Harpers on the wonders of the telegraph and typewriter… and the rightful place of philologists.

From the conclusion of a great article in Harper’s on the Telegraph :

The immense extension of the general telegraphic system, and its common use for business and social correspondence and the dissemination of public intelligence, are far more important to the community than any of these incidental applications of the system. The telegraph system is extending much more rapidly than the railroad system, and is probably exerting even a greater influence upon the mental development of the people than the railroad is exerting in respect to the material and physical prosperity of the country. It has penetrated almost every mind with a new sense of the vastnessof distance and the value of time. It is commonly said that it has annihilated time and space—and this is true in a sense; but in a deeper sense it has magnified both, for it has been the means of expanding vastly the inadequate conceptions which we form of space and distance, and of giving a significance to the ideaof time which it never before had to the human mind. It lifts every man who reads its messages above his own little circle, gives him in a vivid flash, as it were, a view of vast distances, and tends by an irresistible influence to make him a citizen of his country and a fellow of the race as well as a member of his local community.

In other respects its influence, though less obvious, will probably prove equally profound. So long as the mysterious force employed in the telegraph was only known in the mariner’s compass, or by scientific investigations, or in a few special processes of art, the knowledge of the electric or magnetic force had, so to speak, a very limited soil to grow in. By means of the telegraph many thousands of persons in this country are constantly employed in dealing with it practically—generating it, insulating it, manipulating it. The invention of Morse has engaged some one in every considerable town and village in studying its properties, watching its operation, and using it profitably. Nothing could be better calculated to attract general attention to this newfound power, and to disseminate that knowl edge of it from which new applications may be expected to result.

The tendency of scientific pursuits to promote the love of truth and the habit of accuracy is strikingly illustrated in the zeal and fidelity with which the minute and long-continued investigations have been pursued that have led to the development of this new realm of knowledge and this new element in human affairs.

But perhaps the most extended and important influence which the telegraph is destined to exert upon the human mind is that which it will ultimately work out through its influence upon language.

Language is the instrument of thought. It is not merely a means of expression. A word is a tool for thinking, before the thinker uses it as a signal for communicating his thought. There is no good reason why it should not be free to be improved, as other implements are. Language has hitherto been regarded merely in a historical point of view, and even now philology is little more than a record of the differences in language which have separated mankind, and of the steps of development in it which each branch of the human family has pursued. And as a whole it may be said that the science of language in the hands of philologists is used to perpetuate the differences and irregularities of speech which prevail. The telegraph is silently introducing a new element, which, we may confidently predict, will one day present this subject in a different aspect. The invention of Morse has given beyond recall the pre-eminence to the Italian alphabet, and has secured the ultimate adoption through-out the world of that system or some improvement upon it. The community of intelligence, and the necessary convertibility of expression between difl‘erent languages, which the press through the influence of the telegraph is establishing, have commenced a process of assimilation, the results of which are already striking to those who carefully examine the subject. An important event transpiring in any part of the civilized world is concisely expressed in a dispatch which is immediately reproduced in five or ten or more different languages. A comparison of such dispatches with each other will show that in them the peculiar; and local idioms of each language are to a large extent discarded. The process sifts out, as it were, the characteristic peculiarities of each language, and it may be confidently said that nowhere in literature will be found a more remarkable parallelism of structure, and even of word forms, combined with equal purity and strength in each language, than in the telegraphic columns of the leading dailies of the capitals of Europe and America. A traveler in Europe, commencing the study of the language of the country where he may be, finds no reading which he can so easily master as the telegraphic news column. The telegraph is cosmopolitan, and is rapidly giving prominence to those modes of speech in which different languages resemble each other. When we add to this the fact that every step of advance made by science and the arts increases that which different languages have in common by reason of the tendency of men in these pursuits the world over to adopt a common nomenclature, and to think alike or in similar mental processes, we see the elements already at work which will ultimately relegate philology to its proper and useful place among the departments of history, and will free language from those restrictions which now forbid making any intentional improvements in it. With the general use of the telegraphic system other things begin to readjust themselves to its conditions. Short-hand writing is more cultivated now than ever before. The best reporter must understand both systems, and be able to take his notes of a conversation while it passes, and then by stepping into an office transmit it at, once without writing out. There is now in practical use in the city of New York a little instrument the size of a sewing-machine, having a keyboard like the printing telegraph, by which any one can write in print as legibly as this page, and almost as rapidly as a reporter in short-hand. When we consider the immense number of people that every day by writing a telegram and counting the words are taking a most efficient lesson in concise composition, we see in another way the influence of this invention on the strength of language. If the companies should ever adopt the system of computing all their charges by the number of letters instead of words, as indeed they do now for all cipher or unintelligible messages, the world would very quickly be considering the economic advantages of phonetic or other improved orthography.

These processes are in operation all the world over, and in reference to the use of one and the same alphabet. By the principle which Darwin describes as natural selection short words are gaining the advantage of long words, direct forms of expression are gaining the advantage over indirect, words of precise meaning the advantage of the ambiguous, and local idioms are every where at a disadvantage. The doctrine of the Survival of the Fittest thus tends to the constant improvement and points to the ultimate unification of language.

The idea of a common language of the world, therefore, however far in the future it may be, is no longer a dream of the poet nor a scheme of a conqueror. And it is significant of the spirit of the times that this idea, once so chimerical, should at the time we are writing find expression in the inaugural of our Chief Magistrate, in his declaration of the belief “ that our Great Maker is preparing the world in His own good time to become one nation, speaking one language, and when armies and navies will be no longer required.”

“The Telegraph.” 1873. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 47 (June 1): 332–60.

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