Casting off this useless burden

from Simeon Potter, Our Language (1950):

English has likewise been fortunate in shedding grammatical gender. Just as we say der Fussdie Hand, and das Auge in Modern German, so in Old English foot was masculine, hand feminine, and eye neuter, epicene, or common. All nouns were placed into one of these three inherited categories which were not primarily associated with sex. Womanquean, and wife were synonymous in Old English, all three meaning ‘woman’, but they were masculine, feminine, and neuter,  respectively. Horsesheep, and maiden were all neuter. Earth, ‘Mother Earth’, was feminine, but land was neuter. Sun was feminine, but moon, strangely enough, was masculine. Day was masculine, but night feminine. Wheat was masculine, oats feminine, and corn neuter. Clearly, there was no conceivable relationship between grammatical gender and any quality in the object denoted. English has surely gained everything and lost nothing by casting off this useless burden which all the other well-known languages of Europe still bear to their great disadvantage. How, may we ask, has English contrived to cast it off? Is there such a thing as the ‘genius of the language’? Can a language be changed by the ‘corporate will’ of the people who speak it? Perhaps we should look for more specific causes. The gender of an Old English substantive was not always indicated by the form of the ending as it was, with rare exceptions, in Latin and Greek, but rather by the terminations of the adjectives and demonstrative pronouns used in agreement. When these distinguishing terminations were lost in everyday speech, all outward marks of grammatical gender were likewise lost. Weakening of inflexions and loss of gender went on together. In the north where inflexions weakened earlier the marks of gender likewise disappeared first. They were retained in the south as late as the fourteenth century.


from Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language,” in A Tramp Abroad (1880):

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print—I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

Gretchen.
Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

Wilhelm.
She has gone to the kitchen.

Gretchen.
Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

Wilhelm.
It has gone to the opera.

To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female—tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it—for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.

Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in Germany a man may think he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts; he finds that in sober truth he is a most ridiculous mixture; and if he ends by trying to comfort himself with the thought that he can at least depend on a third of this mess as being manly and masculine, the humiliating second thought will quickly remind him that in this respect he is no better off than any woman or cow in the land.

In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not—which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds inn, and that stands for Englishwoman—Engländerinn. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: “die Engländerinn,”—which means “the she-Englishwoman.” I consider that that person is over-described.


from Otto Jespersen, Progress of Language: With Special Reference to English (1894):

This doctrine of an antagonism between language and history is a pet theory which Schleicher never abandons; in his first book (ii., p. 134) he speaks of “die geschichte, jene feindin der sprache”; and in his Darwinian period he puts it in this way: “The origin and development of language is previous to history, properly and strictly speaking. . . . History shows us nothing but the aging of languages according to fixed laws. The idioms spoken by ourselves, as well as those of all historically important nations, are senile relics.”

According to Schleicher, then, we witness nothing but retrogression and decay; but as the same view is found as early as Bopp, and as it is the fundamental belief, more or less pronounced, of many other linguistic speculators, we are justified in supposing that with Schleicher the theory is not really due to the Hegelian train of argument, but that here, as not unfrequently, reasoning is summoned to arms in defence of results arrived at by instinct. And the feeling underlying this instinct, what is it but a grammar-school admiration, a Renaissance love of the two classical languages and their literatures? People were taught to look down upon modern languages as mere dialects, and to worship Greek and Latin; the richness and fulness of forms found in those languages came naturally to be considered the very beau idéal of linguistic structure. To men fresh from the ordinary grammar-school training no language would seem respectable that had not four or five distinct cases and three genders or that had less than five tenses and as many moods in its verbs. Accordingly, such poor languages as had either lost much of their original richness in grammatical forms (e.g., French, English, or Danish), or had never had any (e.g., Chinese), were naturally looked upon with something like the pity bestowed on relatives in reduced circumstances, or the contempt felt for foreign paupers.

[…]

In Jacob Grimm’s singularly clever (though nebulous) essay on the Origin of Language (1851), I find such passages as the following: “Language in its earliest form was melodious, but diffuse and straggling (weitschweifig und haltlos); in its middle form it was full of intense poetical vigour; in our own day it seeks to remedy the diminution of beauty by the harmony of the whole, and is more effective though it has inferior means”; he arrives at the result that “human language is retrogressive only apparently and in particular points, but looked upon as a whole it is progressive, and its intrinsic force is continually increasing”. The enthusiastic panegyric on the English language with which he concludes his essay forms a striking contrast to Schleicher’s opinion that English shows “how rapidly the language of a nation important both in history and literature can sink”.

The taint of preciosity

The opening of Chapter 1 (“Vocabulary”) of the second edition of H.W. Fowler’s The King’s English (1908):

Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.

This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:—

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
Prefer the short word to the long.
Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

These rules are given roughly in order of merit; the last is also the least. It is true that it is often given alone, as a sort of compendium of all the others. In some sense it is that: the writer whose percentage of Saxon words is high will generally be found to have fewer words that are out of the way, long, or abstract, and fewer periphrases, than another; and conversely. But if, instead of his Saxon percentage’s being the natural and undesigned consequence of his brevity (and the rest), those other qualities have been attained by his consciously restricting himself to Saxon, his pains will have been worse than wasted; the taint of preciosity will be over all he has written. Observing that translate is derived from Latin, and learning that the Elizabethans had another word for it, he will pull us up by englishing his quotations; he will puzzle the general reader by introducing his book with a foreword. Such freaks should be left to the Germans, who have by this time succeeded in expelling as aliens a great many words that were good enough for Goethe. And they, indeed, are very likely right, because their language is a thoroughbred one; ours is not, and can now never be, anything but a hybrid; foreword is (or may be) Saxon; we can find out in the dictionary whether it is or not; but preface is English, dictionary or no dictionary; and we want to write English, not Saxon. Add to this that, even if the Saxon criterion were a safe one, more knowledge than most of us have is needed to apply it. Few who were not deep in philology would be prepared to state that no word in the following list (extracted from the preface to the Oxford Dictionary) is English:—battle, beast, beauty, beef, bill, blue, bonnet, border, boss, bound, bowl, brace, brave, bribe, bruise, brush, butt, button. Dr. Murray observes that these ‘are now no less “native”, and no less important constituents of our vocabulary, than the Teutonic words’.

Whole territories of emphasis and suggestion

From Simeon Potter, Our Language (1950):

From Indo-European to Modern English by way of Common Germanic, West Germanic, Anglo-Frisian, Old English and Middle English, our language has shown a gradual process of simplification and of the break down of inflexions. The development has been, for the most part, in one direction all the time: from synthesis to analysis. There have been both gain and loss. We need not assume too readily with Jespersen that this analytic process has meant unqualified progress in language or that our forebears of five, four, and three thousand years ago were less gifted linguistically than we. Think what linguistic alertness and precision are required of those speakers who wield an elaborate system of inflexions effectively and faultlessly! The language of twentieth-century London and New York may become a very fine and delicate instrument in the hands of accomplished masters, but its qualities and potentialities are different from those of, let us say, Periclean Greek. How much Sir Walter Scott regretted that he knew so little Greek! As Gilbert Murray has well said (in Greek Studies), the Greeks “had built up a language amazingly capable of expressing the various requirements of the human mind: the precision of prose, the magic and passion of poetry, the combination of exactitude and far-flung questioning that constitutes philosophy, the jests refined or ribald that make men laugh two thousand years after. Can one see by what efforts or what accidents this came about; or what actual phenomena of language have led to this strange power? One point seems to be clear, that it depends on a richness of inflexions which enables a speaker to vary greatly the order of his words in the sentence and thus to capture whole territories of emphasis and suggestion that are barred out to the uninflected languages.”

The opening of Virginia Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek,” from The Common Reader (1925):

For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek, since in our ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys, since we do not know how the words sounded, or where precisely we ought to laugh, or how the actors acted, and between this foreign people and ourselves there is not only difference of race and tongue but a tremendous breach of tradition. All the more strange, then, is it that we should wish to know Greek, try to know Greek, feel for ever drawn back to Greek, and be for ever making up some notion of the meaning of Greek, though from what incongruous odds and ends, with what slight resemblance to the real meaning of Greek, who shall say?

The necessary art of expressing them

Erasmus, De ratione studii, 1511, translated for the first time into English by William Harrison Woodward, 1904:

All knowledge falls into one of two divisions: the knowledge of truths and the knowledge of words—and if the former is first in importance, the latter is acquired first in order of time. They are not to be commended who, in their anxiety to increase their store of truths, neglect the necessary art of expressing them. For ideas are only intelligible to us by means of the words which describe them; wherefore defective knowledge of language reacts upon our apprehension of the truths expressed. We often find that no one is so apt to lose himself in verbal arguments as the man who boasts that facts, not words, are the only things that interest him.

Where the appearance of disorder reigned

Poincaré, “The Future of Mathematics,” 1908, in Science and Method, translated by Francis Maitland:

The importance of a fact is measured by the return it gives—that is, by the amount of thought it enables us to economize.

In physics, the facts which give a large return are those which take their place in a very general law, because they enable us to foresee a very large number of others, and it is exactly the same in mathematics. Suppose I apply myself to a complicated calculation and with much difficulty arrive at a result, I shall have gained nothing by my trouble if it has not enabled me to foresee the results of other analogous calculations, and to direct them with certainty, avoiding the blind groping with which I had to be contented the first time. On the contrary, my time will not have been lost if this very groping has succeeded in revealing to me the profound analogy between the problem just dealt with and a much more extensive class of other problems; if it has shown me at once their resemblances and their differences; if, in a word, it has enabled me to perceive the possibility of a generalization. Then it will not be merely a new result that I have acquired, but a new force.

An algebraical formula which gives us the solution of a type of numerical problems, if we finally replace the letters by numbers, is the simple example which occurs to one’s mind at once. Thanks to the formula, a single algebraical calculation saves us the trouble of a constant repetition of numerical calculations. But this is only a rough example; every one feels that there are analogies which cannot be expressed by a formula, and that they are the most valuable.

If a new result is to have any value, it must unite elements long since known, but till then scattered and seemingly foreign to each other, and suddenly introduce order where the appearance of disorder reigned. Then it enables us to see at a glance each of these elements in the place it occupies in the whole. Not only is the new fact valuable on its own account, but it alone gives a value to the old facts it unites. Our mind is frail as our senses are; it would lose itself in the complexity of the world if that complexity were not harmonious; like the short-sighted, it would only see the details, and would be obliged to forget each of these details before examining the next, because it would be incapable of taking in the whole. The only facts worthy of our attention are those which introduce order into this complexity and so make it accessible to us.

Mathematicians attach a great importance to the elegance of their methods and of their results, and this is not mere dilettantism. What is it that gives us the feeling of elegance in a solution or a demonstration? It is the harmony of the different parts, their symmetry, and their happy adjustment; it is, in a word, all that introduces order, all that gives them unity, that enables us to obtain a clear comprehension of the whole as well as of the parts. But that is also precisely what causes it to give a large return; and in fact the more we see this whole clearly and at a single glance, the better we shall perceive the analogies with other neighbouring objects, and consequently the better chance we shall have of guessing the possible generalizations. Elegance may result from the feeling of surprise caused by the un-looked-for occurrence together of objects not habitually associated. In this, again, it is fruitful, since it thus discloses relations till then unrecognized. It is also fruitful even when it only results from the contrast between the simplicity of the means and the complexity of the problem presented, for it then causes us to reflect on the reason for this contrast, and generally shows us that this reason is not chance, but is to be found in some unsuspected law. Briefly stated, the sentiment of mathematical elegance is nothing but the satisfaction due to some conformity between the solution we wish to discover and the necessities of our mind, and it is on account of this very conformity that the solution can be an instrument for us. This aesthetic satisfaction is consequently connected with the economy of thought. Again the comparison with the Erechtheum occurs to me, but I do not wish to serve it up too often.

It is for the same reason that, when a somewhat lengthy calculation has conducted us to some simple and striking result, we are not satisfied until we have shown that we might have foreseen, if not the whole result, at least its most characteristic features. Why is this? What is it that prevents our being contented with a calculation which has taught us apparently all that we wished to know? The reason is that, in analogous cases, the lengthy calculation might not be able to be used again, while this is not true of the reasoning, often semi-intuitive, which might have enabled us to foresee the result. This reasoning being short, we can see all the parts at a single glance, so that we perceive immediately what must be changed to adapt it to all the problems of a similar nature that may be presented. And since it enables us to foresee whether the solution of these problems will be simple, it shows us at least whether the calculation is worth undertaking.

What I have just said is sufficient to show how vain it would be to attempt to replace the mathematician’s free initiative by a mechanical process of any kind. In order to obtain a result having any real value, it is not enough to grind out calculations, or to have a machine for putting things in order: it is not order only, but unexpected order, that has a value. A machine can take hold of the bare fact, but the soul of the fact will always escape it.

Since the middle of last century, mathematicians have become more and more anxious to attain to absolute exactness. They are quite right, and this tendency will become more and more marked. In mathematics, exactness is not everything, but without it there is nothing: a demonstration which lacks exactness is nothing at all. This is a truth that I think no one will dispute, but if it is taken too literally it leads us to the conclusion that before 1820, for instance, there was no such thing as mathematics, and this is clearly an exaggeration. The geometricians of that day were willing to assume what we explain by prolix dissertations. This does not mean that they did not see it at all, but they passed it over too hastily, and, in order to see it clearly, they would have had to take the trouble to state it.

Only, is it always necessary to state it so many times? Those who were the first to pay special attention to exactness have given us reasonings that we may attempt to imitate; but if the demonstrations of the future are to be constructed on this model, mathematical works will become exceedingly long, and if I dread length, it is not only because I am afraid of the congestion of our libraries, but because I fear that as they grow in length our demonstrations will lose that appearance of harmony which plays such a useful part, as I have just explained.

It is economy of thought that we should aim at, and therefore it is not sufficient to give models to be copied. We must enable those that come after us to do without the models, and not to repeat a previous reasoning, but summarize it in a few lines. And this has already been done successfully in certain cases. For instance, there was a whole class of reasonings that resembled each other, and were found everywhere; they were perfectly exact, but they were long. One day some one thought of the term “uniformity of convergence,” and this term alone made them useless; it was no longer necessary to repeat them, since they could now be assumed. Thus the hair-splitters can render us a double service, first by teaching us to do as they do if necessary, but more especially by enabling us as often as possible not to do as they do, and yet make no sacrifice of exactness.

One example has just shown us the importance of terms in mathematics; but I could quote many others. It is hardly possible to believe what economy of thought, as Mach used to say, can be effected by a well-chosen term. I think I have already said somewhere that mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things. It is enough that these things, though differing in matter, should be similar in form, to permit of their being, so to speak, run in the same mould. When language has been well chosen, one is astonished to find that all demonstrations made for a known object apply immediately to many new objects: nothing requires to be changed, not even the terms, since the names have become the same.

A well-chosen term is very often sufficient to remove the exceptions permitted by the rules as stated in the old phraseology. This accounts for the invention of negative quantities, imaginary quantities, decimals to infinity, and I know not what else. And we must never forget that exceptions are pernicious, because they conceal laws.

This is one of the characteristics by which we recognize facts which give a great return: they are the facts which permit of these happy innovations of language. The bare fact, then, has sometimes no great interest: it may have been noted many times without rendering any great service to science; it only acquires a value when some more careful thinker perceives the connexion it brings out, and symbolizes it by a term.

It is not enough to make sense

C. S. Lewis, introduction to Studies in Words, 1960:

I am sometimes told that there are people who want a study of literature wholly free from philology; that is, from the love and knowledge of words. Perhaps no such people exist. If they do, they are either crying for the moon or else resolving on a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion. If we read an old poem with insufficient regard for change in the overtones, and even dictionary meanings, of words since its date—if, in fact, we are content with whatever effect the words accidentally produce in our modern minds—then of course we do not read the poem the old writer intended. What we get may still be, in our opinion, a poem; but it will be our poem, not his. If we call this tout court ‘reading’ the old poet, we are deceiving ourselves. If we reject as ‘mere philology’ every attempt to restore for us his real poem, we are safeguarding the deceit. Of course any man is entitled to say he prefers the poems he makes for himself our of his mistranslations to the poems the writers intended. I have no quarrel with him. He need have none with me. Each to his taste.

And to avoid this, knowledge is necessary. Intelligence and sensibility by themselves are not enough. This is well illustrated by an example within my own experience. In the days of the old School Certificate we once set as a gobbet from Julius Caesar

Is Brutus sick and is it physical
To walk unbraced and suck up the humours
Of the dank mourning

and one boy explained physical as ‘sensible, sane; the opposite of “mental” or mad’. It would be crass to laugh at that boy’s ignorance without also admiring his extreme cleverness. The ignorance is laughable because it could have been avoided. But if that ignorance had been inevitable—as similar ignorances often are when we are dealing with an ancient book—if so much linguistic history were lost that we did not and could not know the sense ‘mad’ for mental and the antithesis of mental-physical to be far later than Shakespeare’s time, then his suggestion would deserve to be hailed as highly intelligent. We should indeed probably accept it, at least provisionally, as correct. For it makes excellent sense of the passage and also accounts for the meaning it gives to physical by a semantic process which—if we did not know chronology ruled it out—we should regard as very possible.

So far from being secured against such errors, the highly intelligent and sensitive reader will, without knowledge, be most in danger of them. His mind bubbles over with possible meanings. He has ready to hand un-thought-of metaphors, highly individual shades of feeling, subtle associations, ambiguities—every manner of semantic gymnastics—which he can attribute to the author. Hence the difficulty of “making sense” out of a strange phrase will seldom be for him insuperable. Where the duller reader simply does not understand, he misunderstands—triumphantly, brilliantly. But it is not enough to make sense. We want to find the sense the author intended. ‘Brilliant’ explanations of a passage often show that a clever, insufficiently informed man has found one more mare’s nest. The wise reader, far from boasting an ingenuity which will find sense in what looks like nonsense, will not accept even the most slightly strained meaning until he is quite sure that the history of the word does not permit something far simpler. The smallest semantic discomfort rouses his suspicions. He notes the keyword and watches for its recurrence in other texts. Often they will explain the whole puzzle.

Friends of lento

from Nietzsche’s 1886 preface to Daybreak, translated by R. J. Hollingdale:

A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading:—in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste—a malicious taste, perhaps?—no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento.

Dense mists of language

William Blake’s Laocoön, circa 1817:

Wittgenstein, from “Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data'” (circa 1934–1936):

Die Atmosphäre, die dieses Problem umgibt, ist schrecklich. Dichte Nebel der Sprache sind um den problematischen Punkt gelagert. Es ist beinahe unmöglich, zu ihm vorzudringen.

translated by Rush Rhees:

The atmosphere surrounding the problem is terrible. Dense mists of language are situated about the crucial point. It is almost impossible to get through to it.