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Eighteenth Annual Report Of The Trustees Of The Perkins Institution And Massachusetts Asylum For The Blind

Creator: Samuel Gridley Howe (author)
Date: 1850
Source: Perkins School for the Blind

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A word of explanation may not be amiss, because it illustrates the mode of teaching Laura in the beginning of her course. Little children amuse and train themselves by attaching names, as labels, to things, repeating them over and over and ringing changes upon them. There is little thought about it; it is merely a playful exercise of the mind, and yet the process is a very important one. They do not notice, at first, the attributes or qualities that go to make up the thing. They seize upon the general outline, or whole group of attributes, and utter some sound which is to them a name; or, if they hear us give a name to it, they instantly imitate us; they hang on a label as like ours as they can make it, no matter whether it is good or bad. For instance, we say dog, and a Frenchman says chien, and the child adopts either with equal readiness, because there is just as much fitness in the one name as in the other. But if our vocal sign bear any resemblance to any peculiarity about the beast, -- as bow-wow! -- the meaning of that sign is more quickly perceived; the imitation of it is more readily made; and if the child happen to hear the dog bark, the connection between the sound and the animal becomes indelibly impressed upon his mind. He hangs the label on to the right object at once, and never forgets where it belongs. "Bow-wow!" "baa! Baa! ""quack! quack!" are natural and good labels, more easily learned, more easily comprehended, and more firmly retained, than "dog," "sheep," and "duck," -- comprehended, too, the world over.


The next animal, however, that the child sees going upon four legs, bearing however remote likeness to the first, be it a bear, a sheep, or a calf, revives the impression made upon his mind by the dog, and he instantly produces its label, and, tacking it on to the creature, cries, "Bow-bow!" He has not yet learned what are the peculiar attributes connoted by the arbitrary word dog, or by his own more natural name, bow-bow! Little by little, he perceives that there are peculiarities about other animals, and notes the most striking of these, -- the horns, for instance, or the shaggy fur, -- and he then requires a sign-word or a label for each one of them, and makes one, or takes one used by others, as cow, bear, and the like. He learns, however, very slowly, perceiving only the most striking attributes of the object; he at first mistakes a wolf or a fox for a dog; and even after he has ceased to do this, he has yet more to learn about the thing signified by the word dog. He must become acquainted with poodles, terriers, spaniels, hounds, bull-dogs, lap-dogs, water-dogs, and all the varieties of the species, before he understands the most striking attributes connoted by the term dog; nor does he yet comprehend the whole of the connotation, unless he knows the habits of the animal and its anatomical and other peculiarities. It may seem pushing the figure too far to say, that few men comprehend fully, if any do, the whole meaning and connotation of the word dog; nevertheless, it is in some sense strictly true. A man may own packs of them, and not know the whole meaning and connotation of the word, unless he has paid uncommon attention to the natural history of the animal.


In view of the principle above alluded to, the teacher should train children as much as is possible to observe carefully, not only what objects are denoted by names, but what attributes are connoted also. This, however, is rarely done, and most of us grow up with very vague and imperfect notions of what is meant by the words we use. Children at first care only to obtain names for whatever presents itself to their senses in the concrete, -- a stone, a house, a tree; and of these they seize only upon the most obvious appearances, -- the hardness, the structure, or the foliage. They do not note the weight and texture of the first, the structure and plan of the second, or the growth and functions of the third. They gradually acquire vague notions of the attributes of an object, so far as they are presented in the concrete, but it is rarely that they come to think about all that is implied by the abstract terms weight, structure, and function. Nay, few grown people ask themselves what is implied by what seem concrete terms, but which are really abstract terms, such as size, weight, smell, &c.; and if they should be required to define such words as fault, virtue, affection, they would have to resort to an extensive circumlocution, and probably finish by giving an example instead of a definition. Such persons, talking with Laura in the early part of her studies, and running on glibly with what seemed to them the easiest and simplest words, used to be astonished at her stopping them to ask, What do you mean by virtue? What is quiet? What is solemn? Their amazement, however, was not equal to hers, at finding they could not explain the words they had been using.


Any one who has had dealings with the world, and has thought upon the subject of language, will see how this vagueness of people's ideas about the meaning of the words they use becomes the source of misunderstanding and mischief without end. To say nothing of the intentional double-dealing of all, from the Pythoness at Delphi, to the pettifogger everywhere, who purposely keep the word of promise to the ear, while they break it to the hope, -- what wars and fightings among nations, what disputes and quarrels among individuals, what polemics among divines, what protocols among statesmen, what speeches and fees among lawyers, might have been saved to the world, if certain words, written down hastily, had been clearly understood by the writers and by the readers!

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