The Relation Of Language To Thought -- By: W. G. T. Shedd

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 005:20 (Nov 1848)
Article: The Relation Of Language To Thought
Author: W. G. T. Shedd


The Relation Of Language To Thought

W. G. T. Shedd

Professor of English Literature, University of Vermont.

“It is a truth,” (says Hartung in beginning his subtile and profound work on the Greek Particles,) “as simple as it is fruitful, that language is no arbitrary, artificial, and gradual invention of the reflective understanding, but a necessary and organic product of human nature, appearing contemporaneously with the activity of thought. Speech is the correlate of thought; both require and condition each other like body and soul, and are developed at the same time and in the same degree, both in the case of the individual and the nation. Words are the coinage of conceptions, freeing themselves from the

dark chaos of intimations and feelings, and gaining shape and clearness. In so far as a man uses and is master of language, has he also attained clearness of thought: the developed and spoken language of a people is its expressed intelligence.”1

In this extract it is asserted that language is an organic product of which thought is the organizing and vitalizing principle. Writers upon language have generally acknowledged a connection of some sort between thought and language, but they have not been unanimous with respect to the nature of the connection. The common assertions that language is the “dress” of thought—is the “vehicle” of thought—point to an outward and mechanical connection between the two: while the fine remark of Wordsworth that “language is not so much the dress of thought as its incarnation,” and the frequent comparison of the relation which they bear to each other, with that which exists between the body and the soul, indicate that a vital connection is believed to exist between language and thought.

The correctness of this latter doctrine becomes apparent when it is considered that everything growing out of human nature, in the process of its development and meeting its felt wants, is of necessity living in its essence, and cannot be regarded as a dead mechanical contrivance.

That language has such a natural and spontaneous origin is evident from the fact, that history gives no account of any language which was the direct invention of any one man or set of men to supply the wants of a nation utterly destitute of the ability to express its thought. Individuals have bestowed an alphabet, a written code of laws, useful mechanical inventions upon their countrymen, but no individual ever bestowed a language. This has its origin in human nature, or rather in that constitutional necessity, under which human nature in common wit...

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