The history of almost every language points to the action of certain general law’s of progress, which laws are psychological as well as linguistic, i.e. they correspond and are parallel to the growth and progress of the human mind. They may be briefly summed up by saying that languages advance from exuberance to moderation, from complexity and confusion to grammatical regularity, and from synthesis to analysis. The explanation and illustration of these laws will occupy the present chapter.

1st. Languages advance from exuberance to moderation, by eliminating superfluities.

The earliest languages are marked by exuberance,[214] indetermination, extreme variety, uncontrolled liberty. They are melodious, but prolix and measureless. Words were invented independently, spontaneously, as they were required by the tribe or the individual, with little or no reference to already existing forms. The absence of literature, the want of political unity, the habits of a nomadic life, tended to create an immense multitude of terms and idioms. Among semi-barbarous and wandering communities the peculiarities which we call dialects existed simultaneously and side by side.

The Caucasus and Abyssinia present us a number of distinct languages in a narrow district. The number and variety of the American dialects is almost as great as that of the several tribes; and in Oceania it has been asserted that nearly every island or group of islands possesses a speech which barely offers any affinity with that of the neighbouring groups.

Unity of speech is the result of civilisation, and it is preceded by a diversity of forms which subsequently become the characteristics of particular localities. The steps towards unity are three; first, we have the confused, simultaneous existence of dialectic varieties; then the isolated and independent existence of dialects; and, finally, the fusion of these varieties in a more[215] extended unity. Thus the earliest Hebrew records contain traces of idioms which were subsequently the peculiar property of Aramaic, and we find in the Homeric poems a thousand variations of form and structure which were afterwards exclusively Æolic, or Attic, or Doric. The explanation of this fact is to be found in the consideration that these forms were in Homer’s time the common property of the old Ionic tongue, and it was not till after ages that they became appropriated and localised. The supposition that the rhapsodists employed a judicious selection of idioms, and made a mosaic out of distinct dialects, has long ago been abandoned as impossible and absurd.

The process of eliminating superfluities is found in every language. Redundancy seems to have been necessary to an early stage of thought, for we find it not only in words but in expressions. The whole of Hebrew poetry depends on a repetition and enforcement of the same fundamental thought, so as to gain emphasis and variety. In children we find a tendency to repeat the same thing twice, once affirmatively and once negatively, as though the double assertion gave them an additional security. “It is not you, but I;” “This letter is not A, but B;” are turns of expression well known to those who have observed the language of the nursery. It is surprising to find the same unnecessary tautology existing very widely in the most advanced literatures. “We have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears,” is a superfluity which has many types in the sacred writers; “They were in great numbers, not in small,” is the translation of a line in the Œdipus Tyrannus, and we find even a poet of our own times writing—

There saw he where some careless hand

O’er a DEAD[216] corpse had heaped the sand.

There is no doubt that such tautologies are often so far from being barren, that they give force and precision to the conception which they convey; but the mischief of them is that they give rise to a thousand errors of reasoning, and to many minds have the effect of an argument.

The Spanish fleet you cannot see, because

It is not yet in sight,


Et respondeo

Quia sit in eo

Vis quæ faciat homines dormire.

might be used as the satirical motto of many a treatise both in science and metaphysics.[217]

There are two processes by which nations get rid of words which are mere synonyms of other words, and are therefore burdensome. The one is to drop altogether the superfluous word, or only retain some one form or application of it; the other is to desynonymise words by using them each with one special shade of signification. Thus, when the Greek language obtained the word χρύσος to mean “gold,” it dropped altogether the word αὔρον, which at one time it must have possessed, as is clear from a comparison of the word θήσαυρος with the Latin aurum. What are called anomalous declensions and conjugations are explicable in the same manner, since ancient idioms are always richer than those which have undergone the revision of grammarians. It is, in fact, one of the duties of grammarians to make a choice among the riches of popular language, and to eliminate all words that are unnecessary. Thus a boy would be naturally puzzled by being told that φέρω, οἴσω, ἤνεγκα are parts of the same verb, but it will be easy for him to understand and remember that these words are, in fact, the débris of three entirely separate conjugations, parts of which only have been retained, while the remaining forms have been dropped because they were in no way needed. Merely capricious varieties have all been solved into a single verb.

2ndly. Languages advance from confusion to regularity, from indetermination to grammar.

What is true of the vocabulary of a language is no less true of its grammar. Here also simplicity is due to reflection, and is posterior to the rich complexity of a faculty spontaneously exercised. Scientific grammar is a subsequent invention; at their birth languages are lawless and irregular. The reason why the oldest and least grammatical languages appear to have the longest grammars, is because the anomalies are all catalogued as though they were so many rules, and what was once permissible because it then violated no law of language is ranked as the recognised exception to a definite order. An Isaiah would have been amazed at reading the innumerable rules of language by which modern grammarians suppose him to have been governed; and a Thucydides would have been hardly less astonished to see his “syllogism of passion” rigidly reduced to a syllogism of grammar.

At first, until usage had arisen, every body seems to have been at liberty to invent or adopt conjugations and declensions almost at his own caprice. “The more barbarous a language,” says Herder, “the greater is the number of its conjugations.” It has been a fatal mistake of philology to suppose that simplicity is anterior to complexity: simplicity is the triumph of science, not the spontaneous result of intelligence. The Basque language, which has retained much of the primitive spirit, has eleven moods; the Caffir language has upwards of twenty. Agglutination or Polysynthetism[218] is the name which has been invented for the complex condition of early language, when words follow each other in a sort of idyllic and laissez-aller carelessness, and the whole sentence, or even the whole discourse, is conjugated or declined as though it were a single word, every subordinate clause being inserted in the main one by a species of incapsulation. This is the case with the Astec, the languages of the Pacific, and many other languages. The Mongol declines an entire firman, and even in Sanskrit, flexions so far supersede syntax that the whole thought is in some sort declined. In Mexican, the word[219] Notlazomahiuzteopixcatatzin, with which they salute the priests, is easily decomposed into “Venerable priest, whom I honour as my father;” and in Turkish,[220] the single word Sev-ish-dir-il-me-mek means “not to be brought to love one another.” Yet even these are entirely surpassed by some of the dialects of North America. In the[221] Iroquois, for instance, one word of twenty-one letters expresses this sentence of eighteen words: “I give some money to those who have arrived, in order to buy them more clothes with it.” This one word is an agglomeration of simple words and roots in a violent state of fusion and apocope.

3rdly. Analogous in great measure to the law which we have been mentioning (or perhaps we may say a further development of the same law), is the progress of language from Synthesis to Analysis.

We have seen that many ancient languages are polysynthetic or[222] holophrastic, i.e., that they produce the entire thought or sentence under the form of one complex and rich unity, and subordinate every word and phrase to the domination of the entire clause. Even in early Greek and Latin we may find traces of this “holophrasis” in the separation of two parts of the same word which was permissible by what is called tmesis, as for instance in such expressions as κατὰ δάκρυ χέουσα, and even κατὰ πίονα μήρι’ ἔκηα. In Latin the same licence is far more rare, although we find it in the lines, “Inque cruentatus,” &c., and it was retained in one or two compounds, as “Quo te cumque ferent.” In both languages these extreme cases early disappeared, and the startling audacity of Ennius in the famous

Cere comminuit brum,

for “comminuit cerebrum,” would probably have made Virgil stare and gasp, as much as[223] the modern

O Jo qui terras de cœlo despicis hannes.

But although nothing is left in the Indo-European languages but the faint traces of that sylleptical tendency which seems to have marked the earliest stage of language, they offer the most splendid examples of a perfect synthesis. By a facile power of composition, and by attaching to the verb and noun a variety of terminations capable of distinguishing the nicest modifications of meaning, they have produced an instrument of thought almost unrivalled in accuracy and beauty.

In Greek and Latin one word was enough to express alike the subject, copula, and predicate; in English, two are always requisite, and generally three. The single word τύπτω requires the three words—“I am striking”—to render it; to translate amabor in English or in German we require four words, “I shall be loved—Ich werde geliebt werden;” and the same is true of many other parts of the verb; as ἐτετιμήμεθα, periisses, “we had been honoured,” “you would have perished.”

At first sight this analysis may seem to be a defect, but, in point of fact, it is a development. It is a bad thing for the human mind to be subjected to the despotism of a rigid grammar, the tyranny of too perfect a form. As it is the danger of advancing civilisation and of too refined a society to reduce men to the dead level of uniformity, and subject every caprice of the individual to the domination of an unwritten code, called the “laws of society,” so a language which crystallises every relation in a definite form tends to cramp and restrain the genius of those who use it. In the tragedies of Æschylus and the odes of Pindar, marvellous as is the power which crams every rigid phrase with the fire of a hidden meaning, we yet feel that the form is cracking under the spirit, or at least there is a tension injurious to the general effect. A language which gets rid of its earlier inflections—English, for instance, as compared with Anglo-Saxon—loses far less than might have been supposed.

The progress of language from synthesis to analysis is that of the human intelligence. Later generations find the language of their ancestors too learned for their own use. For the unity, spontaneous but often obscure, of the primitive tongues, they substitute an idiom clearer and more explicit by giving a separate existence to every subject in the sentence. They break up the conglomerated jewels of old speech to reset them in an order less dazzling but more distinct. They sacrifice the magnificence of mystery to the light of distinct comprehension. Instead of one sentence, out of whose tangled intricacies flashed, all the more brightly from contrast, the rays of enthusiasm and genius, they attain to a logical accuracy which gives to each idea and each relation its isolated expression. What they lose in euphony, force, and poetic concision, they gain in the power of marking the nicest shades of thought; what they lose in[224] elasticity they gain in strength. If synthetic and agglutinative languages are the best instruments of imagination, analysis better serves the purposes of reflection. Splendid efflorescence is followed by ripe fruit.

It is thus[225] that Sanskrit, with its eight cases, six moods, and numerous inflections, capable of expressing a crowd of secondary ideas, decomposes first into the Pali (?), Prâkrit, and Kawi, dialects less rich and learned, but more precise, which substitute auxiliaries and prepositions for case and tense; and even these latter, too complex for ordinary use, are gradually displaced by the more vulgar dialects of Hindostan,—the Hindoo, the Mahrattah, and the Bengali.

In the same way the Zend, Pehlvi, and Pars-i, are replaced by the modern Persian. The Zend, with its long and complicated words, its want of prepositions, and its method of supplying the want by means of cases, represents a language eminently synthetic. Modern Persian, on the contrary, is poorer in flexions than almost any language which exists; it may be said, without exaggeration, that its whole grammar might be compressed into a few pages. Modern Greek is the analysis or decomposition of ancient Greek during a long period of barbarism. The Romance languages are Latin submitted to the same process; Italian, Spanish, French, and Wallachian, are merely Latin mutilated, deprived of its flexions, reduced to shortened forms, and supplying by numerous monosyllables the learned organisation of the ancient idioms. “The fact then that the people in Italy, in France, in Spain, in Greece, on the banks of the Danube and of the Ganges, have been reduced to the necessity of treating their ancient languages in precisely the same manner to accommodate them to their wants; and the fact that two languages, so distant in time and space as the Pali and the Italian for instance, occupy positions exactly identical in relation to their mother-tongues, affords the best proof that there is in the progress of languages a necessary law, and that there is an irresistible tendency which leads idioms to despoil themselves of an apparel too learned to clothe a form more simple, more popular, and more convenient.”[226]

In the Semitic languages we find the progress towards analysis from various[227] causes less decided, but no less ascertainable. Ancient Hebrew is remarkable for its agglutination. “Like a child,” says Herder, “it seeks to say all at once.” It uses one word where we require five or six. But as we approach the period of the captivity we find a propensity to replace grammatical mechanisms by periphrasis, a propensity still more marked in modern or Rabbinical Hebrew. The later dialects—Chaldean, Samaritan, Syriac—are longer, clearer, more analytic. These, in their turn, are absorbed into Arabic, which pushes still farther the analysis of grammatical relations. But the delicate and varied flexions of Arabic are still too difficult for the rude soldiers of the early Khâlifs; solecisms multiply, grammatical forms are abandoned, and for the Arabic of the schools we get the vulgar Arabic, which is simpler and less elegant, but in some respects more accurate and distinct.

Even the languages of central and eastern Asia are not entirely wanting in analogous phenomena. But the facts already adduced are amply sufficient to prove that, in the history of languages, Synthesis is primitive, and Analysis, far from being the natural process of the intelligence, is only the slow result of its development. And if it be a natural development it must, on the whole, be considered an advance.

“An instance,”[228] observes Grimm, “unique but decisive, is alone sufficient to replace all the proofs and arguments which I have accumulated in my reasoning on this subject. Among modern languages there is not one which has gained more force and solidity than the English by neglecting or breaking the ancient rules of sound, and suffering almost all flexions to drop. The abundance of medial sounds, the pronunciation of which may be learnt but cannot be taught, gives to this language a power of expression, such as perhaps no human language has ever attained. Its highly spiritual genius and marvellously happy development are due to the astonishing union of the two most noble languages in modern Europe, German and Romance. We know the part which each of these elements plays in the English language; one of them is almost entirely devoted to the representation of sensible ideas, the other to the expression of intellectual relations. Yes, the English language, which has produced and nourished with its milk the greatest of modern poets, the only one who can be compared to the classical poets of antiquity (who does not see that I am speaking of Shakspeare?), may of good right be called an universal language, and seems destined, like the English people itself, to extend its empire farther and farther in all quarters of the globe.”

To the laws which we have been considering, many philologists would be inclined to add a fourth—viz., the progress to polysyllabism from a state originally monosyllabic. Many arguments may undoubtedly be adduced, which give a primâ facie probability to this supposition.[229] We will proceed briefly to state them.

It is argued, firstly, that we should have expected à priori a predominance of monosyllabic roots, because it is unlikely that a single powerful impression would have expressed itself by more than one sound. Since one sound would have been sufficient, we should not be inclined to look for any superfluity. Impression would provoke expression with the same rapidity that the flash of lightning is kindled by the shock of two electric clouds. It must be remembered that the young senses of the human race were unaccustomed to compound articulations, and neither their ears nor their tongues would have led them to signify by two sounds or two syllables an impression essentially single.

Secondly, it is said that existing facts prove the likelihood of this conclusion. Thus, to this day, some nations are unable to pronounce compound consonants by one emission of the voice. Such is the case with the Mantschou, and the Chinese can only utter the word Christus by changing it according to the custom of his language into ki-li-su-tu-su.[230] The Chinese then may be considered as a language petrified in its first stage of flexionless and ungrammatical monosyllabism. Thus, in order to express the plural, they are obliged to add the words, “another” and “much,” or to repeat the noun twice, expressing “us” by “me another,” and trees by “tree,[231] tree.” The prayer, “Our Father which art in heaven,” assumes in Chinese[232] the form “Being heaven me another (= our) Father who,” a style not unlike the natural language of very young children.

Thirdly, it is asserted that all existing languages are capable of being deduced from monosyllabic roots; that even the triliteral[233] Semitic languages afford abundant evidence of the fact that the three consonants are only the result of a growth, since one of the consonants is often weak and unnecessary, and many of the words expressing simple[234] ideas have only one syllable.

Whatever weight may attach to these considerations, they do not appear to be convincing. The attempt of Fürst and Delitzch to get over the fact of Semitic triliteralism is not completely successful, and no evidence has ever been adduced to show the causes which could have influenced a language to abandon an essentially monosyllabic character, or the time when so immense a change could have taken place.

Chinese, as we know, has been monosyllabic from the earliest period, and continues so to this day; and even Thibetian and Burmese,[235] though they have, under the influence of other languages, made great efforts to attain a grammar, have yet retained the ineffaceable impress of their original condition. We therefore reject this fourth law, as one which, even if possible, is by no means proven. Further discussion of it will, indirectly, be involved in the following chapter. At best, it can only be regarded as an artificial hypothesis, occasionally convenient for the purposes of the grammarian, but not corresponding to any real condition of the languages as once spoken.

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