Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/May 1911/Language and Logic




WHETHER language is coordinate with thought and merely a phase of it; whether it may be used with a very slight admixture of thought; or whether thought is possible without language, are problems that have engaged the attention of thinkers from the dawn of philosophy. That articulate speech is possible without thought, at least to a limited extent, is evident from the lingual activities of children. They talk almost incessantly during their waking hours either to themselves or to others. That thought precedes speech seems to have been the general belief until comparatively recent times. That this was the view of the writer of Genesis, who probably followed an older, perhaps a much older tradition, is evident from the words "and whatever the man (or Adam) called every living thing, that was the name thereof." The author of this statement clearly believed that the first man was fully endowed with the rational faculty and that speech was merely the utterance of a regulated mental activity. The close connection that was supposed to exist between words and thoughts and their potency in the realm of matter is also shown in the account of creation when the different objects were called into existence by the words of the Lord. Probably few persons of the many millions who have read the first chapter of Genesis have taken note of the naïveté of the record. No living being existed except God; yet he is conceived as uttering his purpose every time he performs a new act of creation. He can therefore have talked only to himself. So we have the oft repeated, "And God said." To what extent our common modes of speech are dominated by the spoken word is evident from such expressions as: "What does the book say?" "What does the law say?" "The newspaper says nothing about it." "He can't tell the difference between black and white," "The heavens are telling." "My conscience tells me." "Money talks" and many more. In one of the South African languages "to think" is expressed by "to talk in one's belly." In this primitive way of looking at the problem the utterance of a thought is taken to be of more importance than its genesis. The Logos doctrine that was so fully elaborated by the later Greek and the earlier Christian philosophers is clearly related to the same underlying conception. "In the beginning was the Logos" are the first words of John's Gospel, by which he means the divine reason. This idea is dwelt upon by Goethe in his Faust. When the hero begins to read he says: "In the beginning was the Word,

Here I am balked: who now can help afford?
The Word?—impossible so high to rate it;
And otherwise I must translate it
If by the spirit I am truly taught.

So he tries again.

In the beginning was the Thought.
Is it the Thought which works, creates, indeed?

Another attempt leads him to translate:

In the beginning was the Power.

Finally he declares:

The spirit aids me: now I see the light!
In the beginning was the Act, I write.

Many volumes have been written to explain the meaning of the mysterious word Logos, yet the underlying idea does not seem particularly difficult of comprehension. The abstruse doctrines that have been built upon it are another matter. The writer of the fourth gospel understood it to mean the divine reason that existed before anything visible or tangible was created, and through which "everything was made that was made." It was an effort on the part of the dualistic philosophy to account for the creation, or at least for the orderly arrangement of matter, by a power that dwelt outside of it. As matter could not have produced God, God must have produced matter. In the older Jewish philosophy, so far as their thorough-going belief in the constant interference of the Deity in everything can be called a philosophy, the problem never found a place. It also engaged the attention of the early Greek philosophers. We find the same notion underlying Plato's doctrine of ideas, which is not difficult to comprehend in its main outlines. He evidently means that the concept of things exists in the mind of the self-existent designer before the objects themselves are called into being, just as a man who undertakes to make any thing has a plan in mind before he enters upon his work; when it is completed the abstract idea is concretely realized. In like manner, a quality may be conceived abstractly before it is embodied in concrete form. In the Cratylus, Socrates asks whether "our legislator ought not also to know how to put the true natural name of everything into sounds and syllables, and to make and give all names with a view to the ideal name, if he is to be a namer in any true sense." The thought was anterior to the word which expressed it. The mind exists independent of the body; it therefore possesses innate ideas, ideas that had a previous and incorporeal being. The.idea of justice, for example, existed before it was embodied or externalized in just acts. The maker of a statue, or of a table, or of a house, had in mind its idea or mental image before he could give it a visible form. The visible is fleeting, the conceptual is abiding. This doctrine was developed in contradistinction to that of Heraclitus, who taught that all things are in a state of flux, and to that of Protagoras in ethics who maintained that man is the measure of all things. Plato doubtless carried his doctrine to an unwarranted extreme, but that there is much truth in it will hardly be doubted. Neither the mute man nor even the mute child is without ideas. The ability to mould language so that it will fit thought closely is the highest human achievement, but it is not essential to thought. The thought-processes of deaf-mutes are to some extent beyond our grasp, but not wholly out of the range of the constructive imagination. It is well to note, furthermore, that our word logic is the direct descendant of Logos. Whatever technical or philosophical definition we may give to logic, there is no doubt that speech and rational thought were closely associated in the minds of the Greeks as the history of the term proves. In their philosophical systems dialectic, discussion, question and answer were so intimately connected and interwoven that they were unable to think of them as separated. People who live in an age of books can only realize with a mental effort conditions when they were non-existent or rare. The poet-philosopher Euripides, who flourished about the middle of the fifth century b.c., is said to have been the first man to collect a library. In the nature of the case it must have consisted at most of only a score or two of manuscripts. Besides, he lived in Athens, the center of culture in the ancient world; elsewhere there were strictly speaking no books at all. Our dictionaries designate what they believe to be correct usage. At any rate, they do much to establish it by setting up a standard to which all educated persons endeavor to conform. In this way a language becomes stereotyped to such an extent that it changes very slowly. But dictionaries in the popular sense are of comparatively recent date. The Greeks always felt justified in using any word or phrase they found in Homer, just as we do with respect to biblical or Shakesperean phraseology. But these authors did not get their vocabulary from books. Later writers, notably Plato among the Greeks and Cicero among the Romans, endowed with the power of genius, may be said to have created a language; it was subsequently imitated with more or less success by all who strove after elegance of diction. But it is doubtful whether they formed a single word in the sense in which a modern scientist may be said to do so. Neither does a man who makes a machine make the materials that enter into it. The influence of these two writers is still vibrant in all philosophical and ethical discussion. The same may be said of Kant, another of the world's great thinkers and one of its original geniuses, since he was not much interested in ancient philosophy and preferred to grapple with the problems he set out to solve without the intervention of predecessors. While we can not tell how thought-processes are carried on without words, that they are so carried on does not admit of doubt. Facts of a strictly scientific character are furnished by the study of deaf-mutes. In my boyhood I was well acquainted with one of these so-called unfortunates. He was a blacksmith, having learned the trade from his father, and was associated with him in the business. When the father desired him to do anything he addressed him in his natural voice: "Dan, I want you to make a lot of horse-shoe nails"; or he might speak of something that had no connection with the shop as: "To-morrow we will plant corn." This young man had never had any systematic instruction and simply "picked up" his knowledge of English. In order to get some further light on the connexus of speech with thought I addressed a letter of inquiry to superintendent Jones of the Ohio Asylum for the Deaf. I quote from his reply.

I take it your questions refer to the congenitally and totally deaf children. Uneducated deaf-mutes would likely have an inarticulate noise to designate a horse or a cow. Many such children have no such noise at all, but designate them by marks or signs. Educated deaf children under the latest system of teaching speech would have a distinct articulate name for "horse" or "cow," and in fact for all objects, actions, etc.; not so clear however as the hearing person but yet clear enough to be understood. The deaf-mute carries on processes of reasoning just like the hearing person. Speech is not necessary to reasoning, neither is language. To those who are familiar with the uneducated deaf child, it is well known that he is in no wise apparently different from his hearing brother. If nature's touch has not dwarfed or deformed his mental powers, he is alert, active, quick to comprehend, quick to act and responsive to calls upon his attention. His body is vibrant with energy and yields readily to the activities of play and games. He answers the call of his parents to do chores about the house with the same interest and enthusiasm as the other children. He is familiar with the fields, orchards, trees which are near and around his home. He is acquainted with the call of the physician and the visit to the dentist and oculist, and knows the official function of one from the other. Every piece of household furniture he knows and its use. He knows the domestic from the wild animal; the one to pet and the other to flee from. In fact as far as ideas are concerned he has perhaps as clear a conception of the uses of everything around him as the other members of the household. Yet he knows not a name of one. The accepted philosophy up to the close of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth declared that the deaf child could not be instructed because he lacked language. This doctrine was upheld by some of the brightest minds that our most enlightened countries of the middle ages and thereafter furnished. It was however discovered that a great many bright deaf people had learned to express themselves in various ways, showing their minds as abounding in good ideas with an understanding of the nature and work of almost every thing with which they came in contact, although they were unable to speak, read or write a single word.

The facts above reported, as well as those that have come under my own observation, partake largely of the mysterious. Speaking for myself, I can not comprehend how it is possible to carry on a process of reasoning wholly without the use of words. Such vagaries as we find in "Alice in Wonderland" are not the product of reason, but rather of the constructive imagination as distinguished from the creative. They are much like the products of the mind in dreaming where it is not under the control of the intellect and the will. I find no difficulty in the comprehension of mathematical formulæ, or in grasping the idea of time and space, or of the persistence of force, or of the indestructibility of matter, apart from the terms in which they are stated; but these are propositions quite beyond the mental reach of the child. The theory that we use words as supports just as a lame man uses crutches until he is healed, breaks down before the fact that children do not need verbal crutches and are able to walk, figuratively speaking, without them. It is probable that every normal child born in a civilized community is endowed by nature with certain hereditary capacities which are then spontaneously developed up to a certain point under the influence of its environment. If the development is to be carried farther, the child's environment must become aggressive and begin a course of training. In fact, what we call culture or civilization is the result of an effort exerted continuously by a small part of the community under pressure of the state upon the whole. There is no doubt that men existed in South Africa as early as in northeast Africa; yet in the former region they never got far enough from the primitive stage to construct a government in the modern sense of the term. When in the course of time this small minority loses its efficiency, the disintegrating forces gain the upper hand and the state falls to pieces. This was the fate of all the pre-christian commonwealths and may be the ultimate fate of all that exists at the present time. The educational agencies of a culture-state are engaged in the endless task of rolling a stone up the hill of progress with more or less success. But as soon as the propelling force is relaxed it will probably begin to roll down. With each generation the work has to be done over again almost from the foundation; in other words, there is a constantly oncoming crop of young savages to be tamed and trained. The reason why the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian kingdoms, the Greek and Roman governments, decayed was that the intelligent minority was overslaughed and eventually destroyed by the atavistic agencies that had at no time ceased their activities. The state had foes within and foes without. It was able to withstand both for centuries, but not for ages. They had simply been kept in check. Heroes, as Carlyle would call them, endowed with varying degrees of efficiency built up states and their successors maintained them. The process was partly spontaneous, partly purposive. In like manner language is a spontaneous growth up to a certain point. It never passes beyond this point unless it becomes the object of mental effort. But even effort is powerless beyond a certain stage. No amount of education can make a great writer, or a great poet, or a great orator, notwithstanding Quintillian's dictum that the orator is made. Neither is any government sufficiently powerful to force a language upon a refractory people, as may be seen in the case of Prussian Poland. I quote further from Superintendent Jones:

The best way of describing the language of the partially educated deaf child is to say that it is mixed. The order of words has always been a bugbear to them. The various verb-forms have given them much labor and worry. They are liable to use one part of speech for another, using nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc., as verbs. A most striking illustration of that came to my notice a short time ago. One little boy was seen to strike another in the class. His teacher reproved him. His defense was "I whyed him and he wouldn't because me." A teacher had taken her class to see the seventeenth regiment leave for the Philippine Islands. She desired to use the occasion for journal writing and as a language drill. On their return the pupils were to write what they had seen. One boy wrote: "Many men were banding, but I did not see them horn." Evidently he was impressed with the great number of men in the band, but noticed that they were not playing when they passed him. A girl in describing sheep-shearing said: "The farmer washed and nicely the sheep."

The last quotation throws considerable light on one aspect of our vocabulary. It is generally held by philologists that the ultimate elements into which all languages can be resolved consist of two sets of radicles, verbs and nouns, all other parts of speech being derived from these. That our grammatical nomenclature is mainly artificial is not to be doubted. Persons without education are unable to see any difference in the functions of words; often, in fact, these are very indistinct. It is a dictum of Homeric Grammar that all propositions were originally adverbs. In English, as in most other languages, almost any part of speech can be used as a verb. I have heard such expressions as: "I don't want anybody to thee-and-thou me." "No if-ing, if you please." The French have a verb tutoyer, meaning, "to address another with thee and thou." "If" is probably the instrumental case of a word expressing doubt. Whether, neither and either are plainly comparatives. It is an utter waste of time to discuss the grammatical classification of words. In Greek and Latin the infinitive of the verb and the dative case of the noun have the same sign. The same statement is true in a modified form of the English, as we may see in such phrases as to me, to town, to go, to walk. "To walk makes me tired," hardly differs from "Walking makes me tired." In German any infinitive can be used as a noun, as also in Greek.

The imperfection of language allows the writer to reveal himself. It is because language displays but a part of this subjective world that there exists an art of writing. James Darmesteter in his "Life of Words" says:

If language were the expression of thought and not a more or less happy attempt at such expression, there would be no art in good phraseology; language would be a natural fact like breathing and the circulation of the blood, or like the association of ideas. But owing to that imperfection, we make an effort to get a grip of our thought in all its turnings, in its inmost folds, and to render it better, and hence arises the work of the writer.

This statement, although true to a limited extent, is applicable only to a small minority of mankind. The overwhelming majority is so much under the sway of tradition and possessed of so few new ideas that their vocabulary is entirely sufficient to afford them utterance. Much more to the point is the following:

Everywhere as the ultimate end of change we find two intellectual coexisting elements, the one principal, the other accessory. After a long while and by an unconscious path, the mind loses sight of the first, and only considers the second, which either drives out the first or restricts its value. Under cover of the same physiological fact—the word—the mind passes from one idea to another. Now this unconscious process carrying the dominant fact from the principal to the accessory detail is the very law of transformation which obtains in the moral world. The history of religions, of social institutions, of politics, jurisprudence and moral ideas, may be reduced to that slow process which causes the unconscious habits of mind to forget the primary fact, to see the secondary fact alone which is derived from it, and to make of it a primary fact which in its turn will disappear before its insensibly increasing successor.

While the origin of the ultimate constituents of words is rarely discoverable, we can often trace their descendants up to our own time. Typical terms are "derive," "rival," "derivation," "rivulet," and many more that on the surface do not appear to have the most remote connection with one another. The ancient Romans called a stream rivus. To draw water from a stream was called derivare, the act derivatio. Rivalis was one who lived on the banks of the same stream. The idea of competition or rivalry is probably latent in the term. The insight we get from other sources into primitive conditions makes it plain that every man's hand was against every other man's. We have by no means outgrown this stage. Thucydides testifies that in his time in some parts of Greece the peasants went to work in their fields with arms in their hands in order to be prepared to fight for what they considered their rights at all times.

The Roman soldiers received no pay for their services while in the field, but the state gave them a small allowance for the purchase of salt, an indispensable but costly article of diet, in many places hard to get. This allowance was called salarium, whence our familiar word salary. So likewise emolumentum was the money paid for grinding the grain. Lira means a "furrow," lirare to make a furrow, deliro to get out of the furrow, deliratio a getting out of the furrow; hence, folly, madness. The connection of these words with delirium and deliramentum is plain. They were evidently formed when the ancient Romans were an agricultural people. That the conclusion follows from the facts is as clear as the law of deduction can make it. A current German phrase to designate mental aberration is "to be out of one's hut." A word that exhibits this gradual change, or rather, extension of meaning almost under our eyes, as it were, is our familiar term "to ship." The verb came into use at a time when goods were generally transported by water; then it was extended to include conveyance by land likewise. Now it is employed to designate the activities of any common carrier whether by land or water. The original signification has been so completely lost that very few persons who use the word think of it, or notice the incongruity between the term and its primitive meaning.

It is almost certain that a good many words—and there is no way of discovering how large the number—are the spontaneous utterances of persons who can give no reason why one form was chosen rather than some other. To this class belong boom, skedaddle, hoodlum, hooligan, spondulicks and a host more. I recall that several words were current in our neighborhood in Pennsylvania to designate certain persons and acts and were usually referred to their authors. As they never got into print they may have since died out. It is easy to see how, in a primitive state of society, a word uttered by some chief would be taken up by his entourage and eventually become a part of the language of the clan; for although language is developed by society, it does not owe its origin to man's gregarious instinct. Every one knows that children often invent names for things that have no relation to or connection with words used by older persons. The theory that the hypothetical pithecanthropus was the progenitor of man is no longer held by any competent anthropologist. If we place the fossil remains discovered by Dubois in the island of Java in this class the argument is not strengthened, the chief objection being its comparatively late date. According to the recent and very careful examinations of Klaatsch and Hauser of all known fossil remains of man there were two primitive types which they designate as the Aurignac and the Neanderthal races. Of these the former stood considerably higher than the latter and unquestionably possessed the faculty of speech. With regard to the latter the evidence is not quite so convincing, but is sufficient to produce a high degree of probability, especially in view of the fact that this race, anatomically considered, bore a striking resemblance to the Australian aborigines; and these display a large measure of linguistic capacity.

Although words are often used eventually in a widely different sense from that which they originally bore, the progress from one meaning to another is not always gradual. The first man who used ship to designate transportation by land doubtless did so with a clear knowledge of its original signification; this was only forgotten in the course of time. The man, probably a sailor, who invented the article now considered indispensable by seamstresses named it a "thumb-bell" for evident reasons. The Germans call it a Fingerhood. Yet it is safe to say that very few English or Germans now think of the original meaning of the word, though it was clearly evident when it first came 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.