into vogue. Shortly after Chinese trade was thrown open to American shipping a vessel was lying in one of the treaty ports. A Yankee sailor who happened to be on shore noticed some natives digging a ditch and carrying away the earth in their blouses. Thinking to teach them a valuable lesson, he provided them with a wheelbarrow and showed them how to use it. Coming to the same workmen some time afterward he saw them carrying the wheelbarrow. They found it less trouble to do so than to learn to use it in the proper manner. We have here a practical illustration of what Lord Bacon had in mind when he said that new ideas are conceived in the old way. Many words experience the same fate. They are used for purposes for which they were not intended originally. The mind expands faster than the vocabulary increases, and it is easier to use the old word with a new meaning than to invent a new one. In this way a great number of new significations are sometimes grafted on a stem that may be called hoary with age. According to de Mortillet who has probably devoted more time to the study of the problem than any one else, man has existed upon the earth not far from 240,000 years. Of these about ten thousand belong to the culture period, and six to the historical. We may greatly reduce the first period and it still remains very long. Primitive man had need of but few words. In the nature of the case his vocabulary would increase very slowly. If not more than one or two words a year were added to it he would enter the historic stage with a relatively large stock. The Hebrew Bible contains less than nine thousand words. A writer says, in the introduction to Worcester's dictionary, that the English language embraces about thirty-eight thousand words. "This includes not only radical words, but all derivatives, except preterites and participles of verbs." The Anglo-Saxon vocabulary is about one third smaller. The Greek language up to the time of Aristotle includes about forty thousand words. Why our modern lexicons are so much more comprehensive is easily explained. The fundamental problem, as it looks to us, that primitive man had to solve was how to designate by the sound of his voice objects that were hushed in perpetual silence. He might imitate, however imperfectly the roar of the tempest, the thunder-clap, the noises made by birds and beasts; but how should he designate the sun, the moon, the stars, the flowers of the field? Did his fancy come to his aid so that he felt like the Psalmist when he speaks of the time when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? To this question science has no answer and the answer furnished by the imagination is worthless except as a curiosity. Hence the problem of the origin of language has almost ceased to engage the attention of investigators. Every possible theory has been advanced, but none has gained general assent. It may aptly be said to have been consigned to the limbo of unrealizable possibilities.
Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 78.djvu/509
LANGUAGE AND LOGIC