Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/57

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53
HUMAN SPEECH

be deductive in method; hence, however plausible or ingenious in themselves, they have at best a merely speculative, not a genuinely scientific interest. We may therefore dispense with anything like a detailed inquiry into or criticism of these theories. Two of the most popular of them may be respectively termed the onomatopoetic or sound-imitative and the exclamatory theories. According to the former, the first words of speech were onomatopoetic in character, that is, attempts to imitate by the medium of the human organs of speech, the various cries and noises of the animate and inanimate world. Thus, the idea of a "hawk" would come to be expressed by an imitative vocable based on the actual screech of that bird; the idea of a "rock" might be expressed by a combination of sounds intended in a crude way to reproduce the noise of a rock tumbling down hill or of a rock striking against the butt of a tree; and so on indefinitely. In course of time, as these imitative words by repeated use became more definitely fixed in phonetic form, they would tend to take on more and more the character of conventional sound-symbols, that is of words, properly speaking. The gradual phonetic modifications brought on in the further course of time would finally cause them to lose their original onomatopoetic form. It may be freely granted that many words, particularly certain nouns and verbs having reference to auditory phenomena, may have originated in this way; indeed, many languages, among them English, have at various times, up to and including the present, made use of such onomatopoetic words. It is difficult, however, to see how the great mass of a vocabulary, let alone a complex system of morphology and syntax, could have arisen from an onomatopoetic source alone. The very fact that onomatopoetic words of relatively recent origin are found here and there in sharp contrast to the overwhelmingly larger non-onomatopoetic portion of the language accentuates, if anything, the difficulty of a general explanation of linguistic origins by means of the onomatopoetic theory.

The exclamatory theory, as its name implies, would find the earliest form of speech in reflex cries of an emotional character. These also, like the hypothetical earliest words of imitative origin, would in course of time become conventionalized and sooner or later so modified in phonetic form as no longer to betray their exclamatory origin. The criticisms urged against the onomatopoetic theory apply with perhaps even greater force to the exclamatory one. It is, if anything, even more difficult here than in the former case to see how a small vocabulary founded on reflex cries could develop into such complex linguistic systems as we have actually to deal with. It is further significant that hardly anywhere, if at all, do the interjections play any but an inconsiderable, almost negligible, part in the lexical or grammatical machinery of language. An appeal to the languages of primitive peoples