Page:Primitive Culture Vol 1.djvu/254

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

stances will produce more or less like results; and this has been shown over and over again in these pages to be what really happens. Now Wilhelm von Humboldt's view that language is an 'organism' has been considered a great step in philological speculation; and so far as it has led students to turn their minds to the search after general laws, no doubt it has been so. But it has also caused an increase of vague thinking and talking, and thereby no small darkening of counsel. Had it been meant to say that human thought, language, and action generally, are organic in their nature, and work under fixed laws, this would be a very different matter; but this is distinctly not what is meant, and the very object of calling language an organism is to keep it apart from mere human arts and contrivances. It was a hateful thing to Humboldt's mind to 'bring down speech to a mere operation of the understanding.' 'Man,' he says, 'does not so much form language, as discern with a kind of joyous wonder its developments, coming forth as of themselves.' Yet, if the practical shifts by which words are shaped or applied to fit new meanings are not devised by an operation of the understanding, we ought consistently to carry the stratagems of the soldier in the field, or the contrivances of the workman at his bench, back into the dark regions of instinct and involuntary action. That the actions of individual men combine to produce results which may be set down in those general statements of fact which we call laws, may be stated once again as one of the main propositions of the Science of Culture. But the nature of a fact is not altered by its being classed in common with others of the same kind, and a man is not less the intelligent inventor of a new word or a new metaphor, because twenty other intelligent inventors elsewhere may have fallen on a similar expedient.

The theory that the original forms of language are to be referred to a low or savage condition of culture among the remotely ancient human race, stands in general consistency with the known facts of philology. The causes which have