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The Prophet of Nature. By William A. Steel...
THE INFLUENCE OF LANGUAGE ON THOUGHT.
By C. A. VINCE.
HEN Shelley tells us that Prometheus " gave men
speech, and speech created thought,” he is adding to the Æschylean myth, which represents with singular truth the triumph of man by art, a false idea
which the clear Greek intellect would instinctively have avoided. To such a metaphor no true meaning can be assigned. Language is not the creator, but the creature of thought. Primeval man must have thought and reasoned before he spoke; he may have tried and rejected other means of representing and communicating his ideas before he hit on the now universal method of speech. In every sense thought is prior to language.
The true relation of the two seems to be this. Language is not the “mirror of thought,” not the external and sensible sign necessarily and exactly corresponding to a mental conception within ; it is simply a method—not the only method, not by any means a perfect method, though the best we know-of communicating to others the thoughts that are born in our own minds. Any more intimate connection than this we have no right to assume.
Yet true as it is that language is primarily the creation, the subject, the servant of thought, the tyrannical influence which it exercises over thought is an undeniable and most dangerous characteristic of our intellectual life. “Let us consider," says Bacon, “the false appearances that are imposed on us by words, which are
framed and applied according to the conceit and capacities of the vulgar sort; and although we think we govern our words, yet certain it is that, as a Tartar's bow, they do shoot back upon this understanding of the wisest, and mightily entangle and pervert his judgment.”' From such an influence the wise man will struggle earnestly to free himself. Nor need we go far for examples to prove how universally and in what various ways it is exercised.
Of this reflex action of language a familiar example is the widelyspread effect of mistaken words in producing mythology, and so modifying the religion and the moral life of great nations. The corruption of a mistaken metaphor has generated ideas that have vitiated the morality of generation after generation of the noblest
When a pre-historic tribe honoured a good chief with the title of Son of God, they meant nothing more than a grateful recognition that, in his strength and wisdom and goodness, he enjoyed the special favour, and lived in the nearer communion, of the good spirit who was the object of their simple worship. But when, with the name of the hero who founded the greatness of his tribe, such an epithet was handed down, it was mistaken by a grosser age, when art had taught men to carve their gods in human likeness, and hence arose legends of semi-divine parentage, that were amongst the most degrading accompaniments of anthropomorphism. What must have been the influence of a religion that held up as objects of worship to men, gods of like passions with themselves? Primeval poets adorned the one God, the “ Father who dwells in the bright sky,” with many attributes, as they watched the ever-varying manifestations of His presence and goodness in nature. Again a mere mistake in words; the epithet is mistaken for a name—the predicate becomes a subject, and so a perplexed polytheism springs up to sap all the virtue of a religion once pure and true. When a Greek poet, on some southern promontory, looked eastward in the morning, and saw the sun born from out the waters, what more natural than that he should call the sea the mother of the sun, and rejoice to see her broad face brighten and smile and glow as she watched him going forth in his strength ? But when in the evening he saw him declining westward, he forgot his morning metaphor, and loved to think of the sea as the faithful wife, into whose lap the sun sank to rest after the glorious toils of the day. The poem passes on to a more civilised and prosaic age;
the metaphor is forgotten; and the Greek peasant trembles at the awful legend of an inexpiable crime, that a man should wed his own mother. So legend after legend sprung up to mislead the simple from the truth : all because language overshadowed thought, the word became the master instead of the servant of the idea. Nor can there be any doubt that the effect of such myths on the religion of the people was a vast practical evil. Wise men and philosophers were indeed able to separate their religion from their mythology, and pierce through corrupt legends to the worship of one God of goodness. But such a mental effort was beyond the power of the common people ; and so a mere disease of language is responsible for influences that affected the highest civilisation of the noblest people of antiquity.
Perhaps for us the age of myth-making is past. Perhaps our religious ideas are entirely free from the curse of mythological confusion. Yet can we be sure that in none of the traditional formulas that receive our assent and govern our morals, there lurks a. metaphor that we have never detected ?
We have a vast multiplicity of proverbs, maxims, quotations, phrases, which mould our thoughts and opinions, and even largely control our lives. Now putting aside the question whether men always know what they mean and mean what they ought in using these formulas, it is easy to see that an immense amount of evil may result from the slovenly use of such rough and ready helps to reason and opinion. Such phrases, if true, contain at the best not a tentha part of the many-sided truth of the subject they deal with, yet if they are smartly turned, easy to remember, an effective weapon against a" chance opponent, one is too apt to take them as embracing the whole truth, or at least to look no farther to correct or complete his ideas. It is too easy to accept an epigram as the substitute for the tedious reasoning, the careful balancing of contending pleas, that every subject, on which thoughtful men differ, demands; too easy to draw on our memories for a proverb that will settle every debateable question of practice that may arise in our daily life; to slay the Goliath of doubt with the smooth stone of an aphorism or a text. So the poet or philosopher who throws part of a truth or opinion into a terse and attractive form, is too surely providing the careless thinker with a soporific to drug his intellectual conscience. He may be sure that his dictum will be quoted as authoritative, not only by
ignorant people who do not know what it means, but by lazy people who will use it as a substitute for the laborious process of thinking for themselves.
How easy it is to misuse even an ordinary quotation, everyone knows from familiar instances. We hear every day we live of the “touch of nature that makes the whole world kin ”—but would assuredly make Shakespeare stare and gasp. There is a singular instance of the effect of a mistaken quotation, in the conventional division of plays into five acts, which was occasioned by a misunderstanding of a passage in Horace. But such trivial errors are of no importance, compared with the abuse of the maxims that with many take the place of ethical principles.
We have remarked that language is only an imperfect method of expressing thought. The two are by no means identical, nor even co-extensive. The richest language contains only a limited number of vocables, admitting of but a limited number of combinations, but, in some directions at least, Thought has no necessary bounds. Language is far too clumsy an instrument to represent all the subtle modifications of refined reasoning and imagination. It can but draw a rough outline, with broad effects of colour and light ; the delicate tints, the infinite gradations of shade, are beyond its power to represent, even when used by the most cunning of word artists. The same sound has to represent a number of varying conceptions. There is an ambiguity in every sentence we utter. In the case of more simple propositions, we may indeed succeed in conveying an exact representation of the thought that is in our own minds; but that is not because the words are in themselves clear and exact, but because we can trust to the intelligence of our hearer to select the interpretation intended. Every language teems with terms whose ambiguity makes them most dangerous instruments to an unskilful .artist.
Yet, though speech is limited and thought potentially infinite, men think in words, and so allow their language to set bounds for their thought. Our ideas are apt to be limited by our vocabulary. Words make grooves in which thought runs, and from which it is difficult to escape. We lose sight of the delicate difference between two ideas, because we are bound by the poverty of our native tongue to express both by the same sound. And worse than this, we too often allow