Fundamental Principles Of Language Part II

Posted by Nick Niesen on October 27th, 2010

It would be absurd and ridiculous to suppose that any person, however
great, or learned, or wise, could employ language correctly without a
knowledge of the things expressed by that language. No matter how chaste
his words, how lofty his phrases, how sweet the intonations, or mellow
the accents. It would avail him nothing if ideas were not represented
thereby. It would all be an unknown tongue to the hearer or reader. It
would not be like the loud rolling thunder, for that tells the wondrous
power of God. It would not be like the soft zephyrs of evening, the
radiance of the sun, the twinkling of the stars; for they speak the
intelligible language of sublimity itself, and tell of the kindness and
protection of our Father who is in heaven. It would not be like the
sweet notes of the choral songsters of the grove, for they warble hymns
of gratitude to God; not like the boding of the distant owl, for that
tells the profound solemnity of night; not like the hungry lion roaring
for his prey, for that tells of death and plunder; not like the distant
notes of the clarion, for that tells of blood and carnage, of tears and
anguish, of widowhood and orphanage. It can be compared to nothing but a
Babel of confusion in which their own folly is worse confounded. And
yet, I am sorry to say it, the languages of all ages and nations have
been too frequently perverted, and compiled into a heterogeneous mass
of abstruse, metaphysical volumes, whose only recommendation is the
elegant bindings in which they are enclosed.

And grammars themselves, whose pretended object is to teach the rules of
speaking and writing correctly, form but a miserable exception to this
sweeping remark. I defy any grammarian, author, or teacher of the
numberless systems, which come, like the frogs of Egypt, all of one
genus, to cover the land, to give a reasonable explanation of even the
terms they employ to define their meaning, if indeed, meaning they have.
What is meant by an "in-definite article," a dis-junctive
con-junction, an ad-verb which qualifies an adjective, and
"sometimes another ad-verb?" Such "parts of speech" have no existence
in fact, and their adoption in rules of grammar, have been found
exceedingly mischievous and perplexing. "Adverbs and conjunctions," and
"adverbial phrases," and "conjunctive expressions," may serve as
common sewers for a large and most useful class of words, which the
teachers of grammar and lexicographers have been unable to explain; but
learners will gain little information by being told that such is an
adverbial phrase, and such, a conjunctive expression. This is an
easy method, I confess, a sort of wholesale traffic, in parsing
(passing) language, and may serve to cloak the ignorance of the
teachers and makers of grammars. But it will reflect little light on the
principles of language, or prove very efficient helps to "speak or write
with propriety." Those who think, will demand the meaning of these
words, and the reason of their use. When that is ascertained, little
difficulty will be found in giving them a place in the company of
respectable words. But I am digressing. More shall be said upon this
point in a future lecture, and in its proper place.

I was endeavoring to establish the position that all language depends
upon permanent principles; that words are the signs of ideas, and ideas
are the impressions of things communicated to the mind thro the medium
of some one of the five senses. I think I have succeeded so far as
simple material things are concerned, to the satisfaction of all who
have heard me. It may, perhaps, be more difficult for me to explain the
words employed to express complex ideas, and things of immateriality,
such as mind, and its attributes. But the rules previously adopted will,
I apprehend, apply with equal ease and correctness in this case; and we
shall have cause to admire the simple yet sublime foundation upon which
the whole superstructure of language is based.

In pursuing this investigation I shall endeavor to avoid all abstruse
and metaphysical reasoning, present no wild conjectures, or vain
hypotheses; but confine myself to plain, common place matter of fact. We
have reason to rejoice that a wonderful improvement in the science and
cultivation of the mind has taken place in these last days; that we are
no longer puzzled with the strange phantoms, the wild speculations which
occupied the giant minds of a Descartes, a Malebranch, a Locke, a Reid,
a Stewart, and hosts of others, whose shining talents would have
qualified them for the brightest ornaments of literature, real
benefactors of mankind, had not their education lead them into dark and
metaphysical reasonings, a continued tissue of the wildest vagaries, in
which they became entangled, till, at length, they were entirely lost in
the labyrinth of their own conjectures.

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The occasion of all their difficulty originated in an attempt to
investigate the faculties of the mind without any means of getting at
it. They did not content themselves with an adoption of the principles
which lay at the foundation of all true philosophy, viz., that the
facts to be accounted for, do exist; that truth is eternal, and we are
to become acquainted with it by the means employed for its development.
They quitted the world of materiality they inhabited, refused to examine
the development of mind as the effect of an existing cause; and at one
bold push, entered the world of thought, and made the unhallowed attempt
to reason, a priori, concerning things which can only be known by their
manifestations. But they soon found themselves in a strange land,
confused with sights and sounds unknown, in the explanation of which
they, of course, choose terms as unintelligible to their readers, as the
ideal realities were to them. This course, adopted by Aristotle, has
been too closely followed by those who have come after him.[2] But a new
era has dawned upon the philosophy of the mind, and a corresponding
change in the method of inculcating the principles of language must

In all our investigations we must take things as we find them, and
account for them as far as we can. It would be a thankless task to
attempt a change of principles in any thing. That would be an
encroachment of the Creator's rights. It belongs to mortals to use the
things they have as not abusing them; and to Deity to regulate the laws
by which those things are governed. And that man is the wisest, the
truest philosopher, and brightest Christian, who acquaints himself with
those laws as they do exist in the regulation of matter and mind, in the
promotion of physical and moral enjoyment, and endeavors to conform to
them in all his thoughts and actions.

From this apparent digression you will at once discover our object. We
must not endeavor to change the principles of language, but to
understand and explain them; to ascertain, as far as possible, the
actions of the mind in obtaining ideas, and the use of language in
expressing them. We may not be able to make our sentiments understood;
but if they are not, the fault will originate in no obscurity in the
facts themselves, but in our inability either to understand them or the
words employed in their expression. Having been in the habit of using
words with either no meaning or a wrong one, it may be difficult to
comprehend the subject of which they treat. A man may have a quantity of
sulphur, charcoal, and nitre, but it is not until he learns their
properties and combinations that he can make gunpowder. Let us then
adopt a careful and independent course of reasoning, resolved to meddle
with nothing we do not understand, and to use no words until we know
their meaning.

A complex idea is a combination of several simple ones, as a tree is
made up of roots, a trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves. And these again
may be divided into the wood, the bark, the sap, &c. Or we may employ
the botanical terms, and enumerate its external and internal parts and
qualities; the whole anatomy and physiology, as well as variety and
history of trees of that species, and show its characteristic
distinctions; for the mind receives a different impression on looking at
a maple, a birch, a poplar, a tamarisk, a sycamore, or hemlock. In this
way complex ideas are formed, distinct in their parts, but blended in a
common whole; and, in conformity with the law regulating language,
words, sounds or signs, are employed to express the complex whole, or
each distinctive part. The same may be said of all things of like
character. But this idea I will illustrate more at large before the
close of this lecture.

First impressions are produced by a view of material things, as we have
already seen; and the notion of action is obtained from a knowledge of
the changes these things undergo. The idea of quality and definition is
produced by contrast and comparison. Children soon learn the difference
between a sweet apple and a sour one, a white rose and a red one, a hard
seat and a soft one, harmonious sounds and those that are discordant, a
pleasant smell and one that is disagreeable. As the mind advances, the
application is varied, and they speak of a sweet rose, changing from
taste and sight to smell, of a sweet song, of a hard apple, &c.
According to the qualities thus learned, you may talk to them
intelligibly of the sweetness of an apple, the color of a rose, the
hardness of iron, the harmony of sounds, the smell or scent of
things which possess that quality. As these agree or disagree with their
comfort, they will call them good or bad, and speak of the qualities
of goodness and badness, as if possessed by the thing itself.

In this apparently indiscriminate use of words, the ideas remain
distinct; and each sign or object calls them up separately and
associates them together, till, at length, in the single object is
associated all the ideas entertained of its size, qualities, relations,
and affinities.

In this manner, after long, persevering toil, principles of thought are
fixed, and a foundation laid for the whole course of future thinking and
speaking. The ideas become less simple and distinct. Just as fast as the
mind advances in the knowledge of things, language keeps pace with the
ideas, and even goes beyond them, so that in process of time a single
term will not unfrequently represent a complexity of ideas, one of which
will signify a whole combination of things.

On the other hand, there are many instances where the single declaration
of a fact may convey to the untutored mind, a single thought or nearly
so, when the better cultivated will take into the account the whole
process by which it is effected. To illustrate: a man killed a deer.
Here the boy would see and imagine more than he is yet fully able to
comprehend. He will see the obvious fact that the man levels his musket,
the gun goes off with a loud report, and the deer falls and dies. How
this is all produced he does not understand, but knowing the fact he
asserts the single truth--the man killed the deer. As the child
advances, he will learn that the sentence conveys to the mind more than
he at first perceived. He now understands how it was accomplished. The
man had a gun. Then he must go back to the gunsmith and see how it was
made, thence back to the iron taken from its bed, and wrought into bars;
all the processes by which it is brought into the shape of a gun, the
tools and machinery employed; the wood for the stock, its quality and
production; the size, form and color of the lock, the principle upon
which it moves; the flint, the effect produced by a collision with the
steel, or a percussion cap, and its composition; till he finds a single
gun in the hands of a man. The man is present with this gun. The motives
which brought him here; the movements of his limbs, regulated by the
determinations of the mind, and a thousand other such thoughts, might be
taken into the account. Then the deer, his size, form, color, manner of
living, next may claim a passing thought. But I need not enlarge. Here
they both stand. The man has just seen the deer. As quick as thought his
eye passes over the ground, sees the prey is within proper distance,
takes aim, pulls the trigger, that loosens a spring, which forces the
flint against the steel; this produces a spark, which ignites the
charcoal, and the sulphur and nitre combined, explode and force the wad,
which forces the ball from the gun, and is borne thro the air till it
reaches the deer, enters his body by displacing the skin and flesh,
deranges the animal functions, and death ensues. The whole and much more
is expressed in the single phrase, "a man killed a deer."

It would be needless for me to stop here, and examine all the operations
of the mind in coming at this state of knowledge. That is not the object
of the present work. Such a duty belongs to another treatise, which may
some day be undertaken, on logic and the science of the mind. The hint
here given will enable you to perceive how the mind expands, and how
language keeps pace with every advancing step, and, also, how
combinations are made from simple things, as a house is made of timber,
boards, shingles, nails, and paints; or of bricks, stone, and mortar; as
the case may be, and when completed, a single term may express the
idea, and you speak of a wood, or a brick house. Following this
suggestion, by tracing the operations of the mind in the young child, or
your own, very minutely, in the acquisition of any knowledge before
wholly unknown to you, as a new language, or a new science; botany,
mineralogy, chemistry, or phrenology; you will readily discover how the
mind receives new impressions of things, and a new vocabulary is adopted
to express the ideas formed of plants, minerals, chemical properties,
and the development of the capacities of the mind as depending on
material organs; how these things are changed and combined; and how
their existence and qualities, changes and combinations, are expressed
by words, to be retained, or conveyed to other minds.

But suppose you talk to a person wholly unacquainted with these things,
will he understand you? Talk to him of stamens, pistils, calyxes; of
monandria, diandria, triandria; of gypsum, talc, calcareous spar,
quartz, topaz, mica, garnet, pyrites, hornblende, augite, actynolite; of
hexahedral, prismatic, rhomboidal, dodecahedral; of acids and alkalies;
of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon; of the configuration of the
brain, and its relative powers; do all this, and what will he know of
your meaning? So of all science. Words are to be understood from the
things they are employed to represent. You may as well talk to a man in
the hebrew, chinese, or choctaw languages, as in our own, if he does not
know what is signified by the words selected as the medium of thought.

Your language may be most pure, perfect, full of meaning, but you cannot
make yourself understood till your hearers can look thro your signs to
the things signified. You may as well present before them a picture of

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Nick Niesen

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Nick Niesen
Joined: April 29th, 2015
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