Lectures on the Science of Language

By MAX MÜLLER, M. A. Second Series. New York : Charles Scribner.
VOLTAIRE defined Etymology as a science where vowels signify nothing and consonants very little. This is so far true that even the wisest books on Language affect one, after all, like a series of brilliant puns. More important merits than this must, no doubt, be attributed to Max Müller; but, after all, so wayward is he and so whimsical, such a lover of paradox and of digression, that he must perpetually exasperate that sedate race of men whom Philology is supposed to have peculiarly chosen for its own. In this second series of Lectures, especially, “ we have been at a great feast of languages, and have stolen the scraps.”
Beginning the volume mildly with a demure introduction, we suddenly are over head and ears in “ dialectic regeneration,” which seems like theology, only that it introduces us to a mild baby-talk in that wonderful language, the Annamitic, where the sentence “ba ba baba” means, “Three ladies gave a box on the ear to the favorite of the prince.” Then comes Bishop Wilkins’s “ universal language,” then a discussion of Locke, then the theory of harmonics, and then many pages of anatomical plates. Then phonetic changes ; followed by a chapter on “ Grimm’s Law,” which would give work enough for a lifetime. We next plunge into botany, and have a whole chapter on the “words for fir, oak, and beech,” which shows that the author, like our own Mr. Marsh, has studied the literal roots as well as the symbolic. Later, we come to astronomy, whence one of our author’s favorite theories conducts us into the Greek mythology, to which two whole lectures are given. Then comes another chapter, tracing the “ myths of the dawn ” still farther back toward the dim origin of the Aryan race ; and the book closes with a chapter on Modern Mythology, of which some twenty pages are given to an exhaustive treatise, anatomical and historical, on the Barnacle Goose. This brings us round handsomely to Locke and Sir William Hamilton once more, and there leaves us.
What change has come over the accomplished and eloquent man who was wisely transplanted to England to teach us AngloSaxons what scholarship meant, and who made his first series of Lectures a model of clever and effective statement ? He congratulates himself, in the introduction to this volume, on having left out all that was merely elementary. This is true in respect to philology, perhaps, but he has certainly contrived to introduce the elements of a great many other sciences. No matter ; he stated in the first volume all the principal points with which his reputation is identified; and it is very entertaining, though somewhat unexpected, to find the new one filled with all manner of spicy prolusions — mingled with a few delusions — from his commonplace book. Certainly the learning of these Lectures is unequalled, even by his former exhibitions in that line ; and our Cisatlantic standard of attainment seems rather scanty beside this vast affluence.
There is also a certain wayward, heroic, Ruskin-like self-contradiction about Müller, which one learns rather to enjoy. He claims that “ all phonetic corruption proceeds from degeneracy,” and yet has presently to shield himself behind the paradoxical proverb, that “ lazy people take the most trouble,” and so the corrupted vocables are often harder to speak. He says repeatedly that “sound etymology has nothing to do with sound " ; yet he approves phonography, holding that spelling signifies even less than sound,— which is contrary to the usual opinion of philologists. Nevertheless his book is “full of the seeds of things ” ; no one else could have written it, and no one can afford not to read it.