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THE THEORETICAL STAGE, AND THE ORIGIN OF
“In examining the history of mankind, as well as in examining the phenomena of the material world, when we cannot trace the process by which an event has been produced, it is often of importance to be able to show how it may have been produced by natural causes. Thus, although it is impossible to determine with certainty what the steps were by which any particular language was formed, yet if we can show, from the known principles of human nature, how all its various parts might gradually have arisen, the mind is not only to a certain degree satisfied, but a check is given to that indolent philosophy which refers to a miracle whatever appearances, both in the natural and moral worlds, it is unable to explain.” 1
This quotation from an eminent Scotch philosopher contains the best advice that could be given to the student of the science of language, when he approaches the problem which we have to examine to-day, namely, the origin of language. Though we have stripped that problem of the perplexing and mysterious aspect which it presented to the philosophers of old, yet, even in its simplest form, it seems to be almost beyond the reach of the human understanding.
1 Dugald Stewart, vol. iii. p. 35.
If we were asked the riddle how images of the eye and all the sensations of our senses could be represented by sounds, nay, could be so embodied in sounds as to express thought and excite thought, we should probably give it up as the question of a madman, who, mixing up the most heterogeneous subjects, attempted to change color into sound and sound into thought. Yet this is the riddle which we have now to solve.
It is quite clear that we have no means of solving the problem of the origin of language historically, or of explaining it as a matter of fact which happened once in a certain locality and at a certain time. History does not begin till long after mankind had acquired the power of language, and even the most ancient traditions are silent as to the manner in which man came in possession of his earliest thoughts and words. Nothing, no doubt, would be more interesting than to know from historical documents the exact process by which the first man began to lisp his first words, and thus to be rid forever of all the theories on the origin of speech. But this knowledge is denied us; and, if it had been otherwise, we should probably be quite unable to understand those primitive events in the history of the human mind.2 We are told that the first man was the son of God, that God created him in His own image, formed bim of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. These are simple
1 Herder, as quoted by Steinthal, “Ursprung der Sprache," s. 39.
2 " In all these paths of research, when we travel far backwards the aspect of the earlier portions becomes very different from that of the advanced part on which we now stand; but in all cases the path is lost in obscurity as it is traced backwards towards its starting point:- it becomes not only invisible, but unimaginable; it is not only an interruption, but an abyss, which interposes itself between us and any intelligible beginning of things.” Whewell, Indications, p. 166.
facts, and to be accepted as such ; if we begin to reason on them, the edge of the human understanding glances off. Our mind is so constituted that it cannot apprehend the absolute beginning or the absolute end of anything. If we tried to conceive the first man created as a child, and gradually unfolding his physical and mental powers, we could not understand his living for one day without supernatural aid. If, on the contrary, we tried to conceive the first man created full-grown in body and mind, the conception of an effect without a cause, of a full-grown mind without a previous growth, would equally transcend our reasoning powers. It is the same with the first beginnings of language. Theologians who claim for language a divine origin drift into the most dangerous anthropomorphism, when they enter into any details as to the manner in which they suppose the Deity to have compiled a dictionary and grammar in order to teach them to the first man, as a schoolmaster teaches the deaf and dumb. And they do not see that, even if all their premises were granted, they would have explained no more than how the first man might have learnt a language, if there was a language ready made for him. How that language was made would remain as great a mystery as ever. Philosophers, on the contrary, who imagine that the first man, though left to himself, would gradually have emerged from a state of mutism and have invented words for every new conception that arose in his mind, forget that man could not by his own power have acquired the faculty of speech which is the distinctive character of mankind, unattained and unattainable by the mute
1“ Der Mensch ist nur Mensch durch Sprache; um aber die Sprache zu erfinden, müsste er schon Mensch sein." - W. von Humboldt, Sämmtliche
creation. It shows a want of appreciation as to the real bearings of our problem, if philosophers appeal to the fact that children are born without language, and gradually emerge from mutism to the full command of articulate speech.
We want no explanation how birds learn to fly, created as they are with organs adapted to that purpose. Nor do we wish to inquire how children learn to use the various faculties with which the human body and soul are endowed. We want to gain, if possible, an insight into the original faculty of speech ; and for that purpose I fear it is as useless to watch the first stammerings of children, as it would be to repeat the experiment of the Egyptian king who intrusted two new-born infants to a shepherd, with the injunction to let them suck a goat's milk, and to speak no word in their presence, but to observe what word they would first utter. The same experiment is said to have been repeated by the Swabian emperor, Frederic II., by James IV. of Scotland, and by one of the Mogul emperors of India. But, whether for the purpose of finding out which was the primitive language of mankind, or of discovering how far language was natural to man, the experiments failed to throw any light on the problem before us. Children, in learning to speak, do not invent language. Language is there ready made for Werke, b. iii. s. 252. The same argument is ridden to death by Süssmilch, “ Versuch eines Beweises dass die erste Sprache ihrem Ursprung nicht vom Menschen, sondern allein vom Schöpfer erhalten habe." Berlin, 1766.
1 Farrar, Origin of Language, p. 10; Grimm, Ursprung der Sprache, s. 32. The word 3ɛkós, which these children are reported to have uttered, and which, in the Phrygian language, meant bread, thus proving, it was supposed, that the Phrygian was the primitive language of mankind, is derived from the same root which exists in the English, to bake. How these unfortunate children came by the idea of baked bread, involving the ideas of corn, mill, oven, fire, &c., seems never to have struck the ancient sages of Egypt.
them. It has been there for thousands of years. They acquire the use of a language, and, as they grow up, they may acquire the use of a second and a third. It is useless to inquire whether infants, left to themselves, would invent a language. It would be impossible, unnatural, and illegal to try the experiment, and, without repeated experiments, the assertions of those who believe and those who disbelieve the possibility of children inventing a language of their own, are equally valueless. All we know for certain is, that an English child, if left to itself, would never begin to speak English, and that history supplies no instance of any language having thus been invented.
If we want to gain an insight into the faculty of flying, which is a characteristic feature of birds, all we can do is, first, to compare the structure of birds with that of other animals which are devoid of that faculty, and secondly, to examine the conditions under which the act of flying becomes possible. It is the same with speech. Speech is a specific faculty of man. It distinguishes man from all other creatures ; and if we wish to acquire more definite ideas as to the real nature of human speech, all we can do is to compare man with those animals that seem to come nearest to him, and thus to try to discover what he shares in common with these animals, and what is peculiar to him and to him alone. After we have discovered this, we may proceed to inquire into the conditions under which speech becomes possible, and we shall then have done all that we can do, considering that the instruments of our knowledge, wonderful as they are, are yet far too weak to carry us into all the regions to which we may soar on the wings of our imagination.