« PoprzedniaDalej »
ing too generally occasion to regret the low state of this art, in their attendance on the most important duty, that of public worship; and that there are multitudes whose interest and inclination it would be to improve themselves in it, had they the means in their power, and could they obtain regular instruction; it would surprise one at first that no one has as yet devised such a method, which would certainly be attended with great emoluments to him. And indeed the prospect was so inviting, that many have been the attempts which have been made in that way from time to time; but they all failed from the same cause; which was, that they who attempted it were men skilled in letters, but not in sounds; and they were blind enough to imagine that the knowledge of the one necessarily included that of the other." Whereas the very reverse is true; as it would be impossible to treat justly of sounds,
until the man of letters shall have first divested himself of all the prejudices and errors which he had imbibed with regard to that article, from the time of his first learning the alphabet; for in that lies the source of all our mistakes. They took the alphabet as they found it, and thought it perfect; whereas this alphabet, on the revival of the learned languages, was borrowed from the Roman, though it by no means squared with our tongue. As a proof of which it is certain that we have twenty-eight simple sounds in our tongue, and have in reality but twenty characters to mark them, though more letters appear in the alphabet. This reduced men in the beginning to a thousand clumsy contrivances, in those unenlightened days, to make such an alphabet
answer the end at all; but it was done at such an expence as to make the learning to read and spell properly a tedious and difficult task, which required the labour of many years to accomplish. These contrivances of theirs in spelling, to make a defective alphabet answer the end of representing words, have so confounded our ideas with regard to the powers of several letters, applied to a variety of different uses, that all the systems hitherto produced upon that point have been a perfect chaos. Nothing can be a stronger proof of the gross errors into which literary men fell, in their several grammars and treatises upon this subject, than that the best of them have mistaken diphthongs for simple sounds, and simple sounds for diphthongs; compound consonants for single, and single for compound. Nay, what is still more extraordinary, that they have even mistaken vowels for consonants. What superstructure built on such fundamental errors could stand?
The first necessary step towards establishing rules for this art upon any solid foundation, is, as in all others, to ascertain the number, and explain the nature of its first simple elements; for any error there, must carry an incorrigible taint throughout.
It will be granted that in repeating the alphabet of any tongue, every simple sound contained in that tongue ought to be heard in it; that being the very nature and end of forming an alphabet: and in order that the written language should correspond to the spoken, each simple sound should have its peculiar mark, for which it should invariably stand. I have shewn that
by adopting an alphabet no way suited to our tongue, neither of these is, nor can be the case. The consequence of which has been, that all attempts towards establishing a theory of our sounds, have hitherto ended in confusion and error; and the practical part of reading and spelling our words has been so loaded with difficulties, that it requires the labour of years to overcome it. For want of a just theory, no method has hitherto been found out for teaching justness of utterance, and propriety of pronunciation; and mankind are left on this occasion wholly to the guidance of chance, catching up that general mode of utterance which prevails in the places of their nativity; and singularities of pronunciation and tones from their parents, masters, companions, or domestics.
Without knowing the nature and properties of the simple elements or letters, it will be impossible afterwards to discern their peculiar beauty and force when united in words; and the expression and harmony arising from the combination of those words in sentences, or their arrangement in verse. In short, all true critical skill in the sound of language, must have its foundation here. This was a favourite study amongst the ancients, and men of the greatest abilities, and dignity in the state, applied themselves to it with ardour. Messala among the Romans got an immortal name, for writing an express treatise on a single letter: and the honours of Greece were decreed at the Olympic games to Apollodorus, for having made some new discoveries in that way. Quinctilian, in recommending a close attention to the study of the simple elements, has this
remarkable passage; Not, says he, that there is any great difficulty in dividing the letters into vowels and consonants; and subdividing the latter into mutes and semivowels; but because whoever will enter into the inmost recesses of this, I may call it, sacred edifice, will find many things not only proper to sharpen the ingenuity of children, but able to exercise the most profound erudition, and deepest science.' Such were the sentiments of the great ancients upon this important article, and those sentiments were carried into execution. The consequence of which was, that all the powers of elocution, and all the elegancies of composition both in poetry and prose, were carried to a degree of perfection, unknown in any other age or country in the world. While we are so little acquainted with fundamentals, that all we are taught with regard to the elements of speech, is a distinction of the letters into consonants and vowels; and another distinction of the former into mutes and liquids. And even in this distinction, a mistake has been committed in describing the nature of liquids, which are said to have obtained that name from their fine flow and smoothness to the ear: whereas one of them, r, is the roughest letter in speech; and m was considered as a disagreeable sound, and called the bellowing letter by the ancients, from its resemblance to the lowing of oxen, and on that account was frequently struck out by an elision in the measure of Roman poetry. But the true reason of the name of liquids arose from their property of uniting readily with other consonants, and flowing as it were into their sounds.
All the powers of sound must remain in a state of confusion, or impenetrable darkness, while the custom continues of applying ourselves wholly to the study of the written language, and neglecting that of speech. When the art of reading with propriety shall have been established and produced its effects, a new field will be opened to our writers, unknown to their predecessors, for composition both in poetry and prose, which will display in a new light the vast compass of our language in point of harmony and expression, from the same cause which produced similar effects at Rome in the writers of the Ciceronian or Augustan age. For it was at that period that the Romans first applied themselves to the cultivation of the living language, having before, like us, employed themselves wholly about the written. How is it possible, indeed, that the compass and harmony whereof an instrument is susceptible, can be perceived, if the keys are either touched at random, or ouly a few simple airs played upon it learned by ear.