene in words, he holds before our mind only those parts of it that have attracted his attention; and not only so, but added to these parts many ideas and emotions of his own that were not in the scene but occurred to him when viewing it.

A similar added element from the man's mind accompanies every endeavor of his to tell what he has heard, or even, at some other time, thought or felt. From these facts, it follows that the aim of language, so far as this can be deter-mined by what it actually and necessarily does, is to cause the same effects to be produced in the hearer's mind that are experienced in the speaker's mind. Now if one, when talking, conceive that this is an easy aim to attain; that what he has heard or seen or thought or felt, needs only to be told in clear, intelligible phraseology, in order to pro-duce in another the same effects as in himself, then he will be content with conventional modes of expression; he will use in the main plain language.

On the other hand, if a man conceive that the end at which he is aiming is difficult to attain; that what he has heard, or seen, or thought, or felt, either on account of its own nature, or of the nature of those whom he is addressing, is hard for them to realize in its full force, and with all its attendant circumstances, then, as his object is to convey not merely an apprehension but a comprehension, both complete and profound, of that of which he has to speak, he will dwell upon it; he will repeat his descriptions of it; he will tell not only what it is, but what it is like; in other words, he will try to produce the desired effect, by putting extra force into his language, and, in order to do this, inasmuch as the force of language is increased by becoming representative, he will augment the representation by multiplying his comparisons; his language will become figurative. It will be so for the same reason that the language of a savage or a child, even when giving utterance to less occult ideas, is figurative,—because he feels that the words at his command are inadequate to express or impress his meaning completely.—Idem, XVIII.


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