Alexander Ellis on the chameleon nature of language

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.

Alexander John EllisHenry 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]

8 Responses to Alexander Ellis on the chameleon nature of language

  1. Ben Zimmer says:

    Ellis was also a prominent spelling reformer. He figures in the story behind ghoti — see my On Language column, and the earlier Language Log post.

  2. Andrew Doty says:

    While I strongly disagree with his argument that “it is only in so far as they indicate these sounds that other symbols can be . . . language,” it’s great to hear people being open to the idea that language shifts and that’s okay. Hearing outrage over the metathesis resulting in the “ask” vs “aks” situation in modern English, however hidden its origins are to the common English speaker, runs me out of patience quickly.

  3. korystamper says:

    Only tangentially related, but Ellis’ focus on the musical quality of vowels immediately makes me think of this lovely Radiolab episode about the intersection between music and language. I defy you to listen and not wander around the house humming “sometimes behave so strangely” for the next few hours.

  4. Stan says:

    Ben: Re-reading those posts now, thanks. I’d completely forgotten Ellis’s name from that context. Maybe he was too systematic for his own good!

    Andrew: It’s especially gratifying to hear it come from that era, when so many of his peers had very conservative views on language.

    Kory: I’m an old fan of Diana Deutsch’s work; “sometimes behave so strangely” featured in one of my first Link love posts. It has a way of lingering in one’s head all right! I love this footage of hers from a Wisconsin school:

  5. Now I’m wondering whether he didn’t think of Sign Language, or he thought that it was a reproduction of spoken language (like Signed English), or he didn’t think it could “be dignified with the name of language”…

  6. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I recall early critical knocks against Leonard Cohen’s early ventures into recorded song, (and even extending well into his now well-established musical career), arguing that he wasn’t really singing in the ‘real’, or ‘pure’ sense that the term implies; but was merely, in essence, narrating self-penned poetry, accompanied by simple instrumentation–acoustic guitar, piano, and some strings.*

    To some degree, troubadour Bob Dylan, met w/ similar negative criticism, but more couched in the dissing notion that he somehow just couldn’t carry a tune, and was clearly a lousy singer.

    I submit that the attached NPR Radio Lab piece from Ms. Korystamper and your little video clip w/ the sweet assembled school kids, Stan, gives credence and validation to the fact that musicality, to one degree or another, inhabits much of our manner of speech— our language— and manifests and ‘sometimes behaves so strangely’.

    Thank our lucky stars for the likes of such renowned ‘talky singers’ as the Leonard Cohens and Robert Zimmermans (aka Bob Dylans) of this world.

    There’s that tired refrain that contemporary Rap and Hip-Hop artists aren’t really singing their lyrics, but are basically putting rhyme to a constant beat, either a capella, or w/ musical, gestural, or dance embellishments… or all of the above.

    Although I’m not a big fan of either genre, I still would defend them as bona fide musical forms, and reflective of a particular cultural reality and a viable avenue for creative expression. And clearly, even those rappers and hip-hoppers ‘sometimes behave strangely’… behave strangely… ‘behave strangely’. HA!

    *I remember, from back in the day, another Canadian performer, actor Lorne Greene, (“Pa” Cartwright on the popular TV series, “Bonanza”), who had a Billboard one-hit-wonder w/ his rendition of a song titled “Ringo”. It was basically a talk-piece narrative about a western outlaw figure, w/ stirring Eric Copland-esque orchestral flourishes in the background. Greene would have been the first to admit that he wasn’t a very competent singer, so pure narration was the way to go w/ “Ringo”.

  7. Stan says:

    Sciamanna: I wondered about that too. My guess is that he didn’t consider it a language – not until the 20th century, I think, was it widely acknowledged that sign language was as complex as spoken and written language. I’m open to correction on that.

    Alex: Musicality inhabits sound even more broadly than that, I would say.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      Can’t argue w/ you on that salient point, Stan. My comments were rather narrowly based, I grant you.

      Having lived each half of my life in two different major multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual metropolises, namely Toronto and then here in Los Angeles, respectively, I’ve been exposed to huge ranges of non-native, non-English speaking tongues, and vibrant cultures in both cities. (Granted, the dominant ‘foreign tongue’ here in L.A. would have to be Spanish.)

      One often hears terms like “sing-songy”, “lyrical”, or “bouncy” in describing the basic sound of many of the Southeast Asian languages like Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Hmong— implying an inherent musical inflection to the Western ear.

      (Whether the expat native speakers of these aforementioned languages are that aware of these tonal qualities, is a moot point.)

      I’ve heard “lilting” as applied to spoken Gaelic, and one has to concede that Jamaican or Barbadan English both have a distinctive musical flavor, as do many of the pidgin dialects throughout the globe. (Is it just me?)

      Just some personal observations, here.

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