Samuel Butler.

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beard was white. Having thus identified me as a friend of the
person he was speaking to, and as having a white beard, heavy
eyebrows, and wearing divided spectacles, he made a munching
movement with his jaws to say that I had had my dinner; and finally,
by making two fingers imitate walking on the table, he explained
that I had gone away. My friend, however, wanted to know how long I
had been gone, so he pulled out his watch and looked inquiringly.
The man at once slapped himself on the back, and held up the five
fingers of one hand, to say it was five minutes ago. All this was
done as rapidly as though it had been said in words; and my friend,
who knew the man well, understood without a moment's hesitation.
Are we to say that this man had no thought, nor reason, nor
language, merely because he had not a single word of any kind in his
head, which I am assured he had not; for, as I have said, he could
not speak with his fingers? Is it possible to deny that a dialogue -
an intelligent conversation - had passed between the two men? And
if conversation, then surely it is technical and pedantic to deny
that all the essential elements of language were present. The signs
and tokens used by this poor fellow were as rude an instrument of
expression, in comparison with ordinary language, as going on one's
hands and knees is in comparison with walking, or as walking
compared with going by train; but it is as great an abuse of words
to limit the word "language" to mere words written or spoken, as it
would be to limit the idea of a locomotive to a railway engine.
This may indeed pass in ordinary conversation, where so much must be
suppressed if talk is to be got through at all, but it is
intolerable when we are inquiring about the relations between
thought and words. To do so is to let words become as it were the
masters of thought, on the ground that the fact of their being only
its servants and appendages is so obvious that it is generally
allowed to go without saying.

If all that Professor Max Muller means to say is, that no animal but
man commands an articulate language, with verbs and nouns, or is
ever likely to command one (and I question whether in reality he
means much more than this), no one will differ from him. No dog or
elephant has one word for bread, another for meat, and another for
water. Yet, when we watch a cat or dog dreaming, as they often
evidently do, can we doubt that the dream is accompanied by a mental
image of the thing that is dreamed of, much like what we experience
in dreams ourselves, and much doubtless like the mental images which
must have passed through the mind of my deaf and dumb waiter? If
they have mental images in sleep, can we doubt that waking, also,
they picture things before their mind's eyes, and see them much as
we do - too vaguely indeed to admit of our thinking that we actually
see the objects themselves, but definitely enough for us to be able
to recognize the idea or object of which we are thinking, and to
connect it with any other idea, object, or sign that we may think

Here we have touched on the second essential element of language.
We laid it down, that its essence lay in the communication of an
idea from one intelligent being to another; but no ideas can be
communicated at all except by the aid of conventions to which both
parties have agreed to attach an identical meaning. The agreement
may be very informal, and may pass so unconsciously from one
generation to another that its existence can only be recognized by
the aid of much introspection, but it will be always there. A
sayer, a sayee, and a convention, no matter what, agreed upon
between them as inseparably attached to the idea which it is
intended to convey - these comprise all the essentials of language.
Where these are present there is language; where any of them are
wanting there is no language. It is not necessary for the sayee to
be able to speak and become a sayer. If he comprehends the sayer -
that is to say, if he attaches the same meaning to a certain symbol
as the sayer does - if he is a party to the bargain whereby it is
agreed upon by both that any given symbol shall be attached
invariably to a certain idea, so that in virtue of the principle of
associated ideas the symbol shall never be present without
immediately carrying the idea along with it, then all the essentials
of language are complied with, and there has been true speech though
never a word was spoken.

The lower animals, therefore, many of them, possess a part of our
own language, though they cannot speak it, and hence do not possess
it so fully as we do. They cannot say "bread," "meat," or "water,"
but there are many that readily learn what ideas they ought to
attach to these symbols when they are presented to them. It is idle
to say that a cat does not know what the cat's-meat man means when
he says "meat." The cat knows just as well, neither better nor
worse than the cat's-meat man does, and a great deal better than I
myself understand much that is said by some very clever people at
Oxford or Cambridge. There is more true employment of language,
more bona fide currency of speech, between a sayer and a sayee who
understand each other, though neither of them can speak a word, than
between a sayer who can speak with the tongues of men and of angels
without being clear about his own meaning, and a sayee who can
himself utter the same words, but who is only in imperfect agreement
with the sayer as to the ideas which the words or symbols that he
utters are intended to convey. The nature of the symbols counts for
nothing; the gist of the matter is in the perfect harmony between
sayer and sayee as to the significance that is to be associated with

Professor Max Muller admits that we share with the lower animals
what he calls an emotional language, and continues that we may call
their interjections and imitations language if we like, as we speak
of the language of the eyes or the eloquence of mute nature, but he
warns us against mistaking metaphor for fact. It is indeed mere
metaphor to talk of the eloquence of mute nature, or the language of
winds and waves. There is no intercommunion of mind with mind by
means of a covenanted symbol; but it is only an apparent, not a
real, metaphor to say that two pairs of eyes have spoken when they
have signalled to one another something which they both understand.
A schoolboy at home for the holidays wants another plate of pudding,
and does not like to apply officially for more. He catches the
servant's eye and looks at the pudding; the servant understands,
takes his plate without a word, and gets him some. Is it metaphor
to say that the boy asked the servant to do this, or is it not
rather pedantry to insist on the letter of a bond and deny its
spirit, by denying that language passed, on the ground that the
symbols covenanted upon and assented to by both were uttered and
received by eyes and not by mouth and ears? When the lady drank to
the gentleman only with her eyes, and he pledged with his, was there
no conversation because there was neither noun nor verb? Eyes are
verbs, and glasses of wine are good nouns enough as between those
who understand one another. Whether the ideas underlying them are
expressed and conveyed by eyeage or by tonguage is a detail that
matters nothing.

But everything we say is metaphorical if we choose to be captious.
Scratch the simplest expressions, and you will find the metaphor.
Written words are handage, inkage and paperage; it is only by
metaphor, or substitution and transposition of ideas, that we can
call them language. They are indeed potential language, and the
symbols employed presuppose nouns, verbs, and the other parts of
speech; but for the most part it is in what we read between the
lines that the profounder meaning of any letter is conveyed. There
are words unwritten and untranslatable into any nouns that are
nevertheless felt as above, about and underneath the gross material
symbols that lie scrawled upon the paper; and the deeper the feeling
with which anything is written the more pregnant will it be of
meaning which can be conveyed securely enough, but which loses
rather than gains if it is squeezed into a sentence, and limited by
the parts of speech. The language is not in the words but in the
heart-to-heartness of the thing, which is helped by words, but is
nearer and farther than they. A correspondent wrote to me once,
many years ago, "If I could think to you without words you would
understand me better." But surely in this he was thinking to me,
and without words, and I did understand him better. . . . So it is
not by the words that I am too presumptuously venturing to speak to-
night that your opinions will be formed or modified. They will be
formed or modified, if either, by something that you will feel, but
which I have not spoken, to the full as much as by anything that I
have actually uttered. You may say that this borders on mysticism.
Perhaps it does, but there really is some mysticism in nature.

To return, however, to terra firma. I believe I am right in saying
that the essence of language lies in the intentional conveyance of
ideas from one living being to another through the instrumentality
of arbitrary tokens or symbols agreed upon and understood by both as
being associated with the particular ideas in question. The nature
of the symbol chosen is a matter of indifference; it may be anything
that appeals to human senses, and is not too hot or too heavy; the
essence of the matter lies in a mutual covenant that whatever it is
shall stand invariably for the same thing, or nearly so.

We shall see this more easily if we observe the differences between
written and spoken language. The written word "stone," and the
spoken word, are each of them symbols arrived at in the first
instance arbitrarily. They are neither of them more like the other
than they are to the idea of a stone which rises before our minds,
when we either see or hear the word, or than this idea again is like
the actual stone itself, but nevertheless the spoken symbol and the
written one each alike convey with certainty the combination of
ideas to which we have agreed to attach them.

The written symbol is formed with the hand, appeals to the eye,
leaves a material trace as long as paper and ink last, can travel as
far as paper and ink can travel, and can be imprinted on eye after
eye practically ad infinitum both as regards time and space.

The spoken symbol is formed by means of various organs in or about
the mouth, appeals to the ear, not the eye, perishes instantly
without material trace, and if it lives at all does so only in the
minds of those who heard it. The range of its action is no wider
than that within which a voice can be heard; and every time a fresh
impression is wanted the type must be set up anew.

The written symbol extends infinitely, as regards time and space,
the range within which one mind can communicate with another; it
gives the writer's mind a life limited by the duration of ink, paper
and readers, as against that of his flesh and blood body. On the
other hand, it takes longer to learn the rules so as to be able to
apply them with ease and security, and even then they cannot be
applied so quickly and easily as those attaching to spoken symbols.
Moreover, the spoken symbols admit of a hundred quick and subtle
adjuncts by way of action, tone and expression, so that no one will
use written symbols unless either for the special advantages of
permanence and travelling power, or because he is incapacitated from
using spoken ones. This, however, is hardly to the point; the point
is that these two conventional combinations of symbols, that are as
unlike one another as the Hallelujah Chorus is to St. Paul's
Cathedral, are the one as much language as the other; and we
therefore inquire what this very patent fact reveals to us about the
more essential characteristics of language itself. What is the
common bond that unites these two classes of symbols that seem at
first sight to have nothing in common, and makes the one raise the
idea of language in our minds as readily as the other? The bond
lies in the fact that both are a set of conventional tokens or
symbols, agreed upon between the parties to whom they appeal as
being attached invariably to the same ideas, and because they are
being made as a means of communion between one mind and another - for
a memorandum made for a person's own later use is nothing but a
communication from an earlier mind to a later and modified one; it
is therefore in reality a communication from one mind to another as
much as though it had been addressed to another person.

We see, therefore, that the nature of the outward and visible sign
to which the inward and spiritual idea of language is attached does
not matter. It may be the firing of a gun; it may be an old
semaphore telegraph; it may be the movements of a needle; a look, a
gesture, the breaking of a twig by an Indian to tell someone that he
has passed that way: a twig broken designedly with this end in view
is a letter addressed to whomsoever it may concern, as much as
though it had been written out in full on bark or paper. It does
not matter one straw what it is, provided it is agreed upon in
concert, and stuck to. Just as the lowest forms of life
nevertheless present us with all the essential characteristics of
livingness, and are as much alive in their own humble way as the
most highly developed organisms, so the rudest intentional and
effectual communication between two minds through the
instrumentality of a concerted symbol is as much language as the
most finished oratory of Mr. Gladstone. I demur therefore to the
assertion that the lower animals have no language, inasmuch as they
cannot themselves articulate a grammatical sentence. I do not
indeed pretend that when the cat calls upon the tiles it uses what
it consciously and introspectively recognizes as language; it says
what it has to say without introspection, and in the ordinary course
of business, as one of the common forms of courtship. It no more
knows that it has been using language than M. Jourdain knew he had
been speaking prose, but M. Jourdain's knowing or not knowing was
neither here nor there.

Anything which can be made to hitch on invariably to a definite idea
that can carry some distance - say an inch at the least, and which
can be repeated at pleasure, can be pressed into the service of
language. Mrs. Bentley, wife of the famous Dr. Bentley of Trinity
College, Cambridge, used to send her snuff-box to the college
buttery when she wanted beer, instead of a written order. If the
snuff-box came the beer was sent, but if there was no snuff-box
there was no beer. Wherein did the snuff-box differ more from a
written order, than a written order differs from a spoken one? The
snuff-box was for the time being language. It sounds strange to say
that one might take a pinch of snuff out of a sentence, but if the
servant had helped him or herself to a pinch while carrying it to
the buttery this is what would have been done; for if a snuff-box
can say "Send me a quart of beer," so efficiently that the beer is
sent, it is impossible to say that it is not a bona fide sentence.
As for the recipient of the message, the butler did not probably
translate the snuff-box into articulate nouns and verbs; as soon as
he saw it he just went down into the cellar and drew the beer, and
if he thought at all, it was probably about something else. Yet he
must have been thinking without words, or he would have drawn too
much beer or too little, or have spilt it in the bringing it up, and
we may be sure that he did none of these things.

You will, of course, observe that if Mrs. Bentley had sent the
snuff-box to the buttery of St. John's College instead of Trinity,
it would not have been language, for there would have been no
covenant between sayer and sayee as to what the symbol should
represent, there would have been no previously established
association of ideas in the mind of the butler of St. John's between
beer and snuff-box; the connection was artificial, arbitrary, and by
no means one of those in respect of which an impromptu bargain might
be proposed by the very symbol itself, and assented to without
previous formality by the person to whom it was presented. More
briefly, the butler of St. John's would not have been able to
understand and read it aright. It would have been a dead letter to
him - a snuff-box and not a letter; whereas to the butler of Trinity
it was a letter and not a snuff-box. You will also note that it was
only at the moment when he was looking at it and accepting it as a
message that it flashed forth from snuff-box-hood into the light and
life of living utterance. As soon as it had kindled the butler into
sending a single quart of beer, its force was spent until Mrs.
Bentley threw her soul into it again and charged it anew by wanting
more beer, and sending it down accordingly.

Again, take the ring which the Earl of Essex sent to Queen
Elizabeth, but which the queen did not receive. This was intended
as a sentence, but failed to become effectual language because the
sensible material symbol never reached those sentient organs which
it was intended to affect. A book, again, however full of excellent
words it may be, is not language when it is merely standing on a
bookshelf. It speaks to no one, unless when being actually read, or
quoted from by an act of memory. It is potential language as a
lucifer-match is potential fire, but it is no more language till it
is in contact with a recipient mind, than a match is fire till it is
struck, and is being consumed.

A piece of music, again, without any words at all, or a song with
words that have nothing in the world to do with the ideas which it
is nevertheless made to convey, is very often effectual language.
Much lying, and all irony depends on tampering with covenanted
symbols, and making those that are usually associated with one set
of ideas convey by a sleight of mind others of a different nature.
That is why irony is intolerably fatiguing unless very sparingly
used. Take the song which Blondel sang under the window of King
Richard's prison. There was not one syllable in it to say that
Blondel was there, and was going to help the king to get out of
prison. It was about some silly love affair, but it was a letter
all the same, and the king made language of what would otherwise
have been no language, by guessing the meaning, that is to say, by
perceiving that he was expected to enter then and there into a new
covenant as to the meaning of the symbols that were presented to
him, understanding what this covenant was to be, and acquiescing in

On the other hand, no ingenuity can torture "language" into being a
fit word to use in connection with either sounds or any other
symbols that have not been intended to convey a meaning, or again in
connection with either sounds or symbols in respect of which there
has been no covenant between sayer and sayee. When we hear people
speaking a foreign language - we will say Welsh - we feel that though
they are no doubt using what is very good language as between
themselves, there is no language whatever as far as we are
concerned. We call it lingo, not language. The Chinese letters on
a tea-chest might as well not be there, for all that they say to us,
though the Chinese find them very much to the purpose. They are a
covenant to which we have been no parties - to which our intelligence
has affixed no signature.

We have already seen that it is in virtue of such an understood
covenant that symbols so unlike one another as the written word
"stone" and the spoken word alike at once raise the idea of a stone
in our minds. See how the same holds good as regards the different
languages that pass current in different nations. The letters p, i,
e, r, r, e convey the idea of a stone to a Frenchman as readily as
s, t, o, n, e do to ourselves. And why? because that is the
covenant that has been struck between those who speak and those who
are spoken to. Our "stone" conveys no idea to a Frenchman, nor his
"pierre" to us, unless we have done what is commonly called
acquiring one another's language. To acquire a foreign language is
only to learn and adhere to the covenants in respect of symbols
which the nation in question has adopted and adheres to. Till we
have done this we neither of us know the rules, so to speak, of the
game that the other is playing, and cannot, therefore, play
together; but the convention being once known and consented to, it
does not matter whether we raise the idea of a stone by the words
"lapis," or by "lithos," "pietra," "pierre," "stein," "stane" or
"stone"; we may choose what symbols written or spoken we choose, and
one set, unless they are of unwieldy length, will do as well as
another, if we can get other people to choose the same and stick to
them; it is the accepting and sticking to them that matters, not the
symbols. The whole power of spoken language is vested in the
invariableness with which certain symbols are associated with
certain ideas. If we are strict in always connecting the same
symbols with the same ideas, we speak well, keep our meaning clear
to ourselves, and convey it readily and accurately to anyone who is
also fairly strict. If, on the other hand, we use the same
combination of symbols for one thing one day and for another the
next, we abuse our symbols instead of using them, and those who
indulge in slovenly habits in this respect ere long lose the power
alike of thinking and of expressing themselves correctly. The
symbols, however, in the first instance, may be anything in the wide
world that we have a fancy for. They have no more to do with the
ideas they serve to convey than money has with the things that it
serves to buy.

The principle of association, as everyone knows, involves that
whenever two things have been associated sufficiently together, the
suggestion of one of them to the mind shall immediately raise a
suggestion of the other. It is in virtue of this principle that
language, as we so call it, exists at all, for the essence of
language consists, as I have said perhaps already too often, in the
fixity with which certain ideas are invariably connected with
certain symbols. But this being so, it is hard to see how we can
deny that the lower animals possess the germs of a highly rude and
unspecialized, but still true language, unless we also deny that
they have any ideas at all; and this I gather is what Professor Max
Muller in a quiet way rather wishes to do. Thus he says, "It is
easy enough to show that animals communicate, but this is a fact
which has never been doubted. Dogs who growl and bark leave no
doubt in the minds of other dogs or cats, or even of man, of what
they mean, but growling and barking are not language, nor do they
even contain the elements of language." {230}

I observe the Professor says that animals communicate without saying
what it is that they communicate. I believe this to have been
because if he said that the lower animals communicate their ideas,
this would be to admit that they have ideas; if so, and if, as they
present every appearance of doing, they can remember, reflect upon,
modify these ideas according to modified surroundings, and
interchange them with one another, how is it possible to deny them
the germs of thought, language, and reason - not to say a good deal
more than the germs? It seems to me that not knowing what else to
say that animals communicated if it was not ideas, and not knowing
what mess he might not get into if he admitted that they had ideas
at all, he thought it safer to omit his accusative case altogether.

That growling and barking cannot be called a very highly specialized
language goes without saying; they are, however, so much diversified
in character, according to circumstances, that they place a
considerable number of symbols at an animal's command, and he
invariably attaches the same symbol to the same idea. A cat never
purrs when she is angry, nor spits when she is pleased. When she
rubs her head against anyone affectionately it is her symbol for
saying that she is very fond of him, and she expects, and usually
finds that it will be understood. If she sees her mistress raise
her hand as though to pretend to strike her, she knows that it is
the symbol her mistress invariably attaches to the idea of sending
her away, and as such she accepts it. Granted that the symbols in

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerThe Humour of Homer and Other Essays → online text (page 15 of 21)