Alexander John Ellis (1814–90) was a musicologist, philologist and phonetician whose approach to language was systematic and descriptive. He gave primacy to speech over written forms, writing in chapter 1, vol. 1 of his magnum opus On Early English Pronunciation (1869–89) that “a real, living, growing language”:
has always been a collection of spoken sounds, and it is only in so far as they indicate these sounds that other symbols can be dignified with the name of language.
Henry Hitchings, in The Language Wars, says Ellis carried with him a variety of tuning forks (among other things kept in the 28 pockets of his greatcoat), the better to measure the pitch of musical instruments he encountered; and, perhaps, of voices – Ellis said a vowel sound “is properly a musical tone with a definite quality or timbre”.
A few lines after the quotation above comes an astute passage on the mutability of language:
Spoken language is born of any two or more associated human beings. It grows, matures, assimilates, changes, incorporates, excludes, develops, languishes, decays, dies utterly, with the societies to which it owes its being. It is difficult to seize its chameleon form at any moment. Each speaker as thought inspires him, each listener as the thought reaches him with the sound, creates some new turn of expression, some fresh alliance of thought with sound, some useful modification of thought with custom, some instantaneous innovation which either perishes at the instant of birth, or becomes part of the common stock, a progenitor of future language. The different sensations of each speaker, the different appreciations of each hearer, their intellectual growth, their environment, their aptitude for conveying or receiving impressions, their very passions, originate, change, and create language.
This view shows Ellis’s appreciation of just how immediate, dynamic, and democratically distributed is language change. Like it or lament it (or lose no sleep whatsoever over it), language change is something in which everyone plays a part whenever they speak or write to someone else.
On Early English Pronunciation is available on Google Books and the Internet Archive.
[image from Dr Wallich’s Studio, Kensington, 1868, part of the Tucker Collection, via the London Mathematical Society]