Page images





When I was asked some time ago to deliver a course of lectures on Comparative Philology in this Institution, I at once expressed my readiness to do so. I had lived long enough in England to know that the peculiar difficulties arising from my imperfect knowledge of the language would be more than balanced by the forbearance of an English audience, and I had such perfect faith in my subject that I thought it might be trusted even in the hands of a less skilful expositor. I felt convinced that the researches into the history of languages and into the nature of human speech which have been carried on for the last fifty years in England, France, and Germany, deserved a larger share of public sympathy than they had hitherto received ; and it seemed to me, as far as I could judge, that the discoveries in this newly-opened mine of scientific inquiry were not inferior, whether in novelty or importance, to the most brilliant discoveries of our age.

It was not till I began to write my lectures that I became aware of the difficulties of the task I had undertaken. The dimensions of the science of language are so vast that it is impossible in a course of nine lectures to give more than a very general survey of it; and as one of the greatest charms of this science consists in the minuteness of the analysis by which each language, each dialect, each word, each grammatical form is tested, I felt that it was almost impossible to do full justice to my subject, or to place the achievements of those who founded and fostered the science of language in their true light. Another difficulty arises from the dryness of many of the problems which I shall have to discuss. Declensions and conjugations cannot be made amusing, nor can I avail myself of the advantages possessed by most lecturers, who enliven their discussions by experiments and diagrams. 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

[ocr errors]

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 mod1 ern date. We cannot trace its lineage much beyond the beginning of our century, and it is scarcely received as yet on a footing of equality by the elder branches of learning. 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. We hear it spoken of as Comparative Philology, Scientific Etymology, Phonology, and Glos



If we


sology. In France it has received the convenient, but somewhat barbarous, name of Linguistique. 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

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.

There is a certain uniformity in the history of most

« PreviousContinue »