Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/March 1887/Popular Miscellany


The Origin of Languages.—Mr. Horatio Hale, in his address at the American Association, on "The Origin of Languages and the Antiquity of Speaking Man," reviewed the theories that have been offered on the former title of his subject, and declared them all unsatisfactory; for none of them can be made to account adequately and consistently for the number and diversities of the languages that prevail among men. And yet, he declares—and confirms his assertion with evidence that seems almost as clear as it is novel and interesting—that while some of the ablest reasoners have thus been groping vaguely and blindly, in wrong directions, for the solution of this problem, and while others have given it up in despair, "the simple and sufficient explanation has been lying close at hand, awaiting only, like many other discoveries in science, the observation of some facts of common occurrence to bring it to light." It is derived from two sets of observations, dating from nearly twenty years ago, which were published, one in 1868, and the other some ten years later, without attracting much attention. But they proved full of suggestion to the author, and led him to the conclusion, to which they seemed to point with irresistible force, "that the origin of linguistic stock is to be found in what may be termed the language-making instinct of very young children. From numerous cases, of which the history has been traced, it appears that, when two children, who are just beginning to speak, are left much together, they sometimes invent a complete language, sufficient for all purposes of mutual intercourse, and yet totally unintelligible to their parents and others about them." One of the observations was published by Miss E. H. Watson, of Boston, in 1878, and related to two children, twin-boys, in a suburb of Boston, who at the usual age, as she tells the story, "began to talk, but strange to say, not their 'mother-tongue.' They had a language of their own, and no pains could induce them to speak anything else. It was in vain that a little sister, five years older than they, tried to make them speak their native language as it would have been. They persistently refused to utter a syllable of English. Not even the usual first words, 'papa,' 'mamma,' 'father,' 'mother,' it is said, did they ever speak; and • • • they were never known during this interval to call their mother by that name. They had their own name for her, but never the English." While they had the usual affections for their parents, etc., they seemed to be otherwise completely taken up and absorbed with each other. "The children had not yet been to school; for, not being able to speak their 'own English,' it seemed impossible to send them from home. They thus passed the days, playing and talking together in their own speech, with all the liveliness and volubility of common children." They had regular words, and "even in that early stage, the language was complete and full; that is, it was all that was needed." Finally, there seeming to be no hope that they were going to learn "their own tongue," it was concluded, when they were six or seven years old, to send them to school. "For a week," as the lady teacher described, to whom they were sent, "they were perfectly mute; not a sound could be heard from them, but they sat with their eyes intently fixed upon the children, seeming to be watching their every motion—and, no doubt, listening to every sound. At the end of that time they were induced to utter some words, and gradually and naturally they began, for the first time, to learn their 'native English.' With this accomplishment, the other began, also naturally, to fade away, until the memory, with the use of it, passed from their minds." Miss Watson did not become acquainted with these facts till it was too late to preserve a record of the language itself; but in the other case, a part of the language was preserved by a careful and scientific observer. This case occurred in Albany, New York, and was described, by Dr. E. R. Hun, in the "Monthly Journal of Psychological Medicine" in 1868. A little girl four and a half years old, the sprightly and intelligent child of cultivated parents, had been observed, when two years old, to be backward in speaking, "and only used the words 'papa' and 'mamma.' After that she began to use words of her own invention, and though she understood readily what was said, never employed the words used by others. Gradually she enlarged her vocabulary. . . . She has a brother eighteen months younger than herself, who has learned her language, so that they talk freely together. He, however, seems to have adopted it only because he has more intercourse with her than with others; and in some instances he will use a proper word with his mother, and his sister's word with her. She, however, persists in using only her own words, though her parents, who are uneasy about her peculiarity of speech, make great efforts to induce her to use proper words." Dr. Hun followed up this general description of the language with analyses of some of its words and other features. These two recorded instances of child-languages led Mr. Hale to further inquiries, which, though brief and limited, showed him that cases of the sort are by no means uncommon, and he cites a few other instances. In the light of the facts thus set forth, it becomes evident, says Mr. Hale, "that, to insure the creation of a speech which shall be the parent of a new linguistic stock, all that is needed is that two or more children should be placed by themselves in a condition where they will be entirely, or in a large degree, free from the presence and influence of their elders. They must, of course, continue in this condition long enough to grow up, to form a household, and to have descendants to whom they can communicate their new speech. We have only to inquire under what circumstances an occurrence of this nature can be expected to take place."

A Correction.—We find the following in "Science" of January 21st:

Popular science.—It is often very popular indeed. Here is an article on the voices of animals by Detler von Geyern (whoever he is), from Ueber Land und Meer, translated for the Popular Science Monthly, January, 1887, written in the good old traditional vein, quoting what anybody has said on the subject in a wonder-mongering way, as if every thing said and written must be true. And Herr von Geyern himself says, "Fish can produce no sound in water, because air is lacking as a medium to propagate the waves of sound; and yet we incline to the belief that water itself may admit of forming some kind of sound-waves which the fish may be capable of exciting, and which will be experienced and comprehended by other fish;" and he adds, "As far as we are concerned, of course, fish will remain mute," etc.—as if between fifty and a hundred species of fish are not known to make sounds, many of which have been described and explained by naturalists; and as if water and every other elastic medium were not well known as propagators of sound, often better than air,—a fact familiar to boys, who hold their heads under water, while bathing, to hear the loud sound made by the striking-together of two stones under water in the hands of a companion at a little distance.
Grinnell, Io., Jan. 14.

We very much regret that an error so obvious as the above should have escaped attention in the revision of the article in question; but we do not pretend to be infallible. The paper was accepted on its general merits as a bit of pleasant reading; and coming to us from an outside source, it could not receive that critical attention to every detail which our own translator is compelled, by the nature of the case, to give to each item of his work.

Self-Purification of Water.—F. Emich has carried out a series of experiments on the behavior of water when allowed to stand exposed to the air, and also when shaken up with air. He has further experimented with sterilized water, and on the behavior of waters submitted to the action of ozone and hydrogen peroxide. The self-purification of water, or the destruction of its organic and inorganic impurities, may be the consequence, either of a purely chemical process (oxidation), or of a biological process. It appears that, on exposure to or agitation with air, the self-purification takes place only if the water has not been previously sterilized by boiling, and protected afterward against the entrance of germs. But if a sterilized water has been subsequently exposed to the air or mixed with ordinary water, it undergoes the same changes as waters that have not been sterilized; its oxidizable power and its ammonia decrease, while nitrous or nitric acid is formed. If, therefore, the development of organisms in the water is rendered impossible, self-purification is also impossible. Direct oxidation by atmospheric oxygen certainly does not take place; and, if ozone and hydrogen peroxide play a part, it is a subordinate one. The kind of living beings which effect the purification of waters will differ greatly according to circumstances. Such a change of species has actually been observed in one and the same water-course in the different stages of its pollution. Self-purification may take place, even when industrial refuse is allowed to flow into the water in addition to organic pollution. Dr. J. Soyka has made experiments on the power of the soil to absorb poisonous substances and destroy them; and has showed it to exist in the cases of strychnine and a considerable number of the organic alkaloids. His experiments have not been extended to the ptomaines. Nevertheless, we must beware of supposing that the treatment of foul waters can safely be left to Nature. Where the supply of polluting matter is continuous in time and space, natural purifying agencies fail. An important lesson to be learned from the researches of Emich and Soyka is, that the microbes, both of earth and water, are not all to be regarded as disease-generators. On the contrary, certain kinds of them are converting malignant matter into forms in which it is harmless, or even useful. Hence, it is at least possible that, in the application of disinfectants or "germicides," there is room for discretion.

School Life and Health.—Dr. Thomas Whiteside Hine, of Bradford, England, has made inquiries into the effect of school life upon the mortality of children, taking as the basis of his conclusions the reports of deaths among children of from five to fifteen years old, persons of that range of ages being regarded as probably those upon whom the effects of school life and work would be most marked. Comparing the returns from 1871 to 1880 with those from 1861 to 1870, he finds that while the mortality of children from all causes and from zymotic diseases—on which school influences are negative—has considerably diminished, their mortality from nervous diseases—the direction in which school influences would be most felt—has exceptionally remained stationary. To this he adds that the figures for 1881 and 1882 likewise show identical results in both instances. Further than this, he finds that there has been an improvement in the death-rate from nervous affections among children below five years, who are out of school, or have been in it for only a short time. Yet the whole of the mischief must not be attributed to the effect of schooling alone; but, as all the world lives faster than it did, the nervous system of children is likewise stimulated at the present day to an extent unknown a generation ago, and greatly to their disadvantage. The existence of such sources of mischief in the habits of the day supplies a strong reason why all school influences calculated to enhance the mischief should be removed.

Seasoning Timber.—Of the common sense of the question of seasoning timber, Mr. Thomas Blashill says, in an address on the general subject: "Wood must not be dried so quickly that it will be made unsound by cracks. It must not be dried so much that it will absorb fresh moisture when it comes into the atmosphere in which it has permanently to remain. It is not merely a question of time, but of judgment, the objects being to see that the timber is gradually reduced in scantling as it dries, and so treated in temperature and stacking that it neither splits nor gets out of shape. ... To sum up the whole class of questions connected with seasoning, we want timber that will not shrink after it is brought into use, that will not work or twist out of shape, will not decay through damp, and will not be destroyed by insects. Wood may also be indurated, that being the result of polishing and of varnishing to some extent. Upon the whole, it is desirable to encourage all means of treating wood so that it may possess some of the advantages that are commonly attributed to iron and stone. In cutting up timber for use, the question of its grain as developed by the annual rings is of very great importance. The shrinkage being greater in the newer layers of wood, it must be cut so that this irregular shrinkage may be of no disadvantage." In oak, in order to show the beauty of the grain, as well as to provide wainscot-boards that will be true in shape, it is necessary to get the boards as far as possible to radiate from the center to the outside of the log. If this is done, the medullary rays are cut through in many places, so as to show the silver grain. Ash-timber does not appear to have any sap-wood, all the wood being of the game color; and there are foreign woods with the same peculiarity. But the worm finds out the part that is sap-wood. In elm-timber the sap is reckoned as good as the heart. The timber does not improve by seasoning, but should be used green, and even kept wet until wanted for use. When used in flooring, the oldest elm boards have been known to shrink considerably, if they were merely taken up and planed.

Stanley Jevons on Mathematics and Meteorology.—Professor Jevons wrote to his sister, June 17, 1857: "I have never had the courage to open the many mathematical books I brought with me; but what do you think I would do if I had opportunity ever again? Attend college and De Morgan's mathematical lectures! The utility of mathematics is one of the most incomprehensible things about it; but though I was never bright or successful in his class, in spite of working hard, I feel the greatest benefit from it. Mathematics are like the calisthenic exercises of the mind, and make it vigorous and correct in form and action; but it depends, of course, on other circumstances how you apply and use your mind as well as your body. To go figuring about with your arms or legs is not the object of calisthenics. I think, therefore, you can not waste time or trouble spent over mathematics—the more the better, for the present at all events. ... I do not mean you to enter on the study of meteorology, for it is a most troublesome, extensive, and to most an uninteresting subject. I have, however, involved myself in it to an awful extent, and must go on with it, I suppose, while I am here [in Australia, engaged in the Mint at Sydney, and furnishing weekly reports to the 'Empire']. It is a most complicated subject, requiring a knowledge more or less of heat, light, chemistry, electricity, etc.; and is, therefore, a sort of difficult scientific exercise rather than a science itself."

A Legend of Monkeys and Stones.—Prince Carl, of Sweden and Norway, when starting out from Hyderabad, India, on a tiger-hunt in 1883, was struck by the scenery around the city, where the undulating ground is strewed with huge blocks of stone, "as if they had been tossed hither and thither by Nature in some capricious mood. Some of the blocks are piled upon each other in such a manner as to cause a lively imagination to fancy them giants and trolls barring the way. According to Indian folk-lore, these blocks were brought hither, some four thousand years ago, in this manner: The monkeys, which in the earliest of times in great numbers inhabited the lands beyond the Himalayas, seized on the remarkable idea of building a bridge between the mainland and Ceylon, and, headed by their leaders, they left their settlements in great numbers for the south, carrying with them from their mountains materials for their gigantic bridge. But the road became too long for them, and they were obliged, on reaching the spot where Hyderabad now stands, to throw their loads away, and here they lie to-day."

Jade Ornaments in America.—At a recent meeting of the American Antiquarian Society, Mr. Frederick W. Putnam exhibited a collection of celts, axes, and ornaments made of various stones known under the general term of jade. They were from various places; and among them were one with a cutting edge at each end, and twelve specimens from Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Of the twelve, ten were ornaments which had been made by cutting celts into halves, quarters, or thirds, and on each of which a part of the cutting edge of the celt remained. One of the ornaments had been compared by Professor Cooke with a cup of jadeite from China, and found to be like it in color, hardness, and specific gravity. The mineral jade, or jadeite—which varies in color from almost milk-white, with a slight shade of green, to a beautiful emerald-green—has not been found in place in America. So far as is known, all the varieties come from Asia. That it was rare, and regarded of great value among these Central American people, is shown by the fact that they wrought it into finished ornaments with such care, and that to make those ornaments they cut up eelts already of value as useful manufactured articles, instead of using rough stones. The question is then in place, whether it is not reasonable to believe that the stone was brought from Asia in the form of implements by the early migrants to this country; and that, as the supply was not kept up, and most likely even its source became unknown, the pieces among the people were cut and recut, and preserved as sacred relics of the past, to be, one after the other, finally buried with their owners?

Oscillations of Italian Soil.—M. Quesnault read a paper, at the recent meeting of the French Association, on his researches into the oscillations of the ground and the movements of the sea. He had already laid some of his observations on the subject before the previous meeting of the Association, and they had been received with favor. He ascribed the changes of level which the ground undergoes to two very different causes: those of one character, sudden and transitory, were traceable to volcanic phenomena; others were attributable to sublunary and atmospheric influences. Those more general movements, which manifest themselves slowly and regularly either in depression or elevation, could be explained only on the supposition of an astronomical revolution of long duration not yet ascertained, that modifies the center of gravity of our planet and the motion of the waters that cover it. Professor Issel, of the University of Genoa, presented some valuable facts on the modifications of level, both slow and rapid, which the soil of Italy has undergone through a long series of years. Some of these facts, the result of slow and secular movements, are well worthy of attention. Thus, the Venetian estuary and Istria have been subject during historical times to a sensible depression which amounts at Venice to three or four centimetres in a century. The same movement is very evidently manifested on the coasts of Dalmatia, Albania, and Greece, and probably extends across the Mediterranean to Barbary and Egypt. Malta is or has been in the track of the depression. In Sicily, less evidently, Professor Issel takes notice of an elevation, which may have amounted to between four and six metres, since 400 B.C. A similar movement seems to have taken place on the Calabrian littoral opposite to Sicily; but this fact of elevation being common to nearly the whole of the Mediterranean basin, we are led to connect it with some astronomical phenomenon rather than with a change in the level of the sea. Professor Issel also remarks that, while we observe signs of recent depression at certain points of the Italian coasts, other evidences are plainly exhibited of a previous elevation (quaternary), which attained, in Liguria, a height of twenty metres.

Barometric Wells.—Some wells in Meyrin, Canton of Geneva, Switzerland, have barometric properties. They have been closed at the top, except for a small airhole, and through this the wind blows in or out, according to the conditions of atmospheric pressure, sometimes with force enough to make a sound like that of a steam-whistle. If a hat or any light article be put over the hole when the barometer is falling, it will be blown up at once; but if the outer pressure is rising, the draught will bring leaves and other light objects toward the well. The people of the village understand the action of the wells, and make it their weather gauge. The origin of the phenomenon is easily explained. It is dependent upon the differences that may be produced at any time between the pressure of the air within the wells and that of the outer atmosphere.

Asafœtida.—The gum asafœtida is derived from an umbelliferous plant (Ferula asafœtida) which grows in Persia and Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia. Some information regarding the preparation of the gum is given in Dr. Jaworsky's account of his travels in those regions, which was published during 1885. The author was given a whole plant, with root and stem, by a native, and found its odor penetrating enough. The stem is three or four feet high; the leaves are incised like those of other umbelliferous plants. The root is impregnated with the gum, which exudes wherever a cut is made, appearing of a light amber-color, hard consistency, and somewhat crystalline look. The root bears numerous side-roots, and is covered with a brown, scaly skin, crossed with rings. The plant grows in stony ground, blooms in the spring-time, and is propagated from the seeds. The gum is not collected from the roots till the plant is fifteen years old. At that time the stalk is cut off after the plant has blossomed and the seed has ripened. In a day or two afterward there exudes a thick, creamy, whitish juice, that soon becomes brown and hard. In about twelve days the amber-colored gum is taken off. A new cut is then made in the plant, and another "crop" of gum collected; and the operation may be repeated, if the season is favorable, six or eight times in a single summer. But the returns from the later cuttings are inferior to those from the first. A single root may furnish from a half pound to a pound of the gum in a season. Rain spoils the gum, and if it happens to be wet during the time of collecting, the crop for that year will have to be written down a failure. The plant that has been once operated upon is left to itself for ten or twelve years, when it becomes available for another crop.

Brain-Volume and Intelligence.—Dr. Adolph Bloch has published in the "Revue d'Anthropologie" a memoir on the relations existing between intelligence and the volume of the brain in man. He concludes that there is no absolute relation, for very intelligent persons may have a small brain, and individuals of very mediocre capacity a large one. We may also find among some races which are not considered very intelligent a brain or cranial capacity of relatively considerable amplitude. The conditions, moreover, which make the brain to be larger or smaller are manifold. The volume of the encephalus may be related to the size, to the weight of the body, and to the muscular power; and the brain itself may become voluminous in the race and the individual according to the degree of intellectual activity. The most important factor in the degree of the intelligence of the individual is the quality of the cerebral cell; and that is determined by the greater or less impressionability or excitability of that structure regarded as the substratum of intelligence. This impressionability may be native or acquired. In the former case it is the mark of a superior intelligence; in the latter, it may be produced by such sustained labor as every man of genius is compelled to endure. It may also be developed by nervous disease. In a whole race, there are influences, not depending on the individual, but acting upon all that contribute to the perfection of intelligence and the selection of remarkable men. The kind and degree of intelligence are also variable according to races; but in no case can the volume of the brain alone constitute the principal factor of intelligence.

The Protection of Rare Species of Plants.—The Association for the Protection of Plants, at Geneva, Switzerland, Henry Correvon secretary, has issued a circular, seting forth its objects and inviting horticulturists and collectors to assist it in carrying them out. The circular alludes to the anxiety which naturalists feel lest some rare species may be extinguished through the operations of man; and others which but for the possession of unusual means of defense would be in danger of succumbing at once under an attack of more than ordinary vigor. Some species are approaching the term of their existence. Their end may be hastened by man, although he may perhaps not be able greatly to prolong their lives. Some plants are cultivated in modified forms as choice varieties, while the original stocks are neglected and allowed to die out; some, of foreign origin, live a kind of colonial existence in particular countries, and need care to preserve them there. Some are the objects of vigorous search by amateurs and horticulturists, who often pluck them recklessly without reflecting that the place where they are found may be the only spot in the country where they occur. The Dracocephalum Austriacum and Dictamus fraxinella have nearly disappeared from their native haunts. Plants like the Faradisia liliastrum, the Anemone sulfurca and the Ranunculus glacialls are taken from the Alps by ten thousand at a time; and a lot of four thousand edelweiss was recently shipped to America. If the plants are not taken up with proper care, eighty out of a hundred of them will probably perish, and fifty more will be trampled upon or mutilated in getting the hundred. The Swiss Association does not object to the collecting of the plants; it only wants them collected in such a manner that no danger shall be incurred of destroying or diminishing the species. It seeks to point out how this may be done, by selecting the season when removal will involve no danger to the life and vigor of the plant, and especially by insisting upon a more general adoption of cultivation and reproduction by seed. It has established a garden of acclimatation near Geneva, where the seeds of mountain-plants are raised to be sold at a moderate price, from which it has already obtained good results; for many persons who used to plunder the mountains now go to it for seeds. It does not confine its attention to the plants of its own country, but keeps a good lookout also for the well-being of rare species in other lands; and has agents in Mexico and Brazil to intercede with the authorities for the institution of measures to secure the preservation of the cactuses of the former country and the orchids of the latter.

Glacial Action in East Africa.—Mr. H. E. O'Neill, British consul at Mozambique, in a description of Eastern Africa, between the Zambesi and Rovuma Rivers, speaks of the frequency with which one encounters evidence of glacial action as a very interesting point to the traveler in that country. "I have met with it," he says, "upon the Namuli range, in the Inagu Hills, and again much nearer the coast, among a small block of hills called the Tugni, You see it everywhere in the smooth, dome-shaped tops and polished precipitous sides of the hills of the country, but the clearest evidence is afforded by the more striking spectacle of huge detached blocks lying across the summits of peaks—blocks many tons in weight, which could never have been carried there by any other known physical agency than that of ice."

Our Oldest Herbaria.—President William Carruthers, in the Biological Section of the British Association, spoke of the value of herbaria, or collections of dried specimens of plants, for supplying the most certain materials for the minute comparison at any future time of the then existing vegetation with that of our own day. We have now collections in England about two hundred years old that have been used for that purpose. Dr. Schweinfurth has obtained specimens, which were originally deposited in the form of offerings, from Egyptian tombs, four thousand years old, which are as satisfactory for the purposes of science as any collected at the present day, and which consequently supply means for the closest examination and comparison with their living representatives. The colors of the flowers are still present, even the most evanescent. The chlorophyl remains in the leaves, and the sugar in the pulp of the raisins. Dr. Schweinfurth has determined fifty'-nine species, some of which are represented by fruits, others by flowers and leaves, and the remainder by branches. Mr. Carruthers also referred to the deposits discovered at Cromer, and the remains which exist of pre-glacial flora, and came to the conclusion that the various physical conditions that necessarily affected those species in their diffusion over such large areas of the earth's surface in the course of, say, two hundred and fifty thousand years, should have led to the production of many varieties, but the uniform testimony of the remains of this pre-glacial flora, so far as the materials admit of a comparison, is that no appreciable change has taken place.

Coal-Mine Gas-Explosions and the Weather.—Mr. H. Harries remarks, in "Iron," that though a connection is believed to exist between fire-damp in coal-mines and atmospheric changes, its nature is not well understood. The rule is probably analogous to that which controls weather-changes, which are not indicated by definite points in the barometric scale, but by differences in pressure between neighboring places. He thinks, therefore, that it is desirable to ascertain whether the presence of gas in mines is, like the weather, distributed in areas, and whether within those areas some localities would have more gas than others, according to the inequalities in the distribution of pressure. Mr. Harries invites officers in coal-mines to supply him with observations of the pressure of gas in their mines, taken once a day, in the morning—at least for the four months ending with December 31st. The information thus supplied will be compared with that furnished by the weather-charts for the same hours.

Disappearance of an Island.—According to the official newspaper of the Faroe Islands, the rock-island of Munken, south of Sumbö, which was one of the most prominent landmarks of the group, has sunk. It had stood seventy feet above the level of the sea, but several months ago a large proportion of the rock had crumbled away, so that the tide washed over most of its surface. The shallow waters around the island formed dangerous currents, with eddies, or maelstroms, which were much dreaded by mariners. Pastor Lucas Jacobsön Debes, in 1673, gave a graphic description of the maelstrom, with the Sumbö Munken rock rising from amid it, and asserted that the compass lost its polarity there. Pastor Jürgen Landt, in 1800, also wrote about the maelstrom, and described the island as presenting, when seen from the water, the appearance of a ship under full sail; and from the land, the likeness of a monk, having a neck of red clay, and a head and body of a dark-gray stone, or coarse basalt. On the 28th of May, 1885, the Danish Minister of the Marine reported that Munken had fallen in, and so one of the most striking objects in the Faroe group, which had been sailed past and admired by thousands of sailors, and played an important part in geographical literature, had disappeared.

Laterite and its Odors.—A writer in "Das Ausland" states that in a certain district of West Africa the soil is largely composed of an argillaceous deposit called laterite, which is very porous and freely penetrable by water to its lowest depth. As the water penetrates it, the air contained in it is of course driven out. This air being charged with decomposing organic matters washed in by the rain, the emanations after a strong shower are decidedly malodorous. As violent storms are not unfrequent, they are regular and strong enough to attract the attention of the natives, and they give them a name which may be translated meadow-stink.