Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 38.djvu/308

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
294
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

orthodox theory of language, strong and apparently firm, which has lasted throughout Christendom for nearly two thousand years.

There had, indeed, come into human thought at the very earliest period some suggestions of the modern scientific view of philology. Lucretius had proposed a theory, inadequate indeed, but still pointing very directly toward the truth, as follows: "Nature impelled man to try the various sounds of the tongue, and so struck out the names of things, much in the same way as the inability to speak is seen in its turn to drive children to the use of gestures." But, among the early fathers of the Church, the only one who seems to have caught an echo of this truth was St. Gregory of Nyssa; as a rule, all the other great founders of Christian theology, as far as they expressed themselves on the subject, took the view that the original language spoken by the Almighty and given by him to men was Hebrew, and that from this all other languages were derived at the destruction of the Tower of Babel. This doctrine was especially upheld by Origen, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine. Origen taught that "the language given at the first through Adam, the Hebrew, remained among that portion of mankind which was assigned not to any angel, but continued the portion of God himself." St. Augustine declared that, when the other races were divided by their own peculiar languages, Heber's family preserved that language which is not unreasonably believed to have been the common language of the race, and that on this account it was henceforth called Hebrew. St. Jerome wrote, "The whole of antiquity affirms that Hebrew, in which the Old Testament is written, was the beginning of all human speech."

Amid such great authorities as these even Gregory of Nyssa struggled in vain. He seems to have taken the matter very earnestly, and to have used not only argument but ridicule. He insists that God does not speak Hebrew, and that the tongue used by Moses was not even a pure dialect of one of the languages resulting from "the confusion." He makes man the inventor of speech, and resorts to raillery: speaking against his opponent Eunomius, he says that "passing in silence his base and abject garrulity" he will "note a few things which are thrown into the midst of his useless or wordy discourse, where he represents God teaching words and names to our first parents, sitting before them like some pedagogue or grammar master." But, naturally, the great authority of Origen, Jerome, and Augustine prevailed; the view suggested by Lucretius, and again by St. Gregory of Nyssa, died out, and "always, everywhere, and by all" in the Church the doctrine was received that the language spoken by the Almighty was Hebrew; that it was taught by him to Adam, and that all other languages on the face of the