Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man/Chapter 23




THE supposed existence, at a remote and unknown period, of a language conventionally called the Aryan, has of late years been a favourite subject of speculation among German philologists, and Professor Max Müller has given us lately the most improved version of this theory, and has set forth the various facts and arguments by which it may be defended, with his usual perspicuity and eloquence. He observes that if we knew nothing of the existence of Latin,—if all historical documents previous to the fifteenth century had been lost,—if tradition even was silent as to the former existence of a Roman empire, a mere comparison of the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Wallachian, and Rhætian dialects would enable us to say that at some time there must have been a language, from which these six modern dialects derive their origin in common. Without this supposition it would be impossible to account for their structure and composition, as, for example, for the forms of the auxiliary verb 'to be,' all evidently varieties of one common type, while it is equally clear that no one of the six affords the original form from which the others could have been borrowed. So also in none of the six languages do we find the elements of which these verbal and other forms could have been composed; they must have been handed down as relics from a former period, they must have existed in some antecedent language, which we know to have been the Latin.

But, in like manner, he goes on to show, that Latin itself, as well as Greek, Sanscrit, Zend (or Bactrian), Lithuanian, old Sclavonic, Gothic, and Armenian are also eight varieties of one common and more ancient type, and no one of them could have been the original from which the others were borrowed. They have all such an amount of mutual resemblance, as to point to a more ancient language, the Aryan, which was to them what Latin was to the six Romance languages. The people who spoke this unknown parent speech, of which so many other ancient tongues were offshoots, must have migrated at a remote era to widely separated regions of the old world, such as Northern Asia, Europe, and India south of the Himalaya.[1]

The soundness of some parts of this Aryan hypothesis has lately been called in question by Mr. Crawfurd, on the ground that the Hindoos, Persians, Turks, Scandinavians, and other people referred to as having derived not only words but grammatical forms from an Aryan source, belong each of them to a distinct race, and all these races have, it is said, preserved their peculiar characters unaltered from the earliest dawn of history and tradition. If, therefore, no appreciable change has occurred in three or four thousand years, we should be obliged to assume a far more remote date for the first branching off of such races from a common stock than the supposed period of the Aryan migrations, and the dispersion of that language over many and distant countries.

But Mr. Crawfurd has, I think, himself helped us to remove this stumbling-block, by admitting that a nation speaking a language allied to the Sanscrit (the oldest of the eight tongues alluded to), once probably inhabited that region situated to the north-west of India, which within the period of authentic history has poured out its conquering hordes over a great extent of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. The same people, he says, may have acted the same part in the long, dark night which preceded the dawn of tradition.[2] These conquerors may have been few in number when compared to the populations which they subdued. In such cases the new settlers, although reckoned by tens of thousands, might merge in a few centuries into the millions of subjects which they ruled. It is an acknowledged fact, that the colour and features of the Negro or European are entirely lost in the fourth generation, provided that no fresh infusion of one or other of the two races takes place. The distinctive physical features, therefore, of the Aryan conquerors might soon wear out and be lost in those of the nations they overran; yet many of the words, and, what is more in point, some of the grammatical forms of their language, might be retained by the masses which they had governed for centuries, these masses continuing to preserve the same features of race which had distinguished them long before the Aryan invasions.

There can be no question that if we could trace back any set of cognate languages now existing to some common point of departure, they would converge and meet sooner in some era of the past than would the existing races of mankind; in other words, races change much more slowly than languages. But, according to the doctrine of transmutation, to form a new species would take an incomparably longer period than to form a new race. No language seems ever to last for a thousand years, whereas many a species seems to have endured for hundreds of thousands. A philologist, therefore, who is contending that all living languages are derivative and not primordial, has a great advantage over a naturalist who is endeavouring to inculcate a similar theory in regard to species.

It may not be uninstructive, in order fairly to appreciate the vast difficulty of the task of those who advocate transmutation in natural history, to consider how hard it would be even for a 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 under going 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 4,000 living languages, others that there are 6,000, 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 portion of our language (nearly three-fourths of the whole) 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 Cæsar. 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. Chevalier Pertz has printed a treaty of peace 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.[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 informs 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 MSS. 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. Every one 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 further 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 school, 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 enquiry, 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 together, the older one having a more restricted use.

Although the speakers may be unconscious that any great fluctuation is going on in their language,—although when we observe the manner in which new words and phrases are thrown out, as if at random or in sport, while others get into vogue, we may think the process of change to be the result of mere chance,—there are nevertheless fixed laws in action, by which, in the general struggle for existence, some terms and dialects gain the victory over others. The slightest advantage attached to some new mode of pronouncing or spelling, from considerations of brevity or euphony, may turn the scale, or more powerful causes of selection may decide which of two or more rivals shall triumph and which succumb. Among these are fashion, or the influence of an aristocracy, whether of birth or education, popular writers, orators, preachers,—a centralised government organising its schools expressly to promote uniformity of diction, and to get the better of provincialisms and local dialects. Between these dialects, which may be regarded as so many 'incipient languages,' the competition is always keenest when they are most nearly allied, and the extinction of any one of them destroys some of the links by which a dominant tongue may have been previously connected with some other widely distinct one. It is by the perpetual loss of such intermediate forms of speech that the great dissimilarity of the languages which survive is brought about. Thus, if Dutch should become a dead language, English and German would be separated by a wider gap.

Some languages which are spoken by millions, and spread over a wide area, will endure much longer than others which have never had a wide range, especially if the tendency to incessant change in one of these dominant tongues is arrested for a time by a standard literature. But even this source of stability is insecure, for popular writers themselves are great innovators, sometimes coining new words, and still oftener new expressions and idioms, to embody their own original conceptions and sentiments, or some peculiar modes of thought and feeling characteristic of their age. Even when a language is regarded with superstitious veneration as the vehicle of divine truths and religious precepts, and which has prevailed for many generations, it will be incapable of permanently maintaining its ground. Hebrew had ceased to be a living language before the Christian era. Sanscrit, the sacred language of the Hindoos, shared the same fate, in spite of the veneration in which the Vedas are still held, and in spite of many a Sanscrit poem once popular and national.

The Christians of Constantinople and the Morea still hear the New Testament and their liturgy read in ancient Greek, while they speak a dialect in which Paul might have preached in vain at Athens. So in the Roman Catholic Church, the Italians pray in one tongue and talk another. Luther's translation of the Bible acted as a powerful cause of 'selection,' giving at once to one of many competing dialects (that of Saxony) a prominent and dominant position in Germany; but the style of Luther has, like that of our English Bible, already become somewhat antiquated.

If the doctrine of gradual transmutation be applicable to languages, all those spoken in historical times must each of them have had a closely allied prototype; and accordingly, whenever we can thoroughly investigate their history, we find in them some internal evidence of successive additions by the invention of new words or the modification of old ones. Proofs also of borrowing are discernible, letters being retained in the spelling of some words which have no longer any meaning as they are now pronounced,—no connection with any corresponding sounds. Such redundant or silent letters, once useful in the parent speech, have been aptly compared by Mr. Darwin to rudimentary organs in living beings, which, as he interprets them, have at some former period been more fully developed, having had their proper functions to perform in the organisation of a remote progenitor.

If all known languages are derivative and not primordial creations, they must each of them have been slowly elaborated in a single geographical area. No one of them can have had two birthplaces. If one were carried by a colony to a distant region, it would immediately begin to vary unless frequent intercourse was kept up with the mother country. The descendants of the same stock, if perfectly isolated, would in five or six centuries, perhaps sooner, be quite unable to converse with those who remained at home, or with those who may have migrated to some distant region, where they were shut out from all communication with others speaking the same tongue.

A Norwegian colony which settled in Iceland in the ninth century, maintained its independence for about 400 years, during which time the old Gothic which they at first spoke became corrupted and considerably modified. In the meantime the natives of Norway, who had enjoyed much commercial intercourse with the rest of Europe, acquired quite a new speech, and looked on the Icelandic as having been stationary, and as representing, the pure Gothic original of which their own was an off-shoot.

A German colony in Pennsylvania was cut off from frequent communication with Europe for about a quarter of a century, during the wars of the French Revolution between 1792 and 1815. So marked had been the effect even of this brief and imperfect isolation, that when Prince Bernhard of Saxe Weimar travelled among them a few years after the peace, he found the peasants speaking as they had done in Germany in the preceding century,[4] and retaining a dialect which at home had already become obsolete.

Even after the renewal of the German emigration from Europe, when I travelled in 1841 among the same people in the retired valleys of the Alleghanies, I found the newspapers full of terms half English and half German, and many an Anglo-Saxon word which had assumed a Teutonic dress, as 'fencen,' to fence, instead of umzäunen, 'flauer' for flour, instead of mehl, and so on. What with the retention of terms no longer in use in the mother country, and the borrowing of new ones from neighbouring states, there might have arisen in Pennsylvania in five or six generations, but for the influx of new comers from Germany, a mongrel speech equally unintelligible to the Anglo-Saxon and to the inhabitants of the European fatherland.

If languages resemble species in having had each their 'specific centre' or single area of creation, in which they have been slowly formed, so each of them is alike liable to slow or to sudden extinction. They may die out very gradually in consequence of transmutation, or abruptly by the extermination of the last surviving representatives of the unaltered type. We know in what century the last Dodo perished, and we know that in the seventeenth century the language of the Red Indians of Massachusetts, into which Father Eliot had translated the Bible, and in which Christianity was preached for several generations, ceased to exist, the last individuals by whom it was spoken having at that period died without issue.[5] But if just before that event the white man had retreated from the continent, or had been swept off by an epidemic, those Indians might soon have repeopled the wilderness, and their copious vocabulary and peculiar forms of expression might have lasted without important modification to this day. The extinction, however, of languages in general is not abrupt, any more than that of species. It will also be evident from what has been said, that a language which has once died out can never be revived, since the same assemblage of conditions can never be restored even among the descendants of the same stock, much less simultaneously among all the surrounding nations with whom they may be in contact.

We may compare the persistency of languages, or the tendency of each generation to adopt without change the vocabulary of its predecessor, to the force of inheritance in the organic world, which causes the offspring to resemble its parents. The inventive power which coins new words or modifies old ones, and adapts them to new wants and conditions as often as these arise, answers to the variety-making power in the animate creation.

Progressive improvement in language is a necessary consequence of the progress of the human mind from one generation to another. As civilisation advances, a greater number of terms are required to express abstract ideas, and words previously used in a vague sense, so long as the state of society was rude and barbarous, gradually acquire more precise and definite meanings, in consequence of which several terms must be employed to express ideas and things, which a single word had before signified, though somewhat loosely and imperfectly.

The farther this subdivision of function is carried, the more complete and perfect the language becomes, just as species of higher grade have special organs, such as eyes, lungs, and stomach, for seeing, breathing, and digesting, which in simpler organisms are all performed by one and the same part of the body.[6]

When we have satisfied ourselves that all the existing languages, instead of being primordial creations, or the direct gifts of a supernatural Power, have been slowly elaborated, partly by the modification of pre-existing dialects, partly by borrowing terms at successive periods from numerous foreign sources, and partly by new inventions made some of them deliberately, and some casually and as it were fortuitously,—when we have discovered the principal causes of selection, which have guided the adoption or rejection of rival names for the same things and ideas, rival modes of pronouncing the same words and provincial dialects competing one with another,—we are still very far from comprehending all the laws which have governed the formation of each language.

It was a profound saying of William Humboldt, that 'Man is man only by means of speech, but in order to invent speech he must be already man.' Other animals may be able to utter sounds more articulate and as varied as the click of the Bushman, but voice alone can never enable brute intelligence to acquire language.

When we consider the complexity of every form of speech spoken by a highly civilised nation, and discover that the grammatical rules and the inflections which denote number, time, and quality are usually the product of a rude state of society—that the savage and the sage, the peasant and man of letters, the child and the philosopher, have worked together, in the course of many generations, to build up a fabric which has been truly described as a wonderful instrument of thought, a machine, the several parts of which are so well adjusted to each other as to resemble the product of one period and of a single mind,—we cannot but look upon the result as a profound mystery, and one of which the separate builders have been almost as unconscious as are the bees in a hive of the architectural skill and mathematical knowledge which is displayed in the construction of the honeycomb.

In our attempts to account for the origin of species, we find ourselves still sooner brought face to face with the working of a law of developement of so high an order as to stand nearly in the same relation as the Deity himself to man's finite understanding, a law capable of adding new and powerful causes, such as the moral and intellectual faculties of the human race, to a system of nature which had gone on for millions of years without the intervention of any analogous cause. If we confound 'Variation' or 'Natural Selection' with such creational laws, we deify secondary causes or immeasurably exaggerate their influence.

Yet we ought by no means to undervalue the importance of the step which will have been made, should it ever become highly probable that the past changes of the organic world have been brought about by the subordinate agency of such causes as 'Variation' and 'Natural Selection.' All our advances in the knowledge of Nature have consisted of such steps as these, and we must not be discouraged because greater mysteries remain behind wholly inscrutable to us.

If the philologist is asked whether in the beginning of things there was one or five, or a greater number of languages, he may answer that, before he can reply to such a question, it must be decided whether the origin of man was single, or whether there were many primordial races. But he may also observe, that if mankind began their career in a rude state of society, their whole vocabulary would be limited to a few words, and that if they then separated into several isolated communities, each of these would soon acquire an entirely distinct language, some roots being lost and others corrupted and transformed beyond the possibility of subsequent identification, so that it might be hopeless to expect to trace back the living and dead languages to one starting point, even if that point were of much more modern date than we have now good reason to suppose. In like manner it may be said of species, that if those first formed were of very simple structure, and they began to vary and to lose some organs by disuse and acquire new ones by developement, they might soon differ as much as so many distinctly created primordial types. It would therefore be a waste of time to speculate on the number of original monads or germs from which all plants and animals were subsequently evolved, more especially as the oldest fossiliferous strata known to us may be the last of a long series of antecedent formations, which once contained organic remains. It was not till geologists ceased to discuss the condition of the original nucleus of the planet, whether it was solid or fluid, and whether it owed its fluidity to aqueous or igneous causes, that they began to achieve their great triumphs; and the question now at issue, whether the living species are connected with the extinct by a common bond of descent, will best be cleared up by devoting ourselves to the study of the actual state of the living world, and to those monuments of the past in which the relics of the animate creation of former ages are best preserved and least mutilated by the hand of time.

  1. Max Müller, Comparative Mythology. Oxford Essays, 1856.
  2. Crawfurd, Transactions of the Ethnological Society, vol. i. 1861.
  3. See G. Pertz, Monumenta Germanica, vol. iii.
  4. Travels of Prince Bernhard of Saxe Weimar, in North America, in 1825 and 1826, p. 123.
  5. Lyell, Travels in North America, vol. i, p. 260. 1845.
  6. See Herbert Spencer's Psychology and Scientific Essays.