Page images
PDF
EPUB

but a simple fact, is that all our words are derived from these conceptual roots, and that all or nearly all of them signify originally some primitive acts of man. These are facts, and the only thing we have to supply is an explanation why language should have started from such roots, and not from the imitation of the sounds of nature. I do not go so far as other scholars in denying the possibility of any words being formed from mimetic sounds. After all, cuckoo is a word, though perhaps not in the strictest sense. To hush is a word which has come to express a concept. The same process which yielded such words might have been carried much further, so far as we know. But the fact remains that it was not, and what we have to explain is not what language might have been, but what it is. That roots expressing acts 'should have been the true feeders of language becomes intelligible when we consider that the earliest possible, or, I should say, the earliest inevitable concepts could not well have arisen under more natural and favourable circumstances than from our consciousness of our own repeated acts. Even man's bodily organism, his possessing two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, would have helped towards making him comprehend two as one; and the Dyad is the beginning of all that we call conceptual thought. Then would follow the consciousness of our own repeated continuous acts, and if such acts, particularly when performed in common, were accompanied by natural sounds, by sounds understood therefore by many people, the battle was won. Man knew what it was to have concepts and intelligible signs of concepts at the same time. Everything else, as we know from the history of language, would then follow as a matter of course.

We can see all this historical growth of language from its very beginning, most clearly in the Aryan languages, because they have been analysed most carefully. But the Semitic languages also tell us the same tale, only that here the formation of triliteral roots prevents us often from watching the earliest phases in the growth of roots and radical concepts. Triliteral roots must have been originally biliteral, or monosyllabic, but though this can be proved - in some cases, it cannot yet be done with perfect certainty in all. Here we must wait for new light from the most ancient Babylonian Inscriptions.

With the Finno-Ugric languages great progress has been made of late. Professor Donner, in his Comparative Dictionary of the Finno-Ugric Languages, is doing for that branch of human speech what others have done for the analysis of the Aryan and Semitic languages. The number of roots seems smaller here than in Sanskrit or Hebrew, and the growth and ramification of subsequent meanings become therefore all the more instructive.

Other families or classes of language have as yet been analysed with partial success only, still wherever a beginning has been made, the result has always been the same, and we may take it as a fundamental principle, admitted by all students of language in whatever part of the world, that in the beginning there were roots and radical concepts, and that with these roots human speech was built up from beginning to end.

There are languages, like the ancient Chinese, in

which words and roots are identical, at least in outward appearance, where all is material, and nothing, as yet, purely formal. In such languages, whatever their age may be, we have again a tangible proof of the theory which we formed for ourselves, from an analysis of more developed languages, such as Sanskrit and Hebrew, namely that language begins with roots and thought with concepts, and that the two are one.

Our conceptual world. When the human mind had once reached the conceptual stage, the battle was won, an entrance into the ideal world had been effected. With the first real word, a new world was created, the world of thought, our real home.

When we have once seen that thought, in its true sense, is always conceptual, and that every word is derived from a conceptual root, we shall no longer be surprised when we are told that words, being conceptual, can never stand for a single percept. There can be nothing in the world of sense corresponding even to such simple words as dog, tree, apple, table, to say nothing of colour, virtue, goodness and all the rest, for they are all conceptual. We can never expect to see a dog, a tree, an apple, or a chair. Dog means every kind of dog from the greyhound to the spaniel ; tree every kind of tree from the oak to the cherry; apple every kind of apple from the pineapple to the pippin; chair every kind of chair from the royal throne to the professorial chair. People often imagine that they can form a general image of a dog, by leaving out what is peculiar to every individual dog, or to every kind of dog. Let them try

the experiment, which Mr. Galton has tried for human faces, namely, photograph a greyhound, and over it a spaniel, and then a St. Bernard, and then a Scotch terrier, and so on till every breed has been superadded. They will then see what kind of general image they would arrive at, and they will strongly object to harbouring such monsters in their mind.

Here also Berkeley acted as a most resolute pioneer. He showed that it is simply impossible for any human being to make to himself a general image of a triangle, for such an image would have to be at the same time right-angled, obtuse-angled, acute-angled, equilateral, isosceles, and scalene. This is impossible, whereas it is perfectly possible to have an image of any single triangle, to name some characteristic feature common to all triangles, namely their possessing three angles, and thus to form a name and at the same time a concept of a triangle. This mental process which Berkeley described so well as applied to modern concepts, we can watch with regard to all, even the most primitive concepts, if we examine the annals of language. Man discovered in a smaller or larger number of trees, before they were as yet trees to him, something which was interesting to him and which they all shared in common. Now trees were interesting to primitive man for various reasons, and they could have been named for every one of these reasons. For practical purposes, however, trees were particularly interesting to the primitive framers of language, because they could be split in two, cut, shaped into blocks and planks, shafts and boats. Hence from a root dar, to tear, they called trees dru or dâru, lit. what can be split or torn or cut to pieces. From the same root they also called the skin dépua, because it was torn off, and a sack dópos, because it was made of leather (Sanskrit driti), and a spear, dópv, because it was a tree, cut and shaped and planed.

Such words being once given, they would produce ever so many offshoots. The Gauls called their priests Druides ?, the Irish drui, literally the men of the oak-groves. The Greeks called the spirits of the forest-trees Dryades ; and the Hindus called a man of wood, or a man with a wooden, or, as we say, flinty heart, dâruna, cruel.

What applies to this single word for tree, applies to all words. They are all derived from roots, they are all conceptual, they all express something common to many things, and therefore something that can be thought of and spoken of, but can never be perceived with our senses as a single and real object.

If then we think in words, and in words only, is there anything in the world, I will not say now, more wonderful simply, but more momentous, more serious, more paramount for all our intellectual work than our words? And if that is so, need we wonder that religion also has its deepest roots in language, nay would be perfectly inconceivable without language. It has often been said that numina are nomina, and if our line of argument hitherto has been straight, we shall not only accept this statement, but understand its true meaning. Try to realise Zeus or Hera without their names, and you will see that there is nothing to

and Hera are mere names. This expression, mere names, is one of the most objectionable and self-con

1 Hibbert Lectures, John Rhys, p. 221.

« PreviousContinue »