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- The Antiquity of Man - 80/91 -


philologist to succeed, if he should try to convince an assemblage of intelligent but illiterate persons that the language spoken by them, and all those talked by contemporary nations, were modern inventions, moreover that these same forms of speech were still constantly undergoing change, and none of them destined to last for ever.

We will suppose him to begin by stating his conviction, that the living languages have been gradually derived from others now extinct, and spoken by nations which had immediately preceded them in the order of time, and that those again had used forms of speech derived from still older ones. They might naturally exclaim, "How strange it is that you should find records of a multitude of dead languages, that a part of the human economy which in our own time is so remarkable for its stability, should have been so inconstant in bygone ages! We all speak as our parents and grandparents spoke before us, and so, we are told, do the Germans and French. What evidence is there of such incessant variation in remoter times? and, if it be true, why not imagine that when one form of speech was lost, another was suddenly and supernaturally created by a gift of tongues or confusion of languages, as at the building of the Tower of Babel? Where are the memorials of all the intermediate dialects, which must have existed, if this doctrine of perpetual fluctuation be true? And how comes it that the tongues now spoken do not pass by insensible gradations the one into the other, and into the dead languages of dates immediately antecedent?

"Lastly, if this theory of indefinite modifiability be sound, what meaning can be attached to the term language, and what definition can be given of it so as to distinguish a language from a dialect?"

In reply to this last question, the philologist might confess that the learned are not agreed as to what constitutes a language as distinct from a dialect. Some believe that there are 4000 living languages, others that there are 6000, so that the mode of defining them is clearly a mere matter of opinion. Some contend, for example, that the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish form one Scandinavian tongue, others that they constitute three different languages, others that the Danish and Norwegian are one--mere dialects of the same language, but that Swedish is distinct.

The philologist, however, might fairly argue that this very ambiguity was greatly in favour of his doctrine, since if languages had all been constantly undergoing transmutation, there ought often to be a want of real lines of demarcation between them. He might, however, propose that he and his pupils should come to an understanding that two languages should be regarded as distinct whenever the speakers of them are unable to converse together, or freely to exchange ideas, whether by word or writing. Scientifically speaking, such a test might be vague and unsatisfactory, like the test of species by their capability of producing fertile hybrids; but if the pupil is persuaded that there are such things in nature as distinct languages, whatever may have been their origin, the definition above suggested might be of practical use, and enable the teacher to proceed with his argument.

He might begin by undertaking to prove that none of the languages of modern Europe were a thousand years old. No English scholar, he might say, who has not specially given himself up to the study of Anglo-Saxon, can interpret the documents in which the chronicles and laws of England were written in the days of King Alfred, so that we may be sure that none of the English of the nineteenth century could converse with the subjects of that monarch if these last could now be restored to life. The difficulties encountered would not arise merely from the intrusion of French terms, in consequence of the Norman conquest, because that large portion of our language (including the articles, pronouns, etc.), which is Saxon has also undergone great transformations by abbreviation, new modes of pronunciation, spelling, and various corruptions, so as to be unlike both ancient and modern German. They who now speak German, if brought into contact with their Teutonic ancestors of the ninth century, would be quite unable to converse with them, and, in like manner, the subjects of Charlemagne could not have exchanged ideas with the Goths of Alaric's army, or with the soldiers of Arminius in the days of Augustus Caesar. So rapid indeed has been the change in Germany, that the epic poem called the Nibelungen Lied, once so popular, and only seven centuries old, cannot now be enjoyed, except by the erudite.

If we then turn to France, we meet again with similar evidence of ceaseless change. There is a treaty of peace still extant a thousand years old, between Charles the Bald and King Louis of Germany (dated A.D. 841), in which the German king takes an oath in what was the French tongue of that day, while the French king swears in the German of the same era, and neither of these oaths would now convey a distinct meaning to any but the learned in these two countries. So also in Italy, the modern Italian cannot be traced back much beyond the time of Dante, or some six centuries before our time. Even in Rome, where there had been no permanent intrusion of foreigners, such as the Lombard settlers of German origin in the plains of the Po, the common people of the year 1000 spoke quite a distinct language from that of their Roman ancestors or their Italian descendants, as is shown by the celebrated chronicle of the monk Benedict, of the convent of St. Andrea on Mount Soracte, written in such barbarous Latin, and with such strange grammatical forms, that it requires a profoundly skilled linguist to decipher it.* (* See G. Pertz, "Monumenta Germanica" volume 3.)

Having thus established the preliminary fact, that none of the tongues now spoken were in existence ten centuries ago, and that the ancient languages have passed through many a transitional dialect before they settled into the forms now in use, the philologist might bring forward proofs of the great numbers both of lost and living forms of speech.

Strabo tells us that in his time, in the Caucasus alone (a chain of mountains not longer than the Alps, and much narrower), there were spoken at least seventy languages. At the present period the number, it is said, would be still greater if all the distinct dialects of those mountains were reckoned. Several of these Caucasian tongues admit of no comparison with any known living or lost Asiatic or European language. Others which are not peculiar are obsolete forms of known languages, such as the Georgian, Mongolian, Persian, Arabic, and Tartarian. It seems that as often as conquering hordes swept over that part of Asia, always coming from the north and east, they drove before them the inhabitants of the plains, who took refuge in some of the retired valleys and high mountain fastnesses, where they maintained their independence, as do the Circassians in our time in spite of the power of Russia.

In the Himalayan Mountains, from Assam to its extreme north-western limit, and generally in the more hilly parts of British India, the diversity of languages is surprisingly great, impeding the advance of civilisation and the labours of the missionary. In South America and Mexico, Alexander Humboldt reckoned the distinct tongues by hundreds, and those of Africa are said to be equally numerous. Even in China, some eighteen provincial dialects prevail, almost all deviating so much from others that the speakers are not mutually intelligible, and besides these there are other distinct forms of speech in the mountains of the same empire.

The philologist might next proceed to point out that the geographical relations of living and dead languages favour the hypothesis of the living ones having been derived from the extinct, in spite of our inability, in most instances, to adduce documentary evidence of the fact or to discover monuments of all the intermediate and transitional dialects which must have existed. Thus he would observe that the modern Romance languages are spoken exactly where the ancient Romans once lived or ruled, and the Greek of our days where the older classical Greek was formerly spoken. Exceptions to this rule might be detected, but they would be explicable by reference to colonisation and conquest.

As to the many and wide gaps sometimes encountered between the dead and living languages, we must remember that it is not part of the plan of any people to preserve memorials of their forms of speech expressly for the edification of posterity. Their manuscripts and inscriptions serve some present purpose, are occasional and imperfect from the first, and are rendered more fragmentary in the course of time, some being intentionally destroyed, others lost by the decay of the perishable materials on which they are written; so that to question the theory of all known languages being derivative on the ground that we can rarely trace a passage from the ancient to the modern through all the dialects which must have flourished one after the other in the intermediate ages, implies a want of reflection on the laws which govern the recording as well as the obliterating processes.

But another important question still remains to be considered, namely, whether the trifling changes which can alone be witnessed by a single generation, can possibly represent the working of that machinery which, in the course of many centuries, has given rise to such mighty revolutions in the forms of speech throughout the world. Everyone may have noticed in his own lifetime the stealing in of some slight alterations of accent, pronunciation or spelling, or the introduction of some words borrowed from a foreign language to express ideas of which no native term precisely conveyed the import. He may also remember hearing for the first time some cant terms or slang phrases, which have since forced their way into common use, in spite of the efforts of the purist. But he may still contend that "within the range of his experience," his language has continued unchanged, and he may believe in its immutability in spite of minor variations. The real question, however, at issue is, whether there are any limits to this variability. He will find on farther investigation, that new technical terms are coined almost daily in various arts, sciences, professions, and trades, that new names must be found for new inventions, that many of these acquire a metaphorical sense, and then make their way into general circulation, as "stereotyped," for instance, which would have been as meaningless to the men of the seventeenth century as would the new terms and images derived from steamboat and railway travelling to the men of the eighteenth.

If the numerous words, idioms, and phrases, many of them of ephemeral duration, which are thus invented by the young and old in various classes of society, in the nursery, the school, the camp, the fleet, the courts of law and the study of the man of science or literature, could all be collected together and put on record, their number in one or two centuries might compare with the entire permanent vocabulary of the language. It becomes, therefore, a curious subject of inquiry, what are the laws which govern not only the invention, but also the "selection" of some of these words or idioms, giving them currency in preference to others?--for as the powers of the human memory are limited, a check must be found to the endless increase and multiplication of terms, and old words must be dropped nearly as fast as new ones are put into circulation. Sometimes the new word or phrase, or a modification of the old ones, will entirely supplant the more ancient expressions, or, instead of the latter being discarded, both may flourish


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