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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/356

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

been frustrated by various causes. One of these has been the ignorance which has until lately prevailed in regard to the number and true character of the existing linguistic stocks. It is not very long since most philologists seemed unable to extend their views beyond the Aryan, Semitic, and Chinese families of speech. All other idioms were looked upon as little better than formless gabbles, unworthy of serious study. Duponceau, the father of American philology, was the first to bring to the notice of scholars the important fact that among the languages of America there are some which in happiness of construction and in power of expression deserve to rank as high as the Indo-European tongues, and far higher than the Chinese or even the best of the Semitic languages. His assertions, though confirmed by abundant evidence, were long in overcoming the earlier prejudices. But they are now accepted by the highest authorities. More than fifty years after the date of Duponceau's first treatise, Professor Max Müller expressed his surprise that "this most tempting and promising field of philological research has been allowed to lie almost fallow in America—as if these languages could not tell us quite as much of the growth of the human mind as Chinese or Hebrew or Sanscrit." And to emphasize his meaning he adds: "To my mind the structure of such a language as the Mohawk is quite sufficient evidence that those who worked out such a work of art were powerful reasoners and accurate classifiers."[1] Not less decided is the opinion expressed by Professor Whitney, in his "Life and Growth of Language," concerning the Algonkin speech. "There are," he writes, "infinite possibilities of expressiveness in such a structure; and it would only need that some native-American Greek race should arise, to fill it full of thought and fancy, and to put it to the uses of a noble literature, and it would be rightly admired as rich and flexible, perhaps, beyond anything else that the world knew." Nor is it only in America that languages of this superior quality are found. Dr. R. N. Cust, in his work on the "Modern Languages of Africa," has given us the opinions expressed by the able French and English and American missionaries and grammarians who have written on the remarkable Mpongwe language, spoken on the western coast of that continent, near the equator. They speak, with one accord, of its "beauty and capability," its "elaborate structure and musical tone," its "regularity, exactness, and precision," its "order and philosophical arrangement," and especially its "wonderful capacity for conveying new ideas," making it needless for the missionaries to borrow foreign words in their biblical translations.

It is true that the objectors, though partially silenced by such authorities, are not altogether convinced. There is still an objection occasionally urged, founded not on fact but on an error in reasoning.

  1. From a letter of Professor Max Müller to the writer, quoted in "The Iroquois Book of Rites" (1883), vol. ii of Brinton's "Library of Aboriginal American Literature."