IN all our inquiries concerning the formation and progress of languages among mankind, the spirit of true philosophy, no less than the doctrines of our religion, requires, that we should resort to the facts recorded in the sacred scriptures, in order to account for many of the phenomena, which we all witness. Whenever we attempt to trace the origin of speech, we shall find it utterly impossible to account in any rational manner for the system of articulation, by which human beings convey their thoughts to one another, and for the varieties in the modification of that system, displayed by the various original diversities of the families of men, without reference to the power of speech, first imparted by the Creator to our original ancestor, and to that miraculous confusion of speech, which scattered abroad upon the earth the builders of Babel.
After that period we are expressly told,* that the islands of the gentiles were divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations, by the descendants from Japhet, the third son of Noah.
From that time we are to consider the formation of the languages in modern Europe to have commenced; and one of the most remarkable circumstances, which here commands our attention, is the difference in the facility of articulation between the primitive languages, which were formed in the southern, and those which arose in the northern regions of Europe. It has been sufficiently ascertained, that in both cases the primitive words are very few in number, and are all monosyllables. The difference between them seems to have arisen chiefly from the different proportions of consonants and of vowels, which they employed in this first stage of formation of the respective languages. The roots, or primitive words, are almost universally nouns; and generally substantives, in the northern tongues; but in the Greek language there appear to have been a small number of primitive verbs. They were formed altogether by a combination of vowels. The termination was uniformly settled upon the same vowel, ω. The commencement was varied through all the other vowels, α, ε, ι, ο, and υ; and by the introduction of one of the eleven consonants, originally used by the Greeks, between the variable vowel at the beginning an the permanent vowel at the end, a number of primitive words was provided, which was again increased by prefixing the consonant before the two vowels, and still further enlarged by the use of two consonants, the one prefixed, and the other between the vowels. From the first of these combinations was formed the words αω, εω, ιω, οω, and υω. From the second came αγω, αδω, ακω, αλω, αμω; and the others formed by placing the consonant between the two vowels. The prefixing of the consonant gave another series of words; and when the letters were increased to four by the addition of the second consonant, as in γανω, δεκω, καλω, λαζω, περω, and the like, they furnished a fund sufficiently copious for a foundation, upon which the whole superstructure of the Greek verb, with all its appendages, was erected.
This alternation of consonants and of vowels must also be considered as the principle, from which the superior harmony of the Greek language to the dialects of the northern nations naturally flowed. The first sixteen letters, used by the Greeks, were the five vowels and eleven consonants, which are most easily uttered, and consequently the most pleasant in sound. The double letters, ξ, ψ, φ, χ, the aspirate which heaves from the lungs, and the guttural which mules from the throat, were all of subsequent invention. So that the elements of their language and their first principles in the combination of their words concurred in rendering their speech harmonious. Nothing of this kind is discernible in the primitive languages of the north. They too spoke at the first in monosyllables; but their primitive words were only nouns. Their articulation consisted of many of the harshest sounds, which the human organs of speech are capable of uttering; and their intermixture of vowels was barely sufficient to make expression practicable, without ever consulting the pleasures of the ear. The consequences of this original difference have been, that in proportion as the Greeks cultivated their language, they became more solicitous of its harmony; and that their orators descended to a minuteness in their precepts of instruction, which we, who are accustomed to the roughness of the modern languages, can scarcely conceive, and which we are accustomed to confine exclusively to the composition of poetry. It was this which made he juncture of letters, syllables, and words, an object of great attention to the ancient rhetoricians; and led them to give it a formal and distinct consideration among the objects, into which they distributed their principles of composition.
By juncture therefore nothing more is meant, that that part of composition, which consists in the putting together of its primary elements. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in his treatise upon the collocation of words, observes, that the beauty and the grace of composition depend upon the nature of the letters and upon the quality of the syllables, which are combined in the formation of the words. He therefore analyzes with great accuracy the twenty four letters of the Greek alphabet; describes the process of their pronunciation, and distributes them into their various classes of vowels and semivowels, single and double letters, mutes and aspirates. And he points out those, which are remarkable for softness, and those which repel by their harsh and rugged sounds. In regard to syllables, besides that part of their character, which they must derive from the letters of which they are formed, they are also distinguished by their quantity; that is by the length of time, employed in pronouncing them.
But in applying to our own language the rules for the juncture of letters and syllables, prescribed by the Greeks and Romans to theirs, we must remember, that the very foundations of their harmony are denied us. We must take the words of the language, as we find them. The Teutonic language, the original substratum of that which we speak, was formed by a race of men, who had little sensibility to the delicacies of sound. They were famous in ancient times for the athletic structure of their bodies. Their organs of speech were capable of stronger articulation, than those of the southern tribes. Their organs of hearing probably required the use of tones rather strongly marked, than nicely graduated. The force of habit reconciled them to the harshness of the sounds they were wont to hear; and from the disposition so common to human nature, i every situation, of accommodating its affectations to that, to which it is used, they deemed their roughness an evidence of manly virtue; and disdained, as nerveless and effeminate, the softer enunciation of the south. These prejudices and opinions still prevail; and the people of the nations speaking the German, Dutch, and English languages, which are only different dialects of the same mother tongue, can scarcely be made to believe, that their utterance is offensive to a discriminating ear. I have already shown you, that in the composition of their primitive words they never conceived the necessity of introducing a sufficient proportion of vowels. A great proportion of their words are therefore rough and untuneable; and, to complete the destruction of their harmony, their syllables have no distinction of quantity, like the Greek and Latin. The only distinction between them, recognised [sic] by the grammarians, is of syllables accented and unaccented; and Dr. Johnson tells us, that in English poetry the accent and the quantity of syllables is the same thing. So that, while in Greek and Latin the difference between the syllables is noted by the time taken to pronounce them, in English they are distinguished only by the different degrees of force or of weakness, which they derive from the pressure or the absence of the accent. An English speaker then is, both as respects the distribution of letters and of syllables, much more restricted and confined, than he whose instrument is one of the learned languages. He cannot intermix his consonants and vowels in the proportions most grateful to the ear, because that proportion does not exist in the very words, of which the language is composed. He cannot intermix the long and short syllables in harmonious concert, because his syllables are long or short, only as they have or have not the accent. To this must be added, that the multiplicity of monosyllables crowded upon the language, as auxiliaries to the noun and verb, with the inflexibility of those important parts of speech themselves, contribute still further to restrain the speaker’s powers of election.
Still however, under all these restrictions, the rules of juncture are not entirely without their use in the composition of English discourse. This language, originally so rugged, has been in a succession of many ages gradually softening down into comparative smoothness; first by the adoption innumerable words from languages more harmonious than itself; secondly by the omission in many instances of some superfluous consonants from its words; and thirdly by sinking a much greater number of them in the pronunciation. As the people have advanced in the progress of refinement, they have become sensible to the delight of musical articulation. Their improvements, as might be expected, have been most conspicuous in their poetry; and the changes in the structure of English versification have, from the days of Chaucer to those of Pope, constantly tended to harmonize the language, and to wear away its most unpleasant asperities. This increasing attention to the music of poetry has to a certain degree produced a corresponding influence upon the composition of prose. It is yet indeed impossible to apply the prescriptions of Dionysius Halicarnassus, of Cicero, and of Quinctilian, in their rigor, to words overstocked with consonants, inflexible in their terminations, and for the most part immovable by transposition; or to syllables, which have no specific quantity distinct from their accent. Yet a due regard to the principles, upon which those rules are founded, will introduce into the composition of English prose all the harmony, of which it is susceptible.
The most important of these rules requires the juncture of a syllable terminating in a vowel, with a syllable commencing by a consonant; the purpose of which is to avoid the collision of two vowels. The converse of this rule directs you, when the syllable closes with a consonant, to begin the next with a vowel. But as the juncture of two consonants is less perceptibly painful, than that of vowels, the propriety of avoiding it is also less urgent. The alternation of vowel and consonant is then the general principle; and in the versification of the most melodious Latin poets it is observed sometimes for whole lines together; as for example in the first verse of the Aeneid,
Arma, virumque cano, Trojae qui primul ab oris;
where every word ending in a vowel is followed by a word beginning with a consonant; and every word ending with a consonant, by a word beginning with a vowel. In the English language the first part of this rule is much more easily observed, than the last; because almost all English words terminate in consonants. In the rare cases therefore, when a word closing with a vowel is used, there can seldom be any difficulty to select for its successor a word beginning with a consonant. But as in all cases this is rather a monition to bear in mind, than a precept exacting observance; it is further to be remarked, that some of the vowels more readily associate with each other, than the rest. The same may be said of the consonants. The collision of a vowel with itself is the most ungracious of all combinations, and has been doomed to peculiar reprobation under the name of an hiatus. This is so generally disagreeable. that even in common discourse the custom of the language often contrives means for avoiding it; of which you have a remarkable instance in the variation of the indefinite article a or an; the first of which is used whenever the word, to which it is prefixed, begins with a consonant and the second , when it commences with a vowel. The sweetest of the English poets had as great a horror of the hiatus, as the old philosophers used to say nature had of a vacuum. In the following lines of his essay on criticism he has exhibited, by an example in the verses themselves, the fault, against which he would guard the writer of English verse, arising from the collision of vowels, the intrusion of expletives, and the use of continued monosyllables.
Those equal syllables alone require,
Though oft the ear the open vowels tire;
While expletives their feeble aid do join,
And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.
In the second of these lines there are three instances of juncture by the meeting of two vowels; and this accumulation was necessary, because each of the combinations is by itself so common, and the effect of its use upon the harmony so slight, that, standing by itself, it would scarcely have been perceptible.
A second caution with regard to juncture is to avoid the repetition of the same syllable, or of the same sound at the close and commencement of two successive words. To judge of the ill effect of this concurrence, as of the last, it may be necessary to accumulate in a single sentence several examples of it. When Dryden in one of his odes says,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d,
Mistaking earth for heaven,
it must be a fastidious ear, which would notice the duplication of the syllable at the commencement of the lines. But when Pope says,
The young dismiss’d to wander earth or air,
the sound of the last four syllables is so nearly the same, that the most unpractised [sic] ear can hardly forbear to perceive the dissonance of their repetition, and to remark it as a rare instance of careless versification in the poet.
The only additional rule respecting the juncture of syllables, which remains to be noticed, is that of avoiding such a concurrence between the closing and commencing syllables of neighbouring [sic] words, as might of themselves form an improper word, or convey an equivocal sense. This danger will seldom occur in written composition; but, unless some care be taken to guard against it, may occasionally happen in the hurry of unpremeditated discourse.
But the order of the words and the juncture of their letters and syllables are not sufficient to constitute the beauty of oratorical composition, without some knowledge and attention to its numbers.
And what are oratorical numbers? The readiest answer to this question might perhaps be, that there is now among us no such thing. That they are strangers to the English language. That among the moderns the numbers, admitted in the constitution of their poetry, signify something very different from what they meant among the ancients; but that none of the most accomplished speakers of England, or our own country, have ever attempted to express themselves in numerous prose. Admitting this to be the fact, we are still to inquire what was meant by oratorical numbers among the ancients; and we are still to account for the existence, and to seek the sources of that harmony, which in modern discourse may be, and often has been substituted in their stead. There is no part of the science, which has been treated with more industrious investigation by Aristotle and by Cicero. Its importance was equally felt by all the other eminent rhetoricians both of Greece and Rome; and Longinus, who has assigned a chapter to it in his treatise on the sublime, there mentions, that he had written two distinct treatises upon the subject, which have unfortunately been lost.
The use of the term numbers has been adopted by the English writers from the critics of Greece and Rome; and formal dissertations have been written, attempting to prove that their principles are applicable to English composition. None of them however are perfectly satisfactory; and none appear to have marked the material differences, which must arise from the different sources of harmony, predominating in different languages.
All harmony consists of a succession of varied sounds. And of this variety there are three distinct sources. The first is measured by time; and in consequence of this each particular sound is denominated quick or slow. The second is measured by the tones, which constitute the difference between high and low notes. The third is a difference of strength and weakness, by which a difference of force may be given to the same note. In musical composition this difference is denoted by the terms forte and piano.
Now in all the ancient doctrines concerning poetical and oratorical harmony, they considered only the first of these varieties. In the modification of sounds by articulation, it must have been perceived at a very early period, that some syllables necessarily required for distinct utterance more time than others; and upon this variety of time the whole system of ancient versification was founded. Assuming, as the common primary standard, the time necessary for the utterance of the shortest syllables, they assigned a double portion of that time for that of the longest; and thus every syllable in the language became short or long. The next step was, by the several combinations of two short syllables, of two long ones, of a short before a long, and of a long before a short, to constitute what have been denominated poetical feet; the numbers of which discriminated the different metre [sic] or measure of their verse.
The power of these numbers in their combination of metre [sic] had long been felt, and understood, and practiced in all the varieties of epic and lyric poetry, before it was suspected, that they could be productive of any pleasing effect in the composition of prose. This discovery, according to Cicero, was first made by Thrasymmachus or by Gorgias; and was improved and moderated to the highest perfection by Isocrates. It was never known among the Romans until a short time before the age of Cicero; and was by him both in practice and theory exhibited in the utmost extent, of which his language was capable.
Thus the harmony of poetry among the Greeks and Romans consisted in number and metre [sic]; that is, in a number of syllables variously combined into feet, made up of two, three, or four points of time; a given number of which feet formed the metre [sic]. Thus the hexameter verse is invariably composed of six feet of two kinds; the dactyl, a foot of one long and two short syllables; and the spondee, a foot of two long ones. Their oratorical harmony consisted of numbers without metre [sic]. And hence it is, that Aristotle declares oratorical discourse to be terminated not by measure, but by numbers; that it ought to have rythm [sic], but not metre [sic].
To their various kinds of verse they appropriated different kinds of feet. The feet, which contained the longest portion of time, as the dactyl, the spondee, and the anapest, were found best adapted to the expression of grave and dignified sentiment. Those, which consisted only of the alternating short and long syllables, were applied to light and trivial subjects, and nearly approached the level of common discourse. Between these a sort of middle term was discovered or invented; a foot, consisting wither of one long syllable before three short ones, or of three short syllables before one long one. There were called by the names of the first and second paean. The first was deemed most suitable for the beginning, and the second for the close of a sentence; and both are declared by Aristotle and Cicero to be the genuine oratorical feet, and to contain a fascination of harmony, to which I will freely confess the dullness of my ear is in a great measure insensible.
In the English language, as I have heretofore observed, there is no regular distinction of quantity between syllables. Their differences arise almost entirely from the accent. The harmony of English versification has therefore a different standard from that of the Greek and Latin. It is not a variety of quick and slow, but a variety of strong and weak utterance. Its measure is not time, but tone. From this it follows, that the numbers of English verse are numbers of syllables, and not numbers of feet; that they are counted, and not measured.
But the accent, and the emphasis, which is an occasional accent, placed at the will of the speaker upon words which have none, fixed and permanent, is an additional stress, laid by the voice upon the syllable that bears it; and as this effort of the voice commonly requires a greater portion of time, than is necessary to utter the unaccented syllables, most of the English prosodists have confounded them together; and, in speaking of English poetry, have talked of feet, consisting of long and short syllables, as if the same rules of harmony could be applied to the heroic verse of Homer, and of Milton; and the same measures to an ode of Horace, and an ode of Collins.
But to show how absurd it is to apply the principles of Greek and Latin scansion to a language so differently constructed, we need only to remark that the iambic foot, consisting of a short syllable before a long one, which was excluded from all grave and dignified subjects, as proper only for topics of levity, is the species of foot most peculiarly appropriated in our time to heroic verse; and that the anapestic foot, in which the ancients discovered so much grandeur and dignity, forms the versification of our most simple ballads, and enlivens the gaiety of our most sportive, convivial songs.
If the numbers of ancient versification, thus measured by mere varieties of time, cannot be applied to the construction of our verse in such a manner as to produce poetic harmony, still less can they be made subservient to the music of English oratory. That mysterious marriage between the unison of the dactyl and the octave of the iambus, issuing in the first and second paean, certainly produces in our language no such wonders of harmony, as are celebrated in the pages of Aristotle and Cicero.
I never should advise any English speaker to waste his time in attempts to arrange his sentences according to the roles of Greek or Latin prosody. Yet I would not have him altogether inattentive to the location andĚdistribution of his accented syllables; for I have no doubt but that upon this the harmony of a sentence may often depend. The first paean has a recommendation for commencing a sentence, because the accent, being on the first syllable, may for a similar reason be proper at the end. If the accented syllables be crowded too closely together, they will encumber and clog in a painful manner the speaker’s utterance; if too thinly scattered, his discourse will be flattened by multiplied monosyllables. As far as I can trust the judgment of my own ear, I should say, that a predominant proportion of dactyls, or of syllables, every third of which is accented, interspersed for the purpose of variety with occasional iambics, anapests, and spondees, would form the most effectual combination for the production of numerous prose. But it is a vain attempt
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony.
It is idle to compute the charms of oratorical numbers by the multiplication tables of arithmetic; nor is it conceivable to me, that the lightning of a Demosthenes could need to be sped upon the wings of a semi-quaver. These are subjects of curious inquiry to the student, but should never for a moment arrest the precious moments of the practical speaker. Even Cicero himself, after all the pains he has taken to elucidate the doctrine of oratorical numbers, acknowledges, that the only final guide must be the instinct of a delicate ear.
I shall here conclude my observations upon those elements of oratorical composition, denominated order, juncture, and number. The putting together of letters, syllables, and words, has perhaps already detained us too long. We have still however to consider them, as compounded in the form of sentences and periods.
*Gen. x. 5.