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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
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.”] But with the exception of this small class of philosophers, more orthodox even than the Bible,2
the generally received opinion on the origin of lan« guage 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 wbich 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 ilding 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 1 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, “ He
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 agree
ment as a medium of communication. Wiile fully , adniitting 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, with• out 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,1 " 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
1 Names in ic, are names of classes as distinct from the names of single languages.