(BEING CONTINUED FROM 12/11/15)
Dionysius tells us, then, that nature (we might say human nature) causes us to produce
mimetic words, which express things according to certain resemblances ,
‘which are plausible and stimulate our thoughts’. The idea seems to be that a mimetic
word triggers a certain image in the mind, thus stimulating our thinking. The word
, for example, helps the listener to imagine the ‘sparkling’ of a wave, because it
triggers a specific image in the mind (diãnoia). Dionysius mentions two categories of
mimetic words that nature prompts us to coin. First, there are the purely onomatopoeic
words that designate sounds, such as the bellowing of bulls, the whinnying of horses,
the bleating of goats, the roar of fire, the beating of winds, the creaking of ropes, and
so on. This type of words also appears in Augustine’s discussion of the first words
according to Stoic theory (see below):
he mentions tinnitus (the clash of bronze),hinnitus (the whinnying of horses) and balatus (the bleating of sheep) as words that sound like the noise to which they refer.130 But it seems that these are standard examples of onomatopoeic words, which are not necessarily related to Stoic theory.
Having mentioned these onomatopoeic words, Dionysius lists a more general category
of mimetic words, namely ‘a host of other similar indications (mhnÊmata) of sound,
shape, action, feeling, movement, stillness, and anything else whatsoever.’
Apparently, mimetic words comprise not only onomatopoeic words, but also ‘a whole
multitude’ of other words. It is important, however, to observe the use of the word
pamplhy! (‘in their whole multitude’, LSJ), which implies that Dionysius is not speaking about all words: there are ‘very many’ mimetic words, but nothing is said
about the relationship between ÙnÒmata and prãgmata in general. Although
Dionysius mentions Plato’s Cratylus as the first work in which the subject of
etymology was discussed, he does not express any opinion about Cratylus’ views on
the natural correctness of names.
Etymology (etumologia) was a subject in which the Stoics were particularly
interested.131 In my view, however, it is doubtful that Dionysius is referring here to
the Stoic view on the original, mimetic relation between the form and meaning of the
first words, as Schenkeveld argues.132 Our knowledge of Stoic ideas on the correlation
between the form and meaning of words is based on the relatively late accounts of
Origen and Augustine.133 The former tells us that, according to the Stoics, the first
verbal sounds imitate the things that they express . The latter describes various principles according to
which words ‘imitate’ their meaning: apart from the onomatopoeic principle that
applies to the first words (e.g. tinnitus, hinnitus and balatus), there are several other
ways in which words imitate their meaning: for example, words can affect the sense
of hearing just as the quality that they designate affects another sense (e.g. mel,
‘honey’); Augustine mentions several other principles of imitation.134 Because many
words became gradually corrupt, it is the task of etymology to retrace the original
meaning of those words. Dionysius, however, does not discuss ‘first words’. He refers
neither to original name givers, nor to the gradual corruption of words. He is only
interested in the ways in which we create words and mimetically portray
certain things by the combination of sounds: this happens both in our daily language
and in our stylistic writing . In my view, the references to Plato’s
Cratylus and to etymology do not imply any opinion about the natural relation
between names and things in general.135 Dionysius mentions the Cratylus only as a
text in which Plato discussed the mimetic qualities of certain words.136
(TO BE CONTINUED)
130 Augustine, De dialectica 6. See Sluiter (1990) 18 and Allen (2005) 16-17.
131 See Herbermann (19962) 356, Allen (2005) 14-15 and Long (2005) 36.
132 Schenkeveld (1983) 89.
133 Origen, Cels. 1.24 (= FDS 643); Augustine, De dialectica 6.
134 See Allen (2005) 16-17. Allen (2005) argues that the Stoic views on the natural relationship between the form and meaning of words differ in important respects from the views that are discussed in Plato’s Cratylus. According to his interpretation of the Stoic texts, ‘mimetic accuracy’ is not the reason why words are correct, because there are many other principles of imitation involved (see Augustine, De dialectica 6). If Allen is right, then we will have even more reason to doubt that Dionysius’ passage (which mentions the Cratylus but no Stoics) is taken from a Stoic source.
135 The term ‘etymology’ remained to be used by grammarians, although they did not necessarily suppose that the discovery of the original form of a word conveyed its ‘natural’ meaning: use of etymology did not imply any opinion in the debate on the natural or conventional correctness of words.
See Herbermann (19962) 359: ‘Diesen anspruchsvollen Namen [sc. §tumolog¤a, “Lehre vom Wahren”] aber behielt die Beschäftigung mit den Bennenungsgründen schließlich auch dann noch bei, als der namensprechende Anspruch, nämlich der, daß die Entdeckung der Benennungsgründe zu wahren Aussagen über das Wesen des Benannten führe, nicht mehr als ihre eigentliche Triebfeder fungierte, als aus der philosophischen Disziplin eine Disziplin der Grammatik bzw. Sprachlehre geworden war.
Unabhängig von seinem Standpunkt in dem alten Disput um den fÊsei- oder nÒmƒ- resp. y°sei Status der Wörter und unabhängig auch davon, ob er überhaupt einen diesbezüglichen Standpunkt einnimmt,versucht der antike Grammatiker (…) die Benennungsgründe bzw. die Ursprüng der Bildung der einzelnen Wörter darzulegen.’