Plato, translated by B. Jowett.

Part 1 out of 3

This etext was prepared by Sue Asscher


by Plato

Translated by Benjamin Jowett


The Cratylus has always been a source of perplexity to the student of
Plato. While in fancy and humour, and perfection of style and metaphysical
originality, this dialogue may be ranked with the best of the Platonic
writings, there has been an uncertainty about the motive of the piece,
which interpreters have hitherto not succeeded in dispelling. We need not
suppose that Plato used words in order to conceal his thoughts, or that he
would have been unintelligible to an educated contemporary. In the
Phaedrus and Euthydemus we also find a difficulty in determining the
precise aim of the author. Plato wrote satires in the form of dialogues,
and his meaning, like that of other satirical writers, has often slept in
the ear of posterity. Two causes may be assigned for this obscurity: 1st,
the subtlety and allusiveness of this species of composition; 2nd, the
difficulty of reproducing a state of life and literature which has passed
away. A satire is unmeaning unless we can place ourselves back among the
persons and thoughts of the age in which it was written. Had the treatise
of Antisthenes upon words, or the speculations of Cratylus, or some other
Heracleitean of the fourth century B.C., on the nature of language been
preserved to us; or if we had lived at the time, and been 'rich enough to
attend the fifty-drachma course of Prodicus,' we should have understood
Plato better, and many points which are now attributed to the extravagance
of Socrates' humour would have been found, like the allusions of
Aristophanes in the Clouds, to have gone home to the sophists and
grammarians of the day.

For the age was very busy with philological speculation; and many questions
were beginning to be asked about language which were parallel to other
questions about justice, virtue, knowledge, and were illustrated in a
similar manner by the analogy of the arts. Was there a correctness in
words, and were they given by nature or convention? In the presocratic
philosophy mankind had been striving to attain an expression of their
ideas, and now they were beginning to ask themselves whether the expression
might not be distinguished from the idea? They were also seeking to
distinguish the parts of speech and to enquire into the relation of subject
and predicate. Grammar and logic were moving about somewhere in the depths
of the human soul, but they were not yet awakened into consciousness and
had not found names for themselves, or terms by which they might be
expressed. Of these beginnings of the study of language we know little,
and there necessarily arises an obscurity when the surroundings of such a
work as the Cratylus are taken away. Moreover, in this, as in most of the
dialogues of Plato, allowance has to be made for the character of Socrates.
For the theory of language can only be propounded by him in a manner which
is consistent with his own profession of ignorance. Hence his ridicule of
the new school of etymology is interspersed with many declarations 'that he
knows nothing,' 'that he has learned from Euthyphro,' and the like. Even
the truest things which he says are depreciated by himself. He professes
to be guessing, but the guesses of Plato are better than all the other
theories of the ancients respecting language put together.

The dialogue hardly derives any light from Plato's other writings, and
still less from Scholiasts and Neoplatonist writers. Socrates must be
interpreted from himself, and on first reading we certainly have a
difficulty in understanding his drift, or his relation to the two other
interlocutors in the dialogue. Does he agree with Cratylus or with
Hermogenes, and is he serious in those fanciful etymologies, extending over
more than half the dialogue, which he seems so greatly to relish? Or is he
serious in part only; and can we separate his jest from his earnest?--Sunt
bona, sunt quaedum mediocria, sunt mala plura. Most of them are
ridiculously bad, and yet among them are found, as if by accident,
principles of philology which are unsurpassed in any ancient writer, and
even in advance of any philologer of the last century. May we suppose that
Plato, like Lucian, has been amusing his fancy by writing a comedy in the
form of a prose dialogue? And what is the final result of the enquiry? Is
Plato an upholder of the conventional theory of language, which he
acknowledges to be imperfect? or does he mean to imply that a perfect
language can only be based on his own theory of ideas? Or if this latter
explanation is refuted by his silence, then in what relation does his
account of language stand to the rest of his philosophy? Or may we be so
bold as to deny the connexion between them? (For the allusion to the ideas
at the end of the dialogue is merely intended to show that we must not put
words in the place of things or realities, which is a thesis strongly
insisted on by Plato in many other passages)...These are some of the first
thoughts which arise in the mind of the reader of the Cratylus. And the
consideration of them may form a convenient introduction to the general
subject of the dialogue.

We must not expect all the parts of a dialogue of Plato to tend equally to
some clearly-defined end. His idea of literary art is not the absolute
proportion of the whole, such as we appear to find in a Greek temple or
statue; nor should his works be tried by any such standard. They have
often the beauty of poetry, but they have also the freedom of conversation.
'Words are more plastic than wax' (Rep.), and may be moulded into any form.
He wanders on from one topic to another, careless of the unity of his work,
not fearing any 'judge, or spectator, who may recall him to the point'
(Theat.), 'whither the argument blows we follow' (Rep.). To have
determined beforehand, as in a modern didactic treatise, the nature and
limits of the subject, would have been fatal to the spirit of enquiry or
discovery, which is the soul of the dialogue...These remarks are applicable
to nearly all the works of Plato, but to the Cratylus and Phaedrus more
than any others. See Phaedrus, Introduction.

There is another aspect under which some of the dialogues of Plato may be
more truly viewed:--they are dramatic sketches of an argument. We have
found that in the Lysis, Charmides, Laches, Protagoras, Meno, we arrived at
no conclusion--the different sides of the argument were personified in the
different speakers; but the victory was not distinctly attributed to any of
them, nor the truth wholly the property of any. And in the Cratylus we
have no reason to assume that Socrates is either wholly right or wholly
wrong, or that Plato, though he evidently inclines to him, had any other
aim than that of personifying, in the characters of Hermogenes, Socrates,
and Cratylus, the three theories of language which are respectively
maintained by them.

The two subordinate persons of the dialogue, Hermogenes and Cratylus, are
at the opposite poles of the argument. But after a while the disciple of
the Sophist and the follower of Heracleitus are found to be not so far
removed from one another as at first sight appeared; and both show an
inclination to accept the third view which Socrates interposes between
them. First, Hermogenes, the poor brother of the rich Callias, expounds
the doctrine that names are conventional; like the names of slaves, they
may be given and altered at pleasure. This is one of those principles
which, whether applied to society or language, explains everything and
nothing. For in all things there is an element of convention; but the
admission of this does not help us to understand the rational ground or
basis in human nature on which the convention proceeds. Socrates first of
all intimates to Hermogenes that his view of language is only a part of a
sophistical whole, and ultimately tends to abolish the distinction between
truth and falsehood. Hermogenes is very ready to throw aside the
sophistical tenet, and listens with a sort of half admiration, half belief,
to the speculations of Socrates.

Cratylus is of opinion that a name is either a true name or not a name at
all. He is unable to conceive of degrees of imitation; a word is either
the perfect expression of a thing, or a mere inarticulate sound (a fallacy
which is still prevalent among theorizers about the origin of language).
He is at once a philosopher and a sophist; for while wanting to rest
language on an immutable basis, he would deny the possibility of falsehood.
He is inclined to derive all truth from language, and in language he sees
reflected the philosophy of Heracleitus. His views are not like those of
Hermogenes, hastily taken up, but are said to be the result of mature
consideration, although he is described as still a young man. With a
tenacity characteristic of the Heracleitean philosophers, he clings to the
doctrine of the flux. (Compare Theaet.) Of the real Cratylus we know
nothing, except that he is recorded by Aristotle to have been the friend or
teacher of Plato; nor have we any proof that he resembled the likeness of
him in Plato any more than the Critias of Plato is like the real Critias,
or the Euthyphro in this dialogue like the other Euthyphro, the diviner, in
the dialogue which is called after him.

Between these two extremes, which have both of them a sophistical
character, the view of Socrates is introduced, which is in a manner the
union of the two. Language is conventional and also natural, and the true
conventional-natural is the rational. It is a work not of chance, but of
art; the dialectician is the artificer of words, and the legislator gives
authority to them. They are the expressions or imitations in sound of
things. In a sense, Cratylus is right in saying that things have by nature
names; for nature is not opposed either to art or to law. But vocal
imitation, like any other copy, may be imperfectly executed; and in this
way an element of chance or convention enters in. There is much which is
accidental or exceptional in language. Some words have had their original
meaning so obscured, that they require to be helped out by convention. But
still the true name is that which has a natural meaning. Thus nature, art,
chance, all combine in the formation of language. And the three views
respectively propounded by Hermogenes, Socrates, Cratylus, may be described
as the conventional, the artificial or rational, and the natural. The view
of Socrates is the meeting-point of the other two, just as conceptualism is
the meeting-point of nominalism and realism.

We can hardly say that Plato was aware of the truth, that 'languages are
not made, but grow.' But still, when he says that 'the legislator made
language with the dialectician standing on his right hand,' we need not
infer from this that he conceived words, like coins, to be issued from the
mint of the State. The creator of laws and of social life is naturally
regarded as the creator of language, according to Hellenic notions, and the
philosopher is his natural advisor. We are not to suppose that the
legislator is performing any extraordinary function; he is merely the
Eponymus of the State, who prescribes rules for the dialectician and for
all other artists. According to a truly Platonic mode of approaching the
subject, language, like virtue in the Republic, is examined by the analogy
of the arts. Words are works of art which may be equally made in different
materials, and are well made when they have a meaning. Of the process
which he thus describes, Plato had probably no very definite notion. But
he means to express generally that language is the product of intelligence,
and that languages belong to States and not to individuals.

A better conception of language could not have been formed in Plato's age,
than that which he attributes to Socrates. Yet many persons have thought
that the mind of Plato is more truly seen in the vague realism of Cratylus.
This misconception has probably arisen from two causes: first, the desire
to bring Plato's theory of language into accordance with the received
doctrine of the Platonic ideas; secondly, the impression created by
Socrates himself, that he is not in earnest, and is only indulging the
fancy of the hour.

1. We shall have occasion to show more at length, in the Introduction to
future dialogues, that the so-called Platonic ideas are only a semi-
mythical form, in which he attempts to realize abstractions, and that they
are replaced in his later writings by a rational theory of psychology.
(See introductions to the Meno and the Sophist.) And in the Cratylus he
gives a general account of the nature and origin of language, in which Adam
Smith, Rousseau, and other writers of the last century, would have
substantially agreed. At the end of the dialogue, he speaks as in the
Symposium and Republic of absolute beauty and good; but he never supposed
that they were capable of being embodied in words. Of the names of the
ideas, he would have said, as he says of the names of the Gods, that we
know nothing. Even the realism of Cratylus is not based upon the ideas of
Plato, but upon the flux of Heracleitus. Here, as in the Sophist and
Politicus, Plato expressly draws attention to the want of agreement in
words and things. Hence we are led to infer, that the view of Socrates is
not the less Plato's own, because not based upon the ideas; 2nd, that
Plato's theory of language is not inconsistent with the rest of his

2. We do not deny that Socrates is partly in jest and partly in earnest.
He is discoursing in a high-flown vein, which may be compared to the
'dithyrambics of the Phaedrus.' They are mysteries of which he is
speaking, and he professes a kind of ludicrous fear of his imaginary
wisdom. When he is arguing out of Homer, about the names of Hector's son,
or when he describes himself as inspired or maddened by Euthyphro, with
whom he has been sitting from the early dawn (compare Phaedrus and Lysias;
Phaedr.) and expresses his intention of yielding to the illusion to-day,
and to-morrow he will go to a priest and be purified, we easily see that
his words are not to be taken seriously. In this part of the dialogue his
dread of committing impiety, the pretended derivation of his wisdom from
another, the extravagance of some of his etymologies, and, in general, the
manner in which the fun, fast and furious, vires acquirit eundo, remind us
strongly of the Phaedrus. The jest is a long one, extending over more than
half the dialogue. But then, we remember that the Euthydemus is a still
longer jest, in which the irony is preserved to the very end. There he is
parodying the ingenious follies of early logic; in the Cratylus he is
ridiculing the fancies of a new school of sophists and grammarians. The
fallacies of the Euthydemus are still retained at the end of our logic
books; and the etymologies of the Cratylus have also found their way into
later writers. Some of these are not much worse than the conjectures of
Hemsterhuis, and other critics of the last century; but this does not prove
that they are serious. For Plato is in advance of his age in his
conception of language, as much as he is in his conception of mythology.
(Compare Phaedrus.)

When the fervour of his etymological enthusiasm has abated, Socrates ends,
as he has begun, with a rational explanation of language. Still he
preserves his 'know nothing' disguise, and himself declares his first
notions about names to be reckless and ridiculous. Having explained
compound words by resolving them into their original elements, he now
proceeds to analyse simple words into the letters of which they are
composed. The Socrates who 'knows nothing,' here passes into the teacher,
the dialectician, the arranger of species. There is nothing in this part
of the dialogue which is either weak or extravagant. Plato is a supporter
of the Onomatopoetic theory of language; that is to say, he supposes words
to be formed by the imitation of ideas in sounds; he also recognises the
effect of time, the influence of foreign languages, the desire of euphony,
to be formative principles; and he admits a certain element of chance. But
he gives no imitation in all this that he is preparing the way for the
construction of an ideal language. Or that he has any Eleatic speculation
to oppose to the Heracleiteanism of Cratylus.

The theory of language which is propounded in the Cratylus is in accordance
with the later phase of the philosophy of Plato, and would have been
regarded by him as in the main true. The dialogue is also a satire on the
philological fancies of the day. Socrates in pursuit of his vocation as a
detector of false knowledge, lights by accident on the truth. He is
guessing, he is dreaming; he has heard, as he says in the Phaedrus, from
another: no one is more surprised than himself at his own discoveries.
And yet some of his best remarks, as for example his view of the derivation
of Greek words from other languages, or of the permutations of letters, or
again, his observation that in speaking of the Gods we are only speaking of
our names of them, occur among these flights of humour.

We can imagine a character having a profound insight into the nature of men
and things, and yet hardly dwelling upon them seriously; blending
inextricably sense and nonsense; sometimes enveloping in a blaze of jests
the most serious matters, and then again allowing the truth to peer
through; enjoying the flow of his own humour, and puzzling mankind by an
ironical exaggeration of their absurdities. Such were Aristophanes and
Rabelais; such, in a different style, were Sterne, Jean Paul, Hamann,--
writers who sometimes become unintelligible through the extravagance of
their fancies. Such is the character which Plato intends to depict in some
of his dialogues as the Silenus Socrates; and through this medium we have
to receive our theory of language.

There remains a difficulty which seems to demand a more exact answer: In
what relation does the satirical or etymological portion of the dialogue
stand to the serious? Granting all that can be said about the provoking
irony of Socrates, about the parody of Euthyphro, or Prodicus, or
Antisthenes, how does the long catalogue of etymologies furnish any answer
to the question of Hermogenes, which is evidently the main thesis of the
dialogue: What is the truth, or correctness, or principle of names?

After illustrating the nature of correctness by the analogy of the arts,
and then, as in the Republic, ironically appealing to the authority of the
Homeric poems, Socrates shows that the truth or correctness of names can
only be ascertained by an appeal to etymology. The truth of names is to be
found in the analysis of their elements. But why does he admit etymologies
which are absurd, based on Heracleitean fancies, fourfold interpretations
of words, impossible unions and separations of syllables and letters?

1. The answer to this difficulty has been already anticipated in part:
Socrates is not a dogmatic teacher, and therefore he puts on this wild and
fanciful disguise, in order that the truth may be permitted to appear: 2.
as Benfey remarks, an erroneous example may illustrate a principle of
language as well as a true one: 3. many of these etymologies, as, for
example, that of dikaion, are indicated, by the manner in which Socrates
speaks of them, to have been current in his own age: 4. the philosophy of
language had not made such progress as would have justified Plato in
propounding real derivations. Like his master Socrates, he saw through the
hollowness of the incipient sciences of the day, and tries to move in a
circle apart from them, laying down the conditions under which they are to
be pursued, but, as in the Timaeus, cautious and tentative, when he is
speaking of actual phenomena. To have made etymologies seriously, would
have seemed to him like the interpretation of the myths in the Phaedrus,
the task 'of a not very fortunate individual, who had a great deal of time
on his hands.' The irony of Socrates places him above and beyond the
errors of his contemporaries.

The Cratylus is full of humour and satirical touches: the inspiration
which comes from Euthyphro, and his prancing steeds, the light admixture of
quotations from Homer, and the spurious dialectic which is applied to them;
the jest about the fifty-drachma course of Prodicus, which is declared on
the best authority, viz. his own, to be a complete education in grammar and
rhetoric; the double explanation of the name Hermogenes, either as 'not
being in luck,' or 'being no speaker;' the dearly-bought wisdom of Callias,
the Lacedaemonian whose name was 'Rush,' and, above all, the pleasure which
Socrates expresses in his own dangerous discoveries, which 'to-morrow he
will purge away,' are truly humorous. While delivering a lecture on the
philosophy of language, Socrates is also satirizing the endless fertility
of the human mind in spinning arguments out of nothing, and employing the
most trifling and fanciful analogies in support of a theory. Etymology in
ancient as in modern times was a favourite recreation; and Socrates makes
merry at the expense of the etymologists. The simplicity of Hermogenes,
who is ready to believe anything that he is told, heightens the effect.
Socrates in his genial and ironical mood hits right and left at his
adversaries: Ouranos is so called apo tou oran ta ano, which, as some
philosophers say, is the way to have a pure mind; the sophists are by a
fanciful explanation converted into heroes; 'the givers of names were like
some philosophers who fancy that the earth goes round because their heads
are always going round.' There is a great deal of 'mischief' lurking in
the following: 'I found myself in greater perplexity about justice than I
was before I began to learn;' 'The rho in katoptron must be the addition
of some one who cares nothing about truth, but thinks only of putting the
mouth into shape;' 'Tales and falsehoods have generally to do with the
Tragic and goatish life, and tragedy is the place of them.' Several
philosophers and sophists are mentioned by name: first, Protagoras and
Euthydemus are assailed; then the interpreters of Homer, oi palaioi
Omerikoi (compare Arist. Met.) and the Orphic poets are alluded to by the
way; then he discovers a hive of wisdom in the philosophy of Heracleitus;--
the doctrine of the flux is contained in the word ousia (= osia the pushing
principle), an anticipation of Anaxagoras is found in psuche and selene.
Again, he ridicules the arbitrary methods of pulling out and putting in
letters which were in vogue among the philologers of his time; or slightly
scoffs at contemporary religious beliefs. Lastly, he is impatient of
hearing from the half-converted Cratylus the doctrine that falsehood can
neither be spoken, nor uttered, nor addressed; a piece of sophistry
attributed to Gorgias, which reappears in the Sophist. And he proceeds to
demolish, with no less delight than he had set up, the Heracleitean theory
of language.

In the latter part of the dialogue Socrates becomes more serious, though he
does not lay aside but rather aggravates his banter of the Heracleiteans,
whom here, as in the Theaetetus, he delights to ridicule. What was the
origin of this enmity we can hardly determine:--was it due to the natural
dislike which may be supposed to exist between the 'patrons of the flux'
and the 'friends of the ideas' (Soph.)? or is it to be attributed to the
indignation which Plato felt at having wasted his time upon 'Cratylus and
the doctrines of Heracleitus' in the days of his youth? Socrates, touching
on some of the characteristic difficulties of early Greek philosophy,
endeavours to show Cratylus that imitation may be partial or imperfect,
that a knowledge of things is higher than a knowledge of names, and that
there can be no knowledge if all things are in a state of transition. But
Cratylus, who does not easily apprehend the argument from common sense,
remains unconvinced, and on the whole inclines to his former opinion. Some
profound philosophical remarks are scattered up and down, admitting of an
application not only to language but to knowledge generally; such as the
assertion that 'consistency is no test of truth:' or again, 'If we are
over-precise about words, truth will say "too late" to us as to the belated
traveller in Aegina.'

The place of the dialogue in the series cannot be determined with
certainty. The style and subject, and the treatment of the character of
Socrates, have a close resemblance to the earlier dialogues, especially to
the Phaedrus and Euthydemus. The manner in which the ideas are spoken of
at the end of the dialogue, also indicates a comparatively early date. The
imaginative element is still in full vigour; the Socrates of the Cratylus
is the Socrates of the Apology and Symposium, not yet Platonized; and he
describes, as in the Theaetetus, the philosophy of Heracleitus by
'unsavoury' similes--he cannot believe that the world is like 'a leaky
vessel,' or 'a man who has a running at the nose'; he attributes the flux
of the world to the swimming in some folks' heads. On the other hand, the
relation of thought to language is omitted here, but is treated of in the
Sophist. These grounds are not sufficient to enable us to arrive at a
precise conclusion. But we shall not be far wrong in placing the Cratylus
about the middle, or at any rate in the first half, of the series.

Cratylus, the Heracleitean philosopher, and Hermogenes, the brother of
Callias, have been arguing about names; the former maintaining that they
are natural, the latter that they are conventional. Cratylus affirms that
his own is a true name, but will not allow that the name of Hermogenes is
equally true. Hermogenes asks Socrates to explain to him what Cratylus
means; or, far rather, he would like to know, What Socrates himself thinks
about the truth or correctness of names? Socrates replies, that hard is
knowledge, and the nature of names is a considerable part of knowledge: he
has never been to hear the fifty-drachma course of Prodicus; and having
only attended the single-drachma course, he is not competent to give an
opinion on such matters. When Cratylus denies that Hermogenes is a true
name, he supposes him to mean that he is not a true son of Hermes, because
he is never in luck. But he would like to have an open council and to hear
both sides.

Hermogenes is of opinion that there is no principle in names; they may be
changed, as we change the names of slaves, whenever we please, and the
altered name is as good as the original one.

You mean to say, for instance, rejoins Socrates, that if I agree to call a
man a horse, then a man will be rightly called a horse by me, and a man by
the rest of the world? But, surely, there is in words a true and a false,
as there are true and false propositions. If a whole proposition be true
or false, then the parts of a proposition may be true or false, and the
least parts as well as the greatest; and the least parts are names, and
therefore names may be true or false. Would Hermogenes maintain that
anybody may give a name to anything, and as many names as he pleases; and
would all these names be always true at the time of giving them?
Hermogenes replies that this is the only way in which he can conceive that
names are correct; and he appeals to the practice of different nations, and
of the different Hellenic tribes, in confirmation of his view. Socrates
asks, whether the things differ as the words which represent them differ:--
Are we to maintain with Protagoras, that what appears is? Hermogenes has
always been puzzled about this, but acknowledges, when he is pressed by
Socrates, that there are a few very good men in the world, and a great many
very bad; and the very good are the wise, and the very bad are the foolish;
and this is not mere appearance but reality. Nor is he disposed to say
with Euthydemus, that all things equally and always belong to all men; in
that case, again, there would be no distinction between bad and good men.
But then, the only remaining possibility is, that all things have their
several distinct natures, and are independent of our notions about them.
And not only things, but actions, have distinct natures, and are done by
different processes. There is a natural way of cutting or burning, and a
natural instrument with which men cut or burn, and any other way will
fail;--this is true of all actions. And speaking is a kind of action, and
naming is a kind of speaking, and we must name according to a natural
process, and with a proper instrument. We cut with a knife, we pierce with
an awl, we weave with a shuttle, we name with a name. And as a shuttle
separates the warp from the woof, so a name distinguishes the natures of
things. The weaver will use the shuttle well,--that is, like a weaver; and
the teacher will use the name well,--that is, like a teacher. The shuttle
will be made by the carpenter; the awl by the smith or skilled person. But
who makes a name? Does not the law give names, and does not the teacher
receive them from the legislator? He is the skilled person who makes them,
and of all skilled workmen he is the rarest. But how does the carpenter
make or repair the shuttle, and to what will he look? Will he not look at
the ideal which he has in his mind? And as the different kinds of work
differ, so ought the instruments which make them to differ. The several
kinds of shuttles ought to answer in material and form to the several kinds
of webs. And the legislator ought to know the different materials and
forms of which names are made in Hellas and other countries. But who is to
be the judge of the proper form? The judge of shuttles is the weaver who
uses them; the judge of lyres is the player of the lyre; the judge of ships
is the pilot. And will not the judge who is able to direct the legislator
in his work of naming, be he who knows how to use the names--he who can ask
and answer questions--in short, the dialectician? The pilot directs the
carpenter how to make the rudder, and the dialectician directs the
legislator how he is to impose names; for to express the ideal forms of
things in syllables and letters is not the easy task, Hermogenes, which you

'I should be more readily persuaded, if you would show me this natural
correctness of names.'

Indeed I cannot; but I see that you have advanced; for you now admit that
there is a correctness of names, and that not every one can give a name.
But what is the nature of this correctness or truth, you must learn from
the Sophists, of whom your brother Callias has bought his reputation for
wisdom rather dearly; and since they require to be paid, you, having no
money, had better learn from him at second-hand. 'Well, but I have just
given up Protagoras, and I should be inconsistent in going to learn of
him.' Then if you reject him you may learn of the poets, and in particular
of Homer, who distinguishes the names given by Gods and men to the same
things, as in the verse about the river God who fought with Hephaestus,
'whom the Gods call Xanthus, and men call Scamander;' or in the lines in
which he mentions the bird which the Gods call 'Chalcis,' and men
'Cymindis;' or the hill which men call 'Batieia,' and the Gods 'Myrinna's
Tomb.' Here is an important lesson; for the Gods must of course be right
in their use of names. And this is not the only truth about philology
which may be learnt from Homer. Does he not say that Hector's son had two

'Hector called him Scamandrius, but the others Astyanax'?

Now, if the men called him Astyanax, is it not probable that the other name
was conferred by the women? And which are more likely to be right--the
wiser or the less wise, the men or the women? Homer evidently agreed with
the men: and of the name given by them he offers an explanation;--the boy
was called Astyanax ('king of the city'), because his father saved the
city. The names Astyanax and Hector, moreover, are really the same,--the
one means a king, and the other is 'a holder or possessor.' For as the
lion's whelp may be called a lion, or the horse's foal a foal, so the son
of a king may be called a king. But if the horse had produced a calf, then
that would be called a calf. Whether the syllables of a name are the same
or not makes no difference, provided the meaning is retained. For example;
the names of letters, whether vowels or consonants, do not correspond to
their sounds, with the exception of epsilon, upsilon, omicron, omega. The
name Beta has three letters added to the sound--and yet this does not alter
the sense of the word, or prevent the whole name having the value which the
legislator intended. And the same may be said of a king and the son of a
king, who like other animals resemble each other in the course of nature;
the words by which they are signified may be disguised, and yet amid
differences of sound the etymologist may recognise the same notion, just as
the physician recognises the power of the same drugs under different
disguises of colour and smell. Hector and Astyanax have only one letter
alike, but they have the same meaning; and Agis (leader) is altogether
different in sound from Polemarchus (chief in war), or Eupolemus (good
warrior); but the two words present the same idea of leader or general,
like the words Iatrocles and Acesimbrotus, which equally denote a
physician. The son succeeds the father as the foal succeeds the horse, but
when, out of the course of nature, a prodigy occurs, and the offspring no
longer resembles the parent, then the names no longer agree. This may be
illustrated by the case of Agamemnon and his son Orestes, of whom the
former has a name significant of his patience at the siege of Troy; while
the name of the latter indicates his savage, man-of-the-mountain nature.
Atreus again, for his murder of Chrysippus, and his cruelty to Thyestes, is
rightly named Atreus, which, to the eye of the etymologist, is ateros
(destructive), ateires (stubborn), atreotos (fearless); and Pelops is o ta
pelas oron (he who sees what is near only), because in his eagerness to win
Hippodamia, he was unconscious of the remoter consequences which the murder
of Myrtilus would entail upon his race. The name Tantalus, if slightly
changed, offers two etymologies; either apo tes tou lithou talanteias, or
apo tou talantaton einai, signifying at once the hanging of the stone over
his head in the world below, and the misery which he brought upon his
country. And the name of his father, Zeus, Dios, Zenos, has an excellent
meaning, though hard to be understood, because really a sentence which is
divided into two parts (Zeus, Dios). For he, being the lord and king of
all, is the author of our being, and in him all live: this is implied in
the double form, Dios, Zenos, which being put together and interpreted is
di on ze panta. There may, at first sight, appear to be some irreverence
in calling him the son of Cronos, who is a proverb for stupidity; but the
meaning is that Zeus himself is the son of a mighty intellect; Kronos,
quasi koros, not in the sense of a youth, but quasi to katharon kai
akeraton tou nou--the pure and garnished mind, which in turn is begotten of
Uranus, who is so called apo tou oran ta ano, from looking upwards; which,
as philosophers say, is the way to have a pure mind. The earlier portion
of Hesiod's genealogy has escaped my memory, or I would try more
conclusions of the same sort. 'You talk like an oracle.' I caught the
infection from Euthyphro, who gave me a long lecture which began at dawn,
and has not only entered into my ears, but filled my soul, and my intention
is to yield to the inspiration to-day; and to-morrow I will be exorcised by
some priest or sophist. 'Go on; I am anxious to hear the rest.' Now that
we have a general notion, how shall we proceed? What names will afford the
most crucial test of natural fitness? Those of heroes and ordinary men are
often deceptive, because they are patronymics or expressions of a wish; let
us try gods and demi-gods. Gods are so called, apo tou thein, from the
verb 'to run;' because the sun, moon, and stars run about the heaven; and
they being the original gods of the Hellenes, as they still are of the
Barbarians, their name is given to all Gods. The demons are the golden
race of Hesiod, and by golden he means not literally golden, but good; and
they are called demons, quasi daemones, which in old Attic was used for
daimones--good men are well said to become daimones when they die, because
they are knowing. Eros (with an epsilon) is the same word as eros (with an
eta): 'the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair;' or
perhaps they were a species of sophists or rhetoricians, and so called apo
tou erotan, or eirein, from their habit of spinning questions; for eirein
is equivalent to legein. I get all this from Euthyphro; and now a new and
ingenious idea comes into my mind, and, if I am not careful, I shall be
wiser than I ought to be by to-morrow's dawn. My idea is, that we may put
in and pull out letters at pleasure and alter the accents (as, for example,
Dii philos may be turned into Diphilos), and we may make words into
sentences and sentences into words. The name anthrotos is a case in point,
for a letter has been omitted and the accent changed; the original meaning
being o anathron a opopen--he who looks up at what he sees. Psuche may be
thought to be the reviving, or refreshing, or animating principle--e
anapsuchousa to soma; but I am afraid that Euthyphro and his disciples will
scorn this derivation, and I must find another: shall we identify the soul
with the 'ordering mind' of Anaxagoras, and say that psuche, quasi phuseche
= e phusin echei or ochei?--this might easily be refined into psyche.
'That is a more artistic etymology.'

After psuche follows soma; this, by a slight permutation, may be either =
(1) the 'grave' of the soul, or (2) may mean 'that by which the soul
signifies (semainei) her wishes.' But more probably, the word is Orphic,
and simply denotes that the body is the place of ward in which the soul
suffers the penalty of sin,--en o sozetai. 'I should like to hear some
more explanations of the names of the Gods, like that excellent one of
Zeus.' The truest names of the Gods are those which they give themselves;
but these are unknown to us. Less true are those by which we propitiate
them, as men say in prayers, 'May he graciously receive any name by which I
call him.' And to avoid offence, I should like to let them know beforehand
that we are not presuming to enquire about them, but only about the names
which they usually bear. Let us begin with Hestia. What did he mean who
gave the name Hestia? 'That is a very difficult question.' O, my dear
Hermogenes, I believe that there was a power of philosophy and talk among
the first inventors of names, both in our own and in other languages; for
even in foreign words a principle is discernible. Hestia is the same with
esia, which is an old form of ousia, and means the first principle of
things: this agrees with the fact that to Hestia the first sacrifices are
offered. There is also another reading--osia, which implies that 'pushing'
(othoun) is the first principle of all things. And here I seem to discover
a delicate allusion to the flux of Heracleitus--that antediluvian
philosopher who cannot walk twice in the same stream; and this flux of his
may accomplish yet greater marvels. For the names Cronos and Rhea cannot
have been accidental; the giver of them must have known something about the
doctrine of Heracleitus. Moreover, there is a remarkable coincidence in
the words of Hesiod, when he speaks of Oceanus, 'the origin of Gods;' and
in the verse of Orpheus, in which he describes Oceanus espousing his sister
Tethys. Tethys is nothing more than the name of a spring--to diattomenon
kai ethoumenon. Poseidon is posidesmos, the chain of the feet, because you
cannot walk on the sea--the epsilon is inserted by way of ornament; or
perhaps the name may have been originally polleidon, meaning, that the God
knew many things (polla eidos): he may also be the shaker, apo tou
seiein,--in this case, pi and delta have been added. Pluto is connected
with ploutos, because wealth comes out of the earth; or the word may be a
euphemism for Hades, which is usually derived apo tou aeidous, because the
God is concerned with the invisible. But the name Hades was really given
him from his knowing (eidenai) all good things. Men in general are
foolishly afraid of him, and talk with horror of the world below from which
no one may return. The reason why his subjects never wish to come back,
even if they could, is that the God enchains them by the strongest of
spells, namely by the desire of virtue, which they hope to obtain by
constant association with him. He is the perfect and accomplished Sophist
and the great benefactor of the other world; for he has much more than he
wants there, and hence he is called Pluto or the rich. He will have
nothing to do with the souls of men while in the body, because he cannot
work his will with them so long as they are confused and entangled by
fleshly lusts. Demeter is the mother and giver of food--e didousa meter
tes edodes. Here is erate tis, or perhaps the legislator may have been
thinking of the weather, and has merely transposed the letters of the word
aer. Pherephatta, that word of awe, is pheretapha, which is only an
euphonious contraction of e tou pheromenou ephaptomene,--all things are in
motion, and she in her wisdom moves with them, and the wise God Hades
consorts with her--there is nothing very terrible in this, any more than in
the her other appellation Persephone, which is also significant of her
wisdom (sophe). Apollo is another name, which is supposed to have some
dreadful meaning, but is susceptible of at least four perfectly innocent
explanations. First, he is the purifier or purger or absolver (apolouon);
secondly, he is the true diviner, Aplos, as he is called in the Thessalian
dialect (aplos = aplous, sincere); thirdly, he is the archer (aei ballon),
always shooting; or again, supposing alpha to mean ama or omou, Apollo
becomes equivalent to ama polon, which points to both his musical and his
heavenly attributes; for there is a 'moving together' alike in music and in
the harmony of the spheres. The second lambda is inserted in order to
avoid the ill-omened sound of destruction. The Muses are so called--apo
tou mosthai. The gentle Leto or Letho is named from her willingness
(ethelemon), or because she is ready to forgive and forget (lethe).
Artemis is so called from her healthy well-balanced nature, dia to artemes,
or as aretes istor; or as a lover of virginity, aroton misesasa. One of
these explanations is probably true,--perhaps all of them. Dionysus is o
didous ton oinon, and oinos is quasi oionous because wine makes those think
(oiesthai) that they have a mind (nous) who have none. The established
derivation of Aphrodite dia ten tou athrou genesin may be accepted on the
authority of Hesiod. Again, there is the name of Pallas, or Athene, which
we, who are Athenians, must not forget. Pallas is derived from armed
dances--apo tou pallein ta opla. For Athene we must turn to the
allegorical interpreters of Homer, who make the name equivalent to theonoe,
or possibly the word was originally ethonoe and signified moral
intelligence (en ethei noesis). Hephaestus, again, is the lord of light--o
tou phaeos istor. This is a good notion; and, to prevent any other getting
into our heads, let us go on to Ares. He is the manly one (arren), or the
unchangeable one (arratos). Enough of the Gods; for, by the Gods, I am
afraid of them; but if you suggest other words, you will see how the horses
of Euthyphro prance. 'Only one more God; tell me about my godfather
Hermes.' He is ermeneus, the messenger or cheater or thief or bargainer;
or o eirein momenos, that is, eiremes or ermes--the speaker or contriver of
speeches. 'Well said Cratylus, then, that I am no son of Hermes.' Pan, as
the son of Hermes, is speech or the brother of speech, and is called Pan
because speech indicates everything--o pan menuon. He has two forms, a
true and a false; and is in the upper part smooth, and in the lower part
shaggy. He is the goat of Tragedy, in which there are plenty of

'Will you go on to the elements--sun, moon, stars, earth, aether, air,
fire, water, seasons, years?' Very good: and which shall I take first?
Let us begin with elios, or the sun. The Doric form elios helps us to see
that he is so called because at his rising he gathers (alizei) men
together, or because he rolls about (eilei) the earth, or because he
variegates (aiolei = poikillei) the earth. Selene is an anticipation of
Anaxagoras, being a contraction of selaenoneoaeia, the light (selas) which
is ever old and new, and which, as Anaxagoras says, is borrowed from the
sun; the name was harmonized into selanaia, a form which is still in use.
'That is a true dithyrambic name.' Meis is so called apo tou meiousthai,
from suffering diminution, and astron is from astrape (lightning), which is
an improvement of anastrope, that which turns the eyes inside out. 'How do
you explain pur n udor?' I suspect that pur, which, like udor n kuon, is
found in Phrygian, is a foreign word; for the Hellenes have borrowed much
from the barbarians, and I always resort to this theory of a foreign origin
when I am at a loss. Aer may be explained, oti airei ta apo tes ges; or,
oti aei rei; or, oti pneuma ex autou ginetai (compare the poetic word
aetai). So aither quasi aeitheer oti aei thei peri ton aera: ge, gaia
quasi genneteira (compare the Homeric form gegaasi); ora (with an omega),
or, according to the old Attic form ora (with an omicron), is derived apo
tou orizein, because it divides the year; eniautos and etos are the same
thought--o en eauto etazon, cut into two parts, en eauto and etazon, like
di on ze into Dios and Zenos.

'You make surprising progress.' True; I am run away with, and am not even
yet at my utmost speed. 'I should like very much to hear your account of
the virtues. What principle of correctness is there in those charming
words, wisdom, understanding, justice, and the rest?' To explain all that
will be a serious business; still, as I have put on the lion's skin,
appearances must be maintained. My opinion is, that primitive men were
like some modern philosophers, who, by always going round in their search
after the nature of things, become dizzy; and this phenomenon, which was
really in themselves, they imagined to take place in the external world.
You have no doubt remarked, that the doctrine of the universal flux, or
generation of things, is indicated in names. 'No, I never did.' Phronesis
is only phoras kai rou noesis, or perhaps phoras onesis, and in any case is
connected with pheresthai; gnome is gones skepsis kai nomesis; noesis is
neou or gignomenon esis; the word neos implies that creation is always
going on--the original form was neoesis; sophrosune is soteria phroneseos;
episteme is e epomene tois pragmasin--the faculty which keeps close,
neither anticipating nor lagging behind; sunesis is equivalent to sunienai,
sumporeuesthai ten psuche, and is a kind of conclusion--sullogismos tis,
akin therefore in idea to episteme; sophia is very difficult, and has a
foreign look--the meaning is, touching the motion or stream of things, and
may be illustrated by the poetical esuthe and the Lacedaemonian proper name
Sous, or Rush; agathon is ro agaston en te tachuteti,--for all things are
in motion, and some are swifter than others: dikaiosune is clearly e tou
dikaiou sunesis. The word dikaion is more troublesome, and appears to mean
the subtle penetrating power which, as the lovers of motion say, preserves
all things, and is the cause of all things, quasi diaion going through--the
letter kappa being inserted for the sake of euphony. This is a great
mystery which has been confided to me; but when I ask for an explanation I
am thought obtrusive, and another derivation is proposed to me. Justice is
said to be o kaion, or the sun; and when I joyfully repeat this beautiful
notion, I am answered, 'What, is there no justice when the sun is down?'
And when I entreat my questioner to tell me his own opinion, he replies,
that justice is fire in the abstract, or heat in the abstract; which is not
very intelligible. Others laugh at such notions, and say with Anaxagoras,
that justice is the ordering mind. 'I think that some one must have told
you this.' And not the rest? Let me proceed then, in the hope of proving
to you my originality. Andreia is quasi anpeia quasi e ano roe, the stream
which flows upwards, and is opposed to injustice, which clearly hinders the
principle of penetration; arren and aner have a similar derivation; gune is
the same as gone; thelu is derived apo tes theles, because the teat makes
things flourish (tethelenai), and the word thallein itself implies increase
of youth, which is swift and sudden ever (thein and allesthai). I am
getting over the ground fast: but much has still to be explained. There
is techne, for instance. This, by an aphaeresis of tau and an epenthesis
of omicron in two places, may be identified with echonoe, and signifies
'that which has mind.'

'A very poor etymology.' Yes; but you must remember that all language is
in process of change; letters are taken in and put out for the sake of
euphony, and time is also a great alterer of words. For example, what
business has the letter rho in the word katoptron, or the letter sigma in
the word sphigx? The additions are often such that it is impossible to
make out the original word; and yet, if you may put in and pull out, as you
like, any name is equally good for any object. The fact is, that great
dictators of literature like yourself should observe the rules of
moderation. 'I will do my best.' But do not be too much of a precisian,
or you will paralyze me. If you will let me add mechane, apo tou mekous,
which means polu, and anein, I shall be at the summit of my powers, from
which elevation I will examine the two words kakia and arete. The first is
easily explained in accordance with what has preceded; for all things being
in a flux, kakia is to kakos ion. This derivation is illustrated by the
word deilia, which ought to have come after andreia, and may be regarded as
o lian desmos tes psuches, just as aporia signifies an impediment to motion
(from alpha not, and poreuesthai to go), and arete is euporia, which is the
opposite of this--the everflowing (aei reousa or aeireite), or the
eligible, quasi airete. You will think that I am inventing, but I say that
if kakia is right, then arete is also right. But what is kakon? That is a
very obscure word, to which I can only apply my old notion and declare that
kakon is a foreign word. Next, let us proceed to kalon, aischron. The
latter is doubtless contracted from aeischoroun, quasi aei ischon roun.
The inventor of words being a patron of the flux, was a great enemy to
stagnation. Kalon is to kaloun ta pragmata--this is mind (nous or
dianoia); which is also the principle of beauty; and which doing the works
of beauty, is therefore rightly called the beautiful. The meaning of
sumpheron is explained by previous examples;--like episteme, signifying
that the soul moves in harmony with the world (sumphora, sumpheronta).
Kerdos is to pasi kerannumenon--that which mingles with all things:
lusiteloun is equivalent to to tes phoras luon to telos, and is not to be
taken in the vulgar sense of gainful, but rather in that of swift, being
the principle which makes motion immortal and unceasing; ophelimon is apo
tou ophellein--that which gives increase: this word, which is Homeric, is
of foreign origin. Blaberon is to blamton or boulomenon aptein tou rou--
that which injures or seeks to bind the stream. The proper word would be
boulapteroun, but this is too much of a mouthful--like a prelude on the
flute in honour of Athene. The word zemiodes is difficult; great changes,
as I was saying, have been made in words, and even a small change will
alter their meaning very much. The word deon is one of these disguised
words. You know that according to the old pronunciation, which is
especially affected by the women, who are great conservatives, iota and
delta were used where we should now use eta and zeta: for example, what we
now call emera was formerly called imera; and this shows the meaning of the
word to have been 'the desired one coming after night,' and not, as is
often supposed, 'that which makes things gentle' (emera). So again, zugon
is duogon, quasi desis duein eis agogen--(the binding of two together for
the purpose of drawing. Deon, as ordinarily written, has an evil sense,
signifying the chain (desmos) or hindrance of motion; but in its ancient
form dion is expressive of good, quasi diion, that which penetrates or goes
through all. Zemiodes is really demiodes, and means that which binds
motion (dounti to ion): edone is e pros ten onrsin teinousa praxis--the
delta is an insertion: lupe is derived apo tes dialuseos tou somatos: ania
is from alpha and ienai, to go: algedon is a foreign word, and is so
called apo tou algeinou: odune is apo tes enduseos tes lupes: achthedon
is in its very sound a burden: chapa expresses the flow of soul: terpsis
is apo tou terpnou, and terpnon is properly erpnon, because the sensation
of pleasure is likened to a breath (pnoe) which creeps (erpei) through the
soul: euphrosune is named from pheresthai, because the soul moves in
harmony with nature: epithumia is e epi ton thumon iousa dunamis: thumos
is apo tes thuseos tes psuches: imeros--oti eimenos pei e psuche: pothos,
the desire which is in another place, allothi pou: eros was anciently
esros, and so called because it flows into (esrei) the soul from without:
doxa is e dioxis tou eidenai, or expresses the shooting from a bow (toxon).
The latter etymology is confirmed by the words boulesthai, boule, aboulia,
which all have to do with shooting (bole): and similarly oiesis is nothing
but the movement (oisis) of the soul towards essence. Ekousion is to
eikon--the yielding--anagke is e an agke iousa, the passage through ravines
which impede motion: aletheia is theia ale, divine motion. Pseudos is the
opposite of this, implying the principle of constraint and forced repose,
which is expressed under the figure of sleep, to eudon; the psi is an
addition. Onoma, a name, affirms the real existence of that which is
sought after--on ou masma estin. On and ousia are only ion with an iota
broken off; and ouk on is ouk ion. 'And what are ion, reon, doun?' One
way of explaining them has been already suggested--they may be of foreign
origin; and possibly this is the true answer. But mere antiquity may often
prevent our recognizing words, after all the complications which they have
undergone; and we must remember that however far we carry back our analysis
some ultimate elements or roots will remain which can be no further
analyzed. For example; the word agathos was supposed by us to be a
compound of agastos and thoos, and probably thoos may be further
resolvable. But if we take a word of which no further resolution seems
attainable, we may fairly conclude that we have reached one of these
original elements, and the truth of such a word must be tested by some new
method. Will you help me in the search?

All names, whether primary or secondary, are intended to show the nature of
things; and the secondary, as I conceive, derive their significance from
the primary. But then, how do the primary names indicate anything? And
let me ask another question,--If we had no faculty of speech, how should we
communicate with one another? Should we not use signs, like the deaf and
dumb? The elevation of our hands would mean lightness--heaviness would be
expressed by letting them drop. The running of any animal would be
described by a similar movement of our own frames. The body can only
express anything by imitation; and the tongue or mouth can imitate as well
as the rest of the body. But this imitation of the tongue or voice is not
yet a name, because people may imitate sheep or goats without naming them.
What, then, is a name? In the first place, a name is not a musical, or,
secondly, a pictorial imitation, but an imitation of that kind which
expresses the nature of a thing; and is the invention not of a musician, or
of a painter, but of a namer.

And now, I think that we may consider the names about which you were
asking. The way to analyze them will be by going back to the letters, or
primary elements of which they are composed. First, we separate the
alphabet into classes of letters, distinguishing the consonants, mutes,
vowels, and semivowels; and when we have learnt them singly, we shall learn
to know them in their various combinations of two or more letters; just as
the painter knows how to use either a single colour, or a combination of
colours. And like the painter, we may apply letters to the expression of
objects, and form them into syllables; and these again into words, until
the picture or figure--that is, language--is completed. Not that I am
literally speaking of ourselves, but I mean to say that this was the way in
which the ancients framed language. And this leads me to consider whether
the primary as well as the secondary elements are rightly given. I may
remark, as I was saying about the Gods, that we can only attain to
conjecture of them. But still we insist that ours is the true and only
method of discovery; otherwise we must have recourse, like the tragic
poets, to a Deus ex machina, and say that God gave the first names, and
therefore they are right; or that the barbarians are older than we are, and
that we learnt of them; or that antiquity has cast a veil over the truth.
Yet all these are not reasons; they are only ingenious excuses for having
no reasons.

I will freely impart to you my own notions, though they are somewhat
crude:--the letter rho appears to me to be the general instrument which the
legislator has employed to express all motion or kinesis. (I ought to
explain that kinesis is just iesis (going), for the letter eta was unknown
to the ancients; and the root, kiein, is a foreign form of ienai: of
kinesis or eisis, the opposite is stasis). This use of rho is evident in
the words tremble, break, crush, crumble, and the like; the imposer of
names perceived that the tongue is most agitated in the pronunciation of
this letter, just as he used iota to express the subtle power which
penetrates through all things. The letters phi, psi, sigma, zeta, which
require a great deal of wind, are employed in the imitation of such notions
as shivering, seething, shaking, and in general of what is windy. The
letters delta and tau convey the idea of binding and rest in a place: the
lambda denotes smoothness, as in the words slip, sleek, sleep, and the
like. But when the slipping tongue is detained by the heavier sound of
gamma, then arises the notion of a glutinous clammy nature: nu is sounded
from within, and has a notion of inwardness: alpha is the expression of
size; eta of length; omicron of roundness, and therefore there is plenty of
omicron in the word goggulon. That is my view, Hermogenes, of the
correctness of names; and I should like to hear what Cratylus would say.
'But, Socrates, as I was telling you, Cratylus mystifies me; I should like
to ask him, in your presence, what he means by the fitness of names?' To
this appeal, Cratylus replies 'that he cannot explain so important a
subject all in a moment.' 'No, but you may "add little to little," as
Hesiod says.' Socrates here interposes his own request, that Cratylus will
give some account of his theory. Hermogenes and himself are mere
sciolists, but Cratylus has reflected on these matters, and has had
teachers. Cratylus replies in the words of Achilles: '"Illustrious Ajax,
you have spoken in all things much to my mind," whether Euthyphro, or some
Muse inhabiting your own breast, was the inspirer.' Socrates replies, that
he is afraid of being self-deceived, and therefore he must 'look fore and
aft,' as Homer remarks. Does not Cratylus agree with him that names teach
us the nature of things? 'Yes.' And naming is an art, and the artists are
legislators, and like artists in general, some of them are better and some
of them are worse than others, and give better or worse laws, and make
better or worse names. Cratylus cannot admit that one name is better than
another; they are either true names, or they are not names at all; and when
he is asked about the name of Hermogenes, who is acknowledged to have no
luck in him, he affirms this to be the name of somebody else. Socrates
supposes him to mean that falsehood is impossible, to which his own answer
would be, that there has never been a lack of liars. Cratylus presses him
with the old sophistical argument, that falsehood is saying that which is
not, and therefore saying nothing;--you cannot utter the word which is not.
Socrates complains that this argument is too subtle for an old man to
understand: Suppose a person addressing Cratylus were to say, Hail,
Athenian Stranger, Hermogenes! would these words be true or false? 'I
should say that they would be mere unmeaning sounds, like the hammering of
a brass pot.' But you would acknowledge that names, as well as pictures,
are imitations, and also that pictures may give a right or wrong
representation of a man or woman:--why may not names then equally give a
representation true and right or false and wrong? Cratylus admits that
pictures may give a true or false representation, but denies that names
can. Socrates argues, that he may go up to a man and say 'this is year
picture,' and again, he may go and say to him 'this is your name'--in the
one case appealing to his sense of sight, and in the other to his sense of
hearing;--may he not? 'Yes.' Then you will admit that there is a right or
a wrong assignment of names, and if of names, then of verbs and nouns; and
if of verbs and nouns, then of the sentences which are made up of them; and
comparing nouns to pictures, you may give them all the appropriate sounds,
or only some of them. And as he who gives all the colours makes a good
picture, and he who gives only some of them, a bad or imperfect one, but
still a picture; so he who gives all the sounds makes a good name, and he
who gives only some of them, a bad or imperfect one, but a name still. The
artist of names, that is, the legislator, may be a good or he may be a bad
artist. 'Yes, Socrates, but the cases are not parallel; for if you
subtract or misplace a letter, the name ceases to be a name.' Socrates
admits that the number 10, if an unit is subtracted, would cease to be 10,
but denies that names are of this purely quantitative nature. Suppose that
there are two objects--Cratylus and the image of Cratylus; and let us
imagine that some God makes them perfectly alike, both in their outward
form and in their inner nature and qualities: then there will be two
Cratyluses, and not merely Cratylus and the image of Cratylus. But an
image in fact always falls short in some degree of the original, and if
images are not exact counterparts, why should names be? if they were, they
would be the doubles of their originals, and indistinguishable from them;
and how ridiculous would this be! Cratylus admits the truth of Socrates'
remark. But then Socrates rejoins, he should have the courage to
acknowledge that letters may be wrongly inserted in a noun, or a noun in a
sentence; and yet the noun or the sentence may retain a meaning. Better to
admit this, that we may not be punished like the traveller in Egina who
goes about at night, and that Truth herself may not say to us, 'Too late.'
And, errors excepted, we may still affirm that a name to be correct must
have proper letters, which bear a resemblance to the thing signified. I
must remind you of what Hermogenes and I were saying about the letter rho
accent, which was held to be expressive of motion and hardness, as lambda
is of smoothness;--and this you will admit to be their natural meaning.
But then, why do the Eritreans call that skleroter which we call sklerotes?
We can understand one another, although the letter rho accent is not
equivalent to the letter s: why is this? You reply, because the two
letters are sufficiently alike for the purpose of expressing motion. Well,
then, there is the letter lambda; what business has this in a word meaning
hardness? 'Why, Socrates, I retort upon you, that we put in and pull out
letters at pleasure.' And the explanation of this is custom or agreement:
we have made a convention that the rho shall mean s and a convention may
indicate by the unlike as well as by the like. How could there be names
for all the numbers unless you allow that convention is used? Imitation is
a poor thing, and has to be supplemented by convention, which is another
poor thing; although I agree with you in thinking that the most perfect
form of language is found only where there is a perfect correspondence of
sound and meaning. But let me ask you what is the use and force of names?
'The use of names, Socrates, is to inform, and he who knows names knows
things.' Do you mean that the discovery of names is the same as the
discovery of things? 'Yes.' But do you not see that there is a degree of
deception about names? He who first gave names, gave them according to his
conception, and that may have been erroneous. 'But then, why, Socrates, is
language so consistent? all words have the same laws.' Mere consistency is
no test of truth. In geometrical problems, for example, there may be a
flaw at the beginning, and yet the conclusion may follow consistently.
And, therefore, a wise man will take especial care of first principles.
But are words really consistent; are there not as many terms of praise
which signify rest as which signify motion? There is episteme, which is
connected with stasis, as mneme is with meno. Bebaion, again, is the
expression of station and position; istoria is clearly descriptive of the
stopping istanai of the stream; piston indicates the cessation of motion;
and there are many words having a bad sense, which are connected with ideas
of motion, such as sumphora, amartia, etc.: amathia, again, might be
explained, as e ama theo iontos poreia, and akolasia as e akolouthia tois
pragmasin. Thus the bad names are framed on the same principle as the
good, and other examples might be given, which would favour a theory of
rest rather than of motion. 'Yes; but the greater number of words express
motion.' Are we to count them, Cratylus; and is correctness of names to be
determined by the voice of a majority?

Here is another point: we were saying that the legislator gives names; and
therefore we must suppose that he knows the things which he names: but how
can he have learnt things from names before there were any names? 'I
believe, Socrates, that some power more than human first gave things their
names, and that these were necessarily true names.' Then how came the
giver of names to contradict himself, and to make some names expressive of
rest, and others of motion? 'I do not suppose that he did make them both.'
Then which did he make--those which are expressive of rest, or those which
are expressive of motion?...But if some names are true and others false, we
can only decide between them, not by counting words, but by appealing to
things. And, if so, we must allow that things may be known without names;
for names, as we have several times admitted, are the images of things; and
the higher knowledge is of things, and is not to be derived from names; and
though I do not doubt that the inventors of language gave names, under the
idea that all things are in a state of motion and flux, I believe that they
were mistaken; and that having fallen into a whirlpool themselves, they are
trying to drag us after them. For is there not a true beauty and a true
good, which is always beautiful and always good? Can the thing beauty be
vanishing away from us while the words are yet in our mouths? And they
could not be known by any one if they are always passing away--for if they
are always passing away, the observer has no opportunity of observing their
state. Whether the doctrine of the flux or of the eternal nature be the
truer, is hard to determine. But no man of sense will put himself, or the
education of his mind, in the power of names: he will not condemn himself
to be an unreal thing, nor will he believe that everything is in a flux
like the water in a leaky vessel, or that the world is a man who has a
running at the nose. This doctrine may be true, Cratylus, but is also very
likely to be untrue; and therefore I would have you reflect while you are
young, and find out the truth, and when you know come and tell me. 'I have
thought, Socrates, and after a good deal of thinking I incline to
Heracleitus.' Then another day, my friend, you shall give me a lesson.
'Very good, Socrates, and I hope that you will continue to study these
things yourself.'


We may now consider (I) how far Plato in the Cratylus has discovered the
true principles of language, and then (II) proceed to compare modern
speculations respecting the origin and nature of language with the
anticipations of his genius.

I. (1) Plato is aware that language is not the work of chance; nor does he
deny that there is a natural fitness in names. He only insists that this
natural fitness shall be intelligibly explained. But he has no idea that
language is a natural organism. He would have heard with surprise that
languages are the common work of whole nations in a primitive or semi-
barbarous age. How, he would probably have argued, could men devoid of art
have contrived a structure of such complexity? No answer could have been
given to this question, either in ancient or in modern times, until the
nature of primitive antiquity had been thoroughly studied, and the
instincts of man had been shown to exist in greater force, when his state
approaches more nearly to that of children or animals. The philosophers of
the last century, after their manner, would have vainly endeavoured to
trace the process by which proper names were converted into common, and
would have shown how the last effort of abstraction invented prepositions
and auxiliaries. The theologian would have proved that language must have
had a divine origin, because in childhood, while the organs are pliable,
the intelligence is wanting, and when the intelligence is able to frame
conceptions, the organs are no longer able to express them. Or, as others
have said: Man is man because he has the gift of speech; and he could not
have invented that which he is. But this would have been an 'argument too
subtle' for Socrates, who rejects the theological account of the origin of
language 'as an excuse for not giving a reason,' which he compares to the
introduction of the 'Deus ex machina' by the tragic poets when they have to
solve a difficulty; thus anticipating many modern controversies in which
the primary agency of the divine Being is confused with the secondary
cause; and God is assumed to have worked a miracle in order to fill up a
lacuna in human knowledge. (Compare Timaeus.)

Neither is Plato wrong in supposing that an element of design and art
enters into language. The creative power abating is supplemented by a
mechanical process. 'Languages are not made but grow,' but they are made
as well as grow; bursting into life like a plant or a flower, they are also
capable of being trained and improved and engrafted upon one another. The
change in them is effected in earlier ages by musical and euphonic
improvements, at a later stage by the influence of grammar and logic, and
by the poetical and literary use of words. They develope rapidly in
childhood, and when they are full grown and set they may still put forth
intellectual powers, like the mind in the body, or rather we may say that
the nobler use of language only begins when the frame-work is complete.
The savage or primitive man, in whom the natural instinct is strongest, is
also the greatest improver of the forms of language. He is the poet or
maker of words, as in civilised ages the dialectician is the definer or
distinguisher of them. The latter calls the second world of abstract terms
into existence, as the former has created the picture sounds which
represent natural objects or processes. Poetry and philosophy--these two,
are the two great formative principles of language, when they have passed
their first stage, of which, as of the first invention of the arts in
general, we only entertain conjecture. And mythology is a link between
them, connecting the visible and invisible, until at length the sensuous
exterior falls away, and the severance of the inner and outer world, of the
idea and the object of sense, becomes complete. At a later period, logic
and grammar, sister arts, preserve and enlarge the decaying instinct of
language, by rule and method, which they gather from analysis and

(2) There is no trace in any of Plato's writings that he was acquainted
with any language but Greek. Yet he has conceived very truly the relation
of Greek to foreign languages, which he is led to consider, because he
finds that many Greek words are incapable of explanation. Allowing a good
deal for accident, and also for the fancies of the conditores linguae
Graecae, there is an element of which he is unable to give an account.
These unintelligible words he supposes to be of foreign origin, and to have
been derived from a time when the Greeks were either barbarians, or in
close relations to the barbarians. Socrates is aware that this principle
is liable to great abuse; and, like the 'Deus ex machina,' explains
nothing. Hence he excuses himself for the employment of such a device,
and remarks that in foreign words there is still a principle of
correctness, which applies equally both to Greeks and barbarians.

(3) But the greater number of primary words do not admit of derivation
from foreign languages; they must be resolved into the letters out of which
they are composed, and therefore the letters must have a meaning. The
framers of language were aware of this; they observed that alpha was
adapted to express size; eta length; omicron roundness; nu inwardness; rho
accent rush or roar; lambda liquidity; gamma lambda the detention of the
liquid or slippery element; delta and tau binding; phi, psi, sigma, xi,
wind and cold, and so on. Plato's analysis of the letters of the alphabet
shows a wonderful insight into the nature of language. He does not
expressively distinguish between mere imitation and the symbolical use of
sound to express thought, but he recognises in the examples which he gives
both modes of imitation. Gesture is the mode which a deaf and dumb person
would take of indicating his meaning. And language is the gesture of the
tongue; in the use of the letter rho accent, to express a rushing or
roaring, or of omicron to express roundness, there is a direct imitation;
while in the use of the letter alpha to express size, or of eta to express
length, the imitation is symbolical. The use of analogous or similar
sounds, in order to express similar analogous ideas, seems to have escaped

In passing from the gesture of the body to the movement of the tongue,
Plato makes a great step in the physiology of language. He was probably
the first who said that 'language is imitative sound,' which is the
greatest and deepest truth of philology; although he is not aware of the
laws of euphony and association by which imitation must be regulated. He
was probably also the first who made a distinction between simple and
compound words, a truth second only in importance to that which has just
been mentioned. His great insight in one direction curiously contrasts
with his blindness in another; for he appears to be wholly unaware (compare
his derivation of agathos from agastos and thoos) of the difference between
the root and termination. But we must recollect that he was necessarily
more ignorant than any schoolboy of Greek grammar, and had no table of the
inflexions of verbs and nouns before his eyes, which might have suggested
to him the distinction.

(4) Plato distinctly affirms that language is not truth, or 'philosophie
une langue bien faite.' At first, Socrates has delighted himself with
discovering the flux of Heracleitus in language. But he is covertly
satirising the pretence of that or any other age to find philosophy in
words; and he afterwards corrects any erroneous inference which might be
gathered from his experiment. For he finds as many, or almost as many,
words expressive of rest, as he had previously found expressive of motion.
And even if this had been otherwise, who would learn of words when he might
learn of things? There is a great controversy and high argument between
Heracleiteans and Eleatics, but no man of sense would commit his soul in
such enquiries to the imposers of names...In this and other passages Plato
shows that he is as completely emancipated from the influence of 'Idols of
the tribe' as Bacon himself.

The lesson which may be gathered from words is not metaphysical or moral,
but historical. They teach us the affinity of races, they tell us
something about the association of ideas, they occasionally preserve the
memory of a disused custom; but we cannot safely argue from them about
right and wrong, matter and mind, freedom and necessity, or the other
problems of moral and metaphysical philosophy. For the use of words on
such subjects may often be metaphorical, accidental, derived from other
languages, and may have no relation to the contemporary state of thought
and feeling. Nor in any case is the invention of them the result of
philosophical reflection; they have been commonly transferred from matter
to mind, and their meaning is the very reverse of their etymology. Because
there is or is not a name for a thing, we cannot argue that the thing has
or has not an actual existence; or that the antitheses, parallels,
conjugates, correlatives of language have anything corresponding to them in
nature. There are too many words as well as too few; and they generalize
the objects or ideas which they represent. The greatest lesson which the
philosophical analysis of language teaches us is, that we should be above
language, making words our servants, and not allowing them to be our

Plato does not add the further observation, that the etymological meaning
of words is in process of being lost. If at first framed on a principle of
intelligibility, they would gradually cease to be intelligible, like those
of a foreign language, he is willing to admit that they are subject to many
changes, and put on many disguises. He acknowledges that the 'poor
creature' imitation is supplemented by another 'poor creature,'--
convention. But he does not see that 'habit and repute,' and their
relation to other words, are always exercising an influence over them.
Words appear to be isolated, but they are really the parts of an organism
which is always being reproduced. They are refined by civilization,
harmonized by poetry, emphasized by literature, technically applied in
philosophy and art; they are used as symbols on the border-ground of human
knowledge; they receive a fresh impress from individual genius, and come
with a new force and association to every lively-minded person. They are
fixed by the simultaneous utterance of millions, and yet are always
imperceptibly changing;--not the inventors of language, but writing and
speaking, and particularly great writers, or works which pass into the
hearts of nations, Homer, Shakespear, Dante, the German or English Bible,
Kant and Hegel, are the makers of them in later ages. They carry with them
the faded recollection of their own past history; the use of a word in a
striking and familiar passage gives a complexion to its use everywhere
else, and the new use of an old and familiar phrase has also a peculiar
power over us. But these and other subtleties of language escaped the
observation of Plato. He is not aware that the languages of the world are
organic structures, and that every word in them is related to every other;
nor does he conceive of language as the joint work of the speaker and the
hearer, requiring in man a faculty not only of expressing his thoughts but
of understanding those of others.

On the other hand, he cannot be justly charged with a desire to frame
language on artificial principles. Philosophers have sometimes dreamed of
a technical or scientific language, in words which should have fixed
meanings, and stand in the same relation to one another as the substances
which they denote. But there is no more trace of this in Plato than there
is of a language corresponding to the ideas; nor, indeed, could the want of
such a language be felt until the sciences were far more developed. Those
who would extend the use of technical phraseology beyond the limits of
science or of custom, seem to forget that freedom and suggestiveness and
the play of association are essential characteristics of language. The
great master has shown how he regarded pedantic distinctions of words or
attempts to confine their meaning in the satire on Prodicus in the

(5) In addition to these anticipations of the general principles of
philology, we may note also a few curious observations on words and sounds.
'The Eretrians say sklerotes for skleroter;' 'the Thessalians call Apollo
Amlos;' 'The Phrygians have the words pur, udor, kunes slightly changed;'
'there is an old Homeric word emesato, meaning "he contrived";' 'our
forefathers, and especially the women, who are most conservative of the
ancient language, loved the letters iota and delta; but now iota is changed
into eta and epsilon, and delta into zeta; this is supposed to increase the
grandeur of the sound.' Plato was very willing to use inductive arguments,
so far as they were within his reach; but he would also have assigned a
large influence to chance. Nor indeed is induction applicable to philology
in the same degree as to most of the physical sciences. For after we have
pushed our researches to the furthest point, in language as in all the
other creations of the human mind, there will always remain an element of
exception or accident or free-will, which cannot be eliminated.

The question, 'whether falsehood is impossible,' which Socrates
characteristically sets aside as too subtle for an old man (compare
Euthyd.), could only have arisen in an age of imperfect consciousness,
which had not yet learned to distinguish words from things. Socrates
replies in effect that words have an independent existence; thus
anticipating the solution of the mediaeval controversy of Nominalism and
Realism. He is aware too that languages exist in various degrees of
perfection, and that the analysis of them can only be carried to a certain
point. 'If we could always, or almost always, use likenesses, which are
the appropriate expressions, that would be the most perfect state of
language.' These words suggest a question of deeper interest than the
origin of language; viz. what is the ideal of language, how far by any
correction of their usages existing languages might become clearer and more
expressive than they are, more poetical, and also more logical; or whether
they are now finally fixed and have received their last impress from time
and authority.

On the whole, the Cratylus seems to contain deeper truths about language
than any other ancient writing. But feeling the uncertain ground upon
which he is walking, and partly in order to preserve the character of
Socrates, Plato envelopes the whole subject in a robe of fancy, and allows
his principles to drop out as if by accident.

II. What is the result of recent speculations about the origin and nature
of language? Like other modern metaphysical enquiries, they end at last in
a statement of facts. But, in order to state or understand the facts, a
metaphysical insight seems to be required. There are more things in
language than the human mind easily conceives. And many fallacies have to
be dispelled, as well as observations made. The true spirit of philosophy
or metaphysics can alone charm away metaphysical illusions, which are
always reappearing, formerly in the fancies of neoplatonist writers, now in
the disguise of experience and common sense. An analogy, a figure of
speech, an intelligible theory, a superficial observation of the
individual, have often been mistaken for a true account of the origin of

Speaking is one of the simplest natural operations, and also the most
complex. Nothing would seem to be easier or more trivial than a few words
uttered by a child in any language. Yet into the formation of those words
have entered causes which the human mind is not capable of calculating.
They are a drop or two of the great stream or ocean of speech which has
been flowing in all ages. They have been transmitted from one language to
another; like the child himself, they go back to the beginnings of the
human race. How they originated, who can tell? Nevertheless we can
imagine a stage of human society in which the circle of men's minds was
narrower and their sympathies and instincts stronger; in which their organs
of speech were more flexible, and the sense of hearing finer and more
discerning; in which they lived more in company, and after the manner of
children were more given to express their feelings; in which 'they moved
all together,' like a herd of wild animals, 'when they moved at all.'
Among them, as in every society, a particular person would be more
sensitive and intelligent than the rest. Suddenly, on some occasion of
interest (at the approach of a wild beast, shall we say?), he first, they
following him, utter a cry which resounds through the forest. The cry is
almost or quite involuntary, and may be an imitation of the roar of the
animal. Thus far we have not speech, but only the inarticulate expression
of feeling or emotion in no respect differing from the cries of animals;
for they too call to one another and are answered. But now suppose that
some one at a distance not only hears the sound, but apprehends the
meaning: or we may imagine that the cry is repeated to a member of the
society who had been absent; the others act the scene over again when he
returns home in the evening. And so the cry becomes a word. The hearer in
turn gives back the word to the speaker, who is now aware that he has
acquired a new power. Many thousand times he exercises this power; like a
child learning to talk, he repeats the same cry again, and again he is
answered; he tries experiments with a like result, and the speaker and the
hearer rejoice together in their newly-discovered faculty. At first there
would be few such cries, and little danger of mistaking or confusing them.
For the mind of primitive man had a narrow range of perceptions and
feelings; his senses were microscopic; twenty or thirty sounds or gestures
would be enough for him, nor would he have any difficulty in finding them.
Naturally he broke out into speech--like the young infant he laughed and
babbled; but not until there were hearers as well as speakers did language
begin. Not the interjection or the vocal imitation of the object, but the
interjection or the vocal imitation of the object understood, is the first
rudiment of human speech.

After a while the word gathers associations, and has an independent
existence. The imitation of the lion's roar calls up the fears and hopes
of the chase, which are excited by his appearance. In the moment of
hearing the sound, without any appreciable interval, these and other latent
experiences wake up in the mind of the hearer. Not only does he receive an
impression, but he brings previous knowledge to bear upon that impression.
Necessarily the pictorial image becomes less vivid, while the association
of the nature and habits of the animal is more distinctly perceived. The
picture passes into a symbol, for there would be too many of them and they
would crowd the mind; the vocal imitation, too, is always in process of
being lost and being renewed, just as the picture is brought back again in
the description of the poet. Words now can be used more freely because
there are more of them. What was once an involuntary expression becomes
voluntary. Not only can men utter a cry or call, but they can communicate
and converse; they can not only use words, but they can even play with
them. The word is separated both from the object and from the mind; and
slowly nations and individuals attain to a fuller consciousness of

Parallel with this mental process the articulation of sounds is gradually
becoming perfected. The finer sense detects the differences of them, and
begins, first to agglomerate, then to distinguish them. Times, persons,
places, relations of all kinds, are expressed by modifications of them.
The earliest parts of speech, as we may call them by anticipation, like the
first utterances of children, probably partook of the nature of
interjections and nouns; then came verbs; at length the whole sentence
appeared, and rhythm and metre followed. Each stage in the progress of
language was accompanied by some corresponding stage in the mind and
civilisation of man. In time, when the family became a nation, the wild
growth of dialects passed into a language. Then arose poetry and
literature. We can hardly realize to ourselves how much with each
improvement of language the powers of the human mind were enlarged; how the
inner world took the place of outer; how the pictorial or symbolical or
analogical word was refined into a notion; how language, fair and large and
free, was at last complete.

So we may imagine the speech of man to have begun as with the cries of
animals, or the stammering lips of children, and to have attained by
degrees the perfection of Homer and Plato. Yet we are far from saying that
this or any other theory of language is proved by facts. It is not
difficult to form an hypothesis which by a series of imaginary transitions
will bridge over the chasm which separates man from the animals.
Differences of kind may often be thus resolved into differences of degree.
But we must not assume that we have in this way discovered the true account
of them. Through what struggles the harmonious use of the organs of speech
was acquired; to what extent the conditions of human life were different;
how far the genius of individuals may have contributed to the discovery of
this as of the other arts, we cannot say: Only we seem to see that
language is as much the creation of the ear as of the tongue, and the
expression of a movement stirring the hearts not of one man only but of
many, 'as the trees of the wood are stirred by the wind.' The theory is
consistent or not inconsistent with our own mental experience, and throws
some degree of light upon a dark corner of the human mind.

In the later analysis of language, we trace the opposite and contrasted
elements of the individual and nation, of the past and present, of the
inward and outward, of the subject and object, of the notional and
relational, of the root or unchanging part of the word and of the changing
inflexion, if such a distinction be admitted, of the vowel and the
consonant, of quantity and accent, of speech and writing, of poetry and
prose. We observe also the reciprocal influence of sounds and conceptions
on each other, like the connexion of body and mind; and further remark that
although the names of objects were originally proper names, as the
grammarian or logician might call them, yet at a later stage they become
universal notions, which combine into particulars and individuals, and are
taken out of the first rude agglomeration of sounds that they may be
replaced in a higher and more logical order. We see that in the simplest
sentences are contained grammar and logic--the parts of speech, the Eleatic
philosophy and the Kantian categories. So complex is language, and so
expressive not only of the meanest wants of man, but of his highest
thoughts; so various are the aspects in which it is regarded by us. Then
again, when we follow the history of languages, we observe that they are
always slowly moving, half dead, half alive, half solid, half fluid; the
breath of a moment, yet like the air, continuous in all ages and
countries,--like the glacier, too, containing within them a trickling
stream which deposits debris of the rocks over which it passes. There were
happy moments, as we may conjecture, in the lives of nations, at which they
came to the birth--as in the golden age of literature, the man and the time
seem to conspire; the eloquence of the bard or chief, as in later times the
creations of the great writer who is the expression of his age, became
impressed on the minds of their countrymen, perhaps in the hour of some
crisis of national development--a migration, a conquest, or the like. The
picture of the word which was beginning to be lost, is now revived; the
sound again echoes to the sense; men find themselves capable not only of
expressing more feelings, and describing more objects, but of expressing
and describing them better. The world before the flood, that is to say,
the world of ten, twenty, a hundred thousand years ago, has passed away and
left no sign. But the best conception that we can form of it, though
imperfect and uncertain, is gained from the analogy of causes still in
action, some powerful and sudden, others working slowly in the course of
infinite ages. Something too may be allowed to 'the persistency of the
strongest,' to 'the survival of the fittest,' in this as in the other
realms of nature.

These are some of the reflections which the modern philosophy of language
suggests to us about the powers of the human mind and the forces and
influences by which the efforts of men to utter articulate sounds were
inspired. Yet in making these and similar generalizations we may note also
dangers to which we are exposed. (1) There is the confusion of ideas with
facts--of mere possibilities, and generalities, and modes of conception
with actual and definite knowledge. The words 'evolution,' 'birth,' 'law,'
development,' 'instinct,' 'implicit,' 'explicit,' and the like, have a
false clearness or comprehensiveness, which adds nothing to our knowledge.
The metaphor of a flower or a tree, or some other work of nature or art, is
often in like manner only a pleasing picture. (2) There is the fallacy of
resolving the languages which we know into their parts, and then imagining
that we can discover the nature of language by reconstructing them. (3)
There is the danger of identifying language, not with thoughts but with
ideas. (4) There is the error of supposing that the analysis of grammar
and logic has always existed, or that their distinctions were familiar to
Socrates and Plato. (5) There is the fallacy of exaggerating, and also of
diminishing the interval which separates articulate from inarticulate
language--the cries of animals from the speech of man--the instincts of
animals from the reason of man. (6) There is the danger which besets all
enquiries into the early history of man--of interpreting the past by the
present, and of substituting the definite and intelligible for the true but
dim outline which is the horizon of human knowledge.

The greatest light is thrown upon the nature of language by analogy. We
have the analogy of the cries of animals, of the songs of birds ('man, like
the nightingale, is a singing bird, but is ever binding up thoughts with
musical notes'), of music, of children learning to speak, of barbarous
nations in which the linguistic instinct is still undecayed, of ourselves
learning to think and speak a new language, of the deaf and dumb who have
words without sounds, of the various disorders of speech; and we have the
after-growth of mythology, which, like language, is an unconscious creation
of the human mind. We can observe the social and collective instincts of
animals, and may remark how, when domesticated, they have the power of
understanding but not of speaking, while on the other hand, some birds
which are comparatively devoid of intelligence, make a nearer approach to
articulate speech. We may note how in the animals there is a want of that
sympathy with one another which appears to be the soul of language. We can
compare the use of speech with other mental and bodily operations; for
speech too is a kind of gesture, and in the child or savage accompanied
with gesture. We may observe that the child learns to speak, as he learns
to walk or to eat, by a natural impulse; yet in either case not without a
power of imitation which is also natural to him--he is taught to read, but
he breaks forth spontaneously in speech. We can trace the impulse to bind
together the world in ideas beginning in the first efforts to speak and
culminating in philosophy. But there remains an element which cannot be
explained, or even adequately described. We can understand how man creates
or constructs consciously and by design; and see, if we do not understand,
how nature, by a law, calls into being an organised structure. But the
intermediate organism which stands between man and nature, which is the
work of mind yet unconscious, and in which mind and matter seem to meet,
and mind unperceived to herself is really limited by all other minds, is
neither understood nor seen by us, and is with reluctance admitted to be a

Language is an aspect of man, of nature, and of nations, the
transfiguration of the world in thought, the meeting-point of the physical
and mental sciences, and also the mirror in which they are reflected,
present at every moment to the individual, and yet having a sort of eternal
or universal nature. When we analyze our own mental processes, we find
words everywhere in every degree of clearness and consistency, fading away
in dreams and more like pictures, rapidly succeeding one another in our
waking thoughts, attaining a greater distinctness and consecutiveness in
speech, and a greater still in writing, taking the place of one another
when we try to become emancipated from their influence. For in all
processes of the mind which are conscious we are talking to ourselves; the
attempt to think without words is a mere illusion,--they are always
reappearing when we fix our thoughts. And speech is not a separate
faculty, but the expression of all our faculties, to which all our other
powers of expression, signs, looks, gestures, lend their aid, of which the
instrument is not the tongue only, but more than half the human frame.

The minds of men are sometimes carried on to think of their lives and of
their actions as links in a chain of causes and effects going back to the
beginning of time. A few have seemed to lose the sense of their own
individuality in the universal cause or nature. In like manner we might
think of the words which we daily use, as derived from the first speech of
man, and of all the languages in the world, as the expressions or varieties
of a single force or life of language of which the thoughts of men are the
accident. Such a conception enables us to grasp the power and wonder of
languages, and is very natural to the scientific philologist. For he, like
the metaphysician, believes in the reality of that which absorbs his own
mind. Nor do we deny the enormous influence which language has exercised
over thought. Fixed words, like fixed ideas, have often governed the
world. But in such representations we attribute to language too much the
nature of a cause, and too little of an effect,--too much of an absolute,
too little of a relative character,--too much of an ideal, too little of a
matter-of-fact existence.

Or again, we may frame a single abstract notion of language of which all
existent languages may be supposed to be the perversion. But we must not
conceive that this logical figment had ever a real existence, or is
anything more than an effort of the mind to give unity to infinitely
various phenomena. There is no abstract language 'in rerum natura,' any
more than there is an abstract tree, but only languages in various stages
of growth, maturity, and decay. Nor do other logical distinctions or even
grammatical exactly correspond to the facts of language; for they too are
attempts to give unity and regularity to a subject which is partly

We find, however, that there are distinctions of another kind by which this
vast field of language admits of being mapped out. There is the
distinction between biliteral and triliteral roots, and the various
inflexions which accompany them; between the mere mechanical cohesion of
sounds or words, and the 'chemical' combination of them into a new word;
there is the distinction between languages which have had a free and full
development of their organisms, and languages which have been stunted in
their growth,--lamed in their hands or feet, and never able to acquire
afterwards the powers in which they are deficient; there is the distinction
between synthetical languages like Greek and Latin, which have retained
their inflexions, and analytical languages like English or French, which
have lost them. Innumerable as are the languages and dialects of mankind,
there are comparatively few classes to which they can be referred.

Another road through this chaos is provided by the physiology of speech.
The organs of language are the same in all mankind, and are only capable of
uttering a certain number of sounds. Every man has tongue, teeth, lips,
palate, throat, mouth, which he may close or open, and adapt in various
ways; making, first, vowels and consonants; and secondly, other classes of
letters. The elements of all speech, like the elements of the musical
scale, are few and simple, though admitting of infinite gradations and
combinations. Whatever slight differences exist in the use or formation of
these organs, owing to climate or the sense of euphony or other causes,
they are as nothing compared with their agreement. Here then is a real
basis of unity in the study of philology, unlike that imaginary abstract
unity of which we were just now speaking.

Whether we regard language from the psychological, or historical, or
physiological point of view, the materials of our knowledge are
inexhaustible. The comparisons of children learning to speak, of barbarous
nations, of musical notes, of the cries of animals, of the song of birds,
increase our insight into the nature of human speech. Many observations
which would otherwise have escaped us are suggested by them. But they do
not explain why, in man and in man only, the speaker met with a response
from the hearer, and the half articulate sound gradually developed into
Sanscrit and Greek. They hardly enable us to approach any nearer the
secret of the origin of language, which, like some of the other great
secrets of nature,--the origin of birth and death, or of animal life,--
remains inviolable. That problem is indissolubly bound up with the origin
of man; and if we ever know more of the one, we may expect to know more of
the other. (Compare W. Humboldt, 'Ueber die Verschiedenheit des
menschlichen Sprachbaues;' M. Muller, 'Lectures on the Science of
Language;' Steinthal, 'Einleitung in die Psychologie und


It is more than sixteen years since the preceding remarks were written,
which with a few alterations have now been reprinted. During the interval
the progress of philology has been very great. More languages have been
compared; the inner structure of language has been laid bare; the relations
of sounds have been more accurately discriminated; the manner in which
dialects affect or are affected by the literary or principal form of a
language is better understood. Many merely verbal questions have been
eliminated; the remains of the old traditional methods have died away. The
study has passed from the metaphysical into an historical stage. Grammar
is no longer confused with language, nor the anatomy of words and sentences
with their life and use. Figures of speech, by which the vagueness of
theories is often concealed, have been stripped off; and we see language
more as it truly was. The immensity of the subject is gradually revealed
to us, and the reign of law becomes apparent. Yet the law is but partially
seen; the traces of it are often lost in the distance. For languages have
a natural but not a perfect growth; like other creations of nature into
which the will of man enters, they are full of what we term accident and
irregularity. And the difficulties of the subject become not less, but
greater, as we proceed--it is one of those studies in which we seem to know
less as we know more; partly because we are no longer satisfied with the
vague and superficial ideas of it which prevailed fifty years ago; partly
also because the remains of the languages with which we are acquainted
always were, and if they are still living, are, in a state of transition;
and thirdly, because there are lacunae in our knowledge of them which can
never be filled up. Not a tenth, not a hundredth part of them has been
preserved. Yet the materials at our disposal are far greater than any
individual can use. Such are a few of the general reflections which the
present state of philology calls up.

(1) Language seems to be composite, but into its first elements the
philologer has never been able to penetrate. However far he goes back, he
never arrives at the beginning; or rather, as in Geology or in Astronomy,
there is no beginning. He is too apt to suppose that by breaking up the
existing forms of language into their parts he will arrive at a previous
stage of it, but he is merely analyzing what never existed, or is never
known to have existed, except in a composite form. He may divide nouns and
verbs into roots and inflexions, but he has no evidence which will show
that the omega of tupto or the mu of tithemi, though analogous to ego, me,
either became pronouns or were generated out of pronouns. To say that
'pronouns, like ripe fruit, dropped out of verbs,' is a misleading figure
of speech. Although all languages have some common principles, there is no
primitive form or forms of language known to us, or to be reasonably
imagined, from which they are all descended. No inference can be drawn
from language, either for or against the unity of the human race. Nor is
there any proof that words were ever used without any relation to each
other. Whatever may be the meaning of a sentence or a word when applied to
primitive language, it is probable that the sentence is more akin to the
original form than the word, and that the later stage of language is the
result rather of analysis than of synthesis, or possibly is a combination
of the two. Nor, again, are we sure that the original process of learning
to speak was the same in different places or among different races of men.
It may have been slower with some, quicker with others. Some tribes may
have used shorter, others longer words or cries: they may have been more
or less inclined to agglutinate or to decompose them: they may have
modified them by the use of prefixes, suffixes, infixes; by the lengthening
and strengthening of vowels or by the shortening and weakening of them, by
the condensation or rarefaction of consonants. But who gave to language
these primeval laws; or why one race has triliteral, another biliteral
roots; or why in some members of a group of languages b becomes p, or d, t,
or ch, k; or why two languages resemble one another in certain parts of
their structure and differ in others; or why in one language there is a
greater development of vowels, in another of consonants, and the like--are
questions of which we only 'entertain conjecture.' We must remember the
length of time that has elapsed since man first walked upon the earth, and
that in this vast but unknown period every variety of language may have
been in process of formation and decay, many times over.

(Compare Plato, Laws):--

'ATHENIAN STRANGER: And what then is to be regarded as the origin of
government? Will not a man be able to judge best from a point of view in
which he may behold the progress of states and their transitions to good
and evil?

CLEINIAS: What do you mean?

ATHENIAN STRANGER: I mean that he might watch them from the point of view
of time, and observe the changes which take place in them during infinite


ATHENIAN STRANGER: Why, do you think that you can reckon the time which
has elapsed since cities first existed and men were citizens of them?


ATHENIAN STRANGER: But you are quite sure that it must be vast and

CLEINIAS: No doubt.

ATHENIAN STRANGER: And have there not been thousands and thousands of
cities which have come into being and perished during this period? And has
not every place had endless forms of government, and been sometimes rising,
and at other times falling, and again improving or waning?'

Aristot. Metaph.:--

'And if a person should conceive the tales of mythology to mean only that
men thought the gods to be the first essences of things, he would deem the
reflection to have been inspired and would consider that, whereas probably
every art and part of wisdom had been DISCOVERED AND LOST MANY TIMES OVER,
such notions were but a remnant of the past which has survived to our

It can hardly be supposed that any traces of an original language still
survive, any more than of the first huts or buildings which were
constructed by man. Nor are we at all certain of the relation, if any, in
which the greater families of languages stand to each other. The influence
of individuals must always have been a disturbing element. Like great
writers in later times, there may have been many a barbaric genius who
taught the men of his tribe to sing or speak, showing them by example how
to continue or divide their words, charming their souls with rhythm and
accent and intonation, finding in familiar objects the expression of their
confused fancies--to whom the whole of language might in truth be said to
be a figure of speech. One person may have introduced a new custom into
the formation or pronunciation of a word; he may have been imitated by
others, and the custom, or form, or accent, or quantity, or rhyme which he
introduced in a single word may have become the type on which many other
words or inflexions of words were framed, and may have quickly ran through
a whole language. For like the other gifts which nature has bestowed upon
man, that of speech has been conveyed to him through the medium, not of the
many, but of the few, who were his 'law-givers'--'the legislator with the
dialectician standing on his right hand,' in Plato's striking image, who
formed the manners of men and gave them customs, whose voice and look and
behaviour, whose gesticulations and other peculiarities were instinctively
imitated by them,--the 'king of men' who was their priest, almost their
God...But these are conjectures only: so little do we know of the origin
of language that the real scholar is indisposed to touch the subject at

(2) There are other errors besides the figment of a primitive or original
language which it is time to leave behind us. We no longer divide
languages into synthetical and analytical, or suppose similarity of
structure to be the safe or only guide to the affinities of them. We do
not confuse the parts of speech with the categories of Logic. Nor do we
conceive languages any more than civilisations to be in a state of
dissolution; they do not easily pass away, but are far more tenacious of
life than the tribes by whom they are spoken. 'Where two or three are
gathered together,' they survive. As in the human frame, as in the state,
there is a principle of renovation as well as of decay which is at work in
all of them. Neither do we suppose them to be invented by the wit of man.
With few exceptions, e.g. technical words or words newly imported from a
foreign language, and the like, in which art has imitated nature, 'words
are not made but grow.' Nor do we attribute to them a supernatural origin.
The law which regulates them is like the law which governs the circulation
of the blood, or the rising of the sap in trees; the action of it is
uniform, but the result, which appears in the superficial forms of men and
animals or in the leaves of trees, is an endless profusion and variety.
The laws of vegetation are invariable, but no two plants, no two leaves of
the forest are precisely the same. The laws of language are invariable,
but no two languages are alike, no two words have exactly the same meaning.
No two sounds are exactly of the same quality, or give precisely the same

It would be well if there were a similar consensus about some other points
which appear to be still in dispute. Is language conscious or unconscious?
In speaking or writing have we present to our minds the meaning or the
sound or the construction of the words which we are using?--No more than
the separate drops of water with which we quench our thirst are present:
the whole draught may be conscious, but not the minute particles of which
it is made up: So the whole sentence may be conscious, but the several
words, syllables, letters are not thought of separately when we are
uttering them. Like other natural operations, the process of speech, when
most perfect, is least observed by us. We do not pause at each mouthful to
dwell upon the taste of it: nor has the speaker time to ask himself the
comparative merits of different modes of expression while he is uttering
them. There are many things in the use of language which may be observed
from without, but which cannot be explained from within. Consciousness
carries us but a little way in the investigation of the mind; it is not the
faculty of internal observation, but only the dim light which makes such
observation possible. What is supposed to be our consciousness of language
is really only the analysis of it, and this analysis admits of innumerable
degrees. But would it not be better if this term, which is so misleading,
and yet has played so great a part in mental science, were either banished
or used only with the distinct meaning of 'attention to our own minds,'
such as is called forth, not by familiar mental processes, but by the
interruption of them? Now in this sense we may truly say that we are not
conscious of ordinary speech, though we are commonly roused to attention by
the misuse or mispronunciation of a word. Still less, even in schools and
academies, do we ever attempt to invent new words or to alter the meaning
of old ones, except in the case, mentioned above, of technical or borrowed
words which are artificially made or imported because a need of them is
felt. Neither in our own nor in any other age has the conscious effort of
reflection in man contributed in an appreciable degree to the formation of
language. 'Which of us by taking thought' can make new words or
constructions? Reflection is the least of the causes by which language is
affected, and is likely to have the least power, when the linguistic
instinct is greatest, as in young children and in the infancy of nations.

A kindred error is the separation of the phonetic from the mental element
of language; they are really inseparable--no definite line can be drawn
between them, any more than in any other common act of mind and body. It
is true that within certain limits we possess the power of varying sounds
by opening and closing the mouth, by touching the palate or the teeth with
the tongue, by lengthening or shortening the vocal instrument, by greater
or less stress, by a higher or lower pitch of the voice, and we can
substitute one note or accent for another. But behind the organs of speech
and their action there remains the informing mind, which sets them in
motion and works together with them. And behind the great structure of
human speech and the lesser varieties of language which arise out of the
many degrees and kinds of human intercourse, there is also the unknown or
over-ruling law of God or nature which gives order to it in its infinite
greatness, and variety in its infinitesimal minuteness--both equally
inscrutable to us. We need no longer discuss whether philology is to be
classed with the Natural or the Mental sciences, if we frankly recognize
that, like all the sciences which are concerned with man, it has a double
aspect,--inward and outward; and that the inward can only be known through
the outward. Neither need we raise the question whether the laws of
language, like the other laws of human action, admit of exceptions. The
answer in all cases is the same--that the laws of nature are uniform,
though the consistency or continuity of them is not always perceptible to
us. The superficial appearances of language, as of nature, are irregular,
but we do not therefore deny their deeper uniformity. The comparison of
the growth of language in the individual and in the nation cannot be wholly
discarded, for nations are made up of individuals. But in this, as in the
other political sciences, we must distinguish between collective and
individual actions or processes, and not attribute to the one what belongs
to the other. Again, when we speak of the hereditary or paternity of a
language, we must remember that the parents are alive as well as the
children, and that all the preceding generations survive (after a manner)
in the latest form of it. And when, for the purposes of comparison, we
form into groups the roots or terminations of words, we should not forget
how casual is the manner in which their resemblances have arisen--they were
not first written down by a grammarian in the paradigms of a grammar and
learned out of a book, but were due to many chance attractions of sound or
of meaning, or of both combined. So many cautions have to be borne in
mind, and so many first thoughts to be dismissed, before we can proceed
safely in the path of philological enquiry. It might be well sometimes to
lay aside figures of speech, such as the 'root' and the 'branches,' the
'stem,' the 'strata' of Geology, the 'compounds' of Chemistry, 'the ripe
fruit of pronouns dropping from verbs' (see above), and the like, which are
always interesting, but are apt to be delusive. Yet such figures of speech
are far nearer the truth than the theories which attribute the invention
and improvement of language to the conscious action of the human
mind...Lastly, it is doubted by recent philologians whether climate can be
supposed to have exercised any influence worth speaking of on a language:
such a view is said to be unproven: it had better therefore not be
silently assumed.

'Natural selection' and the 'survival of the fittest' have been applied in
the field of philology, as well as in the other sciences which are
concerned with animal and vegetable life. And a Darwinian school of
philologists has sprung up, who are sometimes accused of putting words in
the place of things. It seems to be true, that whether applied to language
or to other branches of knowledge, the Darwinian theory, unless very
precisely defined, hardly escapes from being a truism. If by 'the natural
selection' of words or meanings of words or by the 'persistence and
survival of the fittest' the maintainer of the theory intends to affirm
nothing more than this--that the word 'fittest to survive' survives, he
adds not much to the knowledge of language. But if he means that the word
or the meaning of the word or some portion of the word which comes into use
or drops out of use is selected or rejected on the ground of economy or
parsimony or ease to the speaker or clearness or euphony or expressiveness,
or greater or less demand for it, or anything of this sort, he is affirming
a proposition which has several senses, and in none of these senses can be
assisted to be uniformly true. For the laws of language are precarious,
and can only act uniformly when there is such frequency of intercourse
among neighbours as is sufficient to enforce them. And there are many
reasons why a man should prefer his own way of speaking to that of others,
unless by so doing he becomes unintelligible. The struggle for existence
among words is not of that fierce and irresistible kind in which birds,
beasts and fishes devour one another, but of a milder sort, allowing one
usage to be substituted for another, not by force, but by the persuasion,
or rather by the prevailing habit, of a majority. The favourite figure, in
this, as in some other uses of it, has tended rather to obscure than
explain the subject to which it has been applied. Nor in any case can the
struggle for existence be deemed to be the sole or principal cause of
changes in language, but only one among many, and one of which we cannot
easily measure the importance. There is a further objection which may be
urged equally against all applications of the Darwinian theory. As in
animal life and likewise in vegetable, so in languages, the process of
change is said to be insensible: sounds, like animals, are supposed to
pass into one another by imperceptible gradation. But in both cases the
newly-created forms soon become fixed; there are few if any vestiges of the
intermediate links, and so the better half of the evidence of the change is

(3) Among the incumbrances or illusions of language may be reckoned many
of the rules and traditions of grammar, whether ancient grammar or the
corrections of it which modern philology has introduced. Grammar, like
law, delights in definition: human speech, like human action, though very
far from being a mere chaos, is indefinite, admits of degrees, and is
always in a state of change or transition. Grammar gives an erroneous
conception of language: for it reduces to a system that which is not a
system. Its figures of speech, pleonasms, ellipses, anacolutha, pros to
semainomenon, and the like have no reality; they do not either make
conscious expressions more intelligible or show the way in which they have
arisen; they are chiefly designed to bring an earlier use of language into
conformity with the later. Often they seem intended only to remind us that
great poets like Aeschylus or Sophocles or Pindar or a great prose writer
like Thucydides are guilty of taking unwarrantable liberties with
grammatical rules; it appears never to have occurred to the inventors of
them that these real 'conditores linguae Graecae' lived in an age before
grammar, when 'Greece also was living Greece.' It is the anatomy, not the
physiology of language, which grammar seeks to describe: into the idiom
and higher life of words it does not enter. The ordinary Greek grammar
gives a complete paradigm of the verb, without suggesting that the double
or treble forms of Perfects, Aorists, etc. are hardly ever contemporaneous.
It distinguishes Moods and Tenses, without observing how much of the nature
of one passes into the other. It makes three Voices, Active, Passive, and
Middle, but takes no notice of the precarious existence and uncertain
character of the last of the three. Language is a thing of degrees and
relations and associations and exceptions: grammar ties it up in fixed
rules. Language has many varieties of usage: grammar tries to reduce them
to a single one. Grammar divides verbs into regular and irregular: it
does not recognize that the irregular, equally with the regular, are
subject to law, and that a language which had no exceptions would not be a
natural growth: for it could not have been subjected to the influences by
which language is ordinarily affected. It is always wanting to describe
ancient languages in the terms of a modern one. It has a favourite fiction
that one word is put in the place of another; the truth is that no word is
ever put for another. It has another fiction, that a word has been
omitted: words are omitted because they are no longer needed; and the
omission has ceased to be observed. The common explanation of kata or some
other preposition 'being understood' in a Greek sentence is another fiction
of the same kind, which tends to disguise the fact that under cases were
comprehended originally many more relations, and that prepositions are used
only to define the meaning of them with greater precision. These instances
are sufficient to show the sort of errors which grammar introduces into
language. We are not considering the question of its utility to the
beginner in the study. Even to him the best grammar is the shortest and
that in which he will have least to unlearn. It may be said that the
explanations here referred to are already out of date, and that the study
of Greek grammar has received a new character from comparative philology.
This is true; but it is also true that the traditional grammar has still a
great hold on the mind of the student.

Metaphysics are even more troublesome than the figments of grammar, because
they wear the appearance of philosophy and there is no test to which they
can be subjected. They are useful in so far as they give us an insight
into the history of the human mind and the modes of thought which have
existed in former ages; or in so far as they furnish wider conceptions of
the different branches of knowledge and of their relation to one another.
But they are worse than useless when they outrun experience and abstract
the mind from the observation of facts, only to envelope it in a mist of
words. Some philologers, like Schleicher, have been greatly influenced by
the philosophy of Hegel; nearly all of them to a certain extent have fallen
under the dominion of physical science. Even Kant himself thought that the
first principles of philosophy could be elicited from the analysis of the
proposition, in this respect falling short of Plato. Westphal holds that
there are three stages of language: (1) in which things were characterized
independently, (2) in which they were regarded in relation to human
thought, and (3) in relation to one another. But are not such distinctions
an anachronism? for they imply a growth of abstract ideas which never
existed in early times. Language cannot be explained by Metaphysics; for
it is prior to them and much more nearly allied to sense. It is not likely
that the meaning of the cases is ultimately resolvable into relations of
space and time. Nor can we suppose the conception of cause and effect or
of the finite and infinite or of the same and other to be latent in
language at a time when in their abstract form they had never entered into
the mind of man...If the science of Comparative Philology had possessed
'enough of Metaphysics to get rid of Metaphysics,' it would have made far
greater progress.

(4) Our knowledge of language is almost confined to languages which are
fully developed. They are of several patterns; and these become altered by
admixture in various degrees,--they may only borrow a few words from one
another and retain their life comparatively unaltered, or they may meet in
a struggle for existence until one of the two is overpowered and retires
from the field. They attain the full rights and dignity of language when
they acquire the use of writing and have a literature of their own; they
pass into dialects and grow out of them, in proportion as men are isolated
or united by locality or occupation. The common language sometimes reacts
upon the dialects and imparts to them also a literary character. The laws
of language can be best discerned in the great crises of language,
especially in the transitions from ancient to modern forms of them, whether
in Europe or Asia. Such changes are the silent notes of the world's
history; they mark periods of unknown length in which war and conquest were
running riot over whole continents, times of suffering too great to be
endured by the human race, in which the masters became subjects and the
subject races masters, in which driven by necessity or impelled by some
instinct, tribes or nations left their original homes and but slowly found
a resting-place. Language would be the greatest of all historical
monuments, if it could only tell us the history of itself.

(5) There are many ways in which we may approach this study. The simplest
of all is to observe our own use of language in conversation or in writing,
how we put words together, how we construct and connect sentences, what are
the rules of accent and rhythm in verse or prose, the formation and
composition of words, the laws of euphony and sound, the affinities of
letters, the mistakes to which we are ourselves most liable of spelling or
pronunciation. We may compare with our own language some other, even when
we have only a slight knowledge of it, such as French or German. Even a
little Latin will enable us to appreciate the grand difference between
ancient and modern European languages. In the child learning to speak we
may note the inherent strength of language, which like 'a mountain river'
is always forcing its way out. We may witness the delight in imitation and
repetition, and some of the laws by which sounds pass into one another. We
may learn something also from the falterings of old age, the searching for
words, and the confusion of them with one another, the forgetfulness of
proper names (more commonly than of other words because they are more
isolated), aphasia, and the like. There are philological lessons also to
be gathered from nicknames, from provincialisms, from the slang of great
cities, from the argot of Paris (that language of suffering and crime, so
pathetically described by Victor Hugo), from the imperfect articulation of
the deaf and dumb, from the jabbering of animals, from the analysis of
sounds in relation to the organs of speech. The phonograph affords a
visible evidence of the nature and divisions of sound; we may be truly said
to know what we can manufacture. Artificial languages, such as that of
Bishop Wilkins, are chiefly useful in showing what language is not. The
study of any foreign language may be made also a study of Comparative
Philology. There are several points, such as the nature of irregular
verbs, of indeclinable parts of speech, the influence of euphony, the decay
or loss of inflections, the elements of syntax, which may be examined as
well in the history of our own language as of any other. A few well-
selected questions may lead the student at once into the heart of the
mystery: such as, Why are the pronouns and the verb of existence generally
more irregular than any other parts of speech? Why is the number of words
so small in which the sound is an echo of the sense? Why does the meaning
of words depart so widely from their etymology? Why do substantives often
differ in meaning from the verbs to which they are related, adverbs from
adjectives? Why do words differing in origin coalesce in the same sound
though retaining their differences of meaning? Why are some verbs
impersonal? Why are there only so many parts of speech, and on what
principle are they divided? These are a few crucial questions which give
us an insight from different points of view into the true nature of

(6) Thus far we have been endeavouring to strip off from language the false
appearances in which grammar and philology, or the love of system
generally, have clothed it. We have also sought to indicate the sources of
our knowledge of it and the spirit in which we should approach it, we may
now proceed to consider some of the principles or natural laws which have
created or modified it.

i. The first and simplest of all the principles of language, common also
to the animals, is imitation. The lion roars, the wolf howls in the
solitude of the forest: they are answered by similar cries heard from a
distance. The bird, too, mimics the voice of man and makes answer to him.
Man tells to man the secret place in which he is hiding himself; he
remembers and repeats the sound which he has heard. The love of imitation
becomes a passion and an instinct to him. Primitive men learnt to speak
from one another, like a child from its mother or nurse. They learnt of
course a rudimentary, half-articulate language, the cry or song or speech
which was the expression of what we now call human thoughts and feelings.
We may still remark how much greater and more natural the exercise of the
power is in the use of language than in any other process or action of the
human mind.

ii. Imitation provided the first material of language: but it was
'without form and void.' During how many years or hundreds or thousands of
years the imitative or half-articulate stage continued there is no
possibility of determining. But we may reasonably conjecture that there
was a time when the vocal utterance of man was intermediate between what we
now call language and the cry of a bird or animal. Speech before language


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