Logical Consistency in Views of Language

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Logical Consistency in Views of Language  (1880) 
by William Dwight Whitney
The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1880), pp. 327-343.


Considering how long the scientific study of language has now been pursued, and how much research and thought has been expended upon it, there exists among those engaged in its pursuit a discordance of opinion which is surprising, and by no means creditable. This discordance is found even among highly considered authorities. And it concerns not only matters of fact, such as the relationship of particular languages, the genesis of certain forms or systems of forms, the chronology of linguistic development, respecting which the collection of further evidence and the more careful sifting of that already obtained will bring ever clearer light, while upon many points certainty will doubtless never be reached; it concerns also theoretical questions of the most fundamental importance, like the relation of language to thought, to the individual, to the race, the ground of phonetic change, the character of the science of language, as to which we have abundant evidences, all that we shall ever have, and need only to understand and combine them rightly in order to arrive at competent and well-established views. The difficulty lies, it is believed, to no small extent, in carelessness of logical consistency respecting the general doctrines of linguistic science on the part of those who are engaged in the laborious investigation of special departments of the science: it will be at least mainly removed when scholars can be led to take up the subject at the right end, and to see that from certain obvious facts respecting language, which when clearly stated must command universal assent, there follow by a logical necessity certain truths which are equally undeniable, and which constitute a solid basis for rearing further conclusions upon. The following paper is an attempt to present the subject in this shape; and although it may contain little or nothing which has not been in some form already said, either by the writer himself or by others, its timeliness will be questioned by no one who realizes the present semi-chaotic condition of linguistic science, as briefly indicated above.

No fact in regard to language is more palpable, and at the same time more fundamental, than its diversity. The varieties of human speech are without number, and their differences endless, both in kind and in degree. These differences we may class, for convenience of review, under three heads: phonetic, structural, and significant.

The phonetic differences of languages lie in the number and character of the articulate utterances composing them, and the manner in which these utterances are combined into syllables and words for the expression of meaning. The organs of speech of every human being are capable of forming an indefinite variety of sounds, more or less widely discriminated from one another; the list of those found to be actually used in known languages counts up to several hundreds; but of them no single dialect uses more than a small number—from say fifty (in languages so phonetically rich and varied as the English) down to hardly more than a dozen (in the poorest Polynesian tongues). Almost every language has sounds which are either rare or altogether unknown elsewhere. The same thing is true of syllabic combinations: what in one tongue is regarded as unpronounceable is in another easy and familiar. And the general tone and coloring of utterance, the varieties of pitch and stress, of accent and quantity, are not less marked; so that one who has fully mastered the individual sounds of a foreign tongue, and can even utter single words with unimpeachable accuracy, is nevertheless recognized as no native as soon as he attempts to put forth a sentence.

And yet, all this diversity is underlain by a certain degree of similarity, easily explainable as result of the substantial correspondence of human throats and mouths. All speech of men is articulate—that is to say, it is made up of a succession of syllables, normally discriminated by the antithesis of opener and closer utterances, of vowel and consonant elements. Of the vowel-system the extreme members a and i and u are never wanting, hardly ever also the intermediate e and o, in all their minor varieties of coloring. Well-nigh everywhere the consonants are classifiable into mutes and fricatives and nasals, and, by a division crossing this, into back, front and middle series (guttural, labial, and lingual, or however else we may choose to denominate them). From among the indefinite variety of possible oral products, practical convenience has led the way to a selection partly accordant.

The structural differences, in the second place, of different languages are mainly of the kind which we are accustomed to call grammatical. What classes of words, of various office and use in sentence-combination—that is to say, what parts of speech—if any, are distinguished from one another; what modifications and relations of the more substantial conceptions are plainly indicated, instead of being left to inference from the circumstances, and by what means they are indicated, whether by phonetic change within the word, by external addition to the word, by independent words (auxiliaries and form-words), by change of relative position, whether by more than one of these means, or by all of them in various combination—such are the questions coming up here for consideration. According to the differences thus brought to light, languages are wont to be classified, as isolating, agglutinative, polysynthetic, inflective, and so on. But the differences are also so various, in kind and degree, that no even fairly acceptable classification founded upon them is possible; and the whole subject is decidedly the least satisfactory and the least valuable part of theoretical linguistics: “agglutinative” and “inflective,” especially, are mainly terms for sciolists to conjure with. Schleicher alone succeeded in laying down a definition of “inflective”; but (though he did not think so) the term as defined by him applied only to one family of languages, the Semitic.

But a structural value is to be seen also even in the vocabulary of a language—in the way in which, for the purposes of material as well as formal expression, the objects of thought are viewed and classified and selected: how, for example, the colors are distinguished and named, or the kingdoms and classes and genera of natural existences, or the parts and qualities of man, or numbers and their combinations; even the extent of vocabulary has in it an element akin with the structural.

In the third place, the significant differences of language, differences in the assignment of certain combinations of sounds to certain senses, are even more striking than the phonetic and the structural. There is here no underlying similarity, as in the other two cases; there is unlimited and utter variety. It is conceivable that two languages should have the same spoken alphabet and a closely kindred structure, and yet that every conception should have in the two a different sign. Correspondences there are in abundance among different tongues; but in part they are purely accidental, in part they are historical, dependent upon a common tradition. In general, we may say that for a given conception there are as many spoken representatives as there are languages, or even dialects, in the world; for even in nearly related dialects the pronounced form and the range of meanings of what is historically one word are almost invariably different. A determining relation between sound and sense is nowhere to be discovered; there are no natural spoken signs of mental acts; even our exclamations, where such signs might most plausibly be sought, do not afford them.

All this is not a matter for any intelligent difference of opinion; the facts are so palpable that they cannot be denied.

Our next point concerns the relation of any given tongue to its speakers.

The languages and dialects of the world, thus differing in every conceivable manner and degree, are shared out among the various races and communities of men. Among the races of men only, we may not say, for a variety of obvious reasons. First, there is to be found on the earth no pure race of civilized men, and the existence of such a one of savages even is rare and doubtful. Second, it is a familiarly known fact that whole communities, races or divisions of races, have come to speak languages not made or used by their own progenitors: examples are afforded by the English language in Cornwall and Ireland, the Latin and its descendants in Italy and southern Europe, the Arabic in Syria and northern Africa. Again, languages become mixed in a way wholly unaccordant with mixtures of race: examples are the English, with its Latin elements brought in chiefly by the Germanic Normans, the Turkish, full of Persian and Arabic, the Japanese, full of Chinese. Yet again, every civilized community contains among the speakers of its own tongue, and undistinguished in speech from them, individuals representing recent importations from other communities, of other speech: striking examples are the Africans among ourselves. And, once more, it is only necessary for any child to be placed by peculiar circumstances in a companionship not of its own race, and it gets a corresponding language; a hired nurse, or birth on a journey of its parents in foreign lands, or the like, may cause its “mother-tongue” to be different from the tongue of its mother.

In short, race has nothing directly to do with giving an individual his language; the primary relation of language is not to race, but to community; to race only so far as community is founded on race—which, of course, it usually and normally is; a man is ordinarily born into the company of his parents and their kin. But one of a given race never speaks its language unless he grows up among and consorts with other and older speakers of the latter; if his first associates are of another descent, he inevitably speaks their tongue, and as readily and naturally as they and their kindred. As a human being, he is capable of acquiring any human language; naturally the possessor of none, he may become by education the possessor of one as well as another; toward any given one he stands in a relation not perceptibly different from that of every other human being. To maintain this is by no means to deny that there are differences in the mental endowments of races, and in the grade of perfection of languages; but these differences are not greater than those of endowment in the individuals of a single race, or of the resources of the same language as commanded by different native speakers. The inferior race-capacity of the African has full room to show itself in the mental work which he does with English when he has learned it: and there are a plenty of English blockheads who fall below the average African, and whose store of ideas and signs for them no average African need envy. A gifted Englishman, no doubt, would be crippled by the acquisition of an inferior tongue only; yet not otherwise than by the deprivation of other educational advantages which should draw out his powers and give them scope for exercise. A native Mozart would be thwarted and stunted in China, a native Euclid or Watt in Polynesia.

All this, again, is only another mode of expression for the simple fact that every man learns his language—his “native” language just as much as any other which he may acquire later: that he gets it in no other way, accepting passively whatever circumstances place within reach of his powers of acquisition. The same fact is read, not less distinctly, in the process of learning to speak gone through by every child under our own eyes. The child learns first to understand, and then by imitation to produce; to produce at first imperfectly, fragmentarily, as regards sound, structure, and vocabulary; in all these respects he makes gradual improvement, according to his capacity and his opportunities, but never attains perfection. His first steps are difficult, as on an untried way, but practice makes them easy, and long habit converts them into a second nature; it comes to seem “natural,” not only to speak, but to speak just as he does; his names for things and his ways of using them are the natural ones, and all others unnatural, artificial, barbarous; and what at the outset he would have acquired just as easily now appears to him of a difficulty quite exceeding his powers.

The principal facts thus laid down respecting the distribution of languages are also too obvious not to be admitted by all students of language who are not blinded by preconceived opinion. As regards, however, the simple doctrine that every language is learned by every one of its speakers, a doctrine which satisfies all the facts and which alone is able to satisfy them, there is less general accordance. Some have been able so far to confuse their minds as to deny that a language is learned. The opportunity of the confusion is plainly afforded by the unfortunate double sense of our word “language,” which we use to signify, on the one hand, the capacity or complex of capacities, a part of our endowment as human beings, whereby we are enabled to acquire, use, modify, and make spoken expression of our thoughts: and, on the other hand, any one of the existing bodies of signs and modes of their employment, established methods of expression, habits of speech. The former, of course, is given us by nature; it is in no sense acquired or learned, but only developed through use; but the latter is something quite different, the gradually accumulated result of the exercise of the other. We have the power of language, and hence are able to learn and use a language; no individual could learn, if he had not the same power to originate which has belonged to any other individual of his predecessors; but the faculty does not give us the developed product, any more than the possession of even an exceptional mechanical aptitude gives us mastery of a branch of mechanic art, like engineering, or the possession of a power to reckon makes us practised mathematicians.

From these two elementary and undeniable facts respecting language—the indefinite variety of languages, and the fortuitousness of their distribution to their various speakers—follow certain necessary inferences, which can in no way be avoided by any one who accepts those facts.

First, that there is no internal and necessary, but only an external and accidental, connection between a conception and its spoken sign. The tie consists in a mental association, formed not spontaneously, but under the guidance and after the example of others. If there are (let us say) a thousand different signs for each conception, any one of them answering its purpose as well as any other, and if every user of a sign has to learn it and form the habit of associating it with the conception, then each sign is an arbitrary and conventional one, and a language composed of such is in its totality of the same character. There is no room whatever for the answer “φυσει” to the question how the names of things exist; and no educated Greek would ever have thought of giving that answer if Greece in general had not been under the dominion of the prejudice already referred to, and even at the present day widely and deeply rooted among the uneducated, that the names which one’s own language gives are the real ones, and all others mere babbling shams.

It follows, of course, along with this, that there is no more special connection of the apparatus of thought with the muscular apparatus of vocal expression than with any other part of the muscular system. The predominance of the voice as instrumentality of expression is the result of a process of natural selection, experience teaching its higher availability for the purpose.

Further, it follows that language is not thought, but an instrumentality whereby vastly increased distinctness and precision and range are given to thought. The error of those who deny, in respect to any one of the characteristic modes of action of human intellect, that it can be carried on at all without the aid of external signs, is so great that it may fairly be called a blunder.

Second, we see the fundamental diversity of human language from that of the lower animals. The one is an endowment, natural, instinctive, alike in all individuals of the species, inelastic, unchanging; the other is an acquisition, a historical product, learned by each speaker, indefinitely various among individuals of the same race, and indefinitely variable and expansible. Hence all investigation of the cries of the lower animals, the chatterings of monkeys and the like, for their bearing on the origin and history of human speech, have been without fruit, and will always remain so, save so far as they may be directed to two points, now generally ignored: namely, a comparison with the natural and instinctive utterances of human beings, the only real analogues of those cries, utterances which just as much need investigation, and are far harder to get at, if they be at all attainable; and again, an inquiry as to what, if any, beginnings or hints of conventional expression, analogous with language, the most intelligent of the lower animals may show sporadic capacity of making, upon the foundation of their natural endowment. For a right understanding of the origin of language shows the natural utterances as suggestions and foundation of language, but not any part of its substance. Fear of a saltus, a lacuna in natural development, is just as much wasted here as it would be wasted on the relation of human clothing and ornament to the nakedness of the other animals, of human architecture to birds’ nests and rabbits’ burrows and beavers’ huts, of human song to that of birds, of human society to the gregariousness of bees and rooks and elephants.

Third, it is evident that the study of language is a historical branch of science, and not a physical. There is not and never was any foundation for the doctrine that linguistics is a physical science except in the most radical misunderstanding of the nature and history of language, and in the mistaking of surface analogies for substantial accordance—errors which were in some measure excusable, perhaps, in the initial stages of linguistic study, but are now as much out of date as the Ptolemaic theory of the solar system. Not less futile is the wisdom of those who would fain compromise these irreconcilable views by teaching that the study is partly historical and partly physical—physical, namely, so far as it involves those physical entities, audible sounds. For an uttered sound or complex of sounds in language is not a physical entity; it is a human act, just as much, and in precisely the same way, as is, for example, a significant gesture; it is made, indeed, by physical organs, but under direction of the will; in ultimate imitation, now become an only partially conscious habit, of similar sounds made by others; and for a purpose apprehended and entertained in the mind of the speaker. So a bell is a physical instrument; but a merry chime, or an alarm, or a toll of mourning, rung upon it by some one for the information of a village, is not a physical product, whose study would be a physical investigation. With much more reason might numismatics be called a science partly physical, since coins are of real physical substance, which is a product of nature, and subject to purely physical laws in the way of dulling, rusting, abrading, and so on; only, as it happens, all this is the mere dross of the subject to the numismatist, who concerns himself with the artificial refinement and alloy, the weight, the stamp, the place of impress and circulation, the period, the grade of art, and other such matters, all analogous with what the linguistic scholar studies in the signs of language.

Fourth, the office and value of linguistic study as an auxiliary to ethnology is an obvious corollary to what has already been said. It all lies in the probability, greater or less in different cases, that a community or complex of communities possessing an identical language or related languages has been, either from the beginning or at any rate for an indefinite period, a tolerably pure race-community also. This sounds, perhaps, like very little; but it is all there is; and, in the paucity of means of authentic knowledge which we have respecting the divisions of mankind and their relations and movements, it is comparatively a great deal. And, fortunately, the probability referred to is greatest where we have most need of its aid: among the wilder races, namely, where other means of information are most scanty, and in pre-historic periods. For it is the tamed and humanized races that offer least resistance to intermixture, and it is civilization aided by literature that gives a language propagative power, making it acceptable to wide communities not kindred in blood to those by whom it was developed.

A fact in language not less obvious and elementary than those already noticed by us is its constant change. No living tongue at any period of its existence maintains itself unaltered. And its mutations occur in every part Thus, in phonetic form, new sounds are developed and come into use; others, formerly used, are lost; and, most conspicuously, words come to be pronounced otherwise than they have been. Thus also, in all departments of structure, old forms are lost, and (much more sparingly) new forms are made, new parts of speech are developed, new auxiliaries and other form-words are originated; a language exchanges its prevalently synthetic for a prevalently analytic character. Most easily of all, a vocabulary is altered, by the bringing in of new material, with more or less loss of old. And all this involves, as a necessary part, changes in the significant value of vocal signs, which, moreover, go on independently. There is nothing in human speech so stable that it does not admit of alteration, or even of loss; though in different languages the changes vary in kind and degree, and, to be comprehended, need to be studied for each tongue in all their detail, item by item.

The question of highest theoretic interest here involved concerns the nature of the force by which the changes of language are effected. And to it the conclusions which we have already reached inexorably determine the answer. If every language is a body of conventional signs kept in use and life by tradition, taught by those who have learned it already to the new members who by birth or otherwise are added from time to time to their community, then it is, as a matter of course, accessible to such altering influences alone as proceed from its users. As its use lies wholly within the domain of voluntary human action, its modification can lie in no other domain. That is to say, language is changed by the action of men’s wills, and by nothing else. This does not by any means imply that the will is exerted directly toward the change of language, any more than the will of a fugitive is directed toward his own discovery when by voluntary action he leaves the tracks by which he is followed. Men will directly to use their means of communication for the various ends of communication; but this voluntary action is exposed to all the modifying influences which gradually alter voluntary action in other departments. The general governing consideration, including all the rest, is convenience; it is operative in every part of language, taking on a different form according to the peculiar character of each. No body of inherited human habits, such as conventional expression is, lives on and on without change; there is always a struggle in progress between the conservative influence of tradition, the inclination simply to propagate what has been handed down, and the inclination to adapt to new ends and to improve the adaptation to ends formerly served. But no body of traditional habits alters otherwise than very slowly; the collective influence of already existing habits (what in language we are used to call, and oftenest without understanding what we really mean by the expression, “the genius of a language”) opposes novelties, and makes whatever new is admitted accordant with the old. In the phonetical part of language-history, convenience takes the form of economy of utterance; and nearly everything in phonetic change is to be ascribed to the working of the tendency to economy; but the details of this working are sometimes very intricate, and, in our present imperfect comprehension of the physical processes of utterance, not a little obscure.

The tracing back of these successive changes in their order, and the restoration of earlier, and, if possible, even of primitive forms, constitutes the historical study of language. Something of this historical work has been done for many languages; but far more has been accomplished in the way of tracing up the dialects of our own family, the Indo-European, than of any other, because of the exceptional facilities which they offer to the student, in their variety and antiquity, and in the amount of their growth which is clearly traceable by the comparison of recorded forms. There is still, however, discordance of opinion respecting the general mode of historical development even in this family, and respecting its beginnings. The prevalent view since Bopp, who by its establishment and illustration became the founder of the science of comparative philology, is this: that all Indo-European forms, whether of inflection or of derivation, are made by the accretion of elements originally independent; that the ultimate elements were so-called roots—that is to say, signs possessing a crude significance, not involving any grammatical relation; all the distinctions of parts of speech, of primary and secondary derivation, and of declension and conjugation being wrought out later, as the result of aggregations which became integrated in various degrees, not seldom even to “inflection,” or the development of an internal difference re-enforcing, or finally replacing, the external addition. A minority, however, respectable both in numbers and in scholarship, reject this view altogether, and deny the historical character of roots, which they assert to be mere figments of the grammarian, obtained by an artificial analysis of the words of which they form a part. It cannot appear questionable, now, which of these views is in logical accordance with the established facts of language, and will crowd its rivals out of existence. The aggregative theory of Bopp is simply an application of the processes seen at work in all the historical periods of the language to explain the productions of the pre-historic period. This is a true scientific method; it is, in fact, the only one. The chain of argument by which it is upheld may be drawn out in brief thus: 1. Throughout the whole known history of Indo-European speech, there have been made combinations of elements which then by degrees assumed the character of integral words, and sometimes, by subordination of the one element to the other, of forms; and examples of forms, of every class and of every age, appear plainly to have been so made. 2. No material of this sort is seen to have been made in any other way; wherever exceptions, as forms with internal flection, seem to show themselves, they can be proved to be the inorganic result of processes originally aggregative. 3. There are nowhere found any formal distinctions of such a kind that they refuse explanation as made by aggregative processes similar to those by which other forms are actually seen to have been made. Hence, 4. If aggregation is thus demonstrably a real method of Indo-European form-making, and the only one possessing that character, and if it is adequate to the explanation of all the facts, then we ought to accept it as sufficient, and to acknowledge that we have no reason to suppose that forms have been made in any other way.

Evidently, no one has a right to reject this conclusion who does not squarely and honestly face the premises on which it is founded, and show good reason for regarding them as erroneous or insufficient. In general, they are simply disregarded by the dissidents, who ignore the difference between analogical inference and mere conjecture, and assume that one man’s guess is just as good as another’s as to how forms might, could, or should have been made. Or, it is urged that the great majority of formations cannot be satisfactorily traced to the independent elements out of which they have grown: which is like bringing up the numerous persons who have not witnessed a certain occurrence to refute the testimony of the few who have; since, as things go on in the traceable history of language, it is not only natural but unavoidable that the genesis of most forms should, like the etymology of many words, and of all or nearly all beyond a certain point, be lost in obscurity. Or, again, it is pointed out that during the historical period there has been, on the whole, a reduction in the length of forms and a loss of fullness of synthetic structure. This is a more legitimate objection, and not without a degree of plausibility, though of no real force against the argument as already stated. It merely brings to our notice the fact that, in the action and counter-action of the making-up and wearing-out processes, both of which have been operative in our languages from the first inception of structural growth, the former process was on the whole in the ascendant until a certain grade of structure was reached, since when, in very varying manner and degree, the opposite process has been more active: and there is no theoretical difficulty in the way of our recognizing and accepting this fact. On the contrary, there are insurmountable difficulties in the way of our accepting the opposing view, that language began with long words possessing any trace of organization, made up of radical elements with added apparatus of formative elements; the already demonstrated nature of language as an instrumentality, produced in order to the uses of expression, is absolutely and finally conclusive against it. An instrumentality cannot but have had rude and simple beginnings, such as are, in language, the so-called roots; intricacy of structure, special adaptation to special uses, must necessarily come later, as the result of skill developed by practice. So bows and arrows, hammers and hatchets with handles, boxes put together of boards, are of necessity later than clubs and stones and hollowed receptacles; suits of clothes are later than skins and bunches of leaves, and the like. And in like manner, and for the same reasons, parts of speech and classes of derived words and inflections come by development through experience of the faculties of language-making, after the use of such imperfect hints of expression as we call roots. The strength of the radicarian theory is that it accords with all that we have learned as to the nature of language, not less than with all we know as yet respecting the history of our family of languages, and that this can be said of no other theory.[1]

Thus far we have spoken only of Indo-European language. But it is evident that the general view we have just reached is alike applicable to all human speech. If our knowledge of the nature of universal language, of the forces at work in its history and of the manner of their working, suggests as the only acceptable view of its earliest condition the assumption of a scanty body of grammatically formless roots, then to have demonstrated by historical evidence the former existence of such a primitive condition in that family of languages which has attained on the whole the highest grade of inflective structure is practically equivalent to having demonstrated it for all languages. It will take very strong and very direct evidence to convince us in regard to any family that its beginnings and its mode of development out of them have not been essentially of a like character. Even the elsewhere unparalleled and truly anomalous form of the tri-consonantal apparent roots of the Semitic tongues—the most difficult problem, perhaps, in language-history—cannot with our present light be regarded otherwise than as secondary, the product of a very peculiar growth; and this, whether we are or are not able ever to retrace with satisfactory clearness the steps of the growth. Other questions, of greater or less importance and intricacy, will come up in abundance for further discussion and difference of opinion, without derogating from the certainty of the general conclusion. Whether, for example, primitive roots were always of one syllable only, or also of more than one, is a matter of very inferior consequence; the Indo-European roots are held to have been monosyllabic because historical analysis finds them so, but the analogy need not be binding as regards other families. Whether, again, the Chinese vocables have never advanced out of the radical stage at all, or whether they are, rather, products of a development which for some reason was more limited than that of any other known tongue of a highly-endowed race, so that its relics have completely the semblance of roots, is a question of extreme interest as regards the history of that particular language, but of no necessary wider bearing. We do not know, and may very probably never be able to explain to ourselves, what in the particular character of different races, or what in the habits of speech formed by them in the first stages of language-making—either or both, but doubtless especially the latter—determines for all time the fundamental character of the language of each. In other departments than the linguistic, the non-progressive nature of some races as compared with others is clearly seen. And it appears as if a certain amount of habits of expression, learned by a generation from its predecessor, were sufficient to deaden its own originality, and limit its development to a certain line, or even to keep it almost at a single point. From the fact that we do not, anywhere in the historical period, see a language changing from isolating to agglutinative or inflective, we do not in the least need to draw the conclusion that each language had from the very beginning its own essential character in this regard, and has ever since maintained it unchanged, any more than, from the present persistency of physical race-characteristics, we need to infer that mankind, or each grand division of mankind, may not have had a single origin. The history of single forms in our own speech shows plainly enough that the transition from isolation to inflection is both possible and facile. The part of language-history covered by our observations is but a very small one Languages are all equally old, and all alike have gained and fixed their own style of structure long before they come within reach of our knowledge.

The question of the origin of language, as a scientific one, is simply this: to determine how men such as we actually see them to be, if no language were handed down to them from their predecessors, would proceed in order to possess themselves of such an instrumentality.[2] That they would so possess themselves there is no reason to doubt. Men are always making language; for the alteration of a tongue from generation to generation is each generation’s contribution to the work, the same in principle though different in detail according to the circumstances—namely, the already established habits of expression—with the work of every other generation back to the first; and the beginnings need not have been more difficult than the subsequent changes. These beginnings were the first step in the history of language, and our whole knowledge of language and its history determines of what sort they must have been, and with definiteness enough to constitute, notwithstanding the points of minor consequence that still remain doubtful, a real and satisfactory solution of the general problem. Thus:

1. Language was brought into being primarily for purposes of communication, and not of self-development. Only the nearest and most obvious, the most external, inducement to its production was the effective one; every other advantage came as an unforeseen result of its possession.

2. It began with whatever signs could best be turned to account as means of mutual understanding between man and man: grimace, gesture, exclamation, onomatopœia and other forms of imitation, were drawn upon according to their various availability. What proportion belonged at the outset to each, and what were the steps of the process of natural selection (referred to above) whereby the voice attained its present predominance and almost monopoly, are among the matters of great though minor interest which will long attract research and discussion, and of which no other than a rudely approximate settlement will ever be possible.

3. As the first items of speech were directly intelligible signs, they must have denoted that which was most capable of being directly signified. That is to say, the first conceptions conveyed by language will have been determined, not by the conspicuousness and importance of the conceptions themselves, but by the feasibility of their intimation by the particular means employed. Hence they will have been primarily acts and qualities, and not concrete existences, for the latter are only signifiable by means of their characteristic acts and qualities. This is the easy solution of the question by which some are still perplexed, as to why roots, the ultimate elements of speech, have an abstract instead of a concrete significance. Concrete, to be sure, they were so far as this: they signified only physical, sensible acts and qualities; the point is one in regard to which theory is in full accordance with linguistic facts; for in all the history of significant change in language, the direction of progress is from the physical and sensible to the intellectual and moral. But here, again, the inquiry as to what particular conceptions led the way can be answered, if at all, only after the widest and deepest researches through all the varieties of human speech; none of the attempts hitherto made to answer it has met with any success.

4. The period of root-production will have been a limited one—limited by the circumstance that after a time it would come to be easier to make new names out of the significant material already in use, by combination and extension and change of application, than by the creation of new material. How long the period was, and what the number of roots produced, we have at present no means of determining, or hardly even ground for conjecturing.

5. To correlate the history of speech and the existence of man on the earth, so as to determine when the production of spoken language began and at what rate its development went on, is beyond our power until our knowledge of man’s primitive history shall be much greater; in all probability, it will always remain impracticable. But, at any rate, language was the indispensable means of conversion of gregarious into social life, the necessary foundation of all social institutions. We cannot even tell whether, assuming the origin of the race to have been one, there had been produced any settled and abiding speech before men had multiplied and spread and broken into divisions, holding thenceforward no intercourse with one another; but we do know, beyond all possibility of successful contravention, that there are no existing differences of speech among men which might not consist with unity of origin of speech.

The question, it may be remarked, whether the existence of dialects preceded that of languages or vice versâ, is an unscientific and blundering one. Correspondences between two languages are either accidental, or by borrowing, or dialectic; and dialectic correspondences are historical: that is to say, they are due to variation, according to the ordinary laws of linguistic change, of the same inherited material. The very conception of dialects involves descent from a common ancestor; and the earth is full of illustrations of the process by which a single language divaricates into forms more or less discordant. Instances are common enough, too, of the replacement of variety by unity of speech; but this is by no process of linguistic development; it is the result of external social causes, analogous with those which make the emigrant learn and use the tongue of his new country instead of that of his old one; and it affects equally dialects of any degree of relationship and unrelated languages. The natural growth of a language, combined with the spread and division of communities, makes dialects; but it is the growth of civilization, with its unifying and leveling influence, that makes widespread unity of speech, just as of other institutions.

Of other institutions, we say; because not only is language, as we called it above, the foundation of social institutions: every language is also itself an institution, the first and most indispensable of the social institutions of the community to which it belongs. No definition of the term can be made which will not apply equally well to it along with the rest. A social institution is a body of habits, of customary modes of action, whereby men in a certain community or congeries of communities attain a certain social end, regarded as conducing to their social welfare. The apprehension of the end and the formation of the means to its attainment are an outcome of the insight and experience of the community; the institution, we may say, grows gradually up in the never-ending contest between human nature and human circumstances; it is a historical product of the joint activity of generations, each one of which has contributed to its elaboration. It is handed down by tradition; every new member of the community, born into the state of things of which it forms a part, having it about him in his growing and impressible period, appropriates it, and adapts his own mode of thought and action to it so gradually and unconsciously that it comes to seem to him a part of the nature of things, the established order of the universe; its real origin and relation to the kindred or similar institutions of other communities is understood only by philosophers (if even by them); it is apt to be regarded as of divine origin, a revelation or ordinance of heaven—as indeed it is in a certain sense, though not as generally understood. Its ordinary changes go on slowly, since they can be made, as itself was made, only by the consenting action of its possessors; but these may, little by little, change it in time to any extent, as their trained preferences shall suggest or their altered circumstances shall prescribe; and, where circumstances are more imperious, it may even be revolutionized altogether, or crowded out of use and replaced by something of corresponding value adopted from another community.

In all these respects a language has its own peculiarities, distinguishing it from other institutions; but only as they all have their own, distinguishing them from one another: the difference is not in the fundamental points, but in non-essentials. The language of each community, in short, is one of the institutions that make up its civilization.

W. D. Whitney.


  1. The doctrine that language began with sentences instead of words is (if capable of any intelligent and intelligible statement), à fortiori, too wild and baseless to deserve respectful mention.
  2. As a matter of course, allowance has also to be made for the difference in regard to capacity for improvement and cultivation between the offspring of cultivated and of uncultivated human beings. This, however, is no fundamental diversity, and it would, so far as can be perceived, have for its effect a difference only in the rate of progress made.

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.