Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 1

Wednesday. September 29th. VI. CFA Wednesday. September 29th. VI. CFA
Wednesday. September 29th. VI.

Attended Prayers this morning although tardy, and recitation afterwards in which I escaped by not being taken up. Returned home, dressed for the day and after breakfast attended Mr. Everetts third Lecture. The etymology of language and their origin have ever been a study among men. Considering the changes natural by transmission, it is remarkable that the radical forms are still the same. It is therefore not at all singular that men should attempt to obtain history in this way. Inquiries have given the origin of the Greek to the Hebrew, to the Celtic, the Flemish, the German. A writer of the present day is still more extravagant than Father Hardouin1 which was that German was the court language of Rome. Father Hardouin professed to believe that the Classics were all fabrications by monks in the dark ages. Others have derived the language from the Jews, the Phoenicians, the Goths and Finns. Some have supposed it the original language, Von der Hardt has supported this last opinion. He maintains the opinion that the Gothic is the parent of Latin and Greek with some appearance of probability. Previous to the arrival of the Phoenicians, the Pelasgi existed and it is supposed by some that the Poems of Homer were originally written in this language and afterwards written in the Greek. Marsham2 maintained that the Egyptian was the original language and so did Lord Monboddo,3 and many other opinions.

Two considerations account for so many theories. One, that as so little real authority remains, there is full play for the imagination as the period we are speaking of is carried back to at least 2000 years 343B.C. We are authorized in saying that there are no remains of the language which was original and therefore there is no ground on which to argue. We have witnessed the changes of language in a time so much shorter that we can easily see the uncertainty of any conclusion with respect to the Gothic claim. The Greek is a derived language as indeed is every language of which we have now any idea, or knowledge. A few words generally find their way into every language from another which do not however justify any claim to forming them. We have an example of the possibility of influence in the case of the Island of Malta which the Saracens possessed for a long time in the middle ages. On this account there are a great many remains in the Arabic language, many therefore have to trace these to Carthage and Phoenicia for its origin.4 It is a fallacy however, he thinks, to call languages derivative. Those which produced a national literature should be considered original, and critics should call them so. Etymologists might call them otherwise. Different dialects of Dutch, Flemish, high German, low German, Swedish, Danish &c. are of the Northern stock. Italian, French and Spanish are all from the Latin, yet the members of one nation cannot understand the conversation or language of another. Whatever has been added or changed to the original, which was the same to all, must be original.

There are also the four different dialects of Greece which require more study to understand, the dialect of Homer also which is peculiar to him. But it is not for the grammar of a language that it is worth noticing it, it is for the character of the literature of the nation to which it belongs. Originality belongs to this as much as it does to the language itself. Italy wants drama, France wants history and other nations are also deficient in some particular branch which constitutes the peculiarity in their language. Though the Athenians affected to be indigenous, Greece was generally settled by the Pelasgi, barbarians of whom it is a question whether they were aborigines like our own or derived their origin from the East. It is sufficiently certain that there were emigrations from Egypt and Phoenicia about sixteen centuries before the birth of Christ. Four of them are mentioned in history, that of Cecrops in 1556, of Danaus 1485, Cadmus 1493 and Pelops 1350. As these dated i.e. dates? are not by any means certain, we may call it generally in the sixteenth century previous to the Christian era. There is certainly a great similarity between the Greek and Oriental languages. There has been of late years a doubt of the identity of such a person as Cadmus or of his ever having existed. It has been generally supposed correct because Cadmus, or Redden as it is in the Oriental 344language, signifies the East so that merely the use of the word has made us suppose it a proper name, but he did not incline to see any reason for this and supposes we might be led into a mistake by our over vigilance and then cited an example exceedingly apt to the purpose. If our history should by some calamity or accident be entirely destroyed and a mere tradition exist as to the history of Columbus, future critics might with the same ground suppose him to be a fabulous character as his name which is Colon in Spanish signifies a (first) settler, and consequently men might say that he was only the first settler and called so by way of distinction. Also of Cabot whose name cabbotir in Italian and French means to explore.

He considers the Greek language as a compound language but it appeared to him, he said, that the Pelasgii far outweighed the oriental. From political and moral causes, he should argue this as it is most probable that men will always take the common terms in use among the larger part and use them as their own. Indeed we are the only example in which the language of emigrants did not vary by that of the nations and this was only because ours was more of a case of extermination and we kept ourselves a single separate body by which it was impossible for our language to be corrupted. He then urged us to recollect and keep in mind these facts, as the Oriental emigrations were the first starting point of the history of the literature of Greece. It is rather remarkable that no native stock has ever grown to the highest excellence and he closed his lecture by showing in this case a similarity between the animal and vegetable world in which many trees will remain barren until engrafted with another stock when they will produce luxuriantly.

After Lecture, I returned home and read over my Astronomy, attended recitation where Mr. Farrar explained to us with much sense more of the Solar system. I wish and intend to state also his remarks, as he is as much of a lecturer as any other almost. He explained to day the distances of the planets and corrected any erroneous impressions we might have from seeing his orreries.

In the afternoon I wrote my Journal and got a lesson in Paley, and the Evening I employed in finishing a long day’s Journal and in reading Pope’s fifth and last Essay, with the Messiah which, to my shame, I have not noticed before as remarkable. I thus spent the whole Evening in reading and writing for a few moments at Mathematics after which I retired. X:25.


Father Jean Hardouin (1646–1729).


John Marsham.


James Burnett, Lord Monboddo 345(1714–1799), Scottish judge and philosopher.


Everett’s second point, as CFA confusedly noted, was that some words are “common to many languages in consequence of the original community of stock” (Everett, Synopsis , p. 2; see entry for 1 Oct., below, for an explanation of this source).

Thursday. September 30th. VI. CFA Thursday. September 30th. VI. CFA
Thursday. September 30th. VI.

Attended Prayers and recitation, and was again reprieved for a time. I now think that every escape is something. After breakfast, I attended Lecture as usual. He today discussed the origin and progress of alphabetical writing, an inquiry into which, he said, had a material effect upon the question of the authenticity of the oldest writings. There were three distinct processes to be gone through, the one which invents the signs of objects and adapts oral sounds to them, the other which notes them down and a third which would be to associate the other two, and make them represent each other. The first process is the most wonderful of all. The imitative faculty is most powerfully implanted in us and we soon learn to make figures upon paper resembling certain objects and then use them as the signs of these objects afterwards. Previous to this, all communication must have been oral and the history of a tribe could only be transmitted by heads of families and priests, the one who would notice what happened within their own circle and the other the religion and rites of the people. We have reason to suppose that pictures were the commencement of Hieroglyphical writing. Mexicans carried this sort of communication to very great perfection, probably as great as possible, but from it’s nature this sort of language must have been very obscure, and from this cause probably arose alphabetical writing.

This change must have taken place from the perfection of a third process which, as he stated before, was the association of the oral and graphic signs. Hieroglyphical writing was unavoidably obscure, as it confounded frequently the signs with the emblems which represented the ideas. Eichhorn1 has made an ingenious conjecture concerning the story of Herodotus, concerning the army of an Oriental prince or, as we may suppose, of Sennachieb Sennacherib. This historian says that while in Egypt he understood that this army had been destroyed by mice, who coming to the tents ate off the strings of their bows and the straps of their shields, by which they were made defenceless and perished by the attacks of their enemies. Now in Egypt the mouse is the symbol of destruction and there was a statue of a king there holding a mouse in his hand, alias destruction, but some person, it is supposed, knowing Herodotus to be a stranger, passed off this trick upon 346him, and he wrote this among others as doubtful stories in his history. Hieroglyphics have come down to us as remaining from many monuments. Those on the monuments are the most frequent and on the sarcophagi, both inside and out, also upon some obelisks. The Rosetta stone, as it is called, has an inscription in hieroglyphics, in Coptic, and in Greek. Ammianus Marcellinus has preserved the Greek interpretation of these on one of the Roman obelisks which he showed to us as well as an engraving of the obelisk itself. No successful attempts have ever been made however to decipher them. But one man has ever succeeded in the least and he has merely with reason argued that these figures which are surrounded by parallellogramic line, or rather curve, are proper names, so that we are authorized in making our first assertion, as this has given us no clue, and we may rather believe that there is no interpretation to be obtained for them as they express no language. This species of writing was more used in Egypt than elsewhere but it is supposed that they had an alphabetical character also.

The progress and utility of alphabetical writing was of course affected by want of materials to write on. The earliest in use for this purpose were stone, metals, wood, bark of trees, skins and linen. Bricks or tiles were used at Babylon, hard wood was also in use which was covered with a thin coat of wax and was written upon with a thing called a stylus made of steel and coming to a point; the other end was flattened and served to efface what had already been written if correction was wanted. The laws of the twelve tables and the public acts at Rome were written on bronze plates and laid up in the aerarium,2 copies of which were distributed among the provinces. At the time of the burning of Rome under Vitellius, three thousand of these were destroyed. There is a large brazen plate at Lyons taken from the bed of the Rhine which contains an harangue of the Emperor Claudius. The original law for the ejection of the Bacchanals mentioned in Livy as a Senatus consultum was dug up in Calabria in 1640. He showed us a copy of it. Preparations of linen were also made which were covered with wax. It is probable that the books of Moses were written so and the books of Homer, if written at all, were probably in this way also. Skins of animals were prepared with wax boiled with the lees of olives. Mr. Gifford, the famous editor of the Quarterly Review,3 was so poor, it is said, that he used to write his poems on smooth pieces of leather at the intervals of his work in a saddler’s shop. Cleanthes, it appears, wrote down his master’s lectures upon muscle shells and the shoulder blades of oxen. The seventh century before Christ under Psammetichus, inner bark of trees was peeled off with a needle, dried 347in the sun and polished when it was written upon with a reed, having the appearance of paint. But this preparation, as given in books, does not correspond with the examples which we have which look like a coarse cloth. This was probably used by the poets Alcaeus and Sappho.

The introduction of paper was subsequent to the age of Homer. It had an effect on letters in Greece similar to that of the invention of printing on literature in modern times. The Herculanian rolls are the oldest specimens we have of the papyrus and they have been so decomposed by heat that we cannot judge of them. The use of it continued until the eleventh century A.C. Parchment was perfected by Eumenes, king of Pergamus, as being rival kings in their desire to obtain libraries, Ptolemy had forbid the exportation of Paper which however was thus without avail. It was used generally in Europe in the seventh Century, Cotton paper in the eleventh and linen in the fourteenth.

Lecture being over I went to Lothrops and learnt my directions for the Commencement of the military campaign, then returned to my room and wrote my Forensic on the subject “whether Moral Obligation implies a future state of rewards and punishments.” I was on the affirmative. After dinner I went and gave my company a drill in the rifle exercise, then attended Forensics. They were pretty good, generally speaking, and Mr. Hedge very simply stated the case and decided in favour of our side of the question. I returned and wrote my Journal. In the Evening I visited Brenan, queried the Freshmen a little and then returned, sat in my room some time and then dispersed for a half an hour in which time I finished my duties and then went to Sheafe’s where we met again with the addition of Rundlet and Fay (by we I mean the Lyceum). After they had gone we went into Otis’s and drank Porter and conversed making it quite late before we retired. XII:15.


Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827), Orientalist and biblical scholar at Göttingen.


The state treasury of Rome, which was kept in the basement of the Temple of Saturn ( Harper’s Dict. of Classical Lit. ).


William Gifford (1756–1826), the first editor of the Quarterly Review ( DNB ).