« PreviousContinue »
as responsible to the students of the human mind and body, that since this story has been in progress he has received the most startling confirmation of the possibility of the existence of a character like that which he had drawn as a purely imaginary conception in Elsie Venner."
We are quite incompetent to discuss the physiological basis of the story. We demur, however, to the propriety of illustrating a “grave scientific doctrine” by what may possibly be a wild and unscientific delusion; and still more to the artistic suitability of introducing into a story of prosaic modern life, abounding in Yankee vulgarisms, an incident so abnormal and unverified as that on which Elsie Venner hinges. Granting for the moment its possibility, granting its actuality, it still is out of place. The scenery and events, the tone and colouring of the tale, are not in keeping with it. The conception illustrates the fantastic extravagance, that lack of a controlling good taste, which mark American literature. It is “sensation writing;" the object is to startle. The best proof of this is that Dr. Holmes's serpentwoman does not excite awe, pity, or terror, but simply incredulity. Elsie Venner, so far as the heroine's character is concerned, has neither the verisimilitude of a story of real life, nor the instructiveness of avowed parable or allegory. Dr. Holmes is by no means the first to describe the gradual humanising of a character in which a nature lower than human predominates. Mr. Hawthorne has done so in his romance of Transformation. The stories of Undines and of Neckars are other instances. But these are avowedly only the mere play of a graceful or pathetic fancy, or the symbolical utterance of truths which we can detach from their exterior form. A case like that of Elsie Venner belongs to the morbid pathologist, and not to the novelist.
To be treated with effect in fiction, it should be transferred to an age or country-to Egypt or Greece-where, in the strangeness of the surrounding scenery and costume, rites and beliefs, it would lose something of the monstrosity which attaches to it as actually presented.
The secondary characters in Elsie Venner are, to our mind, more happily conceived than that of the heroine. The work derives its chief value not form the “romance of destiny” which it contains, but from the glimpses which it affords us of ordinary American life in a provincial town of New England. The two ministers, Liberal and Calvinist, the Rev. Chauncy Fairweather and the Rev. Dr. Honeywood, each covertly leaning to the other's faith; Deacon Sloper and Colonel Sprowle and Mr. Silas Peckham, are, we dare say, faithful portraitures. The picture, if it be a correct one, is by no means flattering. It leaves an impression that over American society there is diffused an incurable vulgarity of speech, sentiment, and language, hard to define, but
perceptible in every word and gesture. We do not pretend that in the middle classes of an English town we should find any remarkable degree of refinement. But here there is a pervading atmosphere of good breeding, which extends to those who do not themselves possess access to the immediate sources of cultivation. Even more conclusive, however, than the genuine vulgarity of the characters whom Dr. Holmes intends to paint as vulgar, is the real vulgarity of those whom he would represent to us as well-taught and highly-bred gentlemen, of whom Mr. Bernard Langdon is the type. His utter failure in this character would seem as if the model on which it was founded was not over common. His success in delineating the Slopers and Sprowles is in remarkable contrast. In the one, probably he draws from experience, in the other, from imagination. Be this as it may, the latter have an air of reality which is entirely wanting to the former. The inference wbich is suggested by this, as to the condition of American society outside of the great centres of intelligence, may be unjust, but it is not unnatural.
ART. VI.—THE SCIENCE OF LANGUAGE.
Lectures on the Science of Language, delivered at the Royal Insti
tution of Great Britain. By Max Müller. London: Longmans,
1861. Letter to Baron Bunsen on the Turanian Languages. By Max
Müller. Contained in vol. i. of Bunsen's Outlines of the Philosophy of Universal History, or vol. iii. of his Christianity and Mankind.
London : Longmans, 1854. Survey of Languages. By Max Müller. London: Williams and
Norgate, 1855. If it be true that the “ proper study of mankind is man,” there is surely no subject which ought to engage his thoughts and rivet his attention more than that of language. View it as we may, whether as binding humanity together by the bonds of a common superiority above the brutes, or in its countless varieties affording the most reliable means of classifying the several races of humanity itself, or as giving the key to many a dark question of mythology, history, religion, or philosophy, or as unlocking for us the stores of wisdom contained in the literatures of all nations from the world's beginning, and enabling us thereby to form an intelligent estimate of the relative intellectual and social position of the various nations and the successive ages,-its study will reward the student with treasures such as he could expect from few other objects of intellectual pursuit. And, in a certain sense, the study of language has always been natural to man. That is to say, before any curiosity was awakened by things lying so much apart from human interests as herbs, spiders, or snails,- before any science of natural history could arise,—there was the practical daily need of knowing how to speak correctly. The language of the infant patriarchs had to be trained into correct Hebrew, just as the nursery-language of our own day is gradually formed into correct English. And the peculiarities of pronunciation of individuals, families, or tribes, must, especially as intercourse amongst men widened, have given rise to discussion as to the right and wrong of dialectic varieties, which directed the attention even of a people ignorant of the existence of grammar to language as a fit subject of speculation. In this early age there was no literature, unless the short proverbs and ballads which might spring up from time to time in each family or tribe in its peculiar dialect, and be as rapidly forgotten, could be dignified by the name; and consequently no authority to determine the classicality of one form or the vulgarity of others, and no evidence of the historical permissibility of one form and the modern innovation of others; and consequently correctness would be determined by analogy : thrived would be preferred to throve, brothers to brethren.
But little progress would be made by this primitive speculation on language towards a Science of Language. Inasmuch as the feeling for a correct use of the nominative case rather than the accusative is inherent in human speech of whatever dialect, this question would never present itself for solution at all, and ages would pass during which people would “speak grammar without knowing it."* The same may be said of all the other great cardinal points of grammar; and the kind of languagespeculation that has been indicated would scarcely even tend towards creating grammatical science. The latter owes its being to the philosophers only. When the mind turns its gaze inward upon itself, and discovers that action of some sort or other is always the object of its contemplation, and that action must proceed from some one being and be executed upon some other, then it has not only laid the groundwork of logic, but of grammar too, by virtue of the correspondence between thoughts and the words that embody them. The difference between verb and substantive, between subject and predicate, between nominative and accusative, is revealed at once. Hence is produced a philosophy, or theory, of language; dealing, however, with syntax, not with grammatical forms, explaining the principles of the collocation of words en masse, but not at all those of the peculiar form of each word singly, and least of all the derivation of words from some hypothetical root. It is perhaps impossible to overestimate the importance of the advance made at this stage. If it leaves more to be done than it accomplishes itself, it contains the germ of all that is to follow. The differences in nature between the various parts of speech having once been discovered by the philosopher, it will be easy for the grammarian to follow on his track, and discover that they differ in form also. Whereas, 4f the difference in form had been first noticed, it could have been*regarded only as a caprice of speech to be accepted as a fact, but from which no principle could be deduced, and, like other anomalies which the mind finds no pleasure in contemplating, would have been rapidly forgotten again. The categories of time, place, manner, motion to, motion from, having once been established as modes of thought, the grammarian will have a definite direction given to his otherwise desultory studies in tracking out every means adopted by language for the expression of these modes of thought; and thus will be discovered the use of cases and other grammatical mysteries. It is almost needless to observe that for the Western world this great advance was made by Plato and Aristotle ; but so apt are we Europeans to deduce the whole of civilisation from Western sources, that it does seem necessary to observe that the Brahmanic philosophers had advanced as far, and indeed much farther, in the direction of philosophical grammar in the sixth century before Christ.
* We are aware that there are English dialects which use the pronouns him, her as nominatives; but case-distinctions have so entirely vanished from substantives in our language, that the feeling for them bas been obscured, and cannot maintain the correct usage even in the pronouns. But in the dialects of languages in which the distinctions of cases is the rule, and not the exception, no such irregularities are observed.
The next stage which the study of language attains is only reached through the experience gained by the comparison of two languages. This stage introduces a study and understanding of the formal part of grammar. It is hardly too much to affirm that but for the contact of the Greeks with other nations, their different conjugations of verbs, declensions of nouns, and derivation of the various parts of speech, would never have been thoroughly understood. As a foreigner reads the idiosyncrasies of our national character better than a native, so it is he who discovers the formal part of the grammar of our language by regarding it from a point outside. We may verify this from our own language. English grammars, which treat the language from a purely English point of view, either simply neglect all
Englisitanding a depend on an Englisideration."
mention of conjugation, or throw out verbs like blow, blew, blown, as irregular and not worth consideration. As their conjugation comes by nature to an Englishman, it does not occur to him that it may depend on principles which would be worth understanding. Accordingly much more may be learned from English grammars for the use of foreigners on the niceties of pronunciation, on peculiarities of conjugation, and on other points of a formal nature, than from most of those written for Englishmen. And so a far more accurate knowledge of the formal elements of the classical languages has undoubtedly been possessed by Scaliger, Casaubon, Porson, Zumpt, Madvig, and Lobeck, than by Demosthenes or Cicero. So different is conscious knowledge from native instinct. Thus the comparison of two languages brings under contemplation a totally different province of language from what would have engaged the student of either separately.
It might be supposed that, as philosophy had given the theoretical principles on which the study of language was to be founded, and as the comparison of two languages for the purpose of teaching one had laid down rules for the formal element, no further advance was possible. And, in truth, the world has been satisfied with this result from Aristotle's day to the present.
The rules of form invented by the teacher of language, having regard only to the practical end of enabling us to learn the language, are merely empirical, and indicate no ultimate principle to which the various forms owe their birth; as when they tell us to add d to love if we require the past tense loved, but leave us in the dark as to how that little change of form can produce so great a change of meaning. And so, when these empirical rules separate what ought to be brought together,—as they do in making Corinthi, “at Corinth," to be one case, and Carthagine, “at Carthage,” Sardibus, “at Sardes,” another; or join what ought to be separated,-as in connecting fero and tuli, summus and supremus,—these misadventures are laid to the account of the “caprice of language,” and no attempt is made to arrive at unity or simplicity in what seems to present such a tangle of inconsistencies. When the belief in the “caprice of language” has become a settled one, another stage has been reached in the study of language. A profoundly sad one is this to contemplate: it not only fails itself to advance the science of grammar, but it prevents any future advance; where the earlier age had been delighted with the discovery of law and order, it now finds only chance; every thing that does not display its reason to the most careless glance it brands as irregular. Moreover, if even the inflexion of single words displays so little consistency, bow much less likely is the derivation of