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The Origin of Language

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THE ORIGIN OF LANGUAGE On the ultimate origin of language speculation has been rife, more, however, among philosophers than among philologists, who have very often been too matter-of-fact to take an interest in this problem. Some scholars (among them quite recently W. Schmidt) see the insufficiency of the usual theories, and giving up all attempts at explaining it in a natural way fall back on the religious belief that the first language was directly given to the first men by God through a miracle.

Greek philosophers were divided into two groups on this question, some thinking that there is from the beginning a natural connection between sound and meaning and that therefore language originated from nature (0(70, while others denied that connection and held that everything in language was con ventional The same two opposite views are represented among the linguistic thinkers of the 19th century, the former in the nativism of W. v. Humboldt, Max Muller, Steinthal and others, the latter in the empiricism of Madvig, Whitney, Marty, etc.

Some of the chief theories are best known under the nicknames invented by Max Willer, the bow-wow, pooh-pooh, and the yo-he ho theories. According to the first, language began with the imita tion of the characteristic sounds of animals; according to the second, with interjections, instinctive utterances called forth by pain or other intense sensations or feelings, and according to the third, with the natural phonetic accompaniments of acts performed in common ; these sounds would thus come to stand as verbs denoting the acts themselves ; e.g., heave, haul.

Each of the theories thus succinctly sketched explains part of our human language, and there is nothing to hinder us from com bining them, but even when combined they do not explain every thing, and especially fail to explain the central parts of language and its whole complex structure. Moreover, they all tacitly as sume that up to the creation of language man had remained mute and silent, but it is much more probable that he had already exer cised his organs through something that was not yet speech, but might lead to speech.

The latest attempt it solving the mystery is that of Jespersen, who thinks that the problem may be approached in a quite new way by starting from languages as we find them nowadays and tracing their history back as far as our material allows, in order from a comparison of present English with Old English (and similarly in the case of as many languages as possible) to find out the great laws governing linguistic development ; by lengthening this system of lines on a larger scale backwards beyond the reach of history we may be able to arrive at uttered sounds of such a description that they can no longer be called a real language.

As regards the phonetic structure of the most primitive lan guage, we shall in that way arrive at long conglomerates of sounds forming a striking contrast to those monosyllables with which philologists of the 19th century imagined that language must necessarily have begun. These long strings of syllables were probably characterised by marked tone movements with great intervals, and thus more like singing than is our comparatively monotonous civilised speech. The further back we go in the his tory of languages the greater is the number of irregularities that we find, not only in morphology, and syntax, but also in vocabu lary ; the same thing is not always denoted in the same way, and instead of general terms as in our languages we find words with highly specialised and concrete meanings. The bigger and longer the words, the thinner the thoughts. The first framers of speech were not taciturn beings, but lively men and women babbling or singing merrily on for the mere pleasure of producing sounds with or without meaning ; as an instrument for expressing thoughts their utterances were clumsy, unwieldly and ineffectual, but they served to give vent to their emotions, and that was all they cared for. One string of syllables sung to some kind of melody may have been so characteristic of a certain individual, that it came to be repeated by others to signalise his approach, thus denoting him and becoming a proper name for him—the most concrete of all words. Another song might serve to remind the tribe of some occasion when it was first might thus become an un differentiated expression for what happened then. When a multi tude of utterances of this kind had developed, each with some sort of special meaning, they might be combined in various clumsy ways and thus give rise to something that was more like the long intricate sentence-conglomerates which we find, for in stance, in Eskimo. But even the most primitive language heard to-day has an evolution of many thousand years behind it, and a modern mind cannot hope to be able to enter into the workings of a mind that was only beginning to be human.