Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/June 1875/Are Languages Institutions?
|ARE LANGUAGES INSTITUTIONS?|
PROFESSOR IN YALE COLLEGE.
WHILE the present century has witnessed a truly wonderful advance in the study of languages, it has not yet yielded equal results for the science of language. Comparative philology has thus far borne off the palm over linguistics. The classifications of human speech, the historical development and divarication of languages, the processes of phonetic change, are understood to a degree of which our fathers had no conception; but the coordination and explanation of all these facts, the recognition of the forces whose workings underlie and produce them, and of the ways in which those forces act—on such subjects there is far from being that general agreement of opinion which ought to mark a matured branch of study.
To quote a few instances: while the Boppian view of the making of grammatical forms by collocation, combination, and integration of originally independent elements, may be regarded as the leading and orthodox one in the modern school of philology, there yet are scholars of rank who deny it, and assert, instead, that endings were created in their separate entity and office along with the bases to which they are attached, or sprouted out from the latter by the working of some mysterious internal force. Most linguistic scholars hold that the development of a grammatical system has been a work of ages, always going on and never finished; but at least one celebrated and admired authority declares the whole essential structure of a language to be produced "at a single stroke." It is the prevailing belief that the world is filled everywhere with families of related dialects, and that a family of languages, as of individuals or of races, arises by the dispersion and differentiation of a unitary stock. One or two teachers of the highest popular repute ask us to believe, instead, that language had its beginning in a condition of indefinite dialectic division, and has been always tending toward unity—that there are, as an exception, two or three real families, and no more, these being the result of peculiar and unexplained processes of arbitrary concentration in the remote past; and another bold doubter makes a great stir by denying the ordinary family-tree theory of linguistic kinship, and putting in its place a theory of wave-motion, propagated from a centre. Some hold (more or less consistently) that language is a natural organism, growing by its own forces and its own laws, with which men cannot interfere: others declare it an instrumentality, produced in every item by the men themselves who use it. Some write of it as a human faculty or capacity, like sight or hearing, as a gift, as identical with thought or reason, as the one distinguishing quality of man. Others regard it as one of the outcomes of a variety of faculties and impulses, by all of which man is far removed from the lower animals; as one which, under normal conditions, is sure to show itself, but which may, by the mere force of external and accidental circumstances, be thwarted, without impeachment of man's nature, but only of his education. Some maintain that the child learns his own language; others strenuously deny that there is any teaching or learning about it. Some, once more, declare the study in which they are engaged a physical science, while to others it seems as truly an historical or moral science as any other branch of the history of man and his works.
Now, with regard to all these matters of discordant opinion, only one side can possibly be in the right. We may be able to excuse those who take the wrong side, seeing where they are misled by looking at the facts from a false point of view, by misconceiving the meaning of a term or forgetting its double application, by omitting to take into account some decisive consideration, by overlooking important items of evidence, and so on; but wrong they are, nevertheless. And it is truly unfortunate that, just upon points of the most fundamental importance, the linguists should be so at variance with one another. Surely the study of language, so extolled on all sides for the strictness of its methods and the solidity of its results, might have gone so far by this time that its votaries should be able to give a nearly unanimous opinion, for example, as to what a word is in relation to a conception, and to follow that opinion logically and consistently out to its consequences. One grand reason for the discordance has been, to be sure, that linguists were so busy with the infinite and urgent details of their work: details which they have not yet begun to exhaust—hardly, even for the majority of human languages, to look over and get well in hand.
Germany is the home of philological and linguistic study; but the Germans are rather exceptionally careless of what we may call the questions of linguistic philosophy, or are loose and inconsistent in their views of such questions; hardly seeming, in many cases, to be aware that there are antagonistic doctrines before them, one of which ought to be, and must finally be adopted, to the exclusion of the other. There needs to be, perhaps, a radical stirring-up of the subject, a ventilation of a somewhat breezy, even gusty, order, which shall make words fly high, and dash noisily against one another, before agreement shall be reached. If so, the sooner it is brought on, in whatever way, the better; and they are no true promoters of the progress of the science who strive to smooth things over on the surface, and act as if all were serene and accordant below.
Amid manifold minor diversities, and half-views and compromises innumerable, opinions respecting language seem to be divisible into two principal opposing classes, which may be termed (rudely, and without intended offense to the sensibilities of the adherents of either) the positive and the sentimental, or the common-sense and the metaphysical. The latter class tends toward an admiring contemplation of language, in its comprehensive relation to the human mind and human progress, and toward its study in and through the processes of mental action that underlie its production and use. The other class plants itself upon the consideration, first of details, and then of their combined result; it begins with the audible sign—the word—and works from this toward the intellectual process which it represents. The one strives after profundity, brings in its illustrations from remote periods and languages, and forms grand and striking views; the other aims at simplicity, at general intelligibility, at moderation, and rejoices in the overthrow of exaggerated and illusory opinions. It is by no means easy to characterize the two opposing tendencies fairly in a sentence or two; and I would not at all claim that the description here given is not tinged with the prejudices of the describer. One may acknowledge the influence of such prejudices in drawing up a general account of the questions at issue, while yet he may believe himself capable of examining and discussing, with entire fairness, any detailed views, any distinct statements or arguments, brought forward by the opposing party.
As to which of these two general tendencies is at present the prevailing one among the professional students of language, there can be no reasonable doubt: it is the one here called the sentimental or metaphysical. How long this is going to be the case is another and a more difficult question. In the prevailing confusion of discordant opinions, and carelessness about the discordance, described above, comparatively few have declared themselves; and there is probably light enough abroad to bring out men's decisions prevailingly on the right side when once they can be led to reason themselves into clearness and consistency of opinions. Meanwhile, the unlearned popular view of speech, that of the general body of cultivated people, that which has most votaries among the students of physical science, and those who approach the subject from the side of general anthropology, is rather of the opposite type. That the division bears this aspect ought, it should seem, to tell against the latter doctrine; but there is no good ground for regarding the fact as decisive, for, until the linguists are agreed among themselves as to fundamental points, they have no common vote to throw.
For myself, I hold the more popular doctrine to be also the truer, and, in the proper sense, more philosophical; and the other to be founded on the insecure basis of combined misapprehension and exaggeration. And I propose to give here, in as brief a form as it is possible, my reasons for thus holding.
Every thing in the study of language, as in most other studies, depends upon the way in which one approaches the fundamental questions. In my opinion there is no other way here so secure and so fruitful as that of inquiring what our own speech is to us, and why; how we came by it, and by what tenure we hold it. The general linguistic philosophy we profess must, first and above all things, be consistent with the most accessible facts of present living language; we may not be able to explain these from themselves alone, but our doctrines must at any rate not go counter to them. If physical science has been worth any thing for its influence upon other sciences, it has been by inculcating its method of investigation, to make the utmost of what is immediately under our eyes, and reason cautiously back from the present into the past.
Nor, in getting at language from this side, must we undertake to deal with it as a body or total, lest we lose ourselves in glittering and indefinite generalities. We must take up only so much as we can hold in the hand, as it were, and deal with competently. Let us try the single word book. It is to us the sign of a very complex conception, but one which needs no defining. How came we by it? Every other linguistic community in the world that has the thing has also a name for it, but the names are all different—livre, lihro, buch, biblion, kniga, kitâb, pustaka, and so on—let us say a round hundred of them. Why do we use for our conception this one of the hundred? There is but one answer to this, a common-sense answer, which no philosophy can possibly reason away. We learned the word, hearing it used during the period when we were engaged in learning things and their names, used over and over again, and in such connections as showed us what it meant; we learned to reproduce the series of sounds, and to associate it with the conception, just as we could have learned to reproduce and associate any other of the hundred, or any one of a thousand other signs—as a motion of the hand, or a square mark. There is absolutely no tie of union to us between the sign and the thing signified save this mental association, artificially formed—that is to say, brought about under the guidance of others, after their example, not by any inward impulse. Some of us, indeed, know that the word has a curious history—that it is akin to beech, and for the reason that beechen staves or tablets were the first material used by our rude ancestors for cutting runes upon. But this is merely a matter of learned curiosity; our knowledge or want of knowledge, our belief or disbelief in the explanation when given us, has nothing to do with our use of the term book; we use it because others—those with whom it is our lot to have to do in life—also use it, because we can communicate with them by means of it. If we, though of English blood, had happened to be born at Paris, at Rome, at Cairo, at Peking, we should either have learned to use a different word from this, or another besides it, in the same sense and for the same reason—even as in English-speaking communities, especially in America, descendants of half the races under heaven use book as their "native" sign, knowing absolutely nothing of any other.
But what is thus true of book is true also of every other sign of which our language is composed, unless we may have committed in a few instances that rare act, the coining of a word. And this is already of itself enough to show that in a perfectly proper—indeed, in the only genuine—sense, our words are arbitrary and conventional signs: arbitrary, not because no reason can be given for the assignment of each word to its use, but because the reason is only an historical, not a necessary one, and because any other of the hundred current, or of the ten thousand possible, signs might have been made by us to answer precisely the same purpose; conventional, not because it was voted in a convention (what that we call "conventional" ever was so?), nor because men came to an explicit understanding about it in any other way, but because its adoption by us had its ground in the consenting usage of our community. There is no way of denying these two epithets to language, except by misunderstanding their meaning.
Moreover, it is not the case that the learner gives birth first to an independent and adequate conception of a book, and then merely accepts from others the name by which he shall call it. For the "inner form," not less than for the outer sign, he is dependent on his teachers. He would not, indeed, even begin to use the word if he had not formed some sort of an idea of a thing which it stood for; but he knows next to nothing about the thing; it is to him a mystery of which he only later obtains the key, and which he does not fully understand till after he has studied the history of civilization, a whole chapter of which is, in a manner, epitomized in the single term. And all this is given him in measure, as he is prepared to receive it, by the teaching of others. A further example or two will show this dependence still more clearly. The idea of planet came down to us as defined and named by our instructors, the Greeks, and named from the most superficially obvious property of the objects designated, that of "wandering," or moving amid the other stars. No uninstructed person would single out a class of heavenly bodies to call by such a name; many races have never formed the conception. To those who gained learning enough, the meaning was further enriched by connection with the Ptolemaic system of cycles and epicycles. Then, as by a touch, Copernicus altered the whole aspect of the word, and changed the classification which it represented, ejecting the sun and moon, and taking in the earth. And all this is now used to help give shape to the at first dim and formless idea, which the language-learner is made to entertain along with the sign which is taught him. Once more, the child is made to count, and in the process his conceptions of number are cast into a decimal shape, one in which each higher factor is made up of ten of the next lower, till he comes to feel that such tenfoldness is a natural characteristic of enumeration. Yet, if we inquire whence comes this particular shape, we find it growing out of the simple fact that we have two hands, with five fingers on each! So utterly extraneous and accidental a cause as this, as turned to account by the simple races who laid the deep foundations of our mathematics, determines the "inner form" assumed by the mathematical conceptions of each new member of our race; of course, quite without his knowledge.
So it is all the way through language. Along with and by means of words, the young learner is made to take in the ideas which the knowledge and experience of older men have shaped; he accepts the current classifications and abstractions of his community, at first only imperfectly, then with fuller and more independent action of his own, till finally he grows up to the stature of his language, and has, at least in some departments, nothing more to learn of those about him. At the beginning, and in less degree later, he was so hurried on by the superiority of his instructors in knowledge and mental development, that he had neither leisure nor inclination to be original; now he becomes in his turn a teacher, and also a shaper. By his action and that of his fellows, the common instrument of expression undergoes a constant slow change. Their new knowledge has somehow to be worked in. It is done partly, as in the case of planet by reshaping the conceptions contained in old words, and shifting the boundaries of old classifications; partly by the cognition of new particulars which are brought under old names, expanding so far their contents—as when Uranus and Neptune are brought into the class of planets, and the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn make a class for the formerly unique appellation moon; and partly by providing new names for objects, products, qualities, relations, before unperceived, or so dimly apprehended as not to seem to call for expression. And the provision is made in part by deliberately going to other tongues and borrowing material from them (so Uranus, Neptune), or else by forming new compounds of native material (so steamboat, railroad), or, very frequently, by mere transfer of old words to new uses, substituted or additional. By these and other similar means, language is continually adapted by its speakers to express the modified content of their minds. At the same time, it suffers change of a yet more intimate and unconscious kind as an instrument; its phonetic shape being rendered more manageable, and its grammatical shape as well; new words of relation are made, by the attenuation of more material elements, and now and then, in a kindred way, a new form.
So far as a language is handed down from generation to generation by the process of teaching and learning, it is stable, and by this means it does remain nearly the same; so far as it is altered by the consenting action of its users, it is unstable, and it does in fact change. Examine any language, and you will find it different from its predecessor; different in a variety of items of the kinds instanced above, each of them being obviously the work of the speakers, and showing no signs of the presence of any other force. In the present stage of what we call the growth of language, nothing takes place which is not the effect of human agency; the only obscurity about it grows out of the fact that there is involved the consenting action of a community, since language is a social institution, and exists primarily and consciously for the purpose of communication. But if this is so nowadays, then it was so in the period next preceding, and in the one before that; and so on, until the very beginning is reached. For we have no right to assume unnecessarily that the processes of growth have essentially changed; that is to say, if the methods of word-making and form-making as exhibited in the historical period are sufficient to account for the whole existing material of speech, we are not authorized to postulate others.
And such is the case. Forms have been made, through all the historical periods, by the combination of independent elements, and the reduction of one of them to a formal value by means of changes of form and changes of meaning, such as are exhibited in every part of language; and this action, varying in kind and degree under the changing circumstances of developing speech, can never, so far as at present appears, be proved insufficient to explain the structure of language. If there are problems of structure as yet unsolved, they may be expected to yield to more skilled investigation; or, if they do not, it will be presumably because of the loss of needed evidence. The name-making process implies only the christening of a formed idea, the provision of a sign which shall henceforth be associated with a particular conception, and used to represent it in social intercourse and in the operations of thought. And the sign is obtained just where it can be most conveniently found, according to the circumstances and habits of each particular community. There is nothing approaching to necessity in an etymology. It is only a tie of convenience that connects the new name with its source: in the case of book, the tie of historical development out of an accidental selection of material; in planet, that of intended, but palpably insufficient description; in Uranus and Neptune, of learned and reflective selection, under government of the same regard for analogy which controls also the most unconscious and popular choice of appellations; and in decimal, no one has yet been skillful enough to find out what. But, known or unknown, sufficient or insufficient, learned or popular, it is all one, so far as regards the practical uses of speech; when once established in use, the name, from whencesoever derived, is good enough for its office. It were vain indeed to be particular about the source, when the use is going to depend, with each new learner, on an artificially-formed association alone.
Now, how should it enter into the mind of any one to regard words thus won, thus kept in life, thus liable to alterations of every kind in the mouths of their speakers, as any thing more than the instruments, the outward equipment, of thought? Thought is the action of the mind, in apprehending, comparing, inferring; every word is an act of the body, and of the body only; performed, indeed, as all the voluntary acts of the body are, under the direction of the mind, but no more the work of the mind than are crooks of a finger, or brandishings of an arm, or kicks with a foot. There is no more immediate connection of the apparatus of thought with the muscles of utterance than with those of facial expression or of gesture. Talking is just as much thought as dancing is; not one whit more. All the arguments used to show the impossibility of mind-work without speech are, so far as I can see, such as would also prove the impossibility of manual work without tools and machines, of mathematical work without written signs.
If it be asked how the mind comes to equip itself with this instrumentality, the answer is ready and easy: it does so under the impulse to communication. That language should owe its origin and maintenance to a cause so extraneous to the soul, and so superficial, is repugnant to the prejudices of many; yet I do not see how the truth of the doctrine can be successfully controverted. It is in accordance with all that we know of the history and present use of language, and, not less, with all that we know of the development of man's powers in other departments. Through all its existence, speech is primarily and above all a social possession, its unity made and preserved by mutual intelligibility, all its items and their changes requiring the adoption of a community before they become language at all. Those who, by isolation or physical defect, are cut off from communication with their fellows, do not speak, and have no inclination to speak. And, especially, communication is the only inducement to which every human being, at every grade of culture, is fully accessible. The great majority, even of speaking, civilized men, do not realize that language is any thing to them but a means of communication; and to ascribe to the uncultivated man a power to foresee that expression will furnish his mind an instrument to work with, and be to the race an indispensable help forward in the career of improvement, is to do him a great deal more than justice. This is the way in which in general the powers of man have been drawn out and educated; the art of writing came, in like manner, from attempts at another kind of communication; machines came, one item after another, in the struggle of man to supply his physical needs. We are short-sighted beings, and never able to look more than one step ahead, but we have the power of putting each new step beyond its predecessor, and are surprised by-and-by to see how far we have come, how much we have attained that we had neither expected nor foreseen.
If these views as to language are true, then the marked analogies of languages with institutions are patent and undeniable. A language is a body of usages; it has its main occasion and usefulness in connection with the social life of a community; it is a constituent part of the civilization of its community, worked out, like the rest, by long-continued collision and friction between man and his circumstances, gradually accumulated by the contributions of each member of a race through successive generations, and handed down by a process of teaching and learning. Let a child of European parents be brought at birth into an Indian wigwam, and grow up among Indians only; and his life in all its parts will be Indian—his food, his occupations, his amusements, his knowledge, and his beliefs—and, along with the rest, his language also; while the African, for instance, born and bred in an American community, shows in all these same respects accordance with that particular class of Americans among whom his lot is cast. This by no means implies that there are no such things as race-differences of capacity and disposition, even as there are wide individual differences between members of the same race: the white man makes, perhaps, a somewhat peculiar kind of Indian, the African a peculiar kind of American; yet each acquires the civilization, language included, of the race with which he grows up, and shows his race-characteristics, as they their individual characteristics, inside of that.
All names are imperfect, and have their unsuitable, as well as their suitable suggestiveness in connection with every new object to which they are applied; but I hold, and with the utmost confidence, that there is no general name so truly descriptive of a language as institution—none which takes into account so many of its essential characteristics, or marks so distinctly its place among the possessions of its community. The word, no doubt, offends some, and seems to others derogatory to the dignity of its subject; but I believe that the more the real nature and office of language are understood, and the more established and consistent the linguistic views of the educated become, the more its truth will be acknowledged. I have used it often, partly in a kind of defiance to those views which are decidedly opposed to what it implies; I shall be ready to abandon it when its impropriety is proved by fact and argument.
The great obstacle, as it seems to me, to the prevalence of consistent and correct views concerning language, is the ambiguity of the word language itself. It means two entirely different things: a capacity, and a product of the exercise of that capacity. Language in the former sense—that is, a power to express thought by means of signs, and to develop this instrumentality into a great and intricate and wonderful institution, having the most important bearings on the progress of the individual and of the race—is a gift, a quality, a part of human nature, and all that; but this power does not give a single human being his language: it does not issue in any thing except through an historical development, by a gradual accumulation of the results of its exercise. It makes every human being capable of learning and using any language. It implies also that every human being is capable of producing a language—only let circumstances be sufficiently favorable, and give him time enough: say a few hundreds or thousands of ordinary lives. But the English language, for instance, or any other, is not such a capacity: it is the concrete accumulated product of the efforts at expression of the English-speaking or other community and its ancestors, continued through thousands of years. Each such product has its history: that is to say, it has been wrought only in time, and under the infinitely varied modifying influence of historical circumstances; each is different, therefore, from all the rest: a thousand different products, of every degree of diversity, but each one answering the same general purpose, and capable of being acquired and wielded by every normally constituted human being, of whatever race.
An additional obstacle, of another character, is the (of course, unconscious) craving of many people after lofty and poetic general views, views of which the very conception shall seem to exalt them. The doctrines set forth above are in many respects iconoclastic, and therefore repellent to them. They want to regard man's acquisitions as direct gifts to him from his Maker, or as spontaneous outbursts of his noble nature. M. Renan says ("Origine du Langage," chap, iii.), "Languages have come forth completely formed from the very mould of the human spirit, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter." Precisely so, we might answer; the comparison has a more complete applicability than even the eloquent author imagined; the one thing has the same kind of truth as the other; each is a beautiful myth, and it is hard to see why he who seriously accepted the former should not accept the latter also. For one man, we have taken all the poetry out of life when we have made him see that it is not his God, rolling on mighty chariots through the sky, and hurling thunder-bolts at the demons, but mere prosaic meteorological forces, that cause the thunder-storm; we have perhaps robbed another of both religion and self-respect when we show him the earth gradually cooling and condensing, clothing itself with vegetable and animal life; and man himself creeping up through the ages from a condition of savagery, gradually finding out his powers by their exercise, laying up and shaping institutions—language among the rest—for traditional transmission, the knowledge and wisdom which are one day to raise him to the headship of Nature. We are all loath to put a truth regarded as humble in place of a brilliant error; and slow to realize that, when the false coloring is taken off, what remains is worth more to us than what we thought we had before.
There is, it is believed, a wide-spread impression that views of language of the kind advocated in this paper are "superficial;" and that only those treat the subject profoundly who lift it up either into the sphere of psychology, or on to the platform of the physical sciences, making linguistic study a department of the study of mind, or else of that of human organs and their functions. But that is a matter to be settled along with the truth or error of the views in question. If they are true, then those are superficial who, in a mistaken endeavor after profundity, abandon the true basis and method of their science. There are infinite mysteries involved in every act of language-making and language-using, with which the linguistic scholar, as such, has to do only secondarily, or not at all. To recur to our former example: the psychological processes whereby the rude conception of a book is formed, partly under instruction, and gradually developed into fullness and accuracy, are one subject of study; the physiological processes whereby one hears the word book, and then is able to reproduce it, by an imitative effort of his own organs, is another; the history of the civilization which has given birth to such product, and of the arts by which it is manufactured, is yet another; and there are more, clustering about the same word: with the great problems of existence and human destiny looming up in the background, as they do behind every thing that we attempt to investigate. But no one of these is the standing-point of the linguist; to him, the central fact is that there exists one audible sign book, representing in a certain community a certain conception, for all purposes of communication; used by hosts of people who know nothing about the history of books, nor about the operations of the organs of speech, nor about the analysis of mental processes—and answering their purposes as well as if they knew it all. The sign had a certain definite time, locality, and occasion of origin; it was applied to its purpose for reasons which lay neither in men's mental nor in their physical nature, but in their historical conditions; it has passed through certain changes of form and office on its way to our use. Here, now, is where the linguist takes his stand; from this point of view every thing falls into its true position of relative prominence. Language is a body, not of thoughts, nor of physical acts, but of physically apprehensible signs for thought; and the student of language begins his work upon the signs, their office, and their history. Between him and the students of the other branches named there is a relation of mutual helpfulness. The history of words and the history of things cast constant and valued light upon one another. The sounds of language illustrate the articulate capacity of the organs of utterance, and their changes require for explanation a knowledge of phonetic science, as a special department of physiology and acoustics combined. And the contributions of language to psychology greatly outweigh in value those of psychology to the science of language, since the latter is the key to the historical development of human thought; and since words are not the immediate product of processes of cognition, or abstraction, or induction, but only the result of voluntary attempts to communicate those products. Most students of language, probably, believe all this, and act in their studies upon the belief; only they are too uncertain of their ground not to be often driven from it by the imposing claims of outsiders.
About eight years ago (in the autumn of 1867), I put forth a connected and carefully-reasoned exhibition of my linguistic views, in a volume entitled "Language, and the Study of Language;" in it I dealt only sparingly in controversial discussions of others' opinions, but left my own to recommend themselves by their concinnity, their accordance with familiar facts, and their power to solve the various problems which the science presents. Of the reception accorded to that volume I have no right to complain, and certainly I never have complained. But I have, at about that time and since, repeatedly taken occasion to examine narrowly and criticise freely the opposing views of others, and the arguments by which these were supported. And I have done it especially in the case of men of eminence and celebrity, men to whom the public are accustomed to look for guidance on this class of subjects. This, surely, was neither unnatural nor improper. What Smith, Brown, and Robinson, may say about language before ears that heed them not, is of the smallest consequence; but if Schleicher and Steinthal, Renan and Müller, are teaching what appears to me to be error, and sustaining it by untenable arguments, I am not only authorized, but called upon, to refute them, if I can. The last of the gentlemen just named, however, in his paper in the Contemporary Review for January last (p. 312, et seq.), even while very flatteringly intimating that my habit of criticising only the most worthy of notice is appreciated, and hence that those criticised feel in a certain way complimented by it, appears to think that their greatness ought to shield them from such attacks. I have very little fear that the general opinion of scholars will sustain him in this position. Each controversy is to be judged, rather, on its own intrinsic merits. If I have failed to make out a tolerable case against those whom I have criticised, then, be they great men or small, I have been guilty of presumption, and deserve reproof; if, on the contrary, I have fairly sustained my views against theirs, I am justified; and on that basis I am perfectly willing to submit to judgment.
I do not think Prof. Müller the person best qualified to judge me fairly, because, in the first place, owing to his great fertility as a writer, and his position as accepted guide and philosopher, beyond any other living man, of the English-speaking people, I have felt called upon to controvert his views oftener than those of any other authority; and yet more, in the second place, because he does not appear to have qualified himself by carefully examining what I have written. He confesses to never having looked at my volume on language until a few weeks ago, when stirred up to it by the fact that my opinions had been quoted with approval in so conspicuous a quarter as the pages of the Contemporary. And, even now, he has evidently given it the most cursory examination. He has not observed that it was printed and published in England, instead of "in America." He has not discovered that it is a "systematic" discussion of its subject. He is mainly impressed, even to amusement, with its similarity to his own work: as, indeed, resemblances at first glance are always more striking than differences: if he will continue his study, he will certainly find the likeness less and less apparent, and extending almost only to those facts and principles which are universal property among philologists, neither he nor I having a patent-right to them; while the underlying differences of view and plan will become more and more conspicuous to him. And, most of all, he picks out and sets forth certain alleged inconsistencies in a manner which only great haste can explain and excuse, since every one of them would be removed by a consideration of the place and connection of each passage quoted. He is even more than once so unlucky as to select a passage as showing me to hold a certain view right out of an argument in favor of the contrary view. For example (p. 310), in citing my expression that the facts of language "are almost as little the work of man as is the form of his skull," he overlooks the preceding clauses of the same sentence: "So far as concerns the purposes for which he [the linguistic scholar] studies them, and the results he would derive from them." The whole being a part of a statement intended to show that "the absence of reflection and conscious intent takes away from the facts of language the subjective character that would otherwise belong to them as products of voluntary action," There are several other cases quite as palpable as this: it is useless to expose them here.
I ought to be more than satisfied with the insignificant array of trifling errors (or supposed errors) of detail in my volume, drawn up by Prof. Müller on page 312; unfortunately, I could myself, if called upon, furnish a much heavier list. I only notice one, as being an important evidence of the haste and cursoriness already referred to. My critic is shocked to find "the Phœnician alphabet still spoken of as the ultimate source of the world's alphabets." Ultimate it certainly is, in the sense of being that alphabet from which the others derive themselves, in part through many intermediaries; the point in which they all centre: but if Mr. Müller had looked at the twelfth lecture, in which the Phœnician mode of writing is made the subject of more than a mere passing remark, he would have found its own derivative character most explicitly asserted and supported.
If Prof. Müller has not been willing to read until just now the work in which I had independently and connectedly put forth my own system of views, he has not, of course, been in a position to estimate fairly the critical articles in which I have had the avowed polemical intention of trying whether they could stand their ground and make head against the opposing views of other writers. It might naturally enough seem to him that I was too pugnacious. But I cannot help questioning whether he has ever read those articles also, or knows them in any other way than as he knows the one recently used in the pages of the Contemporary by Mr. Darwin: namely, in fragments and by the report of others. I am confident that he would not otherwise so misconceive their spirit, imagining that I am in the habit of making general depreciatory remarks about the scholars whose works I examine, and of casting hard words at them in place of arguments. He cites a little list of such words, which have caught his eye as he turned over my pages, and which he has conceived to be applied to himself. I cannot help quoting a passage in which—and, so far as I know, in which alone—two or three of them actually occur. After explaining my own views as to the origin of language at some length, I add (p. 434): "The view of language and of its origin which has been here set forth will, as I well know, be denounced by many as a low view: but the condemnation need not give us much concern. It is desirable to aim low, if thereby one hits the mark; better humble and true than high-flown, pretentious, and false." The words here underscored are those complained of by Prof. Müller: if they are applied to him, or to any one else, it must be by himself, not by me. Those to whom my works are really known will, I am sure, defend me against Mr. Müller's unfortunate misapprehension. I do not judge men, but views, and especially the arguments by which views are upheld. If I deem the latter insufficient or erroneous, I confess that I am apt to speak my mind about them too plainly. If one finds a whole argument founded on the assumption that two and two are five, it is, of course, the true way to say that "Sir Isaac Newton would not have reasoned thus; and, on the whole, it is safer for us to agree with Sir Isaac," rather than to declare the assumption false, and every thing built upon it unsound: yet, after all, if the latter is really true, and if the occasion for bringing out the truth is a sufficient one, and if the critic shows good faith, a desire to arrive at the truth and to treat his opponent with substantial justice, the shorter and blunter way is not to be too utterly condemned. And, as I have said above, I am ready to be strictly judged by the truth or error of my criticisms.
The plainest of plain speaking is far less really injurious than misrepresentation and detraction under the mask of extreme courtesy. Surely, so much wholesale depreciation and imputation of unworthy motives can hardly be found in all my writings as Mr. Müller raises against me in this one article. I should not venture to accuse any one of being actuated in his literary work only by personal vanity and a lust for notoriety, except after the summing up of a long array of particulars and deductions—I think not, even then. If I declared any one to be noisy about a subject in inverse proportion to his examination of it, I should at least want to refer to examples that illustrated the peculiarity. Does my critic put these accusations forward as his example of how a controversy should be conducted in a gentlemanly manner? If I stated that any one "bitterly complained" that he was not answered by those he criticised, I should feel called upon to give chapter and verse for it; and neither Mr. Müller, nor any one else, can point out any such complaints on my part. I regard this as one more evidence of Mr. Müller's careless and insufficient examination of my writings. He got his wrong impression, I imagine, from an imputation which Steinthal brings against me. I did blame Steinthal for undertaking, in his chapter on the origin of language, to report and refute the opposing views only of the last-century theorists, as if there were no more recent opinions on the subject which had a claim to be considered; and he was pleased to interpret it as a reproach to him for not mentioning myself! I should think far worse of him and of Mr. Müller than I do, if I supposed them incapable, in their cooler moments, of understanding that a man may, without any improperly selfish feeling, be astonished, and even indignant, to see the views, which he holds in company with a great many others, quietly ignored; or that he may hold them so heartily that he shall feel called upon to stand forth in their defense whenever they are unjustifiably passed over, or are assailed with what seem to him unsound arguments.
My article upon Steinthal was so different from what Mr. Müller appears to assume it to be, when speaking of that scholar as having "retaliated with the same missiles with which he had been assailed," that I can only infer that it, too, is unknown to him except by false report. In a chapter of his recent work, "Abriss der Sprachwissenschaft," Prof. Steinthal seemed to me to have piled together about as many paradoxes as could well be gotten into so small a space, pushing the psychological method to an extreme which was almost its own refutation. To pick out a few points: for a definition of language, he gives us "it is what it is becoming"—he declares the divine origin of language inadmissible, because no science, save the philosophy of religion, has any right to take account of God; he holds primeval man—in distinction from the philosophers of the last century, who wanted to degrade him—to have been a being of "creative force, from which religious and moral ideas flowed forth unsought;" his comparisons imply that language came into fully-developed being at once; he asserts the investigation of its origin to be "nothing else than this: to acquaint ourselves with the mental culture which immediately precedes the production of language, to comprehend a state of consciousness and certain relations of the same, conditions under which language must break forth," etc.; he denies that a child learns, or can be taught, to speak; he claims speech to be a capacity and activity like seeing and hearing; and he winds up with the conclusion that there is no such thing as an origin of language, except as it originates anew in every word we utter! Such views, expressed by one who stands so high in public estimation in Germany as Steinthal does, seemed to me to demand thorough examination. In my criticism, I went through the chapter, paragraph by paragraph, quoting in the author's own words nearly half of it, as I should estimate, and discussing in detail the various joints made by him. Perhaps I carried on the discussion more vehemently than was necessary or desirable; I hold myself open to all due reprehension on that score; but that there were any personalities in it I utterly deny; it was an argument throughout, if a polemical one; it addressed itself only to the opinions it opposed, and the considerations by which these were supported. After nursing his wrath for two years, Steinthal came out in reply last summer with a volley of Billingsgate, pure and simple (Mr. Müller gives, p. 313, some choice examples of it); he enters into no argument, he makes no defense—unless it may be called a defense that he seems dimly to claim that, being only engaged in a preliminary laying out of his subject, he ought to have been indulged in putting forth any thing he pleased without being called to account for it—he tears his hair and splits into two persons with rage and disdain, and calls his assailant a villain and a fool. To such a tirade, there is but one answer possible; and to that I have no disposition to resort. Any one may judge from the specimens of Steinthal's views given above, whether they are so obscure from profundity that a man of less than extraordinary penetration cannot hope to understand them; to me, the only incomprehensible thing is, how a man of learning and acuteness should have arrived at them, and should have so little to say for them. I am perfectly willing to lay the acta of the controversy before the public just as they are—Steinthal's chapter, my criticism, and his retort, without a word further added in my own defense; and I should be confident of a general verdict in my favor.
Prof. Müller fears that I am generally becoming convinced that I am unanswerable. Perhaps every one runs that risk who, after what seems to him due examination and deliberation, has come to hold a certain set of opinions with great confidence, and who, with his best endeavors, does not find among opposing views and arguments any that can overbear his own. One thing I am certain about: namely, that neither Müller nor Steinthal has answered me. As Mr. Müller appreciates so fully the danger in which I am placed, I wonder that he is not willing to put forth a hand to save me from it. I have with these gentlemen, so far as concerns my side, only a scientific controversy, sustaining my view of language against their contrary (and mutually conflicting) opinions. If I have been over-warm in assault, that is my disadvantage as well as my fault, as I thereby lay myself the more open to a counter-attack, having no right to claim to be treated more gently. But I have a right to protest against the controversy being made a personal instead of a scientific one; against being met with the plea that I am too disrespectful to the magnates of science for my arguments to deserve attention. Such a reply is generally, and justly, regarded as equivalent to a confession of weakness.
It has, perhaps, been my misfortune not to appreciate sufficiently the services rendered by Prof. Müller to the science of language; certainly, while fully acknowledging what he has done toward spreading a degree of knowledge of its facts, and, by his prestige and eloquence, attracting to them the attention of many who might have been reached in no other way, I might have been able to see that he helped either to broaden its foundations or to strengthen its superstructure. In ways and for reasons which I have sufficiently detailed in other places, his views have seemed to me wanting in solidity of basis, and in consistency and logical coherence. The difference between us is by no means of that slight character which, in his article, he gives it the air of being—"a slight matter of terminology," and the like; it reaches to the bottom. Holding as I do, I cannot expect that his proposed work on "Language as the True Barrier between Man and Beast," whatever its general interest and readableness, will be a contribution of serious importance to the discussion of the subject. Nor, indeed, that, by any one, more can be made of this barrier than has been made of the various others, which a profounder zoological and anthropological science has thrown down, claiming that no impassable barrier, but only an impracticable distance, separates the two—and separates them just as effectively. If my view of the nature of language is the true one, the absence of speech in the lower animals is easily seen to be correlated with many other deficiencies incident to their inferiority of endowment; they have no civilization, no "institutions" of any kind; nothing that goes down by tradition, is taught and learned. Their means of communication is almost wholly intuitive, not arbitrary and conventional, which are the most essential and highest attributes of ours. I say "almost," because I think the want not absolute; the rudiments of speech are just as much present in animals as, for example, those of the use of instruments; on account of which latter, Mr. Muller pronounces the "use of tools" no barrier.
Human language began when sign-making by instinct became sign-making by intention; when, for example, an utterance of pain or pleasure, formerly forced out by immediate emotion, was repeated imitatively, no longer as a mere instinctive cry, but for the purpose of intimating to another, "I am (was, or shall be) suffering or glad;" when an angry growl, once the direct expression of passion, was reproduced to signify disapprobation or threatening, and so on; that is to say, when expression for personal relief was turned into expression for communication. The human intellect had the power to see what was gained by this means and to try it further; and it could follow on and on, in the same course, until a whole language of signs was the result. It cannot be successfully maintained that no animals are capable of taking even the earliest steps in this process; if a dog stands outside a door, and barks or scratches, to attract attention, and then waits for some one to come and let him in, that is, in all essential respects, an act of language-making; and the dog, and some other animals, can do much more than that. Here is the point to which the attention of naturalists should be directed, if they wish to determine how far the animals advance on the road to language; to what extent are they able to turn signs—utterance, or gesture, or posture, or grimace—to account for the purpose, and with the intention, of intimating meaning. To determine what definite natural cries they have is comparatively nothing to the purpose, since these are not the analogue of human speech; to put the inquiry on this ground, involves the capital error of attributing to the human voice a special relation to the apparatus of mental action, as its natural means of expression, instead of regarding utterance as merely that form of bodily activity which, on the whole, is most available for expression, and which, therefore, after due experience of its advantages, is most availed of by man. The real expressiveness of cries and exclamations lies, not in their articulate elements, their vowels and consonants (if they have any), but in their tones; and we keep these same tones as auxiliaries of the very highest value to our articulate speech, when we wish to impress and persuade.
Quite as much, I am sure, lies within the compass of the lower animals, in the way of intentional intimation of their wishes, as in the way of tool-using; and hence the former is no more a "barrier" than the latter. But the animals can go no further in the direction of developing their rude beginnings of expression into a language, than of working up their tools into a mechanical art, with all its appliances, simply because they have not the capacity; and in this capacity of indefinite development, by accumulating the results of the exercise of his powers out of a condition originally as low, or wellnigh as low, as that of the animals, lies the distinction of man—a distinction which ought to satisfy the most exacting lover of his species.
As regards "general ideas," of which Mr. Müller arrogates to himself and his followers the monopoly, I confess to being wholly of the opinion of Mr. Ellis: "Animals, to my mind, have concepts, with quite as much right to be termed general, as any which I possess myself, the difference being one of degree." So long as Mr. Müller puts his exclusive claim solely on the ground that animals have no language, he must not expect to gain over many adherents. "Animals cannot talk, because they have no general ideas; they evidently have no general ideas, because they do not talk"—surely, as pretty a circle as ever was drawn with compasses; a mere duplication and bending around into a curved and reentering form of the dogma that thought is impossible without words; that the intellect cannot apprehend resemblances and differences, cannot compare and infer, without the bodily organs to make signs for it. If this is an exaltation of the value of language, it is an equal degradation of the power of the mind.—Contemporary Review.