Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/544

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

spoke, afford by comparison but miserable accommodation for thought. From our extremely small experience of the speech of the world we judge that, in the case of the few languages which we know, evolution has proceeded backwards: the better organized, and therefore, from the evolutionary standpoint, the higher, language has given place to the lower. But we are not justified in this conclusion. Language is essentially labile. The solvent of thought changes as the quality of thought changes. Philologists can but speculate as to the stages through which Greek acquired its complexity. Demosthenes did not help to regularize a single inflexion. He used the instrument of expression as it came to his hand. His language is not more, but less, ornate than that of Homer.

Greek and Latin were not made by cultured Greeks and Romans. The languages took form in the converse of their illiterate ancestors. Literature, upon which the beginnings of culture rest, closes language-building in the larger sense. Zulu is a more highly flexional language than Greek, with more elaborate endings, expressive of gender, number, case, mood, voice; with nicer laws of euphony. Probably the ancestors of the Greeks were, like the Zulus, a loquacious, quarrelsome, rhetorical race. The language of the Zulus is not great because it is complex in form. Every language becomes great when greatly used—Greek from Demosthenes's mouth; English from Milton's pen. The test of the elevation of a language, from the evolutionary point of view, is its simplicity, freedom from ambiguity, correspondence in the order in which words are used with the sequence in which ideas successively occupy the focus of consciousness. 'Amabo, love, future, I,' is as swift an expression of thought as 'I shall love'; although it does not place the constituents of the idea in the order in which they pass across the mirror of my mind; my personality, in the case of such a general proposition, takes the lead. 'Lucretiam amabo,' no doubt, gives the order aright. But neither conglomerate allows of the inversion 'Shall I love?' Picking up the school-book nearest to hand, I have essayed the 'sors Virgiliana.' This is the sentence which my finger touched: "Relinquit animus Sextium gravibus acceptis vulneribus" ('De Bello Gallico,' VI.). It seems to me incredible that this sentence expresses the thought as it formed itself in Cæsar's mind:" Leaves it the soul Sextius by or to grave by or to received by or to wounds." Surely the idea of the personality of Sextius preceded the idea of some one fainting? What purpose is served by three times explaining that it was by or to (leaving it at the end an open question which) wounds? '-ibus,' if it does not impress the mind of the reader as the really important constituent of the phrase, is unduly heavy for a mere inflexion. Cæsar did his best with the language which his unlettered ancestors had bequeathed to him; but he was to be pitied in that his thoughts when they went abroad must walk in irons.