The Mystery of Words/Part 1/Chapter 2

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The Mystery of Words  (1924)  by Ralcy Husted Bell
Part I, Chapter II


Through Vague Epochs

During the long period of racial infancy, the various signs and sounds that were to develop into speech and become language, were slightly differentiated, if at all, from the things they signified. The grunt and the physical satisfaction were so closely associated that they confused the mind. The croon of pleasure was felt in a vague sort of way to call forth the pleasure itself. The scream of fright was a shield. The cry of pain was soothing to the hurt. The roar of defiance was a weapon. The call of desire was the means, partly at least, of gratifying the desire. Magic probably was born at this stage. Signs such as certain grimaces, sounds, and gestures were so agreeable to the gregarious or pack-instinct that they became conventional and in time social. The smile, the laugh, the frown, the handshake, the rubbing of noses, the embrace, peculiar inflections and guttural sounds acquired more or less definite significance, and their traces have persisted through all the many modifications that crystallized at last into social conventions. Thus language came to have functions besides those of thought and expression.

In time, man seized directly upon separate objects and he communicated to his kind such impressions of them as were most needful to be known, most readily understood, and most easily conveyed. From an idea of the things most obvious of themselves, to ideas of their simplest acts and qualities, was a long but inevitable way.

Thus the wondrous tools of the mind helped it to conceive from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract. By means of these tools the mind developed and multiplied the ideas it already had; and its greatest idea perhaps, measured by its utility,— the most ancient idea that has shown steady growth and such amazing conquest,—is the idea of practical symbolism.

The mystery of the origin of words, then, always has baffled us. Scholars have tried to penetrate it by means of interesting theories cleverly set forth. The theories have not agreed; many have been abandoned; the investigations have not been conclusive; even the epoch of word-invention remains indeterminate. Much has been conjectured, but little is known. It no longer is assumed that words were given to our ancient kind by special act of Providence. In the light of modern science it does not seem reasonable to suppose that speech was given to primitive mankind as we give prepared food to children. It is not likely that words came into existence spontaneously, since no child ever was born with one upon its lips. Indeed nothing is more evident than that words were invented; that they are, as we understand them, an artificial product of human personality; that they respond to needs as surely as tools supply wants: in brief, whatever else they may be, they certainly are tools.

Nothing is truer than that necessity is the mother of invention. Words were invented because they were needed; they have been used by man throughout the great part of his long history; all the while he has used them he has modified them; he has borrowed, discarded, and created others. Words in themselves, therefore, are not as mysterious as is the faculty for the making of them. Their deeper physiological mysteries are all the more interesting because they are related solely to man amongst all the other dwellers of earth.

No one dares to assume that man is the highest type of consciousness existent; but it does seem true that the faculty of speech raises him supremely above all his dumb fellows of this world; and the mystery of it is that anatomically he is not superior to some others, while admittedly he is inferior to many. With respect to language, man is a demi-god of this particular sphere; and through the faculty of speech he is conscious of infinity,—through that faculty he is able to perceive some scattered rays of truth so sublime that he may be excused for calling them divine.

Word-making is a generic ability of mankind. No family group of dumb humankind, however low in the scale of development, ever has been discovered. Careful studies of the Java skull show that, even in the brain of Pithecanthropis, the speech-areas, although small and undeveloped, already existed. The same is true of other relics, notably the meagre remains of the Piltdown man, whose lower-jaw, however, lacks the development necessary for articulate speech, as we know it. The most rudimentary languages familiar to us contain the essential parts of speech, nouns, verbs, etc., which require mind for their existence; and the fine relationships of these parts of speech reveal mind as the source of construction from which rules of grammar may be drawn.

The fact that this faculty pertains exclusively to human beings is startling enough; but its creative powers are more remarkable; and they emphasize, moreover, the purely human character of the faculty. All this points to the spirit (or mind or x faculty) of man as the wellspring of speech; and thus it is easy to associate language with morals.

If we concede that the conscious human mind brought forth every word of every language, then we must admit that the totality of language is infinitely richer than any of its branches. The recognition of this provisional truth gave rise to the old saying that a man adds another to himself whenever he learns a new tongue.

The epoch of word-invention must remain vague. Naturally this is true if the epoch falls within the period covering the infancy of the race. This period has been pushed back into a very remote æon. It is probable that man became man, so to speak, sometime during the 500,000 years of the Pleistocene period, when his prehuman-nature gave way to humanhood. He was manufacturing implements in Europe as early as 150,000 years ago. Long before this his speech must have had its beginnings.

During many ages the prehuman ancestors of man had aspired, subconsciously perhaps, to an upright carriage. For ages, man himself had known the benefit of the nearly erect posture. His changed physical attitude was, in some mysterious manner, the forerunner of his spiritual attitude. He was beginning to look toward the stars. But the slow change from four legs to two did not carry with it unalloyed blessings. As man arose from the more or less horizontal to the approximately perpendicular posture, he began to hope, to dream, to laugh, and to weep. Spiritual suffering came not through the “fall” of man but through his rise. His new posture also imposed anatomical penalties, the effects of which have not yet passed away. The abdominal cavity, for instance, is ill-suited to carry the viscera in an upright posture. But the liberation of the arms in locomotion; man’s ability to travel erect on two hind limbs; and the transfer of the anthropoid function of the big-toe of the fore-foot to that of an opposable thumb of the human hand, were an enormous recompense for the ills suffered through the change. From the ability to suffer as a man came his faculty to enjoy as a god. His new sorrows broke in ripples of laughter; his horizon broadened; his spirit longed for wings.

For ages, man’s brain had been helped in its development by the advantages of his opposable thumb, perfectly capable of co-operating with each of his four fingers. The hand had become an efficient assistant of the brain. The more he used his hands, the more he stimulated the development of his brain; and the more his brain developed, the more skilful became his hands. We utilize this reaction between hand and brain even to-day in the training of children.

For ages, the brain had been growing and undergoing adjustments of mass suitable to superanimal needs. One of the most marvelous acquirements of the human brain was its power of speech in one little area of either hemisphere. In the right-handed person, this speech-center became localized in the left. A little spot, situated in what is called the convolution of Broca, had become susceptible to an acquired change that made speech possible. Thus man found himself endowed with articulate speech. Without going into the reasons why, this only could have come about through the use of his hands during his individual and racial childhood.

Yet strangely enough, the faculty of speech is not congenital. Man is born as dumb as any other animal; but unlike other animals, he is born with the will-power of bringing forth in his brain a faculty that sets him apart from all the beasts of the earth. Still, no language ever came to him spontaneously. Every word was born of a need. His mind kissed his brain and words blossomed from his lips. Nor did the words issue merely as sounds, but they came full-fledged as verbs, nouns, and other parts of speech which make up a language in its infancy.

The development of the faculty of speech was not owing to any difference in brain-structure, since anatomically it is the same with several groups of primates. But in man’s brain, the particles of gray matter in a part of the cortex when subjected to the incessant repetition of certain stimuli develop the power of speech. Why is this? We say, rather loosely, that the personality longs to communicate with its fellow in accordance with one of the feminine instincts of the race. Eagerness preceded effort. The first effort to speak was a shudder; the shudder became a gesture; and the first “language” was not of the tongue, but of the hand—a gestural speech. Thus language was born of the hand; and spoken language, even in its most perfect form, still retains a large gestural element. The source of words is the mind; their impellent force is personality urged by the interaction between need and longing. Words are inventions of the mind, which the brain, the nerves, and the muscles have learned to use.

During the long period from somewhere well within the Miocene and extending through the Pliocene Age, a steady and coincident development took place of the hand, the brain, the powers of upright locomotion, and of speech. Already, as we have seen, in Early Quaternary Times this development had reached the flower called human.

At this time we find our prehistoric human ancestors in Europe. They walk as we walk; they have our hands and brains. Their speech is rudimentary, but the brain-centers related to the higher senses are well developed, and they control perfectly all motions of the bodily members. The anterior centers of the brain are keenly awake, and they have long been busy in the hoarding of experience and the developing of ideas. Fifty thousand or more years ago, these groups of intelligent human beings possessed faculties and powers in all essentials “modern,” though still in the dawn of education. These folk saw as we see, felt as we feel, and they otherwise functioned as we function to-day. They were men and women with our emotions, hopes, and dreams. They were bound to our cycle of childhood, vigor, and senility—beings of our own intellectual timbre, more roughly hewn perhaps and more ruggedly joined.

Beyond these racial groups in time, we see others vaguely that are intelligent, and still of an Eastern origin drawn Westward by migration, and ever lower in order as the period recedes, until man’s earliest ancestry is reduced to the level of brutedom.

One of the most significant facts in the study of prehistoric man, and one that yet may throw much light on his language, is his rapid spiritual ascendancy. That his higher development was relatively swift and progressive is made evident by an examination of his anatomical remains; and chief of these is the skull about which centers his most important evolutionary progress. A multitude of other facts related to his life indicate that his spiritual growth was rapid.

For much of our knowledge on these subjects we are indebted, directly and between lines, to the investigations of such scholars as Breuil, Cartailhac, Obermaier, Osborn, Avebury, Bégouen, Boule, Broca, Darwin, Déchelette, and a host of others. Through their eyes, as it were, we are enabled to visualize prehistoric times; and, as a result of their work, modern man gains a new conception of the antiquity of his race and speech; he is able to understand better than ever before the unfolding of the human spirit as it occurred in very early times. Illuminating relationships are established across thousands of changing years, forming a medium through which the human mind of to-day may come in touch with the powers of human observation, of discovery, and of invention during an antiquity so remote that in contrast with it the period of “Egyptian, Ægean, and Mesopotamian civilizations appear as of yesterday.” (Osborn.)