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Questions Answered Extempore by Miss Emma Hardinge 1866

 

Question 3

 

WILL you explain to us the origin of language? Are the element forms which we term roots mere abstractions? Are they imitations of the sounds of nature, or are they formed in obedience to some law by which sound becomes a fitting expression; first, of the outer, and then figuratively or correspondentially of the inner life of man?

 

 

Answer

 

THE whole of these questions involve separate points. The first of these, concerning the origin of language, we shall treat as first in order. You will all have remarked who have observed the habits of savage life, that the earliest attempt which man in his primitive state of being makes to express himself is by gesture, especially in those who manifest the nearest approach to what we may call an aboriginal state, as in the savages of Australasia, and Central Arica. We find there is an invariable difficulty to teach such persons to articulate words clearly; in fact, the utterances of the most savage nations scarcely exceed low guttural sounds. As men advance into higher states of civilisation, we find marked evidence of an improvement in their powers of speech, a diminution of their redundancy of gesture, and a clearer utterance through the improvement, which the practice of speech produces in their vocal organs, and capacity for articulation. Again, in the earliest forms of language or speech, we find that the tendency of man is to express himself in monosyllables. In a people who hold little or no intercourse with their fellow men, and who are therefore unprogressive, language is mainly confined to monosyllables, as amongst the modern Chinese, and some others of the Mongolian tribes. Amongst this conservative people language now, as thousands of years ago, consists principally of monosyllables. On the contrary, in an old, and probably a decaying race, like the Red Indians, a race which has been, but is now unmistakably and inevitably “passing away,” this people (still retaining their ancient traditions and habits, and even the shadowy memories of all that their prime has once witnessed) use a compound and highly synthetic language. The Indian dialects, varied as they are in different tribes, are so full of ideality, and so redundant in their attempts at expression, that no language upon earth is more instructive in deduction concerning the past history of the people who make use of it.

 

Physiologically speaking, speech may be regarded first, as one of the strongest lines of demarcation between the animal and the man; next (when the spine, instead of running laterally along the ground, as in the animal, becomes erect, as in man, and there is a freer expression for the air which passes through its proper conduits), it is evident that this change of attitude is instrumental in its effect upon the vocal organs; again, as the mind becomes impressed with many ideas, and great varieties of objects (as in conditions of civilisation) are presented to the intellect, requiring many words to


 

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represent them, mobility of speech, and a corresponding improvement in tone, is invariably manifest in the expression or clothing for the ideas which language affords: hence (as the inevitable expression of the intellect), speech must be proportioned first, to the formation of the vocal organs; next, to the mental stimulus that moves those organs; next, to practice in variety and mobility of words; and, finally, to an ear cultivated by listening to varieties of sounds from others. Now, whilst we believe that speech is the peculiar gift of humanity, we notice that all creatures have a mode of communication with their kind. Some means of communion exist even amongst the humblest of creatures - as in the insect, reptile, fish, and amongst birds. All creatures hold intercourse with each other; and the higher the animal kingdom ascends, the more surely does their mode of communication become obvious, improve in intelligence, and tend towards the utterance of sounds. Hence the culminating point of nature’s efforts at expression are found in the varied tones of the human voice, while the highest expression of civilisation is a diffuse and synthetic language. Speech, which must be necessarily imperfect in the child race, ever improves as it tends onward to the manhood of time; nevertheless, when we investigate, through the study of philology, the various “Families” or groups into which the languages of earth have been classed, we find much reason for assigning to them a common origin. Even in the ancient Sanscrit, a tongue very full, complete, and redundant, we have abundance of proof that the roots of the language have strong affinity with the modern English; while the monosyllabic Chinese and the compounded American-Indian, both as strikingly different in grammatical structure as opposite points of the compass, still give evidence of a decided affinity in their roots or origin. Finding, then, that the two great sources of comparison, namely grammatical structure and roots, are liable through laboured investigation to resolve themselves into great probabilities of a common origin, we propose to deal with this difficulty by considering whether there is not in nature herself, and the attempts of primeval man to emerge from barbarism and express his progress in the form of language, quite sufficient testimony of a deductive character to show that language is nature’s own impulse to express ideas; and that as ideas multiply, forms accumulate, and a large range of objects to represent, necessitates a large range of language, - these all grow proportionally together, and develop in increasing ratio with each other.

 

The study of philology is so complicated and so diverse that it would be impossible, in answering one question, to enter more deeply into it; but we may here add, we cannot accept of the bald definitions concerning “roots” which scholars give. Tracing it to the origin of roots, language starts with nature. Roots, indeed, are distributed amongst various nations; but whether we search amongst the Greek roots, or the Hebrew, or even the Sanscrit and Chinese, there is a wonderful similarity in each, and in each a resemblance to many of the sounds which are still uttered by savage nations. We believe that all “roots” are the inevitable expressions of nature; that they are the words which God puts into the mouth of ancient Adam when he arrays all things in creation before him, and bids him name them. They come even as the conception of colour comes. We name it; it is inevitable to us; and could we trace back the earliest attempt to found a language, we should arrive there at the true name of all things. Varieties of language arise simply in harmony with the varieties of nations, of customs, and the growth of ideas. Permit me to add to this answer one thought that is not included in the question. It is this - In the most advanced spheres of spiritual life there is no spoken language - no outward form of speech. All communication is perception. Spirits look upon each other, and know and understand each one’s


 

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thoughts: spirits behold the flower and realise its meaning. It is a hieroglyphic, having a meaning far deeper than its beauty, bloom, or perfume merely. It is apart of nature, and where it appears it represents to the comprehensive mind its entire history, place, and affinities in creation. And so of all colours, sounds, shapes, and forms - all and each have far more of meaning than their more external appearance. They mean good and evil, light and darkness, mind as well as matter, and metaphysics like physics, - all that is bright or dark in the human soul is as much mapped out in colour, sound, and shape, as in outward expressions of deeds themselves. There are most potent meanings in sound - meanings in the very utterances of nature, which, to the quick ear of the spirit who understands nature, are appreciable at once. Consequently, all creation’s harmonies speak so intelligibly to the spirit, that speech which is but an imperfect mode of attempting to interpret thought, and which is confined simply to the material form, is no longer needed by the spirit. The foundations of language exist in barbarism. The ultimatum of language is civilisation, while its necessity ceases with spiritual perfection. We commence with the rudest forms of matter - making sounds to attract attention; we end with that knowledge which needs no other expression than the perception of the spirit.

 

Question 4 - March 19th, 1866