« PreviousContinue »
the divine origin of language, seem to have been carried away so far as to run counter to the express statements of the Bible. For in the Bible it is not the Creator who gives names to all things, but Adam. “Out of the ground,” we read, “the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air ; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”1 But with the exception of this small class of philosophers, more orthodox even than the Bible, the generally received opinion on the origin of language is that which was held by Locke, which was powerfully advocated by Adam Smith in his Essay on the Origin of Language, appended to his Treatise on Moral Sentiments, and which was adopted with slight modifications by Dugald Stewart. According to them, man must have lived for a time in a state of mutism, his only means of communication consisting in gestures of the body, and in the changes of countenance, till at last, when ideas multiplied that could no longer be pointed at with the fingers, “ they found it necessary to invent artificial signs of which the meaning was
1 Gen. ii. 19.
2 St. Basil was accused by Eunomius of denying Divine Providence, because he would not admit that God had created the names of all things, but ascribed the invention of language to the faculties which God had implanted in man. St. Gregory, bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia (331–396), defended St. Basil. “Though God has given to human nature its faculties," he writes, “ it does not follow that therefore He produces all the actions which we perform. He has given us the faculty of building a house and doing any other work; but we surely are the builders, and not He. In the same manner our faculty of speaking is the work of Him who has so framed our nature; but the invention of words for naming each object is the work of our mind.” See Ladevi-Roche, De l'Origine du Langage: Bordeaux, 1860, p. 14. Also, Horne Tooke, Diversions of Purley, p. 19.
fixed by mutual agreement.” We need not dwell on minor differences of opinion as to the exact process by which this artificial language is supposed to have been formed. Adam Smith would wish us to believe that the first artificial words were verbs. Nouns, he thinks, were of less urgent necessity because things could be pointed at or imitated, whereas mere actions, such as are expressed by verbs, could not. He therefore supposes that when people saw a wolf coming, they pointed at him, and simply cried out, comes.” Dugald Stewart, on the contrary, thinks that the first artificial words were nouns, and that the verbs were supplied by gesture ; that, therefore, when people saw a wolf coming, they did not cry “ He comes,” but “ Wolf, Wolf," leaving the rest to be imagined.
But whether the verb or the noun was the first to be invented is of little importance; nor is it possible for us, at the very beginning of our inquiry into the nature of language, to enter upon a minute examination of a theory which represents language as a work of human art, and as established by mutual agreement as a medium of communication.
While fully admitting that if this theory were true, the science of language would not come within the pale of the physical sciences, I must content myself for the present with pointing out that no one has yet explained how, without language, a discussion on the merits of each word, such as must necessarily have preceded a mutual agreement, could have been carried on. But as it is the object of these lectures to prove that language is not a work of human art, in the same sense
1 D. Stewart, Works, vol. iii. p. 27.
as painting, or building, or writing, or printing, I must ask to be allowed, in this preliminary stage, simply to enter my protest against a theory, which, though still taught in the schools, is, nevertheless, I believe, without a single fact to support its truth.
But there are other objections besides this which would seem to bar the admission of the science of language to the circle of the physical sciences. Whatever the origin of language may have been, it has been remarked with a strong appearance of truth, that language has a history of its own, like art, like law, like religion ; and that, therefore, the science of language belongs to the circle of the historical, or, as they used to be called, the moral, in contradistinction to the physical sciences. It is a well-known fact, which recent researches have not shaken, that nature is incapable of progress or improvement. The flower which the botanist observes to-day was as perfect from the beginning. Animals, which are endowed with what is called an artistic instinct, have never brought that instinct to a higher degree of perfection. The hexagonal cells of the bee are not more regular in the nineteenth century than at any earlier period, and the gift of song has never, as far as we know, been brought to a higher perfection by our nightingale than by the Philomele of the Greeks. “ Natural History,” to quote Dr. Whewell's words, “when systematically treated, excludes all that is historical, for it classes objects by their permanent and universal properties, and has nothing to do with the narration of particular or casual facts.” Now, if we consider the large number of tongues spoken in different parts of
1 History of Inductive Sciences, vol. iii. p. 531.
the world with all their dialectic and provincial varieties, if we observe the great changes which each of these tongues has undergone in the course of centuries, how Latin was changed into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Provençal, French, Wallachian, and Roumansch; how Latin again, together with Greek, and the Celtic, the Teutonic, and Slavonic languages, together likewise with the ancient dialects of India and Persia, must have sprung from an earlier language, the mother of the whole Indo-European or Aryan family of speech ; if we see how Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac, with several minor dialects, are but different impressions of one and the same common type, and must all have flowed from the same source, the original language of the Semitic race; and if we add to these two, the Aryan and Semitic, at least one more well-established class of languages, the Turanian, comprising the dialects of the nomad races scattered over Central and Northern Asia, the Tungusic, Mongolic, Turkic, Samoyedic, and Finnic, all radii from one common centre of speech:- if we watch this stream of language rolling on through centuries in these three mighty arms, which, before they disappear from our sight in the far distance, clearly show a convergence towards one common source: it would seem, indeed, as if there were an historical life inherent in language, and as if both the will of man and the power of time could tell, if not on its substance, at least on its form. And even if the mere local varieties of speech were not considered sufficient ground for excluding language from the domain of natural science, there would still remain the greater
i Names in ic, are names of classes as distinct from the names of single languages.
difficulty of reconciling with the recognized principles of physical science the historical changes affecting every one of these varieties. Every part of nature, whether mineral, plant, or animal, is the same in kind from the beginning to the end of its existence, whereas few languages could be recognized as the same after the lapse of but a thousand years. The language of Alfred is so different from the English of the present day that we have to study it in the same manner as we study Greek and Latin. We can read Milton and Bacon, Shakespeare and Hooker; we can make out Wycliffe and Chaucer; but, when we come to the English of the thirteenth century, we can but guess its meaning, and we fail even in this with works previous to the Ormulum and Layamon. The historical changes of language may be more or less rapid, but they take place at all times and in all countries. They have reduced the rich and powerful idiom of the poets of the Veda to the meagre and impure jargon of the modern Sepoy. They have transformed the language of the Zend-Avesta and of the mountain records of Behistún into that of Firdusi and the modern Persians ; the language of Virgil into that of Dante, the language of Ulfilas into that of Charlemagne, the language of Charlemagne into that of Goethe. We have reason to believe that the same changes take place with even greater violence and rapidity in the dialects of savage tribes, although, in the absence of a written literature, it is extremely difficult to obtain trustworthy information. But in the few instances where careful observations have been made on this interesting subject, it has been found that among the wild and illiterate tribes of Siberia, Africa, and Siam, two or three generations are