Lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres: By Hugh Blair, ... In three volumes. ... [pt.1]
Blair, Hugh, 1718-1800.
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WHEN we attend to the order in which words are arranged in a sentence, or significant proposition, we find a very re|markable difference between the antient and the modern Tongues. The consideration of this will serve to unfold farther the genius of Language, and to show the causes of those alterations, which it has undergone, in the progress of Society.

IN order to conceive distinctly the nature of that alteration of which I now speak, let us go back, as we did formerly, to the most early period of Language. Let us figure to ourselves a Savage, who beholds some ob|ject, such as fruit, which raises his desire, and who requests another to give it to him. Supposing our Savage to be unacquainted with words, he would, in that case, labour to Page  139 make himself be understood, by pointing earnestly at the object which he desired, and uttering at the same time a passionate cry. Supposing him to have acquired words, the first word which he uttered would, of course, be the name of that object. He would not express himself, according to our English or|der of construction,

"Give me fruit;"
but according to the Latin order,
"Fruit give me;"
"Fructum da mihi:"
For this plain reason, that his attention was wholly directed towards fruit, the desired object. This was the exciting idea; the object which moved him to speak; and, of course, would be the first named. Such an arrangement is pre|cisely putting into words the gesture which nature taught the Savage to make, before he was acquainted with words; and therefore it may be depended upon as certain, that he would fall most readily into this arrange|ment.

ACCUSTOMED now to a different method of ordering our words, we call this an inver|sion, and consider it as a forced and unnatu|ral order of Speech. But though not the most logical, it is, however, in one view, the most natural order; because, it is the order suggested by imagination and desire, which always impel us to mention their object in the first place. We might therefore con|clude, a priori, that this would be the order in which words were most commonly ar|ranged at the beginnings of Language; and Page  140 accordingly we find, in fact, that, in this or|der, words are arranged in most of the anti|ent Tongues; as in the Greek and the La|tin; and it is said also, in the Russian, the the Sclavonic, the Gaëlic, and several of the American Tongues.

IN the Latin Language, the arrangement which most commonly obtains, is, to place first, in the sentence, that word which ex|presses the principal object of the discourse, together with its circumstances; and after|wards, the person, or the thing, that acts upon it. Thus Sallust, comparing together the mind and the body;

"Animi imperio, corporis servitio, magis utimur;"
which order certainly renders the sentence more live|ly and striking, than when it is arranged ac|cording to our English construction;
"We make most use of the direction of the soul, and of the service of the body."
The La|tin order gratifies more the rapidity of the imagination, which naturally runs first to that which is its chief object; and having once named it, carries it in view throughout the rest of the sentence. In the same man|ner in poetry:
Justum & tenacem propositi virum,
Non civium ardor prava jubentium,
Non vultus instantis tyranni,
Mente quatit solida.—
Every person of taste must be sensible, that here the words are arranged with a much Page  141 greater regard to the figure which the several objects make in the fancy, than our English construction admits; which would require the
"Justum & tenacem propositi virum,"
though, undoubtedly, the capital object in the sentence, to be thrown into the last place.

I HAVE said, that, in the Greek and Ro|man Languages, the most common arrange|ment is, to place that first which strikes the imagination of the speaker most. I do not, however, pretend, that this holds without exception. Sometimes regard to the har|mony of the period requires a different order; and in Languages susceptible of so much mu|sical beauty, and pronounced with so much tone and modulation as were used by those nations, the harmony of periods was an ob|ject carefully studied. Sometimes too, at|tention to the perspicuity, to the force, or to the artful suspension of the speaker's mean|ing, alter this order; and produce such va|rieties in the arrangement, that it is not easy to reduce them to any one principle. But, in general, this was the genius and character of most of the antient Languages, to give such full liberty to the collocation of words, as allowed them to assume whatever order was most agreeable to the speaker's imagina|tion. The Hebrew is, indeed, an excepti|on: which, though not altogether without inversions, yet employs them less frequently, and approaches nearer to the English con|struction, Page  142 than either the Greek or the La|tin.

ALL the modern Languages of Europe have adopted a different arrangement from the antient. In their prose compositions, very little variety is admitted in the colloca|tion of words; they are mostly fixed to one order; and that order is, what may be called, the Order of the Understanding. They place first in the sentence, the person or thing which speaks or acts; next, its action; and lastly, the object of its action. So that the ideas are made to succeed to one another, not according to the degree of importance which the several objects carry in the imagination, but according to the order of nature and of time.

AN English writer, paying a compliment to a great man, would say thus:

"It is im|possible for me to pass over, in silence, such remarkable mildness, such singular and un|heard of clemency, and such unusual mo|deration, in the exercise of supreme pow|er."
Here we have, first presented to us, the person who speaks.
"It is impossible for me;"
next, what that person is to do,
"impossible for him to pass over in silence;"
and lastly, the object which moves him so to do,
"the mildness, clemency, and modera|tion of his patron."
Cicero, from whom I have translated these words, just reverses this order; beginning with the object, plac|ing Page  143 that first which was the exciting idea in the speaker's mind, and ending with the speaker and his action.
"Tantam mansue|tudinem, tam inusitatam inauditamque cle|mentiam, tantumque in summa potestate rerum omnium modum, tacitus multo modo praeterire possum."
(Orat. pro Mar|cell.)

THE Latin order is more animated; the English, more clear and distinct. The Ro|mans generally arranged their words accord|ing to the order in which the ideas rose in the speaker's imagination. We arrange them according to the order in which the under|standing directs those ideas to be exhibited, in succession, to the view of another. Our arrangement, therefore, appears to be the consequence of greater refinement in the art of Speech; as far as clearness in communi|cation is understood to be the end of Speech.

IN poetry, where we are supposed to rise above the ordinary style, and to speak the Language of fancy and passion, our arrange|ment is not altogether so limited; but some greater liberty is allowed for transposition, and inversion. Even there, however, that liberty is confined within narrow bounds, in comparison of the Antient Languages. The different modern Tongues vary from one another, in this respect. The French Lan|guage is, of them all, the most determinate in the order of its words, and admits the Page  144 least of inversion, either in prose or poetry The English admits it more. But the Itali|an retains the most of the antient transposi|tive character; though one is apt to think, at the expence of a little obscurity in the style of some of their authors, who deal most in these transpositions.

IT is proper, next, to observe, that there is one circumstance in the structure of all the modern Tongues, which, of necessity, limits their arrangement, in a great measure, to one fixed and determinate train. We have disused those differences of termination, which, in the Greek and Latin, distinguished the several cases of nouns, and tenses of verbs; and which, thereby, pointed out the mutual relation of the several words in a sen|tence to one another, though the related words were disjoined, and placed in different parts of the sentence. This is an alteration in the structure of Language, of which I shall have occasion to say more in the next Lecture. One obvious effect of it is, that we have now, for the most part, no way left us to shew the close relation of any two words to one another in meaning, but by placing them close to one another in the pe|riod. For instance; the Romans could, with propriety, express themselves thus;

Extinctum nymphae crudeli funere Daphnim
Page  145 Because
"Extinctum & Daphnim,"
being both in the accusative case, this showed, that the adjective and the substantive were related to each other, though placed at the two ex|tremities of the line; and that both were governed by the active verb
to which
plainly appeared to be the nominative. The different terminations here reduced all into order, and made the connec|tion of the several words perfectly clear. But let us translate these words literally into English, according to the Latin arrange|ment;
"Dead the nymphs by a cruel fate Daphnis lamented;"
and they become a perfect riddle, in which it is impossible to find any meaning.

IT was by means of this contrivance, which obtained in almost all the antient Lan|guages, of varying the termination of nouns and verbs, and thereby pointing out the con|cordance and the government of the words, in a sentence, that they enjoyed so much liberty of transposition, and could marshal and arrange their words in any way that gra|tified the imagination, or pleased the ear. When Language came to be modelled by the northern nations who overran the empire, they dropped the cases of nouns, and the different termination of verbs, with the more ease, because they placed no great value upon the advantages arising from such a structure of Language. They were attentive only to clearness, and copiousness of expression. They Page  146 neither regarded much the harmony of sound, nor sought to gratify the imagination by the collocation of words. They studied solely to express themselves in such a manner as should exhibit their ideas to others in the most distinct and intelligible order. And hence, if our Language, by reason of the simple ar|rangement of its words, possesses less har|mony, less beauty, and less force, than the Greek or Latin; it is, however, in its mean|ing, more obvious and plain.

THUS I have shewn what the natural Pro|gress of Language has been, in several mate|rial articles; and this account of the Genius and Progress of Language, lays a foundation for many observations, both curious and use|ful. From what has been said, in this, and the preceding Lecture, it appears, that Lan|guage was, at first, barren in words, but de|scriptive by the sound of these words; and expressive in the manner of uttering them, by the aid of significant tones and gestures: Style was figurative and poetical: arrange|ment was fanciful and lively. It appears, that, in all the successive changes which Lan|guage has undergone, as the world advanced, the understanding has gained ground on the fancy and imagination. The Progress of Language, in this respect, resembles the pro|gress of age in man. The imagination is most vigorous and predominant in youth; with advancing years, the imagination cools, and the understanding ripens. Thus Lan|guage, Page  147 proceeding from sterility to copious|ness, hath, at the same time, proceeded from vivacity to accuracy; from fire and enthusi|asm, to coolness and precision. Those cha|racters of early Language, descriptive sound, vehement tones and gestures, figurative style, and inverted arrangement, all hang together, have a mutual influence on each other; and have all gradually given place, to arbitrary sounds, calm pronunciation, simple style, plain arrangement. Language is become, in modern times, more correct, indeed, and ac|curate; but, however, less striking and ani|mated: In its antient state, more favourable to poetry and oratory; in its present, to rea|son and philosophy.

HAVING finished my account of the Pro|gress of Speech, I proceed to give an account of the Progress of Writing, which next de|mands our notice; though it will not require so full a discussion as the former subject.

NEXT to Speech, Writing is, beyond doubt, the most useful art of which men are possess|ed. It is plainly an improvement upon Speech, and therefore must have been poste|rior to it in order of time. At first, men thought of nothing more than communicat|ing their thoughts to one another, when pre|sent, by means of words, or sounds, which they uttered. Afterwards, they devised this further method, of mutual communication with one another, when absent, by means of Page  148 marks or characters presented to the eye, which we call Writing.

WRITTEN characters are of two sorts. They are either signs for things, or signs for words. Of the former sort, signs of things, are the pictures, hieroglyphics, and symbols, employed by the antient nations; of the lat|ter sort, signs for words, are the alphabetical characters, now employed by all Europeans. These two kinds of Writing are generically, and essentially, distinct.

PICTURES were, undoubtedly, the first essay towards Writing. Imitation is so natu|ral to man, that, in all ages, and among all nations, some methods have obtained, of co|pying or tracing the likeness of sensible ob|jects. Those methods would soon be em|ployed by men for giving some imperfect in|formation to others, at a distance, of what had happened; or, for preserving the memo|ry of facts which they sought to record. Thus, to signify that one man had killed an|other, they drew the figure of one man stretched upon the earth, and of another standing by him with a deadly weapon in his hand. We find, in fact, that, when Ame|rica was first discovered, this was the only sort of Writing known in the kingdom of Mexico. By historical pictures, the Mexi|cans are said to have transmitted the memory of the most important transactions of their em|pire. These, however, must have been ex|tremely Page  149 imperfect records; and the nations who had no other, must have been very gross and rude. Pictures could do no more than delineate external events. They could nei|ther exhibit the connections of them, nor describe such qualities as were not visible to the eye, nor convey any idea of the disposi|tions, or words, of men.

TO supply, in some degree, this defect, there arose, in process of time, the invention of what are called, Hieroglyphical Charac|ters; which may be considered as the second stage of the Art of Writing. Hieroglyphics consist in certain symbols, which are made to stand for invisible objects, on account of an analogy or resemblance which such symbols were supposed to bear to the objects. Thus, an eye, was the hieroglyphical symbol of knowledge; a circle, of eternity, which has neither beginning, nor end. Hieroglyphics, therefore, were a more refined and extensive species of painting. Pictures delineated the resemblance of external visible objects. Hie|roglyphics painted invisible objects, by analo|gies taken from the external world.

AMONG the Mexicans, were found some traces of hieroglyphical characters, intermix|ed with their historical pictures. But Egypt was the country where this sort of Writing was most studied, and brought into a regular art. In hieroglyphics, was conveyed all the boasted wisdom of their priests. According Page  150 to the properties which they ascribed to ani|mals, or the qualities with which they sup|posed natural objects to be endowed, they pitched upon them to be the emblems, or hieroglyphics, of moral objects; and em|ployed them in their Writing for that end. Thus, ingratitude was denominated by a viper; imprudence, by a fly; wisdom, by an ant; victory, by a hawk; a dutiful child, by a stork; a man universally shunned, by an eel, which they supposed to be found in company with no other fish. Sometimes they joined together two or more of these hieroglyphical characters; as, a serpent with a hawk's head; to denote nature, with God presiding over it. But, as many of those properties of objects which they assumed for the foundation of their hieroglyphics, were merely imaginary, and the allusions drawn from them were forced and ambiguous; as the conjunction of their characters rendered them still more obscure, and must have ex|pressed very indistinctly the connections and relations of things; this sort of Writing could be no other than aenigmatical, and confused, in the highest degree; and must have been a very imperfect vehicle of knowledge of any kind.

IT has been imagined, that hieroglyphics were an invention of the Egyptian priests, for concealing their learning from common view; and that, upon this account, it was preferred by them to the alphabetical me|thod Page  151 of Writing. But this is certainly a mistake. Hieroglyphics were, undoubtedly, employed, at first, from necessity, not from choice or refinement; and would never have been thought of, if alphabetical characters had been known. The nature of the in|vention plainly shows it to have been one of those gross and rude essays towards Writing, which were adopted in the early ages of the world; in order to extend some farther the first method which they had employed of simple pictures, or representations of visible objects. Indeed, in after-times, when alpha|betical Writing was introduced into Egypt, and the hieroglyphical was, of course, fallen into disuse, it is known, that the priests still employed the hieroglyphical characters, as a sacred kind of Writing, now become peculiar to themselves, and serving to give an air of mystery to their learning and religion. In this state, the Greeks found hieroglyphical Writing, when they began to have inter|course with Egypt; and some of their writers mistook this use, to which they found it ap|plied, for the cause that had given rise to the invention.

AS Writing advanced, from pictures of visible objects, to hieroglyphics, or symbols of things invisible; from these latter, it ad|vanced, among some nations, to simple ar|bitrary marks which stood for objects, though without any resemblance or analogy to the objects signified. Of this nature was the Page  152 method of Writing practised among the Pe|ruvians. They made use of small cords, of different colours; and by knots upon these, of various sizes, and differently ranged, they contrived signs for giving information, and communicating their thoughts to one ano|ther.

OF this nature also, are the written cha|racters, which are used to this day, through|out the great empire of China. The Chinese have no alphabet of letters, or simple sounds, which compose their words. But every sin|gle character which they use in Writing, is significant of an idea; it is a mark which stands for some one thing, or object. By consequence, the number of these characters must be immense. It must correspond to the whole number of objects, or ideas, which they have occasion to express; that is, to the whole number of words which they employ in Speech: nay, it must be greater than the number of words; one word, by varying the tone, with which it is spoken, may be made to signify several different things. They are said to have seventy thousand of those writ|ten characters. To read and write them to perfection, is the study of a whole life; which subjects learning, among them, to infinite disadvantage; and must have greatly retard|ed the progress of all science.

CONCERNING the origin of these Chinese characters, there have been different opini|ons, Page  153 and much controversy. According to the most probable accounts, the Chinese Wri|ting began, like the Egyptian, with pictures, and hieroglyphical figures. These figures being, in progress, abbreviated in their form, for the sake of writing them easily, and great|ly enlarged in their number, passed, at length, into those marks or characters which they now use, and which have spread themselves through several nations of the East. For we are informed, that the Japanese, the Tonqui|nese, and the Coroeans, who speak different languages from one another, and from the inhabitants of China, use, however, the same written characters with them; and, by this means, correspond intelligibly with each other in Writing, though ignorant of the Language spoken in their several countries; a plain proof, that the Chinese characters are, like hieroglyphics, independent of Language; are signs of things, not of words.

WE have one instance of this sort of Wri|ting in Europe. Our cyphers, as they are called, or arithmetical figures, 1, 2, 3, 4, &c. which we have derived from the Arabi|ans, are significant marks, precisely of the same nature with the Chinese characters. They have no dependence on words; but each figure represents an object; represents the number for which it stands; and, ac|cordingly, on being presented to the eye, is equally understood by all the nations who have agreed in the use of these cyphers; by Page  154 Italians, Spaniards, French, and English, however different the Languages of those nations are from one another, and whatever different names they give, in their respective Languages, to each numerical cypher.

AS far, then, as we have yet advanced, nothing has appeared which resembles our letters, or which can be called Writing, in the sense we now give to that term. What we have hitherto seen, were all direct signs for things, and made no use of the medium of sound, or words; either signs by repre|sentation, as the Mexican pictures; or signs by analogy, as the Egyptian hieroglyphics; or signs by institution, as the Peruvian knots, the Chinese characters, and the A|rabian cyphers.

AT length, in different nations, men be|came sensible of the imperfection, the ambi|guity, and the tediousness of each of these methods of communication with one ano|ther. They began to consider, that by em|ploying signs which should stand not directly for things, but for the words which they used in Speech for naming these things, a consi|derable advantage would be gained. For they reflected farther, that though the num|ber of words in every Language be, indeed, very great, yet the number of articulate sounds, which are used in composing these words, is comparatively small. The same simple sounds are continually recurring and Page  155 repeated; and are combined together, in va|rious ways, for forming all the variety of words which we utter. They bethought themselves, therefore, of inventing signs, not for each word, by itself, but for each of those simple sounds which we employ in forming our words; and, by joining together a few of those signs, they saw that it would be practi|cable to express, in Writing, the whole com|binations of sounds which our words re|quire.

THE first step, in this new progress, was the invention of an alphabet of syllables, which probably preceded the invention of an alphabet of letters, among some of the an|tient nations; and which is said to be retain|ed, to this day, in Aethiopia, and some coun|tries of India. By fixing upon a particular mark, or character, for every syllable in the Language, the number of characters, neces|sary to be used in Writing, was reduced within a much smaller compass than the number of words in the Language. Still, however, the number of characters was great; and must have continued to render both reading and writing very laborious arts. Till, at last, some happy genius arose; and tracing the sounds made by the human voice, to their most simple elements, reduced them to a very few vowels and consonants; and, by affixing to each of these the signs which we now call Letters, taught men how, by their combinations, to put into Writing all Page  156 the different words, or combinations of sound, which they employed in Speech. By being reduced to this simplicity, the art of Writing was brought to its highest state of perfection; and, in this state, we now enjoy it in all the countries of Europe.

TO whom we are indebted for this sublime and refined discovery, does not appear. Con|cealed by the darkness of remote antiquity, the great inventor is deprived of those ho|nours which would still be paid to his me|mory, by all the lovers of knowledge and learning. It appears from the books which Moses has written, that, among the Jews, and probably among the Egyptians, letters had been invented prior to his age. The uni|versal tradition among the antients is, that they were first imported into Greece by Cad|mus the Phoenician; who, according to the common system of chronology, was contem|porary with Joshua; according to Sir Isaac Newton's system, contemporary with King David. As the Phoenicians are not known to have been the inventors of any art or sci|ence, though, by means of their extensive commerce, they propagated the discoveries made by other nations, the most probable and natural account of the origin of alpha|betical characters is, that they took rise in Egypt, the first civilized kingdom of which we have any authentic accounts, and the great source of arts and polity among the ancients. In that country, the favourite study Page  157 of hieroglyphical characters, had directed much attention to the art of Writing. Their hieroglyphics are known to have been inter|mixed with abbreviated symbols, and arbi|trary marks; whence, at last, they caught the idea of contriving marks, not for things merely, but for sounds. Accordingly, Plato (in Phoedro) expressly attributes the invention of letters to Theuth, the Egyptian, who is supposed to have been the Hermes, or Mer|cury, of the Greeks. Cadmus himself, though he passed from Phoenicia to Greece, yet is affirmed, by several of the antients, to have been originally of Thebes in Egypt. Most probably, Moses carried with him the Egyp|tian letters into the land of Canaan; and there being adopted by the Phoenicians, who inhabited part of that country, they were transmitted into Greece.

THE alphabet which Cadmus brought into Greece was imperfect, and is said to have contained only sixteen letters. The rest were afterwards added, according as signs for pro|per sounds were found to be wanting. It is curious to observe, that the letters which we use at this day, can be traced back to this very alphabet of Cadmus. The Roman al|phabet, which obtains with us, and with most of the European nations, is plainly formed on the Greek, with a few variations. And all learned men observe, that the Greek cha|racters, especially according to the manner in which they are formed in the oldest inscrip|tions, Page  158 have a remarkable conformity with the Hebrew or Samaritan characters, which, it is agreed, are the same with the Phoenician, or the alphabet of Cadmus. Invert the Greek characters from left to right, according to the Phoenician and Hebrew manner of Writing, and they are nearly the same. Besides the conformity of figure, the names or denomi|nations of the letters, alpha, beta, gamma, &c. and the order in which the letters are arranged, in all the several alphabets, Phoe|nician, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman, agree so much, as amounts to a demonstration, that they were all derived originally from the same source. An invention so useful and simple, was greedily received by mankind, and pro|pagated with speed and facility through many different nations.

THE letters were, originally, written from the right hand towards the left; that is, in a contrary order to what we now practise. This manner of Writing obtained among the Assy|rians, Phoenicians, Arabians, and Hebrews; and from some very old inscriptions, appears to have obtained also among the Greeks. Afterwards, the Greeks adopted a new me|thod, writing their lines alternately from the right to the left, and from the left to the right, which was called Boustrophedon; or, writing after the manner in which oxen plow the ground. Of this, several specimens still remain; particularly, the inscription on the famous Sigaean monument; and down to the Page  159 days of Solon, the legislator of Athens, this continued to be the common method of Wri|ting. At length, the motion from the left hand to the right being found more natural and commodious, the practice of Writing, in this direction, prevailed throughout all the countries of Europe.

WRITING was long a kind of engraving. Pillars, and tables of stone, were first em|ployed for this purpose, and afterwards, plates of the softer metals, such as lead. In pro|portion as Writing became more common, lighter and more portable substances were employed. The leaves, and the bark of cer|tain trees, were used in some countries; and in others, tablets of wood, covered with a thin coat of soft wax, on which the impres|sion was made with a stylus of iron. In later times, the hides of animals, properly prepared and polished into parchment, were the most common materials. Our present method of writing on paper, is an invention of no great|er antiquity than the fourteenth century.

THUS I have given some account of the Progress of these two great arts, Speech and Writing; by which men's thoughts are com|municated, and the foundation laid for all knowledge and improvement. Let us con|clude the subject, with comparing, in a few words, spoken Language, and written Lan|guage; or words uttered in our hearing, with words represented to the eye; where we shall Page  160 find several advantages and disadvantages to be balanced on both sides.

THE advantages of Writing above Speech are, that Writing is both a more extensive, and a more permanent method of communi|cation. More extensive; as it is not con|fined within the narrow circle of those who hear our words, but, by means of written characters, we can send our thoughts abroad, and propagate them through the world; we can lift our voice, so as to speak to the most distant regions of the earth. More perma|nent also; as it prolongs this voice to the most distant ages; it gives us the means of record|ing our sentiments to futurity, and of perpe|tuating the instructive memory of past tran|sactions. It likewise affords this advantage to such as read, above such as hear, that, having the written characters before their eyes, they can arrest the sense of the writer. They can pause, and revolve, and compare, at their leisure, one passage with another; whereas, the voice is fugitive and passing; you must catch the words the moment they are uttered, or you lose them for ever.

BUT, although these be so great advan|tages of written Language, that Speech, with|out Writing, would have been very inade|quate for the instruction of mankind; yet we must not forget to observe, that spoken Language has a great superiority over written Language, in point of energy or force. The Page  161 voice of the living Speaker, makes an im|pression on the mind, much stronger than can be made by the perusal of any Writing. The tones of voice, the looks and gesture, which accompany discourse, and which no Writing can convey, render discourse, when it is well managed, infinitely more clear, and more expressive, than the most accurate Writing. For tones, looks, and gestures, are natural interpreters of the sentiments of the mind. They remove ambiguities; they enforce im|pressions; they operate on us by means of sympathy, which is one of the most power|ful instruments of persuasion. Our sympa|thy is always awakened more, by hearing the Speaker, than by reading his works in our closet. Hence, though Writing may answer the purposes of mere instruction, yet all the great and high efforts of eloquence must be made, by means of spoken, not of written, Language.