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THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE
IF Evolution is the method of Creation, the faculty of Speech was no sudden gift. Man’s mind is not to be thought of as the cylinder of a phonograph to which ready-made words were spoken and stored up for future use. Before Homo sapiens was evolved he must necessarily have been preceded for a longer or shorter period by Homo alalus, the not-speaking man; and this man had to make his words, and beginning with dumb signs and inarticulate cries to build up a body of Language word by word as the body was built up cell by cell.
The alternative theory of the origin of Language universally held until lately, and expressed in so many words even by the eighth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that “our first parents received it by immediate inspiration,” has the same relation to exact science as the view that the world was made in six days by direct creative fiat. Both are poetically true. But to science, seeking for precise methods of operation, neither is an adequate statement of now ascertained facts. The same processes of research that made the poetic view of creation untenable in the physical realm are now slowly beginning to displace the older view of the origin of speech. That Language should be outside a law whose universality is being established with every step of progress is itself improbable; and now that the field is being exhaustively explored, the proofs that it is no exception multiply on every side. The living interest the mere suggestion gives to the study of Language is obvious. Evolution enters no region—dull, neglected, or remote—of the temple of knowledge without transforming it. Philology, since this wizard touched it, has become one of the most entrancing of the sciences. And Language, from a study which interested only a few specialists, is disclosed as one vast palimpsest, every word and phrase luminous with the inner mind and soul of the past. To penetrate far into this tempting region is beyond our province now. The immediate object is to give a simple sketch of the possible conditions which first led Man to speak; of the principles which apparently guided the formation of his early vocabulary; and of the gradual refining of the means of intercommunication between him and his fellow-men as time passed on. Instead of beginning with words, therefore, we shall begin with Man. For the first condition for understanding the Evolution of Speech is that we take it up as a study from the life, that we place ourselves in the primeval forest with early Man, in touch with the actual scenes in which he lived, and note the real experiences and necessities of such a lot. We may indeed discover in this research small trace of a miraculous inbreathing of formal words. But to make Speech and fit it into a man, after all is said, is less miraculous than to fit a man to make Speech.
One of the earliest devices hit upon in the course of Evolution was the principle of co-operation. Long before men had learned to form themselves into tribes and clans for mutual strength and service, gregariousness was an established institution. The deer had formed themselves into herds, and the monkeys into troops; the birds were in flocks, and the wolves in packs; the bees in hives, and the ants in colonies. And so abundant and dominant in every part of the world are these social types to-day that we may be sure the gregarious state has exceptional advantages in the upward struggle.
One of these advantages, obviously, is the mere physical strength of numbers. But there is another and a much more important one—the mental strength of a combination. Here is a herd of deer, scattered, as they love to be, in a string, quarter of a mile long. Every animal in the herd not only shares the physical strength of all the rest, but their powers of observation. Its foresight in presence of possible danger is the foresight of the herd. It has as many eyes as the herd, as many ears, as many organs of smell, its nervous system extends throughout the whole space covered by the line; its environment, in short, is not only what it hears, sees, smells, touches, tastes, but what every single member hears, sees, smells, touches, tastes. This means an enormous advantage in the Struggle for Life. What deer have to arm themselves most against is surprise. When it comes to an actual fight, comrades are of little use. At that crisis the others run away and leave the victims to their fate. But in helping one another to avert that crisis, the value of this mutual aid is so great that gregarious animals, for the most part timid and defenceless as individuals, have survived to occupy in untold multitudes the highest places in Nature.
The success of the co-operative principle, however, depends upon one condition: the members of the herd must be able to communicate with one another. It matters not how acute the senses of each animal may be, the strength of the column depends on the power to transmit from one to another what impressions each may receive at any moment from without. Without this power the sociality of the herd is stultified; the army, having no signalling department, is powerless as an army. But if any member of the herd is able by motion of head or foot or neck or ear, by any sign or by any sound, to pass on the news that there is danger near, each instantly enters into possession of the faculties of the whole. Each has a hundred eyes, noses, ears. Each has quarter of a mile of nerves. Thus numbers are strength only when strength is coupled with some power of inter-communication by signs. If one herd develops this signalling system and another does not, its chances of survival will be greater. The less equipped herds will be slowly decimated and driven to the wall; and those which survive to propagate their kind will be those whose signal-service is most efficient and complete. Hence the Evolution of the signal-system. Under the influence of Natural Selection its progress was inevitable. New circumstances and relations would in time arise, calling for additions, vocal, visible, audible, to the sign-vocabulary. And as time went on each set of animals would acquire a definite signal-service of its own, elementary to the last degree, yet covering the range of its ordinary experiences and adequate to the expression of its limited mental states.
Now what interests us with regard to these signs is that they are Language. The evolution we have been tracing is nothing less than the first stage in the evolution of Speech. Any means by which information is conveyed from one mind to another is Language. And Language existed on the earth from the day that animals began to live together. The mere fact that animals cling to one another, live together, move about together, proves that they communicate. Among the ants, perhaps the most social of the lower animals, this power is so perfect that they are not merely endowed with a few general signs but seem able to convey information upon matters of detail. Sweeping across country in great armies they keep up communication throughout the whole line, and succeed in conveying to one another information as to the easiest routes, the presence of enemies or obstacles, the proximity of food supplies, and even of the numbers required on emergencies to leave the main band for any special service. Everyone has observed ants stop when they meet one another and exchange a rapid greeting by means of their waving antennae, and it is possibly through these perplexing organs that definite intercourse between one creature and another first entered the world. The exact nature of the antenna-language is not yet fathomed, but the perfection to which it is carried proves that the idea of language generally has existed in nature from the earliest time. Among higher animals various outward expressions of emotions are made, and these become of service in time for the conveyance of information to others. The howl of the dog, the neigh of the horse, the bleat of the lamb, the stamp of the goat, and other signs are all readily understood by other animals. One monkey utters at least six different sounds to express its feelings; and Mr. Darwin has detected four or five modulations in the bark of the dog: “the bark of eagerness, as in the chase; that of anger as well as growling; the yelp or howl of despair when shut up; the baying at night; the bark of joy when starting on a walk with his master; and the very distinct one of demand or supplication, as when wishing for a door or window to be opened.”6464Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 84.
Now these signs are as much language as spoken words. You have only to evolve this to get all the language the dictionary-maker requires. Any method of communication, as already said, is Language, and to understand Language we must fix in our minds- the idea that it has no necessary connection with actual words. In the simple instances just given there are illustrations of at least three kinds of Language. When a deer throws up its head suddenly, all the other deer throw up their heads. That is a sign. It means “listen.” If the first deer sees the object, which has called its attention, to be suspicious, it utters a low note. That is a word. It means “caution.” If next it sees the object to be not only suspicious but dangerous it makes a further use of Language—intonation. Instead of the low note “listen,” it utters a sharp loud cry that means “Run for your life.” Hence these three kinds of Language—a sign or gesture, a note or word, an intonation.
Down to this present hour these are still the three great kinds of Language. The movement of foot or ear have been evolved into the modern gesture or grimace; the note or cry into a word, and the intonation into an emphasis or inflexion of the voice. These are still, indeed, not only the main elements in Language but the only elements. The eloquence which enthrals the legislators of St Stephen’s, or the appeal which melts the worshippers at St. Paul’s, originated in the voices of the forest and the activities of the ant-hill. To those who have not realized the exceeding smallness of the beginnings of all new developments, the suggestion of science as to the origin of Language, like many of its other suggestions about early stages, will seem almost ludicrous. But a knowledge of two things warns one not to look for surprises at the beginning of Evolution but at the end. In the first place, it is all but a cardinal principle that developments are brought about by minute, slow and insensible degrees. The second fact is even more important. The theatre of change is the actual world, and the exciting cause something really happening in every-day life. Few departures are not made in the air. They arise in connection with some commonplace event; and usually take the shape of some slightly new response. In other connections, of course, the converse is also true, but when a change occurs for the first time in the life of an organism the exciting cause, whatever the internal adaptation, or want of it, is some change in the environment. Among the events then, actually happening in the day’s round, we are to seek for the exciting cause of the earliest forms of speech.
The simplest Language open to Man was that which we have already seen to mark the beginning of all Language, the Language of gesture or sign. To the word gesture, however, it is necessary to attach a larger meaning than the term ordinarily expresses to us. It is not to be limited, for example, to visible movements of the limbs or facial muscles. The ejaculations of the savage, the drumming of the gorilla, the screech of the parrot, the crying, growling, purring, hissing, and spitting of other animals are all forms of gesture. Nor is it possible to separate the Language of gesture from the Language of intonation. These have grown up side by side and can neither be distinguished psychologically nor as to priority in the order of Evolution. Intonation, though it has grown to be infinitely the more delicate instrument of the two and is still so important a part of some Languages —the Chinese, for example—as to be an integral part of them, has its roots in the same soil and must be looked upon as, along with it, the earliest form of Language.
That this Gesture-Language marked, if not the dawn, at least a very early stage of Language in the case of Man, there is abundant evidence. Apart from analogy, there are at least three witnesses who may be cited in proof not only of the fact, but of the high perfection to which a Gesture-Language may be carried. The first of these witnesses is the homo alalus, the not-speaking man, of to-day, the deaf-mute. As an actual case of a human being reduced as regards the power of speech to the level of early Man his evidence, even with all allowances for the high development of his mental faculties, is of scientific value. The mere fact that a deaf man is also a dumb man is almost a final answer to the affirmation that the power of speech is an original and intuitive faculty of Man. If it were so, there is no reason why a deaf man should not speak. The vocal apparatus in his case is complete; all that is required to make him utter a definite sound is to hear one. When he hears one, but not till then, he can imitate it. Language, so far as the testimony of the deaf-mute goes, is clearly a matter of imitation. Unable to attain the second stage of Language—words—he has to content himself with the first—signs. And this Language he has evolved to its last perfection. It shows how little the mere utterance of words has to do with Language, that the deaf-mute is able to converse on every-day subjects almost as perfectly as those who can speak. The permutations and combinations that can be produced with ten pliable fingers, or with the varying expressions of the muscles of the face, are endless, and everything that he cares to know can be uttered or translated to him by motion, gesture, and grimace. To give an idea how far gestures can be made to do the work of spoken words, the signs may be described in which a deaf-and-dumb man once told a child’s story in presence of Mr. Tylor. “He began by moving his hand, palm down, about a yard from the ground, as we do to show the height of a child—this meant that it was a child he was thinking of. Then he tied an imaginary pair of bonnet-strings under his chin (his usual sign for female), to make it understood that the child was a little girl. The child’s mother was then brought on the scene in a similar way. She beckons to the child and gives her twopence, these being indicated by pretending to drop two coins from one hand into the other; if there had been any doubt as to whether they were copper or silver coins, this would have been settled by pointing to something brown or even by one’s contemptuous way of handling coppers which at once distinguishes them from silver. The mother also gives the child a jar, shown by sketching its shape with the forefingers in the air, and going through the act of handing it over. Then by imitating the unmistakable kind of twist with which one turns a treacle-spoon, it is made known that it is treacle the child has to buy. Next, a wave of the hand shows the child being sent off on her errand, the usual sign of walking being added, which is made by two fingers walking on the table. The turning of an imaginary door-handle now takes us into the shop, when the counter is shown by passing the flat hands as it were over it. Behind this counter a figure is pointed out; he is shown to be a man by the usual sign of putting one’s hand to one’s chin and drawing it down where the beard is or would be; then the sign of tying an apron around one’s waist adds the information that the man is the shopman. To him the child gives her jar, dropping the money into his hand, and moving her forefinger as if taking up treacle to show what she wants. Then we see the jar put into an imaginary pair of scales which go up and down; the great treacle-jar is brought from the shelf and the little one filled, with the proper twist to take up the last trickling thread; the grocer puts the two coins in the till, and the little girl sets off with the jar. The deaf-and-dumb story-teller went on to show in pantomime how the child, looking down at the jar, saw a drop of treacle on the rim, wiped it off with her finger, and put the finger in her mouth, how she was tempted to take more, how her mother found her out by the spot of treacle on her pinafore, and so forth.”6565Tylor, Anthropology.
A second witness is savage Man. Some of the more primitive races, far as they have evolved past the alalus stage, still cling to the gesture-language which bulked so largely in the intercourse of their ancestors. No one who has witnessed a conversation—one says “witnessed,” for it is more seeing than hearing—between two different tribes of Indians can have any doubt of the working efficiency of this method of speech. After ten minutes of almost pure pantomime each will have told the other everything that it is needful to say. Indians of different tribes, indeed, are able to communicate most perfectly on all ordinary subjects with no more use of the voice than that required for the emission of a few different kinds of grunts. The fact that stranger tribes make so large a use of gesture in expressing themselves to one another does not, of course, imply that each has not a word-language of its own. But few of the Languages of primitive peoples are complete without the additions which gesture offers. There are gaps in the vocabulary of almost all savage tribes due to the fact that in actual speech the lacunae are bridged by signs, and many of their words belong more to the category of signs than to that of words.
The final witness is the first attempt at Language of a little child. Universally an infant opens communication with the mental world around it in the primitive language of gesture and tone. Long before it has learned to speak, without the use of a single word it conveys information as to fundamental wants, and expresses all its varying moods and wishes with a vehemence and point which are almost the envy of riper years. The interesting thing about this is that it is spontaneous. In later childhood it has to be taught to speak—because speech is a fine art—but to utter the hereditary and primitive Language of mankind requires no prompting. Words are conventional, movements and sounds are natural. The Language of the nursery is the native Language of the forest, the inarticulate cry of the animal, the intonation of the savage. To quote from Mallery:—“The wishes and emotions of very young children are conveyed in a small number of sounds, but in a great variety of gestures and facial expressions. A child’s gestures are intelligent long in advance of speech; although very early and persistent attempts are made to give it instruction in the latter but none in the former, from the time when it begins risu cognoscere matrem. It learns words only as they are taught, and learns them through the medium of signs which are not expressly taught. Long after familiarity with speech it consults the gestures and facial expressions of its parents and nurses, as if seeking them to translate or explain their words. These facts are important in reference to the biologic law that the order of development of the individual is the same as that of the species. . . . The insane understand and obey gestures when they have no knowledge whatever of words. It is also found that semi-idiotic children who cannot be taught more than the merest rudiment of speech can receive a considerable amount of information through signs, and can express themselves by them. Sufferers from aphasia continue to use appropriate gestures. A stammerer, too, works his arms and features as if determined to get his thoughts out, in a manner not only suggestive of the physical struggle, but of the use of gesture as a hereditary expedient.”6666First Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, 1881.
The survival both of gesture and intonation in modern adult speech, and especially the unconsciousness of their use, illustrate how indelibly these primitive forms of Language are embedded in the human race. There are doubtless exceptions, but it is probably the rule that gestures are mainly called in to supplement expression when the subject-matter of discourse does not belong to the highest ranges of thought, or the speaker to the loftiest type of oratory. The higher levels of thought were reached when the purer forms of spoken Language had become the vehicle of expression; and, as has often been noticed, when a speaker soars into a very lofty region, or allows his mind to grapple intensely and absorbingly with an exalted theme, he becomes more and more motionless, and only resumes the gesture-language when he descends to commoner levels. It is not only that a fine speaker has a greater command of words and is able to dispense with auxiliaries —as a master of style can dispense with the use of italics—but that, at all events, in the case of abstract thought, it is untranslatable into gesture-speech. Gestures are suggestions and reminders of things seen and heard. They are nearly all attached to objects or to moods, and rival words only when used of every-day things. “No sign talker,” Mr. Romanes reminds us, “with any amount of time at his disposal, could translate into the language of gesture a page of Kant.”6767Mental Evolution, p. 147.
The next stage in the Evolution of Language must have been reached as naturally as the Language of gesture and tone. From the gesture-language to mixtures of signs and sounds, and finally to the specialization of sound into words, is a necessary transition. Apart from the fact that gestures and tones have limits, circumstances must often have arisen in the life of early Man when gesture was impossible. A sign Language is of no use when one savage is at one end of a wood and his wife at the other. He must now roar; and to make his roar explicit, he must have a vocabulary of roars, and of all shades of roars. In the darkness of night also, his signs are useless, and he must now whisper and have a vocabulary of whispers. Nor is it difficult to conceive where he got his first brief list of words. Instead of drawing things in the air with his finger, he would now try to imitate their sounds. Everything around him that conveyed any impression of sound would have associated with it some self-expressive word, which all familiar with the original sound could instantly recognize. Imagine, for instance, a herd of buffalo browsing in a glade of the African forest. The vanguard, some little distance from its neighbours, hears the low growl of a lion. That growl, of course, is Language, and the buffalo understands it as well as we do when the word “lion” is pronounced. Between the word “lion” spoken, and the object lion growled, there is no difference in the effect. Suppose, next, the buffalo wished to convey to its comrades the knowledge that a lion was near, a lion and not some other animal, it might imitate this growl. It is not likely that it would do so; some other sign expressing alarm in general would probably be used, for the discrimination of the different sources of danger is probably an achievement beyond this animal’s power. But if Primitive Man was placed under the same circumstances, granting that he had begun in a feeble way to exercise mind, he would almost certainly come in time to denote a lion by an imitated growl, a wolf by an imitated whine, and so on. The sighing of the wind, the flowing of the stream, the beat of the surf, the note of the bird, the chirp of the grasshopper, the hiss of the snake, would each be used to express these things. And gradually a Language would be built up which included all the things in the environment with which sound was either directly, indirectly, or accidentally associated.
That this method of word-making is natural is seen in the facility with which it is still used by children; and from the early age at which they begin to employ it, the sound Language is clearly one of the very first forms of speech. All a child’s words are of course gathered through the sense of hearing, but if it can itself pick up a word direct from the object, it will use it long before it elects to repeat the conventional name taught it by its nurse. The child who says moo for cow, or bow-wow for dog, or tick-tick for watch, or puff-puff for train, is an authority on the origin of human speech. Its father, when he talks of the hum of machinery or the boom of the cannon, when he calls champagne fizz or a less aristocratic beverage pop, is following in the wake of the inventors of Language. Among savage peoples, and especially those encountering the first rush of new things and thoughts brought them by the advancing wave of civilization, word-making is still going on; and wherever possible the favourite principle seems to be that of sound.6868Among the Coral Islands of the Pacific the savages everywhere speak of the white residents in New Caledonia as the Wee-wee men, or Wee-wees. Cannibals on a dozen different islands, speaking as many languages, have all this name in common. New Caledonia is a French Penal Settlement, containing thousands of French convicts, and one’s first crude thought is that the Wee-wees are so named from their size. A moment’s reflection, however, shows that it is taken from their sounds—that in fact we have here a very pretty example of modern onomatopoeia. These convicts, freed or escaped, find their way over the Pacific group; and the natives, seizing at once upon their characteristic sound, know them as Oui-oui’s—a name which has now become general for all Frenchmen in the Southern Pacific.
How full all Languages are of these sound-words is known to the philologist, though multitudes of words in every Language have had their pedigree effaced or obscured by time. “An Englishman would hardly guess from the present pronunciation and meaning of the word pipe what its origin was; yet when he compares it with the Low Latin pipa, French pipe, pronounced more like our word peep, to chirp, and meaning such a reed-pipe as shepherds played on, he then sees how cleverly the very sound of the musical pipe has been made into a word for all kinds of tubes, such as tobacco-pipes and water-pipes. Words like this travel like Indians on the war-path, wiping out their footmarks as they go. For all we know multitudes of our ordinary words may have thus been made from real sounds, but have now lost beyond recovery the traces of their first expressiveness.”6969Tylor Anthropology, p. 127. In the Chinuk language of the West Coast of America, to cite a few more of Tylor’s instances, a tavern is called a ”heehee-house,” that is a laughter house, or an amusement house, the word for amusement being taken by an obvious association from the laughter which it excites. How indirect a derivation may be is illustrated by the word which the Basutos of South Africa use for courtier. The buzz of a certain fly resembles the sound ntsi-ntsi, and they apply this word to those who buzz round the chief as a fly buzzes round a piece of meat. As everyone knows “papa” for father, is evolved into papa the pope, and “abba” the Hebrew for father into abbot. For plurals, a doubling of the word is often used, but no doubt at first quantity was expressed by gestures or by numbering on the fingers. “Orang” is the Malay for Man, “Orang-orang” for men, while “Orangutan” is wild man. Verbs are formed on the same principle as nouns. In the Tecuna language of Brazil the verb to sneeze is haitschu, while the Welsh for a sneeze is tis. Other verbs which came to have large and comprehensive meanings arose out of the simple activities and occupations of primitive life. Thus the first verb in the Bible, the Hebrew “bara” now meaning create, was originally used for cutting or hewing, the first step in making things. In the Borneo language of Africa, the verb “to make” comes from the word tando, to weave. In English, “to suffer” meant to bear as a burden, and to “apprehend an idea” was originally to “catch hold” of some “sight.” Even Max Muller, who opposes the onomatopoetic theory with regard to the origin of most words, agrees that the sounds of the occupation of men, and especially of men working together, and making special sounds at their task—such as builders, soldiers, and sailors—are widely represented in modern speech.
Though mimicry, sometimes exact, but probably more often a mere echo or suggestion of the sound to be recalled, is responsible for some of the material of Language, multitudes of words appear to have no such origin. There are infinitely more words than sounds in the world; and even things which have very distinct sounds have been named without any regard to them. The inventors of the word watch, for instance, did not call it tick-tick but watch, the idea being taken from the watchman who walked about at night and kept the time; and when the steam-engine appeared, instead of taking the obvious sound-name puff-puff, it was called engine (Lat. ingenium), to signify that it was a work of genius. These modern words, however, are the coinages of an intellectual age, and it was to be expected that the inventors should look deeper below the surface. How those words which have no apparent association with sound were formed in early times remains a mystery. With some the original sound-association has probably been lost; in the case of others, the association may have been so indirect as to be now untraceable. The sounds available in savage life for word-making could never have been so numerous as the things requiring names, and as civilization advanced the old words would be used in new connections, while wholly new terms must have been coined from time to time. Both these methods—the habit of generalizing unconsciously from single terms, and the trick of coining new words in a wholly conventional way—are still continually employed by savages as well as by children. Thus, to take an example of the first, Mr. John Moir, one of the earliest white men to settle in East Central Africa, was at once named by the natives Mandala, which means “a reflection in still water,” because he wore on his eyes what looked to them a still water (spectacles). Afterwards they came to call not only Mr. Moir by that name, but spectacles, and finally—when it entered the country—glass itself. Examples of generalization among children abound in every nursery. A child is taken to the window by his nurse to see the moon. The easy monosyllable is caught up at once, and for some time the child applies it indiscriminately to anything bright or shining—the gas, the candle, the firelight are each “the moon.” Mr. Romanes records a case where a child made a similar use of the word star—the gas, the candle, the firelight were each “a star.” If the makers of Language proceeded on this principle, no wonder the philologist has riddles to read. How often must the savage children of the world have started off naming things from two such different points? Mr. Romanes mentions a still more elaborate example which was furnished him by Mr. Darwin: “The child, who was just beginning to speak, called a duck ‘quack,’ and, by special association, it also called water ‘quack.’ By an appreciation of the resemblance of qualities, it next extended the term ‘quack’ to denote all birds and insects on the one hand, and all fluid substances on the other. Lastly, by a still more delicate appreciation of resemblance, the child eventually called all coins ‘quack,’ because on the back of a French sou it had once seen the representation of an eagle. Hence, to the child, the sign ‘quack,’ from having originally had a very specialized meaning, became more and more extended in its significance, until it now seems to designate such apparently-different objects as ‘fly,’ ‘wine,’ and ‘coin.’”7070Mental Evolution, p. 283.
The instructiveness of this, in showing the reason why philology is often so helplessly at a loss in tracking far-strayed words to their original sense, is plain. In the nature of the case, the onomatopoetic theory can never be proved in more than a fraction of cases. So cunning is the mind in associating ideas, so swift in making new departures, that the clue to multitudes of words must be obliterated by time, even if the first forms and spellings of the words themselves remain in their original integrity —which rarely happens—to offer a feasible point to start the search from.
But it is far from necessary to assume that all words should have had a rational ancestry. On the contrary many words are probably deliberate artificial inventions. When not only every human being, but every savage and every child has the ability as well as the right to call anything it likes by any name it chooses, it is vain in every case to seek for any general principle underlying the often arbitrary conjunctions of letters and sounds which we call words. Words cannot all at least be treated with the same scientific regard as we would treat organic forms. When dissected, in the nature of the case, they cannot be expected to reveal specific structure such as one finds in a fern or a cray-fish. A fern or a cray-fish is the expression of an infinitely subtle and intricate adaptation, while a word may be a mere caprice. Perhaps, indeed, the greatest marvel about philology is that there should be a philology at all—that Languages should be so rich in association, so pregnant with the history and poetry of the past. Into the problem, therefore, of how the infinite variety of words in a Language was acquired it is unnecessary to enter at length. Once the idea had dawned of expressing meaning by sounds, the formation of words and even of Languages is a mere detail. We have probably all invented words. Almost every family of children invents words of its own, and cases are known where quite considerable Languages have been manufactured in the nursery. When boys play at brigands and pirates they invent pass-words and names, and from mere love of secrets and mysteries concoct vocabularies which no one can understand but themselves.
This simple fact indeed has been used with great
plausibility to account for differences in dialect among different tribes, and
even for the partial origin of new Languages. Thus the structure of the Indian
languages has long puzzled philologists. Whitney informs us that as regards the
material of expression, there is “irreconcilable diversity” among them. “There
are a very considerable number of groups between whose significant signs exist
no more apparent correspondences than between those of English, Hungarian, and
Malay; none namely which may not be merely fortuitous.” To account for these
dialects a suggestion, as interesting as it is ingenious, has been advanced by
Dr. Hale. Imagine the case of a family of Red Indians, father, mother, and half
a dozen children, in the vicissitudes of war, cut off from their tribe. Suppose
the father to be scalped and the mother soon to die. The little ones left to
themselves in some lonely valley, living upon roots and herbs, would converse
for a time by using the few score words they had heard from their parents. But
as they grew up they would require new words and would therefore coin them. As
they became a tribe they would require more words, and so in time a Language
might arise, all the words expressive of the simpler relations—father, mother,
tent, fire—being common to other Indian Languages, but all the later words
purely arbitrary and necessarily a standing puzzle to philology. The curious
thing is that this theory is borne out by some most interesting geographical
facts. “If, under such circumstances, disease, or the casualties of a hunter’s
life should carry off the parents, the survival of the children would, it is
evident, depend mainly upon the nature of the climate and the ease with which
food could be procured at all seasons of the year. In ancient Europe, after the
present climatal conditions were established, it is doubtful if a family of
children under ten years of age could have lived through a single winter. We
are not, therefore, surprised to find that no more than four or five linguistic
stocks are represented in Europe. Of North America, east of the Rocky Mountains
and north of the tropics, the same may be said. The climate and the scarcity of
food in winter forbid us to suppose that a brood of orphan children could have
survived, except possibly, by a fortunate chance, in some favoured spot on the
shore of the Mexican Gulf, where shell-fish, berries, and edible roots are
abundant and easy of access. But there is one region where Nature seems to
offer herself as the willing nurse and bountiful stepmother of the feeble and
unprotected. Of all countries on the globe, there is probably not one in which
a little flock of very young children would find the means of sustaining
existence more readily than in California. Its wonderful climate, mild and
equable beyond example, is well known. Half the months are rainless. Snow and
ice are almost strangers. There are fully two hundred cloudless days in every
year. Roses bloom in the open air through all seasons. Berries of many sorts
are indigenous and abundant. Large fruits and edible nuts on low and pendant
boughs may be said in Milton’s phrase to ‘hang amiable.’ Need we wonder that in
such a mild and fruitful region, a great number of separate tribes were found
speaking languages which careful investigation has classed in nineteen distinct
linguistic stocks?” Even more striking is the case of Oregon on the Californian
border, which is also a favoured and luxuriant land. “The number of linguistic
stocks in this narrow district is more than twice as large as in the whole of
Europe.”7171 The construction of the mouth and lips
has of course had something to do with differences in Languages, and even with
the possibility of language in the case of Man. You must have your trumpet
before you can get the sound of a trumpet. One reason why many animals have no
speech is simply that they have not the mechanism which by any possibility
could produce it. They might have a Language, but nothing at all like human
Language. It is one of the significant notes in Evolution that Man, almost
alone among vertebrates, has a material body so far developed as to make it an
available instrument for speech. There was almost certainly a time when this
was to him a physical impossibility.
“The acquisition of articulate speech,” says Prof. Macalister, “became possible to man only when the alveolar arch and palatine area became shortened and widened, and when his tongue, by its accommodation to the modified mouth, became shorter and more horizontally flattened, and the higher refinements of pronunciation depend for their production upon the more extensive modifications in the same direction.” Even for differences in dialect, as the same writer points out, there is a physical basis. “With the macrodont alveolar arch and the corresponding modified tongue, sibilation is a difficult feat to accomplish, and hence the sibilant sounds are practically unknown in all the Australian dialects.”—British Association: Anthropological Section. Edinb., 1891.
In such ways as these we may conceive of early Man building up the fabric of speech. In time his vocabulary would enlarge and become, so far as objects in the immediate environment were concerned, fairly complete. As Man gained more knowledge of the things around him, as he came into larger relations with his fellows, as life became more rich and complex, this accumulation of words would go on, each art as it was introduced creating new terms, each science pouring in contributions to the fund, until the materials of human speech became more and more complete. This process was never finished. The evolution of Language is still going on. No corroboration of the theory of the evolution of Language could be more perfect than the simple fact that it has gone on steadily down to the present hour and is going on now. Tens of thousands of words—no longer now onomatopoetic—have been evolved since Johnson compiled his dictionary, and every year sees additions not only to technical terms but to the Language of the people. The English Language is now being grown on two or three different kinds of soil, and the different fruits and flavours that result are intercharged and mixed, to enrich, or adulterate, the common English tongue. The mere fact that Language-making is a living art at the present hour, if not an argument against the theory that Language is a special gift, at least shows that Man has a special gift of making Language. If Man could manufacture words in any quantity, there was little reason why he should have been presented with them ready-made. The power to manufacture them is gift enough, and none the less a gift that we know some of the steps by which it was given, or at least through which it was exercised. But if the very words were given him as they stand, it is more than singular that so many of them should bear traces of another origin. Even Trench at this point succumbs to the theory of development, and his testimony is the more valuable that it is evidently so very much against the grain to admit it. He begins by stating apparently the opposite:—“The truer answer to the inquiry how language arose is this: God gave man language just as He gave him reason, and just because He gave him reason; for what is man’s word but his reason coming forth that it may behold itself? They are indeed so essentially one and the same that the Greek language has one word for them both. He gave it to him, because he could not be man, that is, a social being, without it.” Yet he is too profound a student of words to fail to qualify this, and had he failed to do so every page in his well-known book had judged him. “Yet,” he continues, “this must not be taken to affirm that man started at the first furnished with a full-formed vocabulary of words, and as it were with his first dictionary and first grammar ready-made to his hands. He did not thus begin the world with names, but with the power of naming: for man is not a mere speaking machine; God did not teach him words, as one of us teaches a parrot, from without; but gave him a capacity, and then evoked the capacity which He gave.”7272Archbishop Trench, The Study of Words, pp. 14, 15.
If the theory just given as to the formation of Language, or at least as to the possible formation of Language, be more than a fairy tale, there is another quarter in which corroboration of an important kind should lie. Hitherto we have examined, as witnesses, the makers of words; it may be worth while for a moment to place in the witness-box the words themselves. A chemist has two methods of determining the composition of any body, analysis and synthesis. Having seen how words may be built up, it remains for us to see whether on analysis they bear trace of having been built up in the way, and from the elements, suggested. Comparative Philology has now made an actual investigation into the words and structure of all known Languages, and the information sought by the evolutionist lies ready-made to his hand. So far as controversy might be expected to arise here on the theory of development itself, there is none. For the first fact to interest us in this new region is that every student of Language seems to have been compelled to give in his adherence to the general theory of Evolution. All agree with Renan that “Sans doute les langues, comme tout ce qui est organise, sont sujettes a la loi du development graduel.” And even Max Muller, the least thorough-going from an evolutionary point of view of all philologists, asserts that “no student of the science of Language can be anything but an evolutionist, for, wherever he looks, he sees nothing but evolution going on all around him.”
The outstanding discovery of the dissector of words is that, vast and complex as Languages appear, they are really composed of few and simple elements. Take the word “evolutionary.” The termination “ary” is a late addition added to this and to thousands of other words for a special purpose; the same applies to the syllable “tion.” The first letter e distinguishes evolution from convolution, revolution, involution, and is also a later growth. None of these extra syllables is of first importance; by themselves they have almost no meaning. The part which will not disappear or melt away into mere grammar, on which the stress of the sense hangs, is the syllable “vol” or “volv,” and, so far as the English language is concerned, it is to be looked upon as the root. By running it to earth in older languages its source is found in a still more radical word, and therefore it must next be blotted out of the list of primitive words. By patient comparison of all other words with all other words, of Languages with Languages, and apparent roots with apparent roots, the supposed primitive roots of Language have been found. Just as all the multifarious objects in the material world—water, air, earth, flesh, bone, wood, iron, paper, cloth—are resolvable by the chemist into some sixty-eight elements, so all the words in each of the three or four great groups of Language yield on the last analysis only a few hundred original roots. That still further analysis may break down some or many of these is not impossible. But the facts as they stand are all significant. The further we go back into the past the Languages become thinner and thinner, the words fewer and fewer, the grammar poorer and poorer. Of the thousand known Languages it has been found possible to reduce all to three or four—probably three —great families; and each of these in turn is capable of almost unlimited philological pruning. In analyzing the Sanskrit language, Professor Max Muller reduces its whole vocabulary to 121 roots—the 121 “original concepts.” “These 121 concepts constitute the stock-in-trade with which I maintain that every thought that has ever passed through the mind of India, so far as known to us in its literature, has been expressed. It would have been easy to reduce that number still further, for there are several among them which could be ranged together under more general concepts. But I leave this further reduction to others, being satisfied as a first attempt with having shown how small a number of seeds may produce, and has produced, the enormous intellectual vegetation that has covered the soil of India from the most distant antiquity to the present day.”7373Science of Thought, p. 549.
That a “first attempt” should have succeeded in reducing this vast family of Languages to 121 words is significant. The exhumation by philology of this early cluster reminds one of the discovery of the segmented ovum in embryology. Such clusters appear at an early stage in the history of all developments. The processes which precede this stage are of the utmost subtlety, but in embryology they have yielded to the later analysis of the microscope. So it may be one day with the natural history of Language. We may never, for obvious reasons, get back to the actual beginning, but we may get nearer. When the embryologist reached his cluster of cells in the segmented ovum, he did not believe he had found the dawn of life. What further the philologist may find remains a mystery. Where these 121 words came from may never be known. But the development from that point sufficiently shows that words, like everything else, have followed the universal law, and that Languages, starting from small beginnings, have grown in volume, intricacy, and richness, as time rolled on. “All philologists,” says Romanes, “will now agree with Geiger—'Language diminishes the further we look back, in such a way that we cannot forbear concluding it must once have had no existence at all.'”
The history of progress for a long time henceforth is the history of the progress of language and the increase in intelligence which necessarily went along with it. From being able to say what he knew, Man went on to write what he knew. The Evolution of writing went through the same general stages as the Evolution of Speech. First there was the onomatopoetic writing—as it were, the growl-writing—the ideograph, the imitation of an actual object. This is the form we find fossil in the Egyptian hieroglyphic. For a man a man was drawn, for a camel a camel, for a hut a hut. Then intonation was added—accents, that is, for extra meaning or extra emphasis. Then to save time the objects were drawn in shorthand—a couple of dashes for the limbs and one across, as in the Chinese for man; a square in the same language for a field; two strokes at an obtuse angle, suggesting the roof, for a house. To express further qualities, these abbreviated pictures were next compounded in ingenious ways. A man and a field together conveyed the idea of wealth, and because a man with a field was rich, he was supposed to be happy, and the same combination stood, and stands to this day, for contentment. When a roof is drawn and a woman beneath it—or the strokes which represent a roof and a woman—we have the idea of a woman at home, a woman at peace, and hence the symbol comes to stand for quietness and rest. Chinese writing is picture-writing with the pictures degenerated into dashes—a lingual form of the modern impressionism.
When writing was fully evolved, this height was only the starting-point for some new development. Every summit in Evolution is the base of some grander peak. Speech, whether by writing or by spoken word, is too crude and slow to keep pace with the needs of the now swiftly ascending mind. Man’s larger life demands a further specialization of this power. He learned to speak at first because he could not convey his thoughts to his wife at the other side of the wood. It was Space that made him speak. He now learns to speak better because he cannot convey his thoughts to the other end of the world. This new distance-language began again at the beginning, just as all Language does, by employing signs. Man invented the telegraph—a little needle which makes signs to some one at the other side of the world. The telegraph is a gesture-language, and is therefore only a primitive stage. Man found this out and from signs went on to sounds—he invented the telephone. By all the traditions of Evolution this marvellous instrument ought to be, and is even now on the verge of being, the vehicle of the distance-language of the future.
Is this the end? It is by no means likely. The mind is feeling about already for more perfect forms of human intercourse than telegraphed or telephoned words. As there was a stage in the ascent of Man at which the body was laid aside as a finished product, and made to give way to Mind, there may be a stage in the Evolution of Mind when its material achievements—its body —shall be laid aside and give place to a higher form of Mind. Telepathy has already become a word, not a word for thought-reading or muscle-reading, but a scientific word. It means “the ability of one mind to impress, or to be impressed by another mind otherwise than through the recognized channels of sense.”7474Phantasms of the Living, p. 6. By men of science, adepts in mental analysis, aware of all sources of error, armed against fraud, this subject is now being made the theme of exhaustive observation. It is too soon to pronounce. Practically we are in the dark. But there are those in this fascinating and mysterious region who tell us that the possibilities of a more intimate fellowship of man with man, and soul with soul, are not to be looked upon as settled by our present views of matter or of mind. However little we know of it, however remote we are from it, whether it ever be realized or not, telepathy is theoretically the next stage in the Evolution of Language. As we have seen, the introduction of speech into the world was delayed, not because the possibilities of it were not in Nature, but because the instrument was not quite ready. Then the instrument came, and Man spoke. The development of the organ and the development of the function went on together, arrived together, were perfected together. What delayed the gesture-language of the telegraph was not that electricity was not in Nature, but the want of the instrument. When that came, the gesture-language came, and both were perfected together. What delayed the telephone was not that its principle was not in Nature, but that the instrument was not ready. What now delays its absolute victory of space is not that space cannot be bridged, but that it is not ready. May it not be that that which delays the power to transport and drive one’s thought as thought to whatever spot one wills, is not the fact that the possibility is withheld by Nature, but that the hour is not quite come—that the instrument is not yet fully ripe? Are there no signs, is the feeling after it no sign, are there not even now some facts, to warrant us in treating it, after all that Evolution has given us, as a still possible gift to the human race? What strikes one most in running the eye up this graduated ascent is that the movement is in the direction of what one can only call spirituality. From the growl of a lion we have passed to the whisper of a soul; from the motive fear, to the motive sympathy; from the icy physical barriers of space, to a nearness closer than breathing; from the torturing slowness of time to time’s obliteration. If Evolution reveals anything, if science itself proves anything, it is that Man is a spiritual being and that the direction of his long career is towards an ever larger, richer, and more exalted life. On the final problem of Man’s being the voice of science is supposed to be dumb. But this gradual perfecting of instruments, and, as each arrives, the further revelation of what lies behind in Nature, this gradual refining of the mind, this increasing triumph over matter, this deeper knowledge, this efflorescence of the soul, are facts which even Science must reckon with. Perhaps, after all, Victor Hugo is right: “I am the tadpole of an archangel.”
Before closing this outline two of the many omitted points may be briefly referred to. In thinking of Language as a “discovery,” it is not necessary to assume that that discovery involved the pre-existence of very high mental powers. These were probably developed pari passu with Speech, but did not necessarily ante-date it to such a degree as to make the preceding argument a petitio principii. Obviously the discovery of Language could not in the first instance have been responsible for the Evolution of Mind since Man must already have had Mind enough to discover it. But this does not necessarily imply any very high grade of intellect—very high, that is to say, as compared with other contemporary animals—for it is possible that a comparatively slight rise in intelligence might have led to the initial step from which all the others might follow in rapid succession. An illustration, suggested by a remark of Cope’s, may help to make plain how a very slight cause may initiate changes of an almost radical order and on the most gigantic scale.
In part of the Arctic regions at this moment there is no such thing as liquid. Matter is only known there in the solid form. The temperature may be thirty-one degrees below zero, or thirty-one degrees above zero without making the slightest difference; there can be nothing there but ice, glacier, and those crystals of ice which we call snow. But suppose the temperature rose two degrees, the difference would be indescribable. While no change for sixty degrees below that point made the least difference, the almost inappreciable addition of two degrees changes the country into a world of water. The glaciers, under the new conditions, retreat into the mountains, the vesture of ice drops into the sea, a garment of greenness clothes the land. So, in the animal world, a very small rise beyond the animal maximum may open the door for a revolution. With a brain of so many cubic inches, and so many pounds of brain matter, we have animal intelligence. Everything below that limit is animal, and the number of inches or pounds below it makes no difference. But pass to a brain not a few but many pounds heavier, many cubic inches larger, and very much more convoluted, and it is conceivable that in passing from the lower to the higher figures some such change might occur as that which differentiates solid from liquid in the case of water. What the chemist calls a “critical point” might thus be passed, and from a condition associated with certain properties—though in the brain we must speak of accompaniments rather than properties—a condition associated with certain other properties might be the result. Thus, as Cope says, “some Rubicon has been crossed, some flood-gate has been opened, which marks one of Nature’s great transitions, such as have been called ‘expression-points’ of progress.” A slight rise in intelligence might lead to the first acquisition of Speech, and from this point the rise might be at once exceedingly swift and in directions wholly new. The illustration is not to be taken for more than it seeks to illustrate—which is not the method of transition as to qualitative detail, but simply the fact that an apparently slight change may have startling and indefinite results.
The last difficulty is this. If the connection between Mind and Language is so vital, why do not Birds, many of which apparently speak, emulate Man in mental power? If his speech is largely responsible for his intelligence, why have not Birds —the parrot, for instance—attained the same intelligence? Several answers might be suggested to the question, and several kinds of answers—biological, physiological, philological, and psychological. But the real answer is the general one, that to make animals human required a conspiracy of circumstances which neither Birds nor any other animal fell heir to. It was one chance in a million that the multitude of co-operating conditions which pushed Man onward were fulfilled; and though it may never be known what these conditions were, it was doubtless from the failure on the one hand to meet one or more of them, and on the other from the success with which openings in other directions were pursued by competing species, that Man was left alone during the later aeons of his ascent.
The progenitors of Birds and the progenitors of Man at a very remote period were probably one. But at a certain point they parted company and diverged hopelessly and for ever. The Birds took one road, the Mammals another; the Mammals for the most part kept to the ground, the Birds took to the air. One consequence of this expedient in the case of the Birds was disastrous. For observe the cost to them of the aerial mode of life. The wing was made at the expense of the hand. With this consummate organ buried in feathers, the use which the higher Vertebrates made of it was denied them. Birds have the bones for a hand, could have had a hand, but they waived their right to it. When it is considered how much Man owes to the hand it may be conceived how much they have lost by the want of it. Had Man not been a “tool-using animal,” he had probably never become a Man; the Bird, partly because it placed itself out of the running here, has never been anything but a Bird. To one organism only was it given to keep on the path of progress from the beginning to the end, and so fulfil without deviation or relapse the final purpose of Evolution.
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