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once a sound altogether arbitrary, to assist, as far as possible, the apprehension of his hearers, either by the happy employment of some old word in a metaphorical sense, or by grafting etymologically on some well known stock, a new derivative, significant, to his own fancy, of the thought he wishes to impart.
To this bias of the mind to enrich language, rather by a modification of old materials, than by the creation of new ones, it is owing that the number of primitive or radical words, in a cultivated tongue, bears so small a proportion to the whole amount of its vocabulary. In an original language, such as the Greek, the truth of this remark may be easily verified; and, accordingly, it is asserted by Mr Smith, that the number of its primitives does not exceed three hundred." In the compound languages now spoken in Europe, it is a much more difficult task to establish the fact; but an irresistible presumption in its favour arises from this circumstance, That all who have turned their attention of late, in this island, to the study of etymology, are impressed with a deep and increasing conviction, founded on the discoveries which have been already made, that this branch of learning is still in its infancy; and that the roots of an immense variety of words, commonly supposed to be genuine radicals, may be traced, in a satisfactory manner, to the Saxon or to the Icelandic. The delight which all men, however unlettered, take in indulging their crude conjectures on the etymological questions which are occasionally started in conversation, is founded on the same circumstance;—their experimental knowledge of the difficulty of introducing into popular speech a new sound, entirely arbitrary in its selection, and coined out of materials unemployed before. Another illustration of this occurs in the reluctance with which we adopt the idiomatical turns of expression in a foreign tongue, or even the cant words and phrases which, from time to time, are springing up in our own, till we have succeeded in forming some theory or conjecture to reconcile the apparent anomaly with the ordinary laws of human thought. The view of the subject, however, to which I must confine myself in this Essay, has a reference to those words alone which, in the progress of philosophical refinement, are introduced to express abstract and complex notions, or to characterize the faculties and operations of the thinking and sentient principle within us. That such words should all be borrowed from things sensible and familiar, was not only the natural consequence of our Perceptive Powers having been long and incessantly exercised, before Reflection began to awaken to its appropriate objects, but was an expedient indispensably necessary towards a successful communication of the thoughts which were to be conveyed. This last remark, which I have already slightly hinted at, and which led me into the short digression which has, for a few moments, diverted my attention to some collateral topics, will require a more ample illustration. I have stated the difficulty attending the origin of words expressive of things which do not fall under the cognizance of any of our senses; and I have also remarked the disposition of the Mind, on such occasions, to have recourse to metaphors borrowed from the Material World. It is in this proneness of the fancy to employ analogical language, in order to express notions purely intellectual, that a provision seems to have been made by nature, for an intercourse between different Minds, concerning things abstracted from Matter; inasmuch as the very same circumstances which open an easier vent to the utterance of the speaker, must necessarily contribute powerfully (by what Lord Bacon would have called the abscissio infiniti) to assist and prompt the apprehension of the hearer. The moment that the terms attention, imagination, abstraction, sagacity, foresight, penetration, acuteness, inclination, aversion, deliberation, are pronounced, a great step towards their interpretation is made in the mind of every person of common understanding; and although this analogical reference to the Material World adds greatly to the difficulty of analyzing, with philosophical rigour, the various faculties and principles of our nature, yet it cannot be denied, that it facilitates, to a wonderful degree, the mutual communications of mankind concerning them, in so far as such communications are necessary in the ordinary business of life. Even to the philosopher himself, it is probably, in the first instance, indispensably requisite, as a preparation for a more accurate survey of the Mind. It serves, at least, to circumscribe the field of his, attention within such narrow limits, as may enable him, with greater ease,
* See the Dissertation on Language, annexed to the Theory of Moral Scntiments.
to subject it to the examination of the power of rejlection ; and, in this way, renders fancy subservient to the ultimate correction of her own illusions. And here, I cannot help pausing a little, to remark how much more imperfect language is, than is commonly supposed, when considered as an organ of mental intercourse. We speak of communicating, by means of words, our ideas and our feelings to others; and we seldom reflect sufficiently on the latitude with which this metaphorical phrase ought to be understood. * Even in conversing on the plainest and most familiar subjects, however full and circumstantial our statements may be, the words which we employ, if examined with accuracy, will be found to do nothing more than to suggest hints to our hearers, leaving by far the principal part of the process of interpretation to be performed by the Mind itself. In this respect, the effect of words bear some resemblance to the stimulus given to the memory and imagination, by an outline or a shadow, exhibiting the profile of a countenance familiar to the Eye. The most minute narratives, accordingly, are by no means, in every instance, the most intelligible and satisfactory; as the most faithful copies after nature do not always form the best portraits. In both cases, the skill of the artist consists in a happy selection of particulars, which are ea pressive -or significant. “Language,” it is commonly said, “ is the ex“press image of thought;"—and that it may be
* Philosophy of the Human Mind, pp. 495, 496, 3d edit.
said, with sufficient propriety, to be so, I do not dispute, when the meaning of the proposition is fully explained. The mode of expression, however, it ought to be remembered, is figurative; and, therefore, when the proposition is assumed as a principle of reasoning, it must not be rigorously or hiterally interpreted. This has too often been overlooked by writers on the Human Mind. Even Dr Reid himself, cautions as he is in general, with respect to the ground on which he is to build, has repeatedly appealed to this maxim, without any qualification whatsoever; and, by thus adopting it, agreeably to its letter, rather than to its spirit, has been led, in various instances, to lay greater stress on the structure of speech, than (in my opinion) it can always bear in a philosophical argument. As a necessary consequence of this assumption, it has been, not unnaturally, inferred by logicians, that every word, which is not wholly useless in the vocabulary, is the sign of an idea; and that these ideas (which the common systems lead us to consider as the representatives of things) are the immediate instruments, or (if I may be allowed such a phrase) the intellectual tools with which the Mind carries on the operation of thinking. In reading, for example, the enunciation of a proposition, we are apt to fancy that for every word contained in it there is an idea presented to the understanding ; from the combination and comparison of which ideas, results that act of the mind called judgment. So different is all this from the fact, that our words, when examined
separately, are often as completely insignificant as the