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BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE.
Painting and sculpture alone of the fine arts, imitative-- A beauty of language,
distinct from the beauty of the thought it expresses-Ofdifferent words conveying the same thought, that which best answers the end is most beautiful--Beauties of language arising from sound-Beauty of sound—Beauty of significationThe resemblance between sound and signification-Beauty of verse.
Of all the fine arts, painting and sculpture only, are in their nature imitative. An ornamented field is not a copy or imitation of nature, but nature itself embellished. Architecture is productive of originals, and copies not from nature. Sound and motion may, in some measure, be imitated by music; but for the most part music, like architecture, is productive of originals. Language copies not from nature, more than music or architecture; unless, where, like music, it is imitative of sound or motion. Thus, in the description of particular sounds, language sometimes furnishes words, which, besides their customary power of exciting ideas, resemble, by their softness or harshness, the sounds described; and there are words which, by the celerity or slowness of pronunciation, have some resemblance to the motion they signify. The imitative power of words goes one step farthér: the loftiness of some words makes them proper symbols of lofty ideas; a rough subject is imitated by harsh-sounding words ; and words of many syllables pronounced slow and smooth, are expressive of grief and melancholy. Words have a separate effect on the mind abstracted from their signification and from their imitative power: they are more or less agreeable to the ear, by the fulness, sweetness, faintness, or roughness of their tones.
These are but faint beauties, being known to those only who have more than ordinary acuteness of perception. Language possesses a beauty superior greatly in degree, of which we are eminently sensible when a thought is communicated with perspicuity and sprightliness. This beauty of language, arising from its power of expressing thought, is apt to be confounded with the beauty of the thought itself: the beauty of thought, transferred to the expression, makes it appear more beautiful.* But these beauties, if we wish to think accurately, must be distinguished from each other. They are in reality so distinct, that we sometimes are conscious of the highest pleasure language can afford, when the subject expressed is disagreeable: a thing that is loathsome, or a scene of horror to make one's hair stand on end, may be described in a manner so lively, as that the disagreeableness of the subject shall not even obscure the agreeableness of the
* Chap. 2. Part 1. Sect. 5. Demetrius Phalereus (of Elocution, sect. 75.) makes the same observation. We are apt, says that author, to confound the language with the subject; and if the latter be nervous, we judge the same of the former. But they are clearly distinguishable; and it is not uncommon to find subjects of great dignity dressed in mean language. Theopompus is celebrated for the force of his diction; but erroneously: his subject indeed has great force, but his style
description. The causes of the original beauty of language, considered as significant, which is a branch of the present subject, will be explained in their order. I shall only at present observe, that this beauty is the beauty of means fitted to an end, that of communicating thought: and hence it evidently appears, that of several expressions all conveying the same thought, the most beautiful, in the sense now mentioned, is that which in the most perfect manner answers it end.
The several beauties of language above mentioned, being of different kinds, ought to be handled separately. I shall begin with those beauties of language that arise from sound; after which will follow the beauties of language considered as significant: this order appears natural; for the sound of a word is attended to, before we consider its signification. In a third section come those singular beauties of language that are derived from a resemblance between sound and signification. The beauties of verse are handled in the last section : for though the foregoing beauties are found in verse as well as in prose, yet verse has many peculiar beauties, which, for the sake of connection, must be brought under one view; and versification, at any rate, is a subject of so great importance as to deserve a place by itself.
Sounds of different letters-Syllables—Words-A period or sentence-Discourse
-The manner in which the vowels are sounded-The vowels form a regular series of sounds from high to low-All agreeable The medium vowels most so -A consonant has no sound-Syllables into which consonants enter, have more than one sound—The sounds of syllables as many as the letters-A double sound more agreeable than a single-Difference between pronunciation and music, with respect to sound— The source of the agreeableness or disagreeableness of words The most agreeable successions formed, when the cavity of the mouth is alternately increased and diminished, within moderate limits, and where long and short syllables follow one another-A standard to all nations of the comparative merit of their languages-Not possible, however, to form a complete standard-A rough language preferable to a smooth one, when it has a sufficient number of smooth sounds-The English tongue originally harsh, but at present much softened-Remarks on the dropping in of words that end in ed
The effect of ascending and descending in a series varying by small differences—The effect where it varies by large differences, where contrast prevailsThe effect of a strong impulse succeeding a weak one; and also of a weak impulse succeeding a strong one -The maxim founded on this-Direction for arranging the different members of a sentence.
This subject requires the following order: The sounds of the different letters come first: next, these sounds as united in syllables: third, syllables united in words: fourth, words united in a period: and, in the last place, periods united in a discourse.
With respect to the first article, every vowel is sounded with a single expiration of air from the wind-pipe, through the cavity of the mouth. By varying this cavity, the different vowels are sounded ; for the air in passing through cavities differing in size, produces various sounds, some high or sharp, some low or flat: a small cavity occasions a high sound, a large cavity a low sound. The five vowels accordingly, pronounced with the same extension of the windpipe, but with different openings of the mouth, form a regular series
of sounds, descending from high to low, in the following order, i, e, a, 0, u. Each of these sounds is agreeable to the ear: and if it be required which of them is the most agreeable, it is, perhaps, safest to hold, that those vowels which are the farthest removed from the extremes, will be the most relished. This is all I have to remark upon the first article: for consonants being letters that of themselves have no sound, serve only in conjunction with vowels to form articulate sounds; and as every articulate sound makes a syllable, consonants come naturally under the second article; to which we proceed.
A consonant is pronounced with a less cavity than a vowel; and consequently every syllable into which a consonant enters, must have more than one sound, though pronounced with one expiration of air, or with one breath as commonly expressed : for however readily two sounds may unite, yet where they differ in tone, both of them must be heard if neither of them be suppressed. For the same reason, every syllable must be composed of as many sounds as there are letters, supposing every letter to be distinctly pronounced.
We next inquire, how far syllables are agreeable to the ear. Few tongues are so polished, as entirely to have rejected sounds that are pronounced with difficulty; and it is a noted observation, that such sounds are to the ear harsh and disagreeable. But with respect to agreeable sounds, it appears, that a double sound is always more agreeable than a single sound: every one who has an ear must be sensible, that the diphthong oi or ai is more agreeable than any
of these vowels pronounced singly: the same holds where a consonant enters into the double sound; the syllable le has a more agreeable sound than the vowel e, or than any vowel. And in support of experience, a satisfactory argument may be drawn from the wisdom of Providence: speech is bestowed on man, to qualify him for society; and his provision of articulate sounds is proportioned to the use he has for them; but if sounds that are agreeable singly, were not also agreeable in conjunction, the necessity of a painful selection would render language intricate and difficult to be attained in any perfection; and this selection, at the same time, would abridge the number of useful sounds, so as, perhaps, not to leave sufficient for answering the different ends of language.
In this view, the harmony of pronunciation differs widely from that of music properly so called. In the latter are discovered many sounds singly agreeable, which in conjunction are extremely disagreeable; none but what are called concordant sounds having a good effect in conjunction. In the former, all sounds, singly agreeable, are in conjunction concordant; and ought to be, in order to fulfil the purposes of language.
Having discussed syllables, we proceed to words; which make the third article. Monosyllables belong to the former head; polysyllables open a different scene. In a cursory view, one would imagine, that the agreeableness or disagreeableness of a word with
* In this scale of sounds, the letter i must be pronounced as in the word interest, and as in other words beginning with the syllable in ; the letter e as in persuasion; the letter a as in bat; and the letter w as in number.
respect to its sound, should depend upon the agreeableness or disagreeableness of its component syllables: which is true in part, but not entirely; for we must also take under consideration, the effect of syllables in succession. In the first place, syllables in immediate succession, pronounced each of them, with the same, or nearly the same aperture of the mouth, produce a succession of weak and feeble sounds; witness the French words dit-il, pathetique : on the other hand, a syllable of the eatest aperture succeeding one of the smallest, or the contrary, makes a succession, which, because of its remarkable disa. greeableness, is distinguished by a proper name, hiatus. The most agreeable succession is, where the cavity is increased and diminished alternately within moderate limits: examples, alternative, longevity, pusillanimous. Secondly, words consisting wholly of syllables pronounced slow, or of syllables pronounced quick, commonly called long and short syllables, have little melody in them; witness the words petitioner, fruiterer, dizziness: on the other hand, the intermixture of long and short syllables is remarkably agreeable; for example, degree, repent, wonderful, altitude, rapidity, independent, impetuosity.* The cause will be explained hereafter, in treating of versification.
Distinguishable from the beauties above mentioned, there is a beauty of some words which arises from their signification : when the emotion raised by the length or shortness, the roughness or smoothness, of the sound, resembles, in any degree, what is raised by the sense, we feel a very remarkable pleasure. But this subject belongs to the third section.
The foregoing observations afford a standard to every nation, for estimating, pretty accurately, the comparative merit of the words that enter into their own language: but they are not equally useful in comparing the words of different languages; which will thus appear. Different nations judge differently of the harshness or smoothness of articulate sounds; a sound, for example, harsh and disagreeable to an Italian, may be abundantly smooth to a northern ear: here every nation must judge for itself; nor can there be any solid ground for a preference, when there is no common standard to which we can appeal. The case is precisely the same as in behavior and manners: plain-dealing and sincerity, liberty in words and actions, form the character of one people; politeness, reserve, and a total disguise of every sentiment that can give offence, form the character of another people: to each the manners of the other are disagreeable, An effeminate mind cannot bear the least of that roughness and severity which is generally esteemed manly, when exerted upon proper occa sions: neither can an effeminate ear bear the harshness of certain words, that are deemed nervous and sounding by those accustomed to a rougher tone of speech. Must we then relinquish all thoughts of comparing languages in point of roughness and smoothness, as a
* Italian words, like those of Latin and Greek, have this property almost universally: English and French words are generally deficient. În the former, the long syllable is removed from the end, as far as the sound will permit; and in the letter, the last syllable is generally long. For example, Sénator in English, Senå. tor in Latin, and Senatõur in French,
fruitless inquiry? Not altogether; for we may proceed a certain length, though without hope of an ultimate decision. A language pronounced with difficulty even by natives, must yield to a smoother language: and supposing two languages pronounced with equal facility by natives, the rougher language, in my judgment, ought to be preferred, provided it be also stored with a competent share of more mellow sounds; which will be evident from attending to the different effects that articulate sound has on the mind. A smooth gliding sound is agreeable, by calming the mind, and lulling it to rest: a rough bold sound, on the contrary, animates the mind; the effort perceived in pronouncing, is communicated to the hearers, who feel in their own minds a similar effort, rousing their attention, and disposing them to action. I add another consideration: the agreeableness of contrast in the rougher language, for which the great variety of sounds gives ample opportunity, must, even in an effeminate ear, prevail over the more uniform sounds of the smoother language.* This appears all that can be safely determined upon the present point. With respect to the other circumstances that constitute the beauty of words, the standard above mentioned is infallible when applied to foreign languages as well as to our own : for every man, whatever be his mother-tongue, is equally capable to judge of the length or shortness of words, of the alternate opening and closing of the mouth in speaking, and of the relation that the sound bears to the sense: in these particulars, the judgment is susceptible of no prejudice from custom, at least of no invincible prejudice.
That the English tongue, originally harsh, is at present much softened by dropping in the pronunciation many redundant consonants, is undoubtedly true: that it is not capable of being farther mellowed without suffering in its force and energy, will scarcely be thought by any one who possesses an ear; and yet such in Britain is the propensity for dispatch, that, overlooking the majesty of words composed of many syllables aptly connected, the prevailing taste is to shorten words, even at the expence of making them disagreeable to the ear, and harsh in the pronunciation. But I have no occasion to insist upon this article, being prevented by an excellent writer, who possessed, if any man ever did, the true genius of the English tongue.f I cannot, however, forbear urging one observation, borrowed from that author: several tenses of our verbs are formed by adding the final syllable ed, which, being a weak sound, has remarkably the worse effect by possessing the most conspicuous place in the word:
: upon which account, the vowel in common speech is generally suppressed, and the consonant added to the foregoing syllable; whence the following rugged sounds, drudg'd, disturb'd, rebuk'd, fledg’d. It is still less excusable to follow this practice in writing; for the hurry of speaking may excuse what would be altogether
* That the Italian tongue is too smooth, seems probable, from considering, that in versification, vowels are frequently suppressed, in order to produce a rougher and bolder tone.
+ See Swift's proposal for correcting the English tongue, in a letter to the Earl of Oxford.