« PreviousContinue »
languages which form the subject of his inquiries, the science of language would simply be an impossibility. But we do not expect the botanist to be an experienced gardener, or the geologist a miner, or the ichthyologist a practical fisherman. Nor would it be reasonable to object in the science of language to the same division of labor which is necessary for the successful cultivation of subjects much less comprehensive. Though much of what we might call the realm of language is lost to us forever, though whole periods in the history of language are by necessity withdrawn from our observation, yet the mass of human speech that lies before us, whether in the petrified strata of ancient literature or in the countless variety of living languages and dialects, offers a field as large, if not larger, than any other branch of physical research.
It is impossible to fix the exact number of known languages, but their number can hardly be less than nine hundred. That this vast field should never have excited the curiosity of the natural philosopher before the beginning of our century may seem surprising, more surprising even than the indifference with which former generations treated the lessons which even the stones seemed to teach of the life still throbbing in the veins and on the very surface of the earth. The saying that "familiarity breeds contempt” would seem applicable to the subjects of both these sciences. The gravel of our walks hardly seemed to deserve a scientific treatment, and the language which every ploughboy can speak could not be raised without an effort to the dignity of a scientific problem. Man had studied every part of nature, the mineral treasures in the bowels of the earth, the flowers of each season, the
animals of every continent, the laws of storms, and the movements of the heavenly bodies; he had analyzed every substance, dissected every organism, he knew every bone and muscle, every nerve and fibre of his own body to the ultimate elements which compose his flesh and blood; he had meditated on the nature of his soul, on the laws of his mind, and tried to penetrate into the last causes of all being — and yet language, without the aid of which not even the first step in this glorious career could have been made, remained unnoticed. Like a veil that hung too close over the eye of the human mind, it was hardly perceived. In
when the study of antiquity attracted the most energetic minds, when the ashes of Pompeii were sifted for the playthings of Roman life; when parchments were made to disclose, by chemical means, the erased thoughts of Grecian thinkers ; when the tombs of Egypt were ransacked for their sacred contents, and the palaces of Babylon and Nineveh forced to surrender the clay diaries of Nebuchadnezzar; when everything, in fact, that seemed to contain a vestige of the early life of man was anxiously searched for and carefully preserved in our libraries and museums, - language, which in itself carries us back far beyond the cuneiform literature of Assyria and Babylonia, and the hieroglyphic documents of Egypt; which connects ourselves, through an unbroken chain of speech, with the very ancestors of our race, and still draws its life from the first utterances of the human mind, — language, the living and speaking witness of the whole history of our race, was never cross-examined by the student of history, was never made to disclose its secrets until questioned and, so to say, brought back to itself within
the last fifty years, by the genius of a Humboldt, Bopp, Grimm, Bunsen, and others. If you consider that, whatever view we take of the origin and dispersion of language, nothing new has ever been added to the substance of language, that all its changes have been changes of form, that no new root or radical has ever been invented by later generations, as little as one single element has ever been added to the material world in which we live; if you bear in mind that in one sense, and in a very just sense, we may be said to handle the very words which issued from the mouth of the son of God, when he gave names to “ all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field,” you will see, I believe, that the science of language has claims on your attention, such as few sciences can rival or excel.
Having thus explained the manner in which I intend to treat the science of language, I hope in my next lecture to examine the objections of those philosophers who see in language nothing but a contrivance devised by human skill for the more expeditious communication of our thoughts, and who would wish to see it treated, not as a production of nature, but as a work of human art.
THE GROWTH OF LANGUAGE IN CONTRADISTINCTION TO
THE HISTORY OF LANGUAGE.
In claiming for the science of language a place among the physical sciences, I was prepared to meet with many objections. The circle of the physical sciences seemed closed, and it was not likely that a new claimant should at once be welcomed among the established branches and scions of the ancient aristocracy of learning. 1
i Dr. Whewell classes the science of language as one of the palaitiological sciences; but he makes a distinction between palaitiological sciences treating of material things, for instance, geology, and others respecting the products which result from man's imaginative and social endowments, for instance, comparative philology. He excludes the latter from the circle of the physical sciences, properly so called, but he adds: “We began our inquiry with the trust that any sound views which we should be able to obtain respecting the nature of truth in the physical sciences, and the mode of discovering it, must also tend to throw light upon the nature and prospects of knowledge of all other kinds; - must be useful to us in moral, political, and philological researches. We stated this as a confident anticipation; and the evidence of the justice of our belief already begins to appear. We have seen that biology leads us to psychology, if we choose to follow the path; and thus the passage from the material to the immaterial has already unfolded itself at one point; and we now perceive that there are several large provinces of speculation which concern subjects belonging to man's immaterial nature, and which are governed by the same laws as sciences altogether physical. It is not our business to dwell on the prospects which our philosophy thus opens to our contemplation; but we may allow ourselves, in this last stage of our pilgrimage among the foundations of the physical sciences, to be cheered and animated by the ray that thus beams upon us, however dimly, from a higher and brighter region." — Indications of the Creator, p. 146.
The first objection which was sure to be raised on the part of such sciences as botany, geology, or physiology is this :— Language is the work of man ; it was invented by man as a means of communicating his thoughts, when mere looks and gestures proved inefficient; and it was gradually, by the combined efforts of succeeding generations, brought to that perfection which we admire in the idiom of the Bible, the Vedas, the Koran, and in the poetry of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare. Now it is perfectly true that if language be the work of man, in the same sense in which a statue, or a temple, or a poem, or a law are properly called the works of man, the science of language
would have to be classed as an historical science. We should have a history of language as we have a history of art, of poetry, and of jurisprudence, but we could not claim for it a place side by side with the various branches of Natural History. It is true, also, that if you consult the works of the most distinguished modern philosophers you will find that whenever they speak of language, they take it for granted that language is a human invention, that words are artificial signs, and that the varieties of human speech arose from different nations agreeing on different sounds as the most appropriate signs of their different ideas. This view of the origin of language was so powerfully advocated by the leading philosophers of the last century, that it has retained an undisputed currency even among those who, on almost every other point, are strongly opposed to the teaching of that school. A few voices, indeed, have been raised to protest against the theory of language being originally invented by man. But they, in their zeal to vindicate