“Even as a hawke fleeth not hie with one wing, even so a man reacheth not to excellency with one tongue.”—Roger Ascham.

We have seen that philology offers no proof of a universal primitive language. The question now arises, Is there any probability of a universal future language? Does it seem likely that the day will ever come when all men shall be of one speech? The noble Indo-Germanic race has carried its power and its conquests over a vast surface of the globe, and our own tongue —which receives by common consent the meed of the most powerful of existing languages—is probably spoken by at least a hundred millions of the human race. Have we any reason to believe that English will hereafter prevail over every other dialect, and become in some form or other the language of the world?

That the Arian race is the destined inheritor of the future world seems clear to the least discriminating glance, because it has proved itself to be the race most capable of perfectibility, and therefore most worthy of power. But that any one language spoken by the various branches of their race will ultimately prevail to the exclusion of all others is an event which hardly seems probable; if probable, it is still in the present state of the world undesirable; and even were it certain, yet the permanent existence of such a language is incompatible with the present condition of human intelligence.

1. The development of a future universal language seems improbable. It is true that dialects become merged in languages, and these languages lost in others still more extensive, just as streams flow into rivers, and rivers into the sea. It is true that diversity of idioms is the characteristic of barbarism, and unity the slow result of civilisation. But against these considerations we must set the extraordinary tenacity of national associations and national characteristics. However far we may look into the future, we see nothing to show us that the distinctions of nations were not intended to be as permanent as the oceans that divide them; and nothing to make us expect that all humankind will be gathered hereafter (in its present general condition) under one universal empire, and into one school of religion and of thought.

2. But even were it probable that there would be only one language hereafter, such a consummation would not be desirable, because it would greatly hinder the search for truth, and would tend to reduce men to a dead level of uniformity, a Chinese dryness and mediocrity of intelligence. It is, indeed, conceivable that a universal growth of mammon-worship, making merchandise almost the only occupation of mankind, might tend to give to languages that form of practical abbreviation which we find in telegraphic despatches, and which, to economise phrases and expense, neglects grammar, and puts down the smallest possible number of words, with no desire beyond that of being barely understood.[269] But such abbreviation, useful as it may be for certain purposes, would, if applied to all the forms of language, despoil it for ever of all ornament and all poetic charm, and so far from enabling us to rival the noble languages of antiquity, would reduce us to a condition from which the instincts of our race would inevitably break loose, to begin a fresh career of discovery and thought.

“Truths,” said Coleridge,[270] “of all others the most awful and interesting are too often considered so true that they lose all the power of truth, and lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors.” By frequent use, as by repeated attrition, the brightness and beauty of a word is worn bare, and it requires a distinct effort of attention to restore the full significance to the forms of expression with which we are most familiar. “Hence it is,” says Mr. Mill,[271] “that the traditional maxims of old experience, though seldom questioned, have often so little effect on the conduct of life, because their meaning is never, by most persons, really felt, until personal experience has brought it home. And thus, also, it is that so many doctrines of religion, ethics, and even politics, so full of meaning and reality to first converts, have manifested a tendency to degenerate rapidly into lifeless dogmas, which tendency all the efforts of an education expressly and skilfully directed to keeping the meaning alive are barely found sufficient to counteract.” The weight and importance of these remarks will best be felt by those who have observed how new and rare meanings are perceived when we read the words, for instance, of Holy Writ in their original language, and lose sight for a moment of those groundless fancies with which long association has confused our perception. To study the Bible in other languages than our own is like looking upon the Urim and Thummim when, for him who rightly consulted it, the fire of the divine messages flashed upon its oracular and graven gems.

Hence language is most important, is almost indispensable to the human race for the perpetual preservation of truths which would otherwise be banished “to the lumber-room of the memory,” rather than be prepared for use “in the workshop of the mind.” For words are constantly acquiring new shades of meaning in consequence of the things which they connote, and to such an extent is this the case, that our quotations of an author’s actual words often involve a gross anachronism, because his “pure ideas”[272] have often become our “mixed modes.” If, for instance, we were to use the word “gravitation” in translating various passages of ancient authors, we might be led to assert that the great discovery of Newton had been anticipated by hundreds of years; and yet we know that those authors had no conception whatever of the law which that word recalls to our minds.

Both in the history of the world, and in the growth of individual intellects, the study of language has produced the noblest results. To it more than to any other cause we owe the outburst of freedom in thought which produced the Reformation, and the mighty advance of humanity which followed that emancipation of the intellect of Europe from the ignorance fostered by a depressing superstition; and to it in very great measure we owe the matchless power and beauty of our own tongue. “Indeed, the adoption of words from dead languages into English has, above all other causes, tended to increase the number of our simple ideas, because the associations of such words being lost in the transfer they are at once refined from all alloy of sense and experience.”

The old Roman poet,[273] proud in the unusual erudition which had made him master of three languages, used to declare, that he had three hearts, and his opinion has been echoed by a modern poet[274] with emphatic commendation—

“Mit jeder Sprache mehr, die Du erlernst, befreist

Du einen bis daher in Dir gebundenen Geist,

Der jetzo thätig wird mit eigner Deukverbindung,

Die aufschliesst unbekannt gewesene Weltempfindung.

Ein alter Dichter, der nur dreier Sprachen Gaben

Besessen, rühmte sich der Seelen drei zu haben,

Und wirklich hätt’ in sich alle Menschengeister

Der Geist vereint, der recht wär’ alle Sprachen Meister.”

The Emperor Charles V. went still further, and declared that “in proportion[275] to the number of languages which a man knew, in that proportion was he more of a man.” There may have been exaggeration in this expression, but at any rate it arose from the conviction of an important truth. And we may add with Göthe the undoubted certainty, “Wer fremde sprache nicht kennt, weiss nichts von seiner eigenen.” Perhaps in this sentence we may find the reasons why so few know their own language in half its richness and power.

3. A universal language could not, in the present state of human intelligence, last for any long period. New circumstances of life, new discoveries of thought, new conquests of art and science, would require new forms of expression. The influences of climate and history would produce fresh revolutions in the character of nations, and the change of character would necessitate modifications of the prevalent idiom, which in the course of time would diverge so widely from the parent language, as to be unintelligible unless separately acquired. There is in language, as we have seen repeatedly, an organic life; it is an incessant act of creation, ever progressing, ever developing. To reduce it to one stereotyped[276] and universal form would be to contradict the very law of its being, by substituting an eternal immobility for that power of growth and alteration which constitutes its very existence.

If all men be hereafter of one speech, it can only be after they have arrived at a condition when knowledge has superseded the necessity of inquiry, when intuition supplies the place of discovery, and certainty has been substituted for faith. As far as the science of philology can pronounce an opinion, we must infer, that the familiar line will remain true henceforth as heretofore—

Πολλαὶ μὲν Θνητοῖς γλῶτται, μία δ’ Ἀθανάτοισι.

Mortals have many languages, the Immortals one alone.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook