~ ابونصر محمد بن محمد فارابی ~

Chapter Twenty-One

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XXI. The Beginning and Perfection of a Nation’s Language

120. In this way, then, the letters of a nation and the utterances generated from those letters first emerge. This is done at first by any chance person among them. Thus it happens that one of them will use a speech-sound or an utterance to signify something, and the listener will retain that. The listener will then use precisely that [speech-sound or utterance] when addressing the one who was the first to construct that utterance: the first listener will have emulated the latter and so wins his approval. Thus the two of them will have adopted that utterance and reached an agreement about it. They will then address others with it until it spreads among a group. Then, whenever something emerges in the mind of one of these humans that he needs to make someone else close to him understand, he will contrive a [complex] speech-sound, communicate [9] it to his companion, and hear him repeat it.

So each one of the two will retain it, and they will both set it down as a [complex] speech-sound signifying that thing. The [complex] speech-sounds go on emerging one after the other by means of any chance inhabitant of that country until someone emerges who governs their affairs and devotes himself to making emerge the [complex] speech-sounds they need for the remaining matters that no one among them happened to signify by speech-sounds. He, then, will be the one who sets down the language of that nation. Those who govern their affairs will go on taking turns in doing this until utterances are set down for everything they need for the necessities of life.

121. This occurs first for the common sense perceptions of theoretical matters they are already aware of through unexamined common opinion and through sense perception, such as the sky, planets, earth, and what is in it; then for what they infer from that; then, after that, the activities resulting from the faculties they possess by natural make-up; and then for the states, whether moral habits or art, that are attained through habituation in those activities and for the activities resulting from these states after they are attained through habituation; then, after that, for the matters common to all of them that they become aware of step by step through experience and for what is inferred from what they have become aware of through experience; then, after that, the things - instruments and so forth - that are particularly characteristic of each one of the practical arts; [and] then for what is uncovered and found through each art - until everything that nation needs is encompassed.

122. Now if the natural make-up of [the people of] this nation is moderate and tends towards acumen and knowledge, they will search - by means of their natural make-up, not by design to make the utterances that are set down to signify meanings represent the meanings and to make them bear a closer resemblance to the meanings and to what exists. And by means of their natural make-up, their souls will be moved to try to organize these utterances in accordance with the organization of the meanings as far as utterances allow. Thus they will endeavor to bring the conditions of the utterances close to what resembles the conditions of the meanings. If this is not done by some chance person among them, those who govern their affairs will do so in the utterances they legislate.

123. It becomes evident from the very beginning that there are percepts here that are apprehended by perception, that these percepts contain things that are similar and things that are dissimilar, and that similar percepts are similar in virtue of one intelligible meaning they share in common, which is a characteristic common to all similar things and is intellected in each of them even as it is intellected in the other. Let this intelligible be called “predicated of many,” “universal,” and “general meaning.” The percept itself, on the other hand, is every unique meaning, which is not a characteristic common to a number of things, and no two things at all are similar by virtue of it. Let [such things] be called “individuals” and “concretes.” Let all universals be called “genera” and “species.” Some utterances, then, are utterances that signify genera and species and, in general, universals, while others are utterances that signify concretes and individuals. Universal meanings have a hierarchy of generality and specificity. As the people seek to have utterances bear a resemblance to meanings, they will make the expression that stands for one meaning that covers many things, precisely the same utterance covering these many things; for meanings that are hierarchical in generality and specificity there will be utterances that are hierarchical in generality and specificity; and for meanings that are dissimilar, utterances that are dissimilar. Just as among meanings there are those that remain precisely the same while their coincidences change successively, similarly, utterances are made to have letters that remain fixed and other letters [that change], as though the latter letters were changing coincidences of precisely the same utterance, each changing letter standing for some changing coincidence. Thus if the same meaning persists and its coincidences change successively, the expression will be made the same utterance that persists [in its basic letters], together with changing letters each of which signifies one of the modifications. If meanings are similar due to a certain common coincidence or condition, they will be expressed through utterances that have similar patterns and similar suffixes and prefixes, and all their suffixes or prefixes will be made a single letter, which is made to signify that coincidence. In this way one constantly searches for a way to organize utterances with a view to expressing certain meanings with utterances that are similar to those meanings.

124. The endeavor to search for organization and make utterances similar to meanings will reach the point that the same utterance will be made to signify essentially dissimilar meanings when they are similar by virtue of something else, and to represent them even though [the thing by virtue of which they are similar] is only remotely connected with them - thus “ambiguous” utterances emerge.

125. In addition, we can not only make utterances similar to meanings and imitate meanings by means of utterances when dealing with utterances that express those meanings, but we can also imitate meanings by means of utterances when dealing with utterances that are not used to express those meanings. Thus one seeks to have certain utterances, as utterances, cover many things [which will then have only the name in common] in the same way that there are meanings that cover [many] things and have many meanings. Thus “equivocal” utterances emerge: these are equivocal utterances none of which signifies an equivocal meaning. Similarly, one will have certain utterances that, as utterances, are dissimilar [but signify the same thing] in the same way that there are meanings that are dissimilar. Thus “synonymous” utterances result.

126. Precisely the same thing occurs when utterances are combined, so that the combination of utterances becomes similar to the combination of combined meanings signified by those combined utterances. Certain things will be established in combined utterances that connect them one to the other when the utterances signify combined meanings connected one to the other. And one will try to make the arrangement of utterances correspond to the arrangement of meanings in the soul.

127. When utterances are used regularly for the meanings for which they were established as signs - one utterance for one meaning, many utterances for one meaning, or one utterance for many meanings - and become fixed for the meanings whose essences they were made to signify, people will begin to use utterances to express themselves by way of license and trope. Thus a meaning will be expressed by a name other than the one originally established for it; and the name that stood for a certain meanings, was fixed for it, and signified its essence will be made to express something else when that other thing has some connection with the former - even if the connection is slight, either due to a remote similarity or due to something else without the name becoming fixed to signify the latter’s essence. This is when there will emerge (1) metaphors; (2) tropes; (3) omission (a) by using the utterance that stands for a certain meaning and not stating explicitly the utterance that stands for a second meaning when the latter is understood from the former, and (b) by stating explicitly the utterances that stand for a number of meanings and not stating explicitly utterances that stand for other meanings normally connected with the former, when the latter can be understood as a result of understanding the former; (4) extending the range of the expression through the proliferation of utterances, and substituting some of them for others, and arranging and embellishing them. This is when there begin to emerge first rhetorical and then gradually poetical [modes of expression].

128. The youngsters grow up developing the habit of pronouncing their [nation’s] letters, utterances generated from them, and sentences composed of these utterances, in such a way that they do not violate their own habitual way nor depart from anything they have become accustomed to using. Their psychical and linguistic habituation establishes all this firmly so that they know nothing else and so that their tongues avoid every utterance other than these, every patterning of these utterances other than the patterning that is firmly established among them, and every arrangement of sentences other than the ones they have become accustomed to using. Utterances that are firmly established on their tongues and in their souls by habit as acquired from their elders, who acquired it again from their elders, and these acquired it again from their elders, who acquired it finally from those who had originally coined the utterances for these people, [each generation successively] perfecting the original coinage - these utterances of theirs are correct and right; they constitute the idiom of the nation; whereas utterances of theirs that disagree with these are incorrect and wrong.

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[Footnote 9: Literally, “signify” (dall).] Back to text