Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.: Considerations concerning the First Formation of Languages - Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 4 Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres
Return to Title Page for Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 4 Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
3.: Considerations concerning the First Formation of Languages - Adam Smith, Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 4 Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres 
Lectures On Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, ed. J. C. Bryce, vol. IV of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith and the associated volumes are published in hardcover by Oxford University Press. The six titles of the Glasgow Edition, but not the associated volumes, are being published in softcover by Liberty Fund. The online edition is published by Liberty Fund under license from Oxford University Press.
©Oxford University Press 1976. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be stored transmitted retransmitted lent or reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of Oxford University Press.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Considerations concerning the First Formation of Languages
It may be worth remembering that the dissertation Adam Smith delivered, as by statute required, on 16 January 1751 to justify his induction into the Chair of Logic and Rhetoric at the University of Glasgow was entitled De origine idearum. In the absence of the text of this we cannot know in what sense idea was used. His first published essay was on a semantic subject. For the first number of the Edinburgh Review which he had helped to found in 1755 he chose to review Johnson’s newly issued Dictionary, and he made his review an exercise in the systematic distinction and arrangement of the meanings of words: but and humour as examples. He found Johnson’s treatment insufficiently ‘grammatical’, i.e. philosophically analytic (EPS 232–41) and offers an alternative plan. There is evidence to support the statement of A. F. Tytler in his Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Honourable Henry Home of Kames . . . containing sketches of the Progress and General Improvement in Scotland during the greater part of the eighteenth century (1807: i. 168) that of all the articles in the two numbers of the magazine this was the one which attracted most attention—and the implications of Tytler’s long sub–title help us to understand why. Tytler admits that though Smith’s article ‘displays the same philosophic views of universal grammar, which distinguish his Essay on the formation of Languages’ his metaphysical discrimination and ingenuity were less suitable than Johnson’s method ‘for conveying a critical knowledge of the English language’ (170).
Light is thrown on the beginnings of Smith’s interest in language in a letter which he wrote on 7 February 1763 to George Baird who had sent him an Abstract of An Essay on Grammar as it may be applied to the English Language (1765) by his friend William Ward. The letter (69), which was printed by Nichols in Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century (iii, 1818, 515–16), expresses surprise that Ward, mentioning various definitions of nouns, ‘takes no notice of that of the Abbé Girard, the author of a book, called, ‘Les vrais Principes de la Langue Françoise’. . . . It is the book which first set me a thinking upon these subjects, and I have received more instruction from it than from any other I have yet seen upon them. . . . The grammatical articles, too, in the French Encyclopedie have given me a good deal of entertainment.’ The comments on Ward’s design offer a useful introduction to Smith’s own thinking.
I approve greatly of his plan for a Rational Grammar, and I am convinced that a work of this kind, executed with his abilities and industry, may prove not only the best system of grammar, but the best system of logic in any language, as well as the best history of the natural progress of the human mind in forming the most important abstractions upon which all reasoning depends. . . . If I was to treat the same subject, I should endeavour to begin with the consideration of verbs; these being, in my apprehension, the original parts of speech, first invented to express in one word a complete event: I should then have endeavoured to shew how the subject was divided from the attribute; and afterwards, how the object was distinguished from both; and in this manner I should have tried to investigate the origin and use of all the different parts of speech, and of all their different modifications, considered as necessary to express all the different qualifications and relations of any single event.
Smith is too modest to say that all this—‘taken in a general view, which is the only view that I can pretend to have taken of them’—he did in fact set out in an essay published two years earlier, but, as Stewart tells us (II. 44), he was proud of the ‘considerations concerning the First Formation of Languages’: ‘It is an essay of great ingenuity, and on which the author himself set a high value’ and justly—it is a masterpiece of lucid exposition which any summary can only blur. Stewart’s comments (II. 44–56) are the most perceptive ever made on it. He saw that its value lies, not in the possible accuracy of the opinions, but in its being a specimen of an entirely modern kind of inquiry ‘which seems, in a peculiar degree, to have interested Mr Smith’s curiosity.’ To this Stewart applied the now famous phrase ‘Theoretical or Conjectural History’, and he finds examples of it in all Smith’s writings. In the absence of direct evidence, ‘when we are unable to ascertain how men have actually conducted themselves upon particular occasions’ we must consider ‘in what manner they are likely to have proceeded, from the principles of their nature, and the circumstances of their external situation.’ ‘The known principles of human nature’; ‘the natural succession of inventions and discoveries’; ‘the circumstances of society’—these are the foundations on which rests Smith’s thinking ‘whatever be the nature of his subject’; astronomy, politics, economics, literature, language. ‘In most cases, it is of more importance to ascertain the progress that is most simple, than the progress that is most agreeable to fact; for . . . the real progress is not always the most natural’ (56). Stewart is stressing the timelessness of Smith’s argument, which still makes sense even after the birth of comparative philology in 1786 with Sir William Jones’s demonstration before the Royal Asiatic Society of the kinship between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and the Germanic and Celtic languages. Smith instinctively uses the historical mode for his exposition of principles in this context while exhibiting the powers of the mind operating in their most fully human and characteristic activity: comparing, classifying, abstracting. The primacy he gives to language, which entails that something like Lecture 3 must have come early in his Rhetoric course right from its first delivery, rests on his vision of language as the embodiment of the mind’s striving towards the ‘metaphysical’, towards conceptualization.
‘Essay’, ‘Dissertation’, ‘Considerations’: the last is the appropriate title, since three (of quite different kinds) are offered. The first, ‘theoretical history’ proper, has two sections: (a) on nouns, adjectives and prepositions (1–25); (b) on verbs and pronouns (26–32). That mere chronology is not Smith’s real concern is shown by his beginning with nouns, although he believes verbs are the most ancient part of speech, which starts with the presentation of a single undifferentiated event as in the impersonal verb. He does so because the inflectional systems of the noun are well adapted to exhibiting his analysis of the process of abstraction: from classes of things, to modification by quality, gender, number, and relationship—and even within relationships, a hierarchy or range of degrees of the metaphysical, there Smith’s vision of the organic connection between thinking and speaking becomes clear. No one will attribute to him the naive notion that early man first conceived the relations by, with, or from, and then invented the device of adding –o or –e to the root of the noun to express them. Language and thought are generated together, as d’Alembert maintained in the ‘Discours préliminaire’ to the Encyclopédie in 1751. He too had learned from the Abbé Gabriel Girard’s Les vrais principes de la langue françoise, ou la parole réduite en méthode conformément aux lois de l’usage (1747) to see ‘parts of speech’, not as dead terms in school grammar, but as operations of the human intellect, and ‘grammar’ itself as the image of logic. Girard’s book is a perfect example of the beautiful unity and harmony he finds in the linguistic works of the spirit.
The second Consideration (33–40) moves from conjectural to actual history: the breakdown of the inflectional system which results from peoples of different tongue living together and being defeated by the intricacies (as they see them) of each other’s speech–structures: the Germanic Lombards confronted with Latin, or (Smith might have added) the invading Norse–speakers meeting the English. The simplification in question can be observed by anyone listening to a foreigner wrestling with his elementary English. ‘Elementary’ is the right word, speech reduced to its elements, all verb–forms reduced to the infinitive. Something comparable produces the various kinds of pidgin and creole throughout the world.
The third Consideration (41–45) is an assessment of the damage wrought by this breakdown: modern analytic languages are, as compared with earlier synthetic ones, more prolix (since a multiplicity of words must replace the old inflections), less agreeable to the ear (lacking the pleasing symmetries and variety of the inflections), and more rigid in their possibilities of word–ordering (differences of case–endings make for flexibility in arrangement without ambiguity).
Most of the many mid–eighteenth century investigators of the beginnings of language are interested in more superficial senses of the word ‘origin’: fruitless searches for a reason why a particular sound was ever chosen to denote a particular thing or idea, as in the Traité de la formation méchanique des langues et des principes physiques de l’étymologie (1765) by Charles de Brosses, parts of which were in circulation from 1751 and found their way into articles in the Encyclopédie; or speculations on ‘universal grammar’ and the causes of differences among languages, like the Hermes of James Harris (1751). How simplemindedly Smith’s highly original essay could be read is illustrated by the widely known Elements of general knowledge (1802), lectures which Henry Kett had been delivering since 1790: how did Adam Smith’s two incredible savages ever get into the situation in which he imagines them inventing speech? (i. 88–9). Kett is put down by the percipient L. Davison in ‘Some account of a recent work entitled Elements of General Knowledge’ (1804: ii. 87–88), who sees that Smith assumes language and is interested simply in how it proceeds.
Smith’s connection with The Philological Miscellany (1761) in which his essay first appeared is obscure. An anonymous contributor to The European Magazine, and London Review for April 1802 (xli. 249), writing from Oxford on 10 April 1802, after a reference to an article on Smith in the previous issue and high praise for the review of Johnson’s Dictionary, goes on: ‘in 1761 was published, I believe by Dr. Smith, “The Philological Miscellany” ’, and in it Dr. Smith’s ‘Considerations concerning the first Formation of Languages’ first appeared. No authority for attributing the volume to Smith is given; and what in any case is meant—the compiling, or the translating of the French articles? Smith’s essay is the only one to be first published here. The others are almost all from the Mémoires of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, apparently specially translated for this collection of papers on historical, classical and miscellaneous learned questions, such as Smith showed an interest in, in his letter to the Edinburgh Review no. 2, 1756 (EPS 242–54). The editor of the Miscellany ‘proposes to enrich his Work with a variety of Articles from the French Encyclopedie, and with curious Dissertations on Philological Subjects by foreign writers.’ But no further volumes appeared.
Note on the Text
In Adam Smith’s lifetime five authorized editions of this essay were published, for which the sigla PM, 3, 4, 5, 6 are here used:
[PM] the | Philological Miscellany; | consisting of | select essays | from the | memoirs of the Academy of | Belles Lettres at Paris, and | other foreign Academies. | Translated into English. | with | Original Pieces by the most Eminent | Writers of our own Country. | vol. I. | [double rule] | Printed for the Editor; | And Sold by T. Beckett and P. A. Dehondt, | in the Strand. 1761. | (8vo: pp. viii + 510).
Pp. 440–79 contains: Considerations concerning the first formation of Languages, and the different genius of original and compounded Languages. By Adam Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow. Now first published.—The Table of Contents lists the essay in the same words. This volume, the only one of a projected twice–yearly series to appear, was published in May 1761. The British Library copy has on its fly–leaf the note: ‘Presented by M.rs Becket Oct.r 9. 1761.’
 the | theory | of | moral sentiments. | To which is added | A Dissertation on the Origin of Languages. | By Adam Smith, L.L.D. | The Third Edition. | . . MDCCLXVII.—The essay is on pp. 437–78, headed and listed in Table of Contents as in PM, but omitting ‘By . . . published’.
While this edition of TMS was going through the press in winter 1766–67 Smith wrote to his publisher William Strahan:
The Dissertation upon the Origin of Languages is to be printed at the end of Theory. There are some literal errors in the printed copy of it which I should have been glad to have corrected, but have not the opportunity, as I have no copy by me. They are of no great consequenc<e>
Seven verbal changes were nevertheless made in the text. Smith, it may be noted, here gives the essay the same title as do the title–pages of the early editions of TMS, and as Dugald Stewart in his Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, I. 26, II. 44 (see EPS).
 the | theory | of | moral sentiments. | [as 3] The Fourth Edition . . . MDCCLXXIV. The essay is on pp. 437–76, headed as in 3.
 the | theory | of | moral sentiments. | [as 3] The Fifth Edition . . . MDCCLXXXI. The essay is on pp. 437–78, headed as in 3.
 the | theory | of | moral sentiments. | [as 3] The Sixth Edition . . . MDCCXC. The essay is on pp. 403–62 of vol. ii.
The present text is that of 1790, the last for which Smith was responsible. He had worked long on the ‘considerable additions and corrections’ now included in the Theory. An account of the early editions, and of Smith’s carefulness over proof correction in general, is given in the introduction to TMS in the present edition: especially 47–9. The ‘Considerations’ remained entirely unchanged in substance throughout their five editions, and only a selection of variants from before 1790 need be recorded.
4–6 replace in lower case the initial capitals which PM and 3 consistently give the following words: Philosopher, Grammarians, Adjective, Schoolmen, Green (§4), Nouns, Metaphysics, Masculine, Feminine, Neutral, Genders, Substantive, Termination, Prepositions, Superiority, Inferiority, Genitive, Dative, Arbor (§§13 ff.), Grammar, Languages, Nominative, Accusative, Vocative, Cases, Variations, Declensions, Numbers, Conjugations, Verb, Logicians, Citizen, Optative, Mood, Future, Aorist, Preterit, Tenses, Passive, Participle, Infinitives, Law, Court, Verse, Prose (in the order of first occurrence).
4–6 replace with what we should regard as ‘modern’ forms the following spellings in PM and 3: concret, antient, accompanyment, surprized, forestal, compleat, indispensible, acquireable.
In the matter of punctuation, only students of eighteenth century typographical usage (or whim) will be interested in omissions and insertions of commas in intermediate editions, and they will consult the original texts. In no case is the meaning affected by these variations, though the delivery of an elocutionist declaiming the text might be. No logical or grammatical principle can be seen to be uniformly dictating the many changes from edition to edition. On the whole 4–6 agree as against PM and 3; but six of 3’s changes of PM are reversed by 6 and/or 4, 5. Only variants involving points heavier than comma are here recorded. We cannot know how many are authorial.
The seventh edition (1792) follows 6 in capitals, spelling, italics, and generally in punctuation. The other early editions have not been collated. They include: 1777 (Dublin: title–page ‘the sixth edition’), 1793 (Basel), 1797 (8th), 1801 (9th), 1804 (10th), 1808 (Edinburgh: title–page ‘the eleventh edition’), 1809 (Glasgow: title–page ‘the twelfth edition’), 1812 (11th), 1813 (Edinburgh). In The Works of Adam Smith vol. v (1811) the ‘Considerations’ are on pp. 3–48, printed as in 6. They are included in Smith’s Essays (1869, 1880). A French translation by A.M.H.B.[oulard], Considérations sur la première formation des langues, et le différent génie des langues originales et composées, was published in Paris in 1796; also one appended to the third French translation of the TMS: Théorie des sentimens moraux, trans. from ed. 7 by Sophie de Grouchy, Marquise de Condorcet (1798, revd. 1830): ‘Considérations sur l’origine et la formation des langues’, ii. 264–310.