SJG Archive

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

SJG Archive



Darwin and Modern Science (1909)

Edited by A.C. Seward


XXVI. EVOLUTION AND THE SCIENCE OF LANGUAGE.

By P. GILES, M.A., LL.D. (Aberdeen),
Reader in Comparative Philology in the University of Cambridge.

I
n no study has the historical method had a more salutary influence than in the Science of Language. Even the earliest records show that the meaning of the names of persons, places, and common objects was then, as it has always been since, a matter of interest to mankind. And in every age the common man has regarded himself as competent without special training to explain by inspection (if one may use a mathematical phrase) the meaning of any words that attracted his attention. Out of this amateur etymologising has sprung a great amount of false history, a kind of historical mythology invented to explain familiar names. A single example will illustrate the tendency. According to the local legend the ancestor of the Earl of Erroll--a husbandman who stayed the flight of his countrymen in the battle of Luncarty and won the victory over the Danes by the help of the yoke of his oxen--exhausted with the fray uttered the exclamation "Hoch heigh!" The grateful king about to ennoble the victorious ploughman at once replied:

"Hoch heigh! said ye And Hay shall ye be."

The Norman origin of the name Hay is well-known, and the battle of Luncarty long preceded the appearance of Normans in Scotland, but the legend nevertheless persists.

Though the earliest European treatise on philological questions which is now extant--the "Cratylus" of Plato,--as might be expected from its authorship, contains some acute thinking and some shrewd guesses, yet the work as a whole is infantine in its handling of language, and it has been doubted whether Plato was more than half serious in some of the suggestions which he puts forward. (For an account of the "Cratylus" with references to other literature see Sandys' "History of Classical Scholarship", I. page 92 ff., Cambridge, 1903.) In the hands of the Romans things were worse even than they had been in the hands of Plato and his Greek successors. The lack of success on the part of Varro and later Roman writers may have been partly due to the fact that, from the etymological point of view, Latin is a much more difficult language than Greek; it is by no means so closely connected with Greek as the ancients imagined, and they had no knowledge of the Celtic languages from which, on some sides at least, much greater light on the history of the Latin language might have been obtained. Roman civilisation was a late development compared with Greek, and its records dating earlier than 300 B.C.--a period when the best of Greek literature was already in existence--are very few and scanty. Varro it is true was much more of an antiquary than Plato, but his extant works seem to show that he was rather a "dungeon of learning" than an original thinker.

A scientific knowledge of language can be obtained only by comparison of different languages of the same family and the contrasting of their characteristics with those of another family or other families. It never occurred to the Greeks that any foreign language was worthy of serious study. Herodotus and other travellers and antiquaries indeed picked up individual words from various languages, either as being necessary in communication with the inhabitants of the countries where they sojourned, or because of some point which interested them personally. Plato and others noticed the similarity of some Phrygian words to Greek, but no systematic comparison seems ever to have been instituted.

In the Middle Ages the treatment of language was in a sense more historical. The Middle Ages started with the hypothesis, derived from the book of Genesis, that in the early world all men were of one language and of one speech. Though on the same authority they believed that the plain of Shinar has seen that confusion of tongues whence sprang all the languages upon earth, they seem to have considered that the words of each separate language were nevertheless derived from this original tongue. And as Hebrew was the language of the Chosen People, it was naturally assumed that this original tongue was Hebrew. Hence we find Dante declaring in his treatise on the Vulgar Tongue (Dante "de Vulgari Eloquio", I. 4.) that the first word man uttered in Paradise must have been "El," the Hebrew name of his Maker, while as a result of the fall of Adam, the first utterance of every child now born into this world of sin and misery is "heu," Alas! After the splendidly engraved bronze plates containing, as we now know, ritual regulations for certain cults, were discovered in 1444 at the town of Gubbio, in Umbria, they were declared, by some authorities, to be written in excellent Hebrew. The study of them has been the fascination and the despair of many a philologist. Thanks to the devoted labours of numerous scholars, mainly in the last sixty years, the general drift of these inscriptions is now known. They are the only important records of the ancient Umbrian language, which was related closely to that of the Samnites and, though not so closely, to that of the Romans on the other side of the Apennines. Yet less than twenty years ago a book was published in Germany, which boasts itself the home of Comparative Philology, wherein the German origin of the Umbrian language was no less solemnly demonstrated than had been its Celtic origin by Sir William Betham in 1842.

It is good that the study of language should be historical, but the first requisite is that the history should be sound. How little had been learnt of the true history of language a century ago may be seen from a little book by Stephen Weston first published in 1802 and several times reprinted, where accidental assonance is considered sufficient to establish connection. Is there not a word "bad" in English and a word "bad" in Persian which mean the same thing? Clearly therefore Persian and English must be connected. The conclusion is true, but it is drawn from erroneous premises. As stated, this identity has no more value than the similar assonance between the English "cover" and the Hebrew "kophar", where the history of "cover" as coming through French from a Latin "co-operire" was even in 1802 well-known to many. To this day, in spite of recent elaborate attempts (Most recently in H. Moller's "Semitisch und Indogermanisch", Erster Teil, Kopenhagen, 1907.) to establish connection between the Indo- Germanic and the Semitic families of languages, there is no satisfactory evidence of such relation between these families. This is not to deny the possibility of such a connection at a very early period; it is merely to say that through the lapse of long ages all trustworthy record of such relationship, if it ever existed, has been, so far as present knowledge extends, obliterated.

But while Stephen Weston was publishing, with much public approval, his collection of amusing similarities between languages--similarities which proved nothing--the key to the historical study of at least one family of languages had already been found by a learned Englishman in a distant land. In 1783 Sir William Jones had been sent out as a judge in the supreme court of judicature in Bengal. While still a young man at Oxford he was noted as a linguist; his reputation as a Persian scholar had preceded him to the East. In the intervals of his professional duties he made a careful study of the language which was held sacred by the natives of the country in which he was living. He was mainly instrumental in establishing a society for the investigation of language and related subjects. He was himself the first president of the society, and in the "third anniversary discourse" delivered on February 2, 1786, he made the following observations: "The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the GREEK, more copious than the LATIN, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this was the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia." ("Asiatic Researches", I. page 422, "Works of Sir W. Jones", I. page 26, London, 1799.)

No such epoch-making discovery was probably ever announced with less flourish of trumpets. Though Sir William Jones lived for eight years more and delivered other anniversary discourses, he added nothing of importance to this utterance. He had neither the time nor the health that was needed for the prosecution of so arduous an undertaking.

But the good seed did not fall upon stony ground. The news was speedily conveyed to Europe. By a happy chance, the sudden renewal of war between France and England in 1803 gave Friedrich Schlegel the opportunity of learning Sanscrit from Alexander Hamilton, an Englishman who, like many others, was confined in Paris during the long struggle with Napoleon. The influence of Schlegel was not altogether for good in the history of this research, but he was inspiring. Not upon him but upon Franz Bopp, a struggling German student who spent some time in Paris and London a dozen years later, fell the mantle of Sir William Jones. In Bopp's Comparative Grammar of the Indo-Germanic languages which appeared in 1833, three- quarters of a century ago, the foundations of Comparative Philology were laid. Since that day the literature of the subject has grown till it is almost, if not altogether, beyond the power of any single man to cope with it. But long as the discourse may be, it is but the elaboration of the text that Sir William Jones supplied.

With the publication of Bopp's Comparative Grammar the historical study of language was put upon a stable footing. Needless to say much remained to be done, much still remains to be done. More than once there has been danger of the study following erroneous paths. Its terminology and its point of view have in some degree changed. But nothing can shake the truth of the statement that the Indo-Germanic languages constitute in themselves a family sprung from the same source, marked by the same characteristics, and differentiated from all other languages by formation, by vocabulary, and by syntax. The historical method was applied to language long before it reached biology. Nearly a quarter of a century before Charles Darwin was born, Sir William Jones had made the first suggestion of a comparative study of languages. Bopp's Comparative Grammar began to be published nine years before the first draft of Darwin's treatise on the Origin of Species was put on paper in 1842.

It is not therefore on the history of Comparative Philology in general that the ideas of Darwin have had most influence. Unfortunately, as Jowett has said in the introduction to his translation of Plato's "Republic", most men live in a corner. The specialisation of knowledge has many advantages, but it has also disadvantages, none worse perhaps than that it tends to narrow the specialist's horizon and to make it more difficult for one worker to follow the advances that are being made by workers in other departments. No longer is it possible as in earlier days for an intellectual prophet to survey from a Pisgah height all the Promised Land. And the case of linguistic research has been specially hard. This study has, if the metaphor may be allowed, a very extended frontier. On one side it touches the domain of literature, on other sides it is conterminous with history, with ethnology and anthropology, with physiology in so far as language is the production of the brain and tissues of a living being, with physics in questions of pitch and stress accent, with mental science in so far as the principles of similarity, contrast, and contiguity affect the forms and the meanings of words through association of ideas. The territory of linguistic study is immense, and it has much to supply which might be useful to the neighbours who border on that territory. But they have not regarded her even with that interest which is called benevolent because it is not actively maleficent. As Horne Tooke remarked a century ago, Locke had found a whole philosophy in language. What have the philosophers done for language since? The disciples of Kant and of Wilhelm von Humboldt supplied her plentifully with the sour grapes of metaphysics; otherwise her neighbours have left her severely alone save for an occasional "Ausflug," on which it was clear they had sadly lost their bearings. Some articles in Psychological Journals, Wundt's great work on "Volkerpsychologie" (Erster Band: "Die Sprache", Leipzig, 1900. New edition, 1904. This work has been fertile in producing both opponents and supporters. Delbruck, "Grundfragen der Sprachforschung", Strassburg, 1901, with a rejoinder by Wundt, "Sprachgeschichte" and "Sprachpsychologie", Leipzig, 1901; L. Sutterlin, "Das Wesen der Sprachgebilde", Heidelberg, 1902; von Rozwadowski, "Wortbildung und Wortbedeutung", Heidelberg, 1904; O. Dittrich, "Grundzuge der Sprachpsychologie", Halle, 1904, Ch. A. Sechehaye, "Programme et methodes de la linguistique theorique", Paris, 1908.), and Mauthner's brilliantly written "Beitrage zu einer Kritik der Sprache" (In three parts: (i) "Sprache und Psychologie, (ii) "Zur Sprachwissenschaft", both Stuttgart 1901, (iii) "Zur Grammatic und Logik" (with index to all three volumes), Stuttgart and Berlin, 1902.) give some reason to hope that, on one side at least, the future may be better than the past.

Where Charles Darwin's special studies came in contact with the Science of Language was over the problem of the origin and development of language. It is curious to observe that, where so many fields of linguistic research have still to be reclaimed--many as yet can hardly be said to be mapped out,--the least accessible field of all--that of the Origin of Language-- has never wanted assiduous tillers. Unfortunately it is a field beyond most others where it may be said that

"Wilding oats and luckless darnel grow."

If Comparative Philology is to work to purpose here, it must be on results derived from careful study of individual languages and groups of languages. But as yet the group which Sir William Jones first mapped out and which Bopp organised is the only one where much has been achieved. Investigation of the Semitic group, in some respects of no less moment in the history of civilisation and religion, where perhaps the labour of comparison is not so difficult, as the languages differ less among themselves, has for some reason strangely lagged behind. Some years ago in the "American Journal of Philology" Paul Haupt pointed out that if advance was to be made, it must be made according to the principles which had guided the investigation of the Indo-Germanic languages to success, and at last a Comparative Grammar of an elaborate kind is in progress also for the Semitic languages. (Brockelmann, "Vergleichende Grammatik der semitischen Sprachen", Berlin, 1907 ff. Brockelmann and Zimmern had earlier produced two small hand- books. The only large work was William Wright's "Lectures on the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages", Cambridge, 1890.) For the great group which includes Finnish, Hungarian, Turkish and many languages of northern Asia, a beginning, but only a beginning has been made. It may be presumed from the great discoveries which are in progress in Turkestan that presently much more will be achieved in this field. But for a certain utterance to be given by Comparative Philology on the question of the origin of language it is necessary that not merely for these languages but also for those in other quarters of the globe, the facts should be collected, sifted and tabulated. England rules an empire which contains a greater variety of languages by far than were ever held under one sway before. The Government of India is engaged in producing, under the editorship of Dr Grierson, a linguistic survey of India, a remarkable undertaking and, so far as it has gone, a remarkable achievement. Is it too much to ask that, with the support of the self-governing colonies, a similar survey should be undertaken for the whole of the British Empire?

Notwithstanding the great number of books that have been written on the origin of language in the last three and twenty centuries, the results of the investigation which can be described as certain are very meagre. The question originally raised was whether language came into being thesei or phusei, by convention or by nature. The first alternative, in its baldest form at least, has passed from out the field of controversy. No one now claims that names were given to living things or objects or activities by formal agreement among the members of an early community, or that the first father of mankind passed in review every living thing and gave it its name. Even if the record of Adam's action were to be taken literally there would still remain the question, whence had he this power? Did he develop it himself or was it a miraculous gift with which he was endowed at his creation? If the latter, then as Wundt says ("Volkerpsychologie", I. 2, page 585.), "the miracle of language is subsumed in the miracle of creation." If Adam developed language of himself, we are carried over to the alternative origin of phusei. On this hypothesis we must assume that the natural growth which modern theories of development regard as the painful progress of multitudinous generations was contracted into the experience of a single individual.

But even if the origin of language is admitted to be NATURAL there may still be much variety of signification attached to the word: NATURE, like most words which are used by philosophers, has accumulated many meanings, and as research into the natural world proceeds, is accumulating more.

Forty years ago an animated controversy raged among the supporters of the theories which were named for short the bow-wow, the pooh-pooh and the ding-dong theories of the origin of language. The third, which was the least tenacious of life, was made known to the English-speaking world by the late Professor Max Muller who, however, when questioned, repudiated it as his own belief. ("Science of Thought", London, 1887, page 211.) It was taken by him from Heyse's lectures on language which were published posthumously by Steinthal. Put shortly the theory is that "everything which is struck, rings. Each substance has its peculiar ring. We can tell the more or less perfect structure of metals by their vibrations, by the answer which they give. Gold rings differently from tin, wood rings differently from stone; and different sounds are produced according to the nature of each percussion. It may be the same with man, the most highly organised of nature's work." (Max Muller as above, translating from Heyse.) Max Muller's repudiation of this theory was, however, not very whole-hearted for he proceeds later in the same argument: "Heyse's theory, which I neither adopted nor rejected, but which, as will be seen, is by no means incompatible with that which for many years has been gaining on me, and which of late has been so clearly formulated by Professor Noire, has been assailed with ridicule and torn to pieces, often by persons who did not even suspect how much truth was hidden behind its paradoxical appearance. We are still very far from being able to identify roots with nervous vibrations, but if it should appear hereafter that sensuous vibrations supply at least the raw material of roots, it is quite possible that the theory, proposed by Oken and Heyse, will retain its place in the history of the various attempts at solving the problem of the origin of language, when other theories, which in our own days were received with popular applause, will be completely forgotten." ("Science of Thought", page 212.)

Like a good deal else that has been written on the origin of language, this statement perhaps is not likely to be altogether clear to the plain man, who may feel that even the "raw material of roots" is some distance removed from nervous vibrations, though obviously without the existence of afferent and efferent nerves articulate speech would be impossible. But Heyse's theory undoubtedly was that every thought or idea which occurred to the mind of man for the first time had its own special phonetic expression, and that this responsive faculty, when its object was thus fulfilled, became extinct. Apart from the philosophical question whether the mind acts without external stimulus, into which it is not necessary to enter here, it is clear that this theory can neither be proved nor disproved, because it postulates that this faculty existed only when language first began, and later altogether disappeared. As we have already seen, it is impossible for us to know what happened at the first beginnings of language, because we have no information from any period even approximately so remote; nor are we likely to attain it. Even in their earliest stages the great families of language which possess a history extending over many centuries --the Indo-Germanic and the Semitic--have very little in common. With the exception of Chinese, the languages which are apparently of a simpler or more primitive formation have either a history which, compared with that of the families mentioned, is very short, or, as in the case of the vast majority, have no history beyond the time extending only over a few years or, at most, a few centuries when they have been observed by competent scholars of European origin. But, if we may judge by the history of geology and other studies, it is well to be cautious in assuming for the first stages of development forces which do not operate in the later, unless we have direct evidence of their existence.

It is unnecessary here to enter into a prolonged discussion of the other views christened by Max Muller, not without energetic protest from their supporters, the bow-wow and pooh-pooh theories of language. Suffice it to say that the former recognises as a source of language the imitation of the sounds made by animals, the fall of bodies into water or on to solid substances and the like, while the latter, also called the interjectional theory, looks to the natural ejaculations produced by particular forms of effort for the first beginnings of speech. It would be futile to deny that some words in most languages come from imitation, and that others, probably fewer in number, can be traced to ejaculations. But if either of these sources alone or both in combination gave rise to primitive speech, it clearly must have been a simple form of language and very limited in amount. There is no reason to think that it was otherwise. Presumably in its earliest stages language only indicated the most elementary ideas, demands for food or the gratification of other appetites, indications of danger, useful animals and plants. Some of these, such as animals or indications of danger, could often be easily represented by imitative sounds: the need for food and the like could be indicated by gesture and natural cries. Both sources are verae causae; to them Noire, supported by Max Muller, has added another which has sometimes been called the Yo-heave- ho theory. Noire contends that the real crux in the early stages of language is for primitive man to make other primitive men understand what he means. The vocal signs which commend themselves to one may not have occurred to another, and may therefore be unintelligible. It may be admitted that this difficulty exists, but it is not insuperable. The old story of the European in China who, sitting down to a meal and being doubtful what the meat in the dish might be, addressed an interrogative Quack-quack? to the waiter and was promptly answered by Bow-wow, illustrates a simple situation where mutual understanding was easy. But obviously many situations would be more complex than this, and to grapple with them Noire has introduced his theory of communal action. "It was common effort directed to a common object, it was the most primitive (uralteste) labour of our ancestors, from which sprang language and the life of reason." (Noire "Der Ursprung der Sprache", page 331, Mainz, 1877.) As illustrations of such common effort he cites battle cries, the rescue of a ship running on shore (a situation not likely to occur very early in the history of man), and others. Like Max Muller he holds that language is the utterance and the organ of thought for mankind, the one characteristic which separates man from the brute. "In common action the word was first produced; for long it was inseparably connected with action; through long-continued connection it gradually became the firm, intelligible symbol of action, and then in its development indicated also things of the external world in so far as the action affected them and finally the sound began to enter into a connexion with them also." (Op. cit. page 339.) In so far as this theory recognises language as a social institution it is undoubtedly correct. Darwin some years before Noire had pointed to the same social origin of language in the fourth chapter of his work on "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals". "Naturalists have remarked, I believe with truth, that social animals, from habitually using their vocal organs as a means of intercommunication, use them on other occasions much more freely than other animals...The principle, also, of association, which is so widely extended in its power, has likewise played its part. Hence it allows that the voice, from having been employed as a serviceable aid under certain conditions, inducing pleasure, pain, rage, etc., is commonly used whenever the same sensations or emotions are excited, under quite different conditions, or in a lesser degree." ("The Expression of the Emotions", page 84 (Popular Edition, 1904).

Darwin's own views on language which are set forth most fully in "The Descent of Man" (page 131 ff. (Popular Edition, 1906).) are characterised by great modesty and caution. He did not profess to be a philologist and the facts are naturally taken from the best known works of the day (1871). In the notes added to the second edition he remarks on Max Muller's denial of thought without words, "what a strange definition must here be given to the word thought!" (Op. cit. page 135, footnote 63.) He naturally finds the origin of language in "the imitation and modification of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man's own instinctive cries aided by signs and gestures (op. cit. page 132.)...As the voice was used more and more, the vocal organs would have been strengthened and perfected through the principle of the inherited effects of use; and this would have reacted on the power of speech." (Op. cit. page 133.) On man's own instinctive cries, he has more to say in "The Expression of the Emotions". (Page 93 (Popular Edition, 1904) and elsewhere.) These remarks have been utilised by Prof. Jespersen of Copenhagen in propounding an ingenious theory of his own to the effect that speech develops out of singing. ("Progress in Language", page 361, London, 1894.)

For many years and in many books Max Muller argued against Darwin's views on evolution on the one ground that thought is impossible without speech; consequently as speech is confined to the human race, there is a gulf which cannot be bridged between man and all other creatures. (Some interesting comments on the theory will be found in a lecture on "Thought and Language" in Samuel Butler's "Essays on Life, Art and Science", London, 1908.) On the title-page of his "Science of Thought" he put the two sentences "No Reason without Language: No Language without Reason." It may be readily admitted that the second dictum is true, that no language properly so- called can exist without reason. Various birds can learn to repeat words or sentences used by their masters or mistresses. In most cases probably the birds do not attach their proper meaning to the words they have learnt; they repeat them in season and out of season, sometimes apparently for their own amusement, generally in the expectation, raised by past experience, of being rewarded for their proficiency. But even here it is difficult to prove a universal negative, and most possessors of such pets would repudiate indignantly the statement that the bird did not understand what was said to it, and would also contend that in many cases the words which it used were employed in their ordinary meaning. The first dictum seems to be inconsistent with fact. The case of deaf mutes, such as Laura Bridgeman, who became well educated, or the still more extraordinary case of Helen Keller, deaf, dumb, and blind, who in spite of these disadvantages has learnt not only to reason but to reason better than the average of persons possessed of all their senses, goes to show that language and reason are not necessarily always in combination. Reason is but the conscious adaptation of means to ends, and so defined is a faculty which cannot be denied to many of the lower animals. In these days when so many books on Animal Intelligence are issued from the press, it seems unnecessary to labour the point. Yet none of these animals, except by parrot-imitation, makes use of speech, because man alone possesses in a sufficient degree of development the centres of nervous energy which are required for the working of articulation in speech. On this subject much investigation was carried on during the last years of Darwin's life and much more in the period since his death. As early as 1861 Broca, following up observations made by earlier French writers, located the centre of articulate speech in the third left frontal convolution of the brain. In 1876 he more definitely fixed the organ of speech in "the posterior two- fifths of the third frontal convolution" (Macnamara, "Human Speech", page 197, London, 1908.), both sides and not merely the left being concerned in speech production. Owing however to the greater use by most human beings of the right side of the body, the left side of the brain, which is the motor centre for the right side of the body, is more highly developed than its right side, which moves the left side of the body. The investigations of Professors Ferrier, Sherrington and Grunbaum have still more precisely defined the relations between brain areas and certain groups of muscles. One form of aphasia is the result of injury to or disease in the third frontal convolution because the motor centre is no longer equal to the task of setting the necessary muscles in motion. In the brain of idiots who are unable to speak, the centre for speech is not developed. (Op. cit. page 226.) In the anthropoid apes the brain is similarly defective, though it has been demonstrated by Professors Cunningham and Marchand "that there is a tendency, especially in the gorilla's brain, for the third frontal convolution to assume the human form...But if they possessed a centre for speech, those parts of the hemispheres of their brains which form the mechanism by which intelligence is elaborated are so ill-developed, as compared with the rest of their bodies, that we can not conceive, even with more perfect frontal convolutions, that these animals could formulate ideas expressible in intelligent speech." (Op. cit. page 223.)

While Max Muller's theory is Shelley's

"He gave man speech, and speech created thought,
Which is the measure of the universe" ("Prometheus Unbound" II. 4.),

it seems more probable that the development was just the opposite--that the development of new activities originated new thoughts which required new symbols to express them, symbols which may at first have been, even to a greater extent than with some of the lower races at present, sign language as much as articulation. When once the faculty of articulation was developed, which, though we cannot trace the process, was probably a very gradual growth, there is no reason to suppose that words developed in any other way then they do at present. An erroneous notion of the development of language has become widely spread through the adoption of the metaphorical term "roots" for the irreducible elements of human speech. Men never talked in roots; they talked in words. Many words of kindred meaning have a part in common, and a root is nothing but that common part stripped of all additions. In some cases it is obvious that one word is derived from another by the addition of a fresh element; in other cases it is impossible to say which of two kindred words is the more primitive. A root is merely a convenient term for an abstraction. The simplest word may be called a root, but it is nevertheless a word. How are new words added to a language in the present day? Some communities, like the Germans, prefer to construct new words for new ideas out of the old material existing in the language; others, like the English, prefer to go to the ancient languages of Greece and Rome for terms to express new ideas. The same chemical element is described in the two languages as sour stuff (Sauerstoff) and as oxygen. Both terms mean the same thing etymologically as well as in fact. On behalf of the German method, it may be contended that the new idea is more closely attached to already existing ideas, by being expressed in elements of the language which are intelligible even to the meanest capacity. For the English practice it may be argued that, if we coin a new word which means one thing, and one thing only, the idea which it expresses is more clearly defined than if it were expressed in popularly intelligible elements like "sour stuff." If the etymological value of words were always present in the minds of their users, "oxygen" would undoubtedly have an advantage over "sour stuff" as a technical term. But the tendency in language is to put two words of this kind which express but one idea under a single accent, and when this has taken place, no one but the student of language any longer observes what the elements really mean. When the ordinary man talks of a "blackbird" it is certainly not present to his consciousness that he is talking of a black bird, unless for some reason conversation has been dwelling upon the colour rather than other characteristics of the species.

But, it may be said, words like "oxygen" are introduced by learned men, and do not represent the action of the man in the street, who, after all, is the author of most additions to the stock of human language. We may go back therefore some four centuries to a period, when scientific study was only in its infancy, and see what process was followed. With the discovery of America new products never seen before reached Europe, and these required names. Three of the most characteristic were tobacco, the potato, and the turkey. How did these come to be so named? The first people to import these products into Europe were naturally the Spanish discoverers. The first of these words--tobacco--appears in forms which differ only slightly in the languages of all civilised countries: Spanish tabaco, Italian tabacco, French tabac, Dutch and German tabak, Swedish tobak, etc. The word in the native dialect of Hayti is said to have been tabaco, but to have meant not the plant (According to William Barclay, "Nepenthes, or the Virtue of Tobacco", Edinburgh, 1614, "the countrey which God hath honoured and blessed with this happie and holy herbe doth call it in their native language 'Petum'.") but the pipe in which it was smoked. It thus illustrates a frequent feature of borrowing--that the word is not borrowed in its proper signification, but in some sense closely allied thereto, which a foreigner, understanding the language with difficulty, might readily mistake for the real meaning. Thus the Hindu practice of burning a wife upon the funeral pyre of her husband is called in English "suttee", this word being in fact but the phonetic spelling of the Sanskrit "sati", "a virtuous woman," and passing into its English meaning because formerly the practice of self-immolation by a wife was regarded as the highest virtue.

The name of the potato exhibits greater variety. The English name was borrowed from the Spanish "patata", which was itself borrowed from a native word for the "yam" in the dialect of Hayti. The potato appeared early in Italy, for the mariners of Genoa actively followed the footsteps of their countryman Columbus in exploring America. In Italian generally the form "patata" has survived. The tubers, however, also suggested a resemblance to truffles, so that the Italian word "tartufolo", a diminutive of the Italian modification of the Latin "terrae tuber" was applied to them. In the language of the Rhaetian Alps this word appears as "tartufel". From there it seems to have passed into Germany where potatoes were not cultivated extensively till the eighteenth century, and "tartufel" has in later times through some popular etymology been metamorphosed into "Kartoffel". In France the shape of the tubers suggested the name of earth-apple (pomme de terre), a name also adopted in Dutch (aard-appel), while dialectically in German a form "Grumbire" appears, which is a corruption of "Grund-birne", "ground pear". (Kluge "Etymologisches Worterbuch der deutschen Sprache" (Strassburg), s.v. "Kartoffel".) Here half the languages have adopted the original American word for an allied plant, while others have adopted a name originating in some more or less fanciful resemblance discovered in the tubers; the Germans alone in Western Europe, failing to see any meaning in their borrowed name, have modified it almost beyond recognition. To this English supplies an exact parallel in "parsnep" which, though representing the Latin "pastinaca" through the Old French "pastenaque", was first assimilated in the last syllable to the "nep" of "turnep" ("pasneppe" in Elizabethan English), and later had an "r" introduced into the first syllable, apparently on the analogy of "parsley".

The turkey on the other hand seems never to be found with its original American name. In England, as the name implies, the turkey cock was regarded as having come from the land of the Turks. The bird no doubt spread over Europe from the Italian seaports. The mistake, therefore, was not unnatural, seeing that these towns conducted a great trade with the Levant, while the fact that America when first discovered was identified with India helped to increase the confusion. Thus in French the "coq d'Inde" was abbreviated to "d'Inde" much as "turkey cock" was to "turkey"; the next stage was to identify "dinde" as a feminine word and create a new "dindon" on the analogy of "chapon" as the masculine. In Italian the name "gallo d'India" besides survives, while in German the name "Truthahn" seems to be derived onomatopoetically from the bird's cry, though a dialectic "Calecutischer Hahn" specifies erroneously an origin for the bird from the Indian Calicut. In the Spanish "pavo", on the other hand, there is a curious confusion with the peacock. Thus in these names for objects of common knowledge, the introduction of which into Europe can be dated with tolerable definiteness, we see evinced the methods by which in remoter ages objects were named. The words were borrowed from the community whence came the new object, or the real or fancied resemblance to some known object gave the name, or again popular etymology might convert the unknown term into something that at least approached in sound a well-known word.

"The Origin of Species" had not long been published when the parallelism of development in natural species and in languages struck investigators. At the time, one of the foremost German philologists was August Schleicher, Professor at Jena. He was himself keenly interested in the natural sciences, and amongst his colleagues was Ernst Haeckel, the protagonist in Germany of the Darwinian theory. How the new ideas struck Schleicher may be seen from the following sentences by his colleague Haeckel. "Speech is a physiological function of the human organism, and has been developed simultaneously with its organs, the larynx and tongue, and with the functions of the brain. Hence it will be quite natural to find in the evolution and classification of languages the same features as in the evolution and classification of organic species. The various groups of languages that are distinguished in philology as primitive, fundamental, parent, and daughter languages, dialects, etc., correspond entirely in their development to the different categories which we classify in zoology and botany as stems, classes, orders, families, genera, species and varieties. The relation of these groups, partly coordinate and partly subordinate, in the general scheme is just the same in both cases; and the evolution follows the same lines in both." (Haeckel, "The Evolution of Man", page 485, London, 1905. This represents Schleicher's own words: Was die Naturforscher als Gattung bezeichnen wurden, heisst bei den Glottikern Sprachstamm, auch Sprachsippe; naher verwandte Gattungen bezeichnen sie wohl auch als Sprachfamilien einer Sippe oder eines Sprachstammes...Die Arten einer Gattung nennen wir Sprachen eines Stammes; die Unterarten einer Art sind bei uns die Dialekte oder Mundarten einer Sprache; den Varietaten und Spielarten entsprechen die Untermundarten oder Nebenmundarten und endlich den einzelnen Individuen die Sprechweise der einzelnen die Sprachen redenden Menschen. "Die Darwinische Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft", Weimar, 1863, page 12 f. Darwin makes a more cautious statement about the classification of languages in "The Origin of Species", page 578, (Popular Edition, 1900).) These views were set forth in an open letter addressed to Haeckel in 1863 by Schleicher entitled, "The Darwinian theory and the science of language". Unfortunately Schleicher's views went a good deal farther than is indicated in the extract given above. He appended to the pamphlet a genealogical tree of the Indo-Germanic languages which, though to a large extent confirmed by later research, by the dichotomy of each branch into two other branches, led the unwary reader to suppose their phylogeny (to use Professor Haeckel's term) was more regular than our evidence warrants.

Without qualification Schleicher declared languages to be "natural organisms which originated unconditioned by the human will, developed according to definite laws, grow old and die; they also are characterised by that series of phenomena which we designate by the term 'Life.' Consequently Glottic, the science of language, is a natural science; its method is in general the same as that of the other natural sciences." ("Die Darwinische Theorie", page 6 f.) In accordance with this view he declared (op. cit. page 23.) that the root in language might be compared with the simple cell in physiology, the linguistic simple cell or root being as yet not differentiated into special organs for the function of noun, verb, etc.

In this probably all recent philologists admit that Schleicher went too far. One of the most fertile theories in the modern science of language originated with him, and was further developed by his pupil, August Leskien ("Die Declination im Slavisch-litanischen und Germanischen", Leipzig, 1876; Osthoff and Brugmann, "Morphologische Untersuchungen", I. (Introduction), 1878. The general principles of this school were formulated (1880) in a fuller form in H. Paul's "Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte", Halle (3rd edition, 1898). Paul and Wundt (in his "Volkerpsychologie") deal largely with the same matter, but begin their investigations from different points of view, Paul being a philologist with leanings to philosophy and Wundt a philosopher interested in language.), and by Leskien's colleagues and friends, Brugmann and Osthoff. This was the principle that phonetic laws have no exceptions. Under the influence of this generalisation much greater precision in etymology was insisted upon, and a new and remarkably active period in the study of language began. Stated broadly in the fashion given above the principle is not true. A more accurate statement would be that an original sound is represented in a given dialect at a given time and in a given environment only in one way; provided that the development of the original sound into its representation in the given dialect has not been influenced by the working of analogy.

It is this proviso that is most important for the characterisation of the science of language. As I have said elsewhere, it is at this point that this science parts company with the natural sciences. "If the chemist compounds two pure simple elements, there can be but one result, and no power of the chemist can prevent it. But the minds of men do act upon the sounds which they produce. The result is that, when this happens, the phonetic law which would have acted in the case is stopped, and this particular form enters on the same course of development as other forms to which it does not belong." (P. Giles, "Short Manual of Comparative Philology", 2nd edition, page 57, London, 1901.)

Schleicher was wrong in defining a language to be an organism in the sense in which a living being is an organism. Regarded physiologically, language is a function or potentiality of certain human organs; regarded from the point of view of the community it is of the nature of an institution. (This view of language is worked out at some length by Prof. W.D. Whitney in an article in the "Contemporary Review" for 1875, page 713 ff. This article forms part of a controversy with Max Muller, which is partly concerned with Darwin's views on language. He criticises Schleicher's views severely in his "Oriental and Linguistic Studies", page 298 ff., New York, 1873. In this volume will be found criticisms of various other views mentioned in this essay.) More than most influences it conduces to the binding together of the elements that form a state. That geographical or other causes may effectively counteract the influence of identity of language is obvious. One need only read the history of ancient Greece, or observe the existing political separation of Germany and Austria, of Great Britain and the United States of America. But however analogous to an organism, language is not an organism. In a less degree Schleicher, by defining languages as such, committed the same mistake which Bluntschli made regarding the State, and which led him to declare that the State is by nature masculine and the Church feminine. (Bluntschli, "Theory of the State", page 24, Second English Edition, Oxford, 1892.) The views of Schleicher were to some extent injurious to the proper methods of linguistic study. But this misfortune was much more than fully compensated by the inspiration which his ideas, collected and modified by his disciples, had upon the science. In spite of the difference which the psychological element represented by analogy makes between the science of language and the natural sciences, we are entitled to say of it as Schleicher said of Darwin's theory of the origin of species, "it depends upon observation, and is essentially an attempt at a history of development."

Other questions there are in connection with language and evolution which require investigation--the survival of one amongst several competing words (e.g. why German keeps only as a high poetic word "ross", which is identical in origin with the English work-a-day "horse", and replaces it by "pferd", whose congener the English "palfrey" is almost confined to poetry and romance), the persistence of evolution till it becomes revolution in languages like English or Persian which have practically ceased to be inflectional languages, and many other problems. Into these Darwin did not enter, and they require a fuller investigation than is possible within the limits of the present paper.



Home Page  |  Further Reading  |  Site Map  |  Send Feedback