Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization/Chapter 4



We know very little about the origin of language, but the subject has so great a charm for the human mind that the want of evidence has not prevented the growth of theory after theory; and all sorts of men, with all sorts of qualifications, have solved the problem, each in his own fashion. We may read, for instance, Dante's treatise on the vulgar tongue, and wonder, not that, as he lived in mediæval times, his argument is but a mediæval argument, but that in the 'Paradiso,' seemingly on the strength of some quite futile piece of evidence, he should have made Adam enunciate a notion which even in this nineteenth century has hardly got fairly hold of the popular mind, namely, that there is no primitive language of man to be found existing on earth.

"La lingua ch' io parlai fu tatta spenta
Innanzi che all' ovra inconsumabile
Fosse la gente di Nembrotte attenta.
Chè nullo affetto mai raziocinabile
Per lo piacere uman che rinnovella,
Seguendo 'l cielo, sempre fu durabile.
Opera naturale è ch' uom favella:
Ma cosi, o cosi, natura lascia
Poi fare a voi secondo che v' abbella.
Pria ch' io scendessi all' infernale ambascia
EL s' appellava in terra il sommo Bene
Onde vien la letizia che mi fascia:
ELI si chiamò poi: e ciò conviene:
Chè l' uso de' mortali è come fronda
In ramo, che sen va, ed altra viene."

In Mr. Pollock's translation:—

"The Language, which I spoke, was quite worn out
Before unto the work impossible
The race of Nimrod had their labour turned;
For no production of the intellect
Which is renewed at pleasure of mankind,
Following the sky, was durable for aye.
It is a natural thing that man should speak;
But whether this or that way, nature leaves
To your election, as it pleases you.
Ere I descended on the infernal road,
Upon earth, EL was called the Highest Good,
From whom the enjoyment flows that me surrounds;
And was called ELI after; as was meet:
For mortal usages are like a leaf
Upon a bough, which goes, and others come."

Since Dante's time, how many men of genius have set the whole power of their minds against the problem, and to how little purpose. Steinthal's masterly summary of these speculations in his 'Origin of Language' is quite melancholy reading. It may indeed be brought forward as evidence to prove something that matters far more to us than the early history of language, that it is of as little use to be a good reasoner when there are no facts to reason upon, as it is to be a good bricklayer when there are no bricks to build with.

At the root of the problem of the origin of language lies the question, why certain words were originally used to represent certain ideas, or mental conditions, or whatever we may call them. The word may have been used for the idea because it had an evident fitness to be used rather than another word, or because some association of ideas, which we cannot now trace, may have led to its choice. That the selection of words to express ideas was ever purely arbitrary, that is to say, such that it would have been consistent with its principle to exchange any two words as we may exchange algebraic symbols, or to shake up a number of words in a bag and re-distribute them at random among the ideas they represented, is a supposition opposed to such knowledge as we have of the formation of language. And not in language only, but in the study of the whole range of art and belief among mankind, the principle is continually coming more and more clearly into view, that man has not only a definite reason, but very commonly an assignable one, for everything that he does and believes.

In the only departments of language of whose origin we have any certain notion, as for instance in the class of pure imitative words such as "cuckoo," "peewit,'" and the like, the connection between word and idea is not only real but evident. It is true that different imitative words may be used for the same sound, as for instance the tick of a clock is called also pick in Germany; but both these words have an evident resemblance to the unwriteable sound that a clock really makes. So the Tahitian word for the crowing of cocks, aaoa, might be brought over as a rival to "cock-a-doodle-do!" There is, moreover, a class of words of undetermined extent, which seem to have been either chosen in some measure with a view to the fitness of their sound to represent their sense, or actually modified by a reflection of sound into sense. Some such process seems to have made the distinction between to crash, to crush, to crunch, and to craunch, and to have differenced to flip, to flap, to flop, and to flump, out of a common root. Some of these words must be looked for in dictionaries of "provincialisms," but they are none the less English for that. In pure interjections, such as oh! ah! the connection between the actual pronunciation and the idea which is to be conveyed is perceptible enough, though it is hardly more possible to define it than it is to convey in writing their innumerable modulations of sound and sense.

But if there was a living connection between word and idea outside the range of these classes of words, it seems dead now. We might just as well use "inhabitable" in the French sense as in that of modern English. In fact Shakspeare and other writers do so, as where Norfolk says in 'Richard the Second,'

"Even to the frozen ridges of the Alps,
Or any other ground inhabitable."

It makes no practical difference to the world at large, that our word to "rise" belongs to the same root as Old German rîsan, to fall, French arriser, to let fall, whichever of the two meanings may have come first, nor that black, blanc, bleich, to bleach, to blacken, Anglo-Saxon blæc, blac=black, blâc=pale, white, come so nearly together in sound. It has been plausibly conjectured that the reversal of the meaning of to "rise" may have happened through a preposition being prefixed to change the sense, and dropping off again, leaving the word with its altered meaning,[1] while if black is related to German blaken, to burn, and has the sense of "charred, burnt to a coal," and blanc has that of shining,[2] a common origin may possibly he forthcoming for both sets among the family of words which includes blaze, fulgeo, flagro, φλέγω, φλόξ, Sanskrit bhrâǵ), and so forth. But explanations of this kind have no hearing on the practical use of such words by mankind at large, who take what is given them and ask no questions. Indeed, however much such a notion may vex the souls of etymologists, there is a great deal to he said for the view that much of the accuracy of our modern languages is due to their having so far "lost consciousness" of the derivation of their words, which thus become like counters or algebraic symbols, good to represent just what they are set down to mean. Archæology is a very interesting and instructive study, but when it comes to exact argument, it may be that the distinctness of our apprehension of what a word means, is not always increased by a misty recollection hovering about it in our minds, that it or its family once meant something else. For such purposes, what is required is not so much a knowledge of etymology, as accurate definition, and the practice of checking words by realizing the things and actions they are used to denote.

It is as bearing on the question of the relation between idea and word that the study of the gesture-language is of particular interest. We have in it a method of human utterance independent of speech, and carried on through a different medium, in which, as has been said, the connection between idea and sign has hardly ever been broken, or even lost sight of for a moment. The gesture-language is in fact a system of utterance to which the description of the primæval language in the Chinese myth may be applied; "Suy-jin first gave names to plants and animals, and these names were so expressive, that by the name of a thing it was known what it was."[3]

To speak first of the comparison of gesture-signs with words, it has been already observed that the gesture-language uses two different processes. It brings objects and actions bodily into the conversation, by pointing to them or looking at them, and it also suggests by imitation of actions, or by "pictures in the air," and these two processes may be used separately or combined. This division may be clumsy and in some cases inaccurate, but it is the best I have succeeded in making. I will now examine more closely the first division, in which objects are brought directly before the mind.

When Mr. Lemuel Gulliver visited the school of languages in Lagado, he was made acquainted with a scheme for improving language by abolishing all words whatsoever. Words being only names for things, people were to carry the things themselves about, instead of wasting their breath in talking about them. The learned adopted the scheme, and sages might be seen in the streets bending under their heavy sacks of materials for conversation, or unpacking their loads for a talk. This was found somewhat troublesome. "But for short conversations, a man may carry implements in his pockets, and under his arms, enough to supply him; and in his house, he cannot be at a loss. Therefore the room where the company meet who practise this art, is full of all things, ready at hand, requisite to furnish matter for this kind of artificial converse."

The traveller records that this plan did not come into general use, owing to the ignorant opposition of the women and the common people, who threatened to raise a rebellion if they were not allowed to speak with their tongues after the manner of their forefathers. But this system of talking by objects is in sober earnest an important part of the gesture-language, and in its early development among the deaf-and-dumb, perhaps the most important. Is there then anything in spoken language that can be compared with the gestures by which this process is performed? Quintilian incidentally answers the question. "As for the hands indeed, without which action would be maimed and feeble, one can hardly say how many movements they have, when they almost follow the whole stock of words; for the other members help the speaker, but they, I may almost say, themselves speak." . . . "Do they not in pointing out places and persons, fulfil the purpose of adverbs and pronouns? so that in so great a diversity of tongues among all people and nations this seems to me the common language of all mankind?"—"Manus vero, sine quibus trunca esset actio ac debilis, vix dici potest, quot motus habeant, quum pæne ipsam verborum copiam persequantur; nam caeterae partes loquentem adjuvant, hæ, prope est ut dicam, ipsæ loquuntur. . . . . Non in demonstrandis locis ac personis adverbiorum atque pronominum obtinent vicem? ut in tanta per omnes gentes nationesque linguæ diversitate hic mihi omnium hominum communis sermo videatur."[4]

Where a man stands is to him the centre of the universe, and he refers the position of any object to himself, as before or behind him, above or below him, and so on; or he makes his fore-finger issue, as it were, as a radius from this imaginary centre, and, pointing in any direction into space, says that the thing he points out is there. He defines the position of an object somewhat as it is done in Analytical Geometry, using either a radius vector, to which the demonstrative pronoun may partly be compared, or referring it to three axes, as, in front or behind, to the right or left, above or below. His body, however, not being a point, but a structure of considerable size, he often confuses his terms, as when he uses here for some spot only comparatively near him, instead of making it come towards the same imaginary centre whence there started. He can in thought shift his centre of coordinates and the position of his axes, and imagining himself in the place of another person, or even of an inanimate object, can describe the position of himself or anything else with respect to them. Movement and direction come before his mind as a real or imaginary going from one place to another, and such movement gives him the idea of time which the deaf-and-dumb man expresses by drawing a line with his finger along his arm from one point to another, and the speaker by a similar adaptation of prepositions or adverbs of place.

I do not wish to venture below the surface of this difficult subject, for an elaborate examination of which I would especially refer to the researches of Professor Pott, of Halle.[5] But it may be worth while to call attention to an apparent resemblance of two divisions of the root-words of our Aryan languages to the two great classes of gesture-signs. Professor Max Müller divides the Sanskrit root-forms into two classes, the predicative roots, such as to shine, to extend, and so forth; and the demonstrative roots, "a small class of independent radicals, not predicative in the usual sense of the word, but simply pointing, simply expressive of existence under certain more or less definite, local or temporal prescriptions."[6] If we take from among the examples given, here, there, this, that, thou, he, as types, we have a division of the elements of the Sanskrit language to which a division of the signs of the deaf-mute into predicative and demonstrative would at least roughly correspond. Many centuries ago the Indian grammarians made desperate efforts to bring pronouns and verbs, as the Germans say, "under one hat." They deduced the demonstrative ta from tan, to stretch, and the relative ya from yaǵ, to worship. Unity is pleasant to mankind, who are often ready to sacrifice things of more consequence than etymology for it. But perhaps, after all, the world may not have been constructed for the purpose of providing for the human mind just what it is pleased to ask for. Of course, any full comparison of speech and the gesture-language would have to go into the hard problem of the relation of prepositions to adverbs and pronouns on the one hand, and to verb-roots on the other. As to this matter, I can only say that the educated deaf-mute puts his right forefinger into the palm of his left hand to say "in," takes it out again to say "out," puts his right hand above or below his left to say "above" or "below," etc., which are imitative signs, very likely learnt from the teacher. But the natural gestures with which he shows that anything is "above me," "behind me," and so on, are of a more direct character, and are rather demonstrative than predicative.

The class of imitative and suggestive signs in the gesture-language corresponds in some measure with the Chinese words which are neither verbs, substantives, adjectives, nor adverbs, but answer the purpose of all of them, as, for instance, ta, meaning great, greatness, to make great, to be great, greatly;[7] or they may be compared with what Sanskrit roots would be if they were used as they stand in the dictionaries, without any inflections. In the gesture-language there seems no distinction between the adjective, the adverb which belongs to it, the substantive, and the verb. To say, for instance, "The pear is green," the deaf-and-dumb child first eats an imaginary pear, and then using the back of the flat left hand as a ground, he makes the fingers of the right hand grow up on the edge of it like blades of grass. We might translate the signs as "pear-grass;" but they have quite as good a right to be classed as verbs, for they are signs of eating in a peculiar way, and growing.

It is not necessary to have recourse to Asiatic languages for analogies of this kind with the gesture-language. The substantive-adjective is common enough in English, and indeed in most other languages. In such compounds as chestnut-horse, spoon-bill, iron-stone, feather-grass, we have the substantive put to express a quality which distinguishes it. Our own language, which has gone so far towards assimilating itself to the Chinese by dropping inflection and making syntax do its work, has developed to a great extent a concretism which is like that of the Chinese, who makes one word do duty for "stick" and "to beat with a stick," or of the deaf-mute, whose sign for "butter" or the act of "buttering" is the same, the imitation of spreading with his finger on the palm of his hand. To butter bread, to cudgel a man, to oil machinery, to pepper a dish, and scores of such expressions, involve action and instrument in one word, and that word a substantive treated as the root or crude form of a verb. Such expressions are concretisms, picture-words, gesture-words, as much as the deaf-and-dumb man's one sign for "butter" and "buttering." To separate these words, and to say that there is one butter, a noun, and another butter, a verb, may be convenient for the dictionary; but to pretend that there is a real distinction between the words is a mere grammatical juggle, like saying that the noun man has a nominative case man, and an objective case which is also man, and much of the rest of the curious system of putting new wine into old bottles, and stretching the organism of a live language upon a dead framework, which is commonly taught as English Grammar.

The reference of substantives to a verb-root in the Aryan languages and elsewhere is thoroughly in harmony with the spirit of the gesture-language. Thus, the horse is the neigher; stone is what stands, is stable; water is that which waves, undulates; the mouse is the stealer; an age is what goes on; the oar is what makes to go; the serpent is the creeper; and so on; that is to say, the etymologies of these words lead us back to the actions of neighing, standing, waving, stealing, etc. Now, the deaf-and-dumb Kruse tells us that even to the mute who has no means of communication but signs, "the bird is what flies, the fish what swims, the plant what sprouts out of the earth."[8] It may be said that action, and form resulting from action, form the staple of that part of the gesture-language which occupies itself with suggesting to the mind that which it does not bring bodily before it. But, though there is so much similarity of principle in the formation of gesture-signs and words, there is no general correspondence in the particular idea chosen to name an object by in the two kinds of utterance.

In the second place, with regard to the syntax of the gesture-language, it is hardly possible to compare it with that of in- flected languages such as Latin, which can alter the form of words to express their relation to one another. With Chinese and some other languages of Eastern Asia, and with English and French, etc., where they have thrown off inflection, it may be roughly compared, though all these languages use at least grammatical particles which have nothing corresponding to them in the gesture-language. Now, it is remarkable to what an extent Chinese and English agree in doing just what the gesture-language does not. Both put the attribute before the subject, pe ma, "white horse;" shing jin, "holy man;" both put the actor and action before the object, ngo ta ni, "I strike thee," tien sang iu, "heaven destroys me." The practice of the gesture-language is opposed both to Chinese and English construction, as these examples show. "It seems," says Steinthal, "that the speech of the Chinese hastens toward the conclusion, and brings the end prominently forward. In the described position of the three relations of speech the more important member stands last."[9] A more absolute contradiction of the leading principle of the gesture-syntax could hardly have been formulated in words.

The theory that the gesture-language was the original language of man, and that speech came afterwards, has been already mentioned. We have no foundation to build such a theory upon, but there are several questions bearing upon the matter which are well worth examining. Before doing so, however, it will be well to look a little more closely into the claim of the gesture- language to be considered as a means of utterance independent of speech.

In the first place, an absolute separation between the two things is not to be found within the range of our experience. Though the deaf-mute may not speak himself, yet the most of what he knows, he only knows by means of speech, for he learns from the gestures of his parents and companions what they learnt through words. We speak conventionally of the uneducated deaf-and-dumb, but every deaf-and-dumb child is educated more or less by living among those who speak, and this education begins in the cradle. And on the other hand, no child attains to speech independently of the gesture-language, for it is in great measure by means of such gestures as pointing, nodding, and so forth, that language is first taught.

In old times, when the mental capacity of the deaf-and-dumb was little known, it was thought by the Greeks that they were incapable of education, since hearing, the sense of instruction, was wanting to them. Quite consistent with this notion is the confusion which runs through language between mental stupidity, and deafness, dumbness, and even blindness. Surdus means "deaf," and also "stupid;" a hollow nut is a deaf-nut, taube Nuss; κωφός means dumb, deaf, stupid. "Speechless" (infans, νήπιος being a natural term for a child, in a similar way "dumb" (tump, tumb) becomes in old German a common word for young, giddy, thoughtless, till at last "dumb and wise" come to mean nothing more than "lads and grown men," as where in the tournament many a shock is heard of wise and of dumb, and the breaking of the lances sounds up towards the sky,

"Von wîsen und von tumben man hôrte manegen stôz,

Dâ der schefte brechen gein der hoehe dôz."[10]

Even Kant is to be found committing himself to the opinion, so amazing, one would think, to anybody who has ever been inside a deaf-and-dumb Institution, that a born mute can never attain to more than something analogous to reason (einem Analogon der Vernunft).[11]

The evidence of teachers of the deaf-and-dumb goes to prove, that in their untaught state, or at least with only such small teaching as they get from the signs of their relatives and friends, their thought is very limited, but still it is human thought, while when they have been regularly instructed and taught to read and write, their minds may be developed up to about the average cultivation of those who have had the power of speech from childhood. Even in a low state of education, the deaf-mute seems to conceive general ideas, for when he invents a sign for anything, he applies it to all other things of the same class, and he can also form abstract ideas in a certain way, or at least he knows that there is a quality in which snow and milk agree, and he can go on adding other white things, such as the moon and whitewash, to his list. He can form a proposition, for he can make us understand, and we can make him understand, that "this man is old, that man is young." Nor does he seem incapable of reasoning in something like a syllogism, even when he has no means of communication but the gesture-language, and certainly as soon as he has learnt to read that "All men are mortal, John is a man, therefore John is mortal," he will show by every means of illustration in his power, that he fully comprehends the argument.

There is detailed evidence on record as to the state of mind of the deaf and dumb who have had no education but what comes with mere living among speaking people. Thus Massieu, the Abbé Sicard's celebrated pupil, gave an account of what he could remember of his untaught state. He loved his father and mother much, and made himself understood by them in signs. There were six deaf-and-dumb children in the family, three boys and three girls. "I stayed," he said, "at my home till I was thirteen years and nine months old, and never had any instruction; I had darkness for the letters (j'avois ténèbres pour les lettres). I expressed my ideas by manual signs or gesture. The signs which I used then, to express my ideas to my relatives and my brothers and sisters, were very different from those of the educated deaf-and-dumb. Strangers never understood us when we expressed our ideas to them by signs, but the neighbours understood us." He noticed oxen, horses, vegetables, houses, and so forth, and remembered them when he had seen them. He wanted to learn to read and write, and to go to school with the other boys and girls, but was not allowed to; so he went to the school and asked by signs to be taught to read and write, but the master refused harshly, and turned him out of the school. His father made him kneel at prayers with the others, and he imitated the joining of their hands and the movement of their lips, but thought (as other deaf-and-dumb children have done) that they were worshipping the sky. "I knew the numbers," he said, "before my instruction, my fingers had taught me them. I did not know the figures; I counted on my fingers, and when the number was over ten, I made notches in a piece of wood." When he was asked what he used to think people were doing when they looked at one another and moved their lips, he replied that he thought they were expressing ideas, and in answer to the inquiry why he thought so, he said he remembered people speaking about him to his father, and than his father threatened to have him punished.[12]

Kruse tells a very curious story of an untaught deaf-and-dumb boy. He was found by the police wandering about Prague, in 1805. He could not make himself understood, and they could find out nothing about him, so they sent him to the deaf-and-dumb Institution, where he was taught. When he had been sufficiently educated to enable him to give accurate answers to questions put to him, he gave an account of what he remembered of his life previously to his coming to the Institution. His father, he said, had a mill, and of this mill, the furniture of the house, and the country round it, he gave a precise description. He gave a circumstantial account of his life there, how his mother and sister died, his father married again, his step- mother ill-treated him, and he ran away. He did not know his own name, nor what the mill was called, but he knew it lay away from Prague towards the morning. On inquiry being made, the boy's statement was confirmed. The police found his home, gave him his name, and secured his inheritance for him.[13]

Even Laura Bridgman, who was blind as well as deaf-and-dumb, expressed her feelings by the signs we all use, though she had never seen them made, and could not tell that the bystanders could observe them. She would stamp with delight, and shudder at the idea of a cold bath. When astonished, she would protrude her lips, and hold up her hands with fingers wide spread out, and she might be seen "biting her lips with an upward contraction of the facial muscles when roguishly listening at the account of some ludicrous mishap, precisely as lively persons among us would do." While speaking of a person, she would point to the spot where he had been sitting when she last conversed with him, and where she still believed him to be.[14]

Though, however, the deaf-and-dumb prove clearly to us that a man may have human thought without being able to speak, they by no means prove that he can think without any means of physical expression. Their evidence tends the other way. We may read with profit an eloquent passage on this subject by a German professor, as, transcendental as it is, it is put in such clear terms, that we may almost think we understand it.

"Herein lies the necessity of utterance, the representation of thought. Thought is not even present to the thinker, till he has set it forth out of himself. Man, as an individual endowed with sense and with mind, first attains to thought, and at the same time to the comprehension of himself, in setting forth out of himself the contents of his mind, and in this his free production, he comes to the knowledge of himself, his thinking 'I.' He comes first to himself in uttering himself."[15]

This view is not contradicted, but to some extent supported, by what we know of the earliest dawnings of thought among the deaf-and-dumb. But we must take the word "utterance" in its larger sense to include not speech alone, as Heyse seems to do, but all ways by which man can express his thoughts. Man is essentially, what the derivation of his name among our Aryan race imports, not "the speaker," but he who thinks, he who means.

The deaf-and-dumb Kruse's opinion as to the development of thought among his own class, by and together with gesture-signs, has been already quoted; how the qualities which make a distinction to him between one thing and another, become, when he imitates objects and actions in the air with hands, fingers, and gestures, suitable signs, which serve him as a means of fixing ideas in his mind, and recalling them to his memory, and that thus he makes himself signs, which, scanty and imperfect as they may be, yet serve to open a way for thought, and these thoughts and signs develope themselves further and further. Very similar is Professor Steinthal's opinion, which, to some extent, agrees with the theory of the manifestation of the Ego adopted by Heyse, but gives a larger definition to "utterance." Man, "even when he has no perception of sound, can yet manifest to himself through any other sense that which is contained in his sensible certainty, can set forth an object out of himself, and separate himself, his Ego, as something permanent and universal, from that which is transitory and particular, even if he does not at once comprehend this universal something in the form of the Ego." The same writer, after asserting that mind and speech are developed together; that the mind does not originally make speech, but that it is speech; that language shapes itself in mind, or mind shapes itself in language, goes on to qualify these assertions. "We recognise the power of language not so much in the sound, as in the inward process. But it is as certain that this goes forward in the deaf-mute, as it is that he is a human being, flesh of human flesh, and spirit of infinite spirit. But it goes forward in him in a somewhat different form," etc.[16]

Whether the human mind is capable of exercising at all any of its peculiarly human functions without any means of utterance, or not, we shall all admit that it could have gone but very little way, could only just have passed the line which divides beast from man. All experience concurs to prove, that the mental powers and the stock of ideas of those human beings who have but imperfect means of utterance, are imperfect and scanty in proportion to those means. The manner in which we can see such persons accompanying their thought with the utterance which is most convenient to them, shows to how great a degree thought is "talking to oneself." The deaf-and-dumb gesticulate as they think. Laura Bridgman's fingers worked, making the initial movements for letters of the finger-alphabet, not only during her waking thought, but even in her dreams.

Spoken language, though by no means the exclusive medium of thought and expression, is undoubtedly the best. In default of this, it is only by means of a substitute for it, namely, alphabetic writing, that we succeed in giving more than a very low development to the minds of the deaf-and-dumb; and they of course connect the idea directly with the written word, not as we do, the writing with the sound, and then the sound with the idea. When they think in writing, as they often do, the image of the written words which correspond to their ideas, must rise up before them in the " mind's eye." The Germans, who are strong advocates of the system of teaching the deaf-and-dumb to articulate, believe that the power of connecting ideas with actual or imaginary movements of the organs of speech, gives an enormous increase of mental power, which I am, however, inclined to think is a good deal exaggerated. Heinicke gives a description of the results of his teaching his pupils to articulate, their delight at being able to communicate their ideas in this new way, and the increased intelligence which appeared in the expression of their faces. As soon, he says, as the born-mute is sufficiently taught to enable him to increase his stock of ideas by the power of naming them, he begins to talk aloud in his sleep, and when this happens, it shows that the power of thinking in words has taken root.[17] Heinicke was, however, an enthusiast for his system of teaching, and in practice it is I believe generally found that articulation does not displace gesture-signs and written language as a medium of thought; and certainly, the deaf-and-dumb who can speak, very much prefer the sign language for practical use among themselves. Of course, no one doubts that it is desirable that the children should be taught to speak, and to read from the lips, especially when the deafness is not total: but the question whether it is worth while to devote to this object a large proportion of the few years' instruction which is given to the poorer pupils, is not yet a settled one among instructors. It is asserted in Germany, that a want of the natural use of the lungs promotes the tendency to consumption, which is very common among the deaf-and-dumb, and that teaching them to articulate tends to counteract this. This sounds probable enough, though I do not find, even in Schmalz, any sufficient evidence to prove it, but at any rate, there is no doubt that the deaf-and-dumb should be encouraged to use their lungs in shouting at their play, as they naturally do.

It is quite clear that the loss of the powers of hearing and speech is a loss to the mind which no substitute can fully replace. Children who have learnt to speak and afterwards become deaf, lose the power of thinking in inward language, and become to all intents and purposes the same as those who could never hear at all, unless great pains are taken to keep up and increase their knowledge by other means. "And thus even those who become hard of hearing at an age when they can already speak a little, by little and little lose all that they have learnt. Their voices lose all cheerfulness and euphony, every day wipes a word out of the memory, and with it the idea of which it was the sign."[18]

Spoken words appear to be, in the minds of the deaf-mutes who have been artificially taught to speak, merely combined movements of the throat and other vocal organs, and the initial movement made by them in calling words to mind has been compared to a tickling in the throat. People wanting a sense often imagine to themselves a resemblance between it and one of the senses which they possess. The old saying of the blind man, that he thought scarlet was like the sound of the trumpet, is somewhat like a remark made by Kruse, that though he is "stock-deaf" he has a bodily feeling of music, and different instruments have different effects upon him. Musical tones seem to his perception to have much analogy with colours. The sound of the trumpet is yellow to him, that of the drum red; while the music of the organ is green, and of the bass-viol blue, and so on. Such comparisons are, indeed, not confined to those whose senses are incomplete. Language shows clearly that men in general have a strong feeling of such analogies among the impressions of the different senses. Expressions such as "schreiend roth," and the use of "loud," as applied to colours and patterns, are superficial examples of analogies which have their roots very deep in the human mind.

It is a very notable fact bearing upon the problem of the Origin of Language, that even born-mutes, who never heard a word spoken, do of their own accord and without any teaching make vocal sounds more or less articulate, to which they attach a definite meaning, and which, when once made, they go on using afterwards in the same unvarying sense. Though these sounds are often capable of being written down more or less accurately with our ordinary alphabets, their effect on those who make them can, of course, have nothing to do with the sense of hearing, but must consist only in particular ways of breathing, combined with particular positions of the vocal organs.

Teuscher, a deaf-mute, whose mind was developed by education to a remarkable degree, has recorded that, in his uneducated state, he had already discovered the sounds which were inwardly blended with his sensations (innig verschmolzen mit meiner Empfindungsweise). So, as a child, he had affixed a special sound to persons he loved, his parents, brothers and sisters, to animals, and things for which he had no sign (as water); and called any person he wished with one unaltered voice.[19] Heinicke gives some remarkable evidence, which we may, I think, take as given in entire good faith, though the reservation should be made, that through his strong partiality for articulation as a means of educating the deaf-and-dumb, he may have given a definiteness to these sounds in writing them down which they did not really possess. The following are some of his remarks:—"All mutes discover words for themselves for different things. Among over fifty whom I have partly instructed or been acquainted with, there was not one who had not uttered at least a few spoken names, which he had discovered himself, and some were very clear and well defined. I had under my instruction a born deaf-mute, nineteen years old, who had previously invented many writeable words for things, some three, four, and six syllables long." For instance, he called to eat "mumm," to drink "schipp," a child "tutten," a dog "beyer," money "patten." He had a neighbour who was a grocer, and him he called "patt" [a name, no doubt, connected with his name for money, for buying and selling is indicated by the deaf-and-dumb by the action of counting out coin]. The grocer's son he called by a simple combination "pattutten." For the two first numerals, he had words—1, "gä;" 2, "schuppatter." In his language, "riecke" meant "I will not;" and when they wanted to force him to do anything, he would cry "naffet riecke schito." An exclamation which he used was "heschbefa," in the sense of God forbid.[20]

Some of these sounds, as "mumm" and "schipp," for eating and drinking, and perhaps "beyer," for the dog, are mere vocalizations of the movements of the mouth, which the deaf-and-dumb make in imitating the actions of eating, drinking, and barking, in their gesture-language. Besides, it is a common thing for even the untaught deaf-and-dumb to speak and understand a few words of the language spoken by their associates. Though they cannot hear them, they imitate the motions of the lips and teeth of those who speak, and thus make a tolerable imitation of words containing labial and dental letters, though the gutturals, being made quite out of sight, can only be imparted to them by proper teaching, and then only with difficulty and imperfectly. It is scarcely necessary to say that when the deaf-and-dumb are taught to speak in articulate language, this is done merely by developing and systematizing the lip-imitation which is natural to them. As instances of the power which deaf- mutes have of learning words by sight without any regular teaching, may be given the cases mentioned by Schmalz of children born stone-deaf, who learnt in this way to say "papa," "mamma," "muhme" (cousin), "puppe" (doll), "bitte" (please).[21] All the sounds in these words are such as deaf persons may imitate by sight.

An extraordinary story of this kind is told by Eschwege, who was a scientific traveller of high standing, and upon whom the responsibility for the truth of the narrative must rest. The scene is laid in a place in the interior of Brazil, where he rested on a journey, and his account is as follows:— "I was occupied the rest of the day in quail-hunting, and in making philosophical observations on a deaf-and-dumb idiot negro boy about thirteen years old, with water on the brain, and upon whom nothing made any impression except the crowing of a cock, whose voice he could imitate to the life. Just as people teach the deaf-and-dumb to speak, so this beast-man, by observing and imitating the movements of the neck and tongue of the cock, had in time learnt to crow, and this seemed the only pleasure he had beyond the satisfaction of his natural wants. He lay most part of the day stark naked on the ground, and crowed as if for a wager against the cock."[22]

Returning to the list of words given by Heinicke, it does not seem easy to set down any of them as lip-imitations, unless it be "heschbefa" "Gott bewahre!" in which befa may be an imitation of bewahre. We have, then, left several articulate sounds, such as "patten," money, "tutten," child, etc., which seem to have been used as real words, but of which it seems impossible to say why the dumb lad selected them to bear the meanings which he gave them.

The vocal sounds used by Laura Bridgman are of great interest from the fact that, being blind as well as deaf-and-dumb, she could not even have imitated words by seeing them made. Yet she would utter sounds, as "ho-o-ph-ph" for wonder, and a sort of chuckling or grunting as an expression of satisfaction. When she did not like to be touched, she would say f! Her teachers used to restrain her from making inarticulate sounds, but she felt a great desire to make them, and would sometimes shut herself up and "indulge herself in a surfeit of sounds." But this vocal faculty of hers was chiefly exercised in giving what may be called name-sounds to persons whom she knew, and which she would make when the persons to whom she had given them came near her, or when she wanted to find them, or even when she was thinking of them. She had made as many as fifty or sixty of these name-sounds, some of which have been written down, as foo, too, pa, fif, pig, ts, but many of them were not capable of being written down even approximately.

Even if Laura's vocal sounds are not classed as real words, a distinction between the articulate sounds used by the deaf-and- dumb for child, water, eating and drinking, etc., and the words of ordinary language, could not easily be made, whether the deaf-mutes invented these sounds or imitated them from the lips of others. To go upon the broadest ground, the mere fact that teachers can take children who have no means of uttering their thoughts but the gesture-language, and teach them to articulate words, to recognise them by sight when uttered by others, to write them, and to understand them as equivalents for their own gestures, is sufficient to bridge over the gulf which lies between the gesture-language and, at least, a rudimentary form of word-language. These two kinds of utterance are capable of being translated with more or less exactness into one another; and it seems more likely than not that there may be a similarity between the process by which the human mind first uttered itself in speech, and that by which the same mind still utters itself in gestures.

To turn to another subject. We have no evidence of man ever having lived in society without the use of spoken language; but there are some myths of such races, and, moreover, statements have been made by modern writers of eminence as to an intermediate state between gesture-language and word-language, which deserve careful examination.

In Ethiopia, across the desert, says the geographer Pomponius Mela, there dwell dumb people, and such as use gestures instead of language; others, whose tongues give no sound; others, who have no tongues (muti populi, et quibus pro eloquio nutus est; alii sine sono linguæ; alii sine linguis, etc.).[23] Pliny gives much the same account. Some of these Ethiopian tribes are said to have no noses, some no upper lips, some no tongues. Some have for their language nods and gestures (quibusdam pro sermone nutus motusque membrorum est).[24]

To go thoroughly into the discussion of these stories would require an investigation of the whole subject of the legends of monstrous tribes; but an off-hand rationalizing explanation may be sufficient here. The frequent use of the gesture-language by savage tribes in intercourse with strangers may combine with the very common opinion of uneducated men that the talk of foreigners is not real speech at all, but a kind of inarticulate chirping, barking, or grunting. Moreover, from using the words "speechless," "tongueless," with the sense of "foreigner," "barbarian," and talking of tribes who have no tongue (no lingo, as our sailors would say), to the point-blank statement that there are races of men without speech and without tongues, is a transition quite in the spirit of mythology.

In modern times we hear little of dumb races, at least from authors worthy of credit; but we find a number of accounts of people occupying as it were a half-way house between the mythic dumb nations and ourselves, and having a speech so imperfect that even if talking of ordinary matters they have to eke it out by gestures. To begin in the last century, Lord Monboddo says that a certain Dr. Peter Greenhill told him that there was a nation east of Cape Palm as in Africa, who could not understand one another in the dark, and had to supply the wants of their language by gestures.[25] Had Lord Monboddo been the only or the principal authority for stories of this class, we might have left his half-languaged men to keep company with his human apes and tailed men in the regions of mythology; hut in this matter it will be seen that, right or wrong, he is in very good company.

Describing the Puris and Coroados of Brazil, Spix and Martins, having remarked that different tribes converse in signs, and explained the difficulty they found in making them understand by signs the objects or ideas for which they wanted the native names, go on to say how imperfect and devoid of inflexion or construction these languages are. Signs with hand or mouth, they say, are required to make them intelligible. To say, "I will go into the wood," the Indian uses the words "wood-go," and points his mouth like a snout in the direction he means.[26] Madame Pfeiffer, too, visited the Puris, and says that for "to-day," "to-morrow," and "yesterday," they have only the word "day;" the rest they express by signs. For "to-day" they say "day," and touch themselves on the head, or point straight upward; for "to-morrow" they say also "day," pointing forward with the finger; and for "yesterday," again "day," pointing behind them.[27]

Mr. Mercer, describing the low condition of some of the Veddah tribes of Ceylon, stated that not only is their dialect incomprehensible to a Singhalese, but that even their communications with one another are made by signs, grimaces, and guttural sounds, which bear little or no resemblance to distinct words or systematized language.[28]

Dr. Milligan, speaking of the language of Tasmania, and the rapid variation of its dialects, says, "The habit of gesticulation, and the use of signs to eke out the meaning of monosyllabic expressions, and to give force, precision, and character to vocal sounds, exerted a further modifying effect, producing, as it did, carelessness and laxity of articulation, and in the application and pronunciation of words." "To defects in orthoepy the aborigines added short-comings in syntax, for they observed no settled order or arrangement of words in the construction of their sentences, but conveyed in a supplementary fashion by tone, manner, and gesture those modifications of meaning, which we express by mood, tense, number, etc."[29]

We find a similar remark made about a tribe of North American Indians, by Captain Burton. "Those natives who, like the Arapahos, possess a very scanty vocabulary, pronounced in a quasi-unintelligible way, can hardly converse with one another in the dark; to make a stranger understand them they must always repair to the camp-fire for 'pow-wow.'"[30]

In South Africa, the same is said of the Bushmen:—"So imperfect, indeed, is the language of the Bosjesmans, that even those of the same horde often find a difficulty in understanding each other without the use of gesture; and at night, when a party of Bosjesmans are smoking, dancing, and talking, they are obliged to keep up a fire so as to be able by its light to see the explanatory gestures of their companions."[31]

The array of evidence in favour of the existence of tribes whose language is incomplete without the help of gesture-signs, even for things of ordinary import, is very remarkable. The matter is important ethnologically, for if it may be taken as proved that there are really people whose language does not suffice to speak of the common subjects of every-day life without the aid of gesture, the fact will either furnish about the strongest case of degeneration known in the history of the human race, or supply a telling argument in favour of the theory that the gesture-language is part of the original utterance of mankind which speech has more or less fully superseded among different tribes. Unfortunately, however, the evidence is in every case more or less defective. Spix and Martius make no claim to having mastered the Puri and Coroado languages. The Coroado words for "to-morrow" and "the day after to-morrow," viz., herinanta and hinó herinanta, make it unlikely that their neighbours the Puris, who are so nearly on the same level of civilization, have no such words. Mr. Mercer seems to have adopted the common view of foreigners about the Veddahs, but it has happened here, as in many other accounts of savage tribes, that closer acquaintance has shown them to have been wrongly accused. Mr. Bailey, who has had good opportunities of studying them, contradicts their supposed deficiency in language with the remark, "I never knew one of them at a loss for words sufficiently intelligible to convey his meaning, not to his fellows only, but to the Singhalese of the neighbourhood, who are all, more or less, acquainted with the Veddah patois."[32] Dr. Milligan is, I believe, our best authority as to the Tasmanians and their language, but he probably had to trust in this matter to native information, which is far from being always safe.[33] Lastly, Captain Burton only paid a flying visit to the Western Indians, and his interpreters could hardly have given him scientific information on such a subject.

The point in question is one which it is not easy to bring to a perfectly distinct issue, seeing that all people, savage and civilised, do use signs more or less. As has been remarked already, many savage tribes accompany their talk with gestures to a great extent, and in conversation with foreigners, gestures and words are usually mixed to express what is to be said. It is extremely likely that Madame Pfeiffer's savages suffered the penalty of being set down as wanting in language, for no worse fault than using a combination of words and signs in order to make what they meant as clear as possible to her comprehension. But the existence of a language incomplete, even for ordinary purposes, without the aid of gesture-signs, could only be proved by the evidence of an educated man so familiar with the language in question, as to be able to say from absolute personal knowledge not only what it can, but what it cannot do, an amount of acquaintance to which I think none of the writers quoted would lay claim. In the case of languages spoken by very low races, like the Puris and the Tasmanians, the difficulty of deciding such a point must be very great. The strongest fact bearing upon the matter of which I am aware, is that savage tribes whose numeral words do not go beyond some low number, as five or ten, are well known to be able to reckon much farther on their fingers and toes, here distinctly using gesture-language where word-language fails.[34]

There is a point of some practical importance involved in the question, whether gestures or words are, so to speak, most natural. If signs form an easier means for the reception and expression of ideas than words, then idiots ought to learn to understand and use gestures more readily than speech. I have only been able to get a distinct answer to the question, whether they do so or not, from one competent judge in such a matter, Dr. Scott, of Exeter, who assures me that semi-idiotic children, to whom there is no hope of teaching more than the merest rudiments of speech, are yet capable of receiving a considerable amount of knowledge by means of signs, and of expressing themselves by them. It is well known that a certain class of children are dumb from deficiency of intellect, rather than from want of the sense of hearing, and it is to these that the observation applies.[35]

The idea of solving the problem of the origin of language by actual experiment, must have very often been started. There are several stories of such an experiment having been tried. One is Herodotus's well-known tale of Psammitichus, King of Egypt, who had the two children brought up by a silent keeper, and suckled by goats. The first word they said, bekos, meaning bread in the Phrygian language, of course proved that the Phrygians were the oldest race of mankind. It is a very trite remark that there is nothing absolutely incredible in the story, and that bek, bek, is a good imitative word for bleating, as in βληχάοματ, μηκάοματ, blöken, meckern, etc. But the very name of Psammitichus, who has served as a lay-figure for so many tales to be draped upon, is fatal to any claim to the historical credibility of such a story. He sounds the springs of the Nile with a cord thousands of fathoms long, and finds no bottom; he accomplishes the prediction of one oracle by pouring a libation out of a brazen helmet, and of another, concerning cocks, by leading an army of Carians, with crested helmets, against Tementhes, king of Egypt, and he figures in the Greek version of the story of Cinderella's slipper. Another account is related in the life of James IV. of Scotland. "The King also caused tak ane dumb voman, and pat her in Inchkeith, and gave hir tuo bairnes with hir, and gart furnisch hir in all necessares thingis perteaning to thair nourischment, desiring heirby to knaw quhat languages they had when they cam to the aige of perfyte speach. Some sayes they spak guid Hebrew, but I knaw not by authoris rehearse," etc.[36] Another story is told of the great Mogul, Akbar Khan. It is mentioned by Purchas, only twenty years after Akbar's death, and told in detail by the Jesuit Father Catrou, as follows:—"Indeed it may be said that desire of knowledge was Akbar's ruling passion, and his curiosity induced him to try a very strange experiment. He wished to ascertain what language children would speak without teaching, as he had heard that Hebrew was the natural language of those who had been taught no other. To settle the question, he had twelve children at the breast shut up in a castle six leagues from Agra, and brought up by twelve dumb nurses. A porter, who was dumb also, was put in charge and forbidden on pain of death to open the castle door. When the children were twelve years old [there is a decided feeling for duodecimals in the story], he had them brought before him, and collected in his palace men skilled in all languages. A Jew who was at Agra was to judge whether the children spoke Hebrew. There was no difficulty in finding Arabs and Chaldeans in the capital. On the other hand the Indian philosophers asserted that the children would speak the Hanscrit [i.e. Sanskrit] language, which takes the place of Latin among them, and is only in use among the learned, and is learnt in order to understand the ancient Indian books of Philosophy and Theology. When however the children appeared before the Emperor, every one was astonished to find that they did not speak any language at all. They had learnt from their nurses to do without any, and they merely expressed their thoughts by gestures which answered the purpose of words. They were so savage and so shy that it was a work of some trouble to tame them and to loosen their tongues, which they had scarcely used during their infancy."[37]

There may possibly be a foundation of fact for this story, which fits very well with what is known of Akbar's unscrupulous character, and his greediness for knowledge. Moreover it tells in its favour, that had a story-teller invented it, he would hardly have brought it to what must have seemed to him such a lame and impotent conclusion, as that the children spoke no language at all.

  1. Jacob Grimm, 'Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache;' Leipzig, 1848, p. 664.
  2. See J. and W. Grimm, 'Deutsches Wörterbuch,' s. vv. black, blaken, blick, etc. Diez, Wörterb., s. v. bianco.
  3. Goguet, 'De l'Origine des Loix,' etc.; Paris, 1758, vol. iii. p. 322.
  4. Quint., Inst. Orat., lib. xi. 3, 85, seqq. "Luther führt an das ist mein leib und bemerkt dabei folgendes, 'das ist ein pronomen und lautet der buchstab a drinnen stark und lang, als wäre es geschrieben also, dahas, wie ein schwäbisch oder algauwisch daas lautet, und wer es höret, dem ist als stehe ein finger dabei der darauf zeige'" (Grimm, 'D. W.,' s.v. "der").
  5. Pott, 'Etymologische Forschugen,' new ed.; Lemgo and Detmold, 1859, etc., vol. i.
  6. Müller, Lectures, 3rd ed.; London, 1862, p. 272.
  7. Endlicher, 'Chin. Gramm.'; Vienna, 1845, p. 168.
  8. Kruse, p. 53.
  9. Steinthal, 'Charakteristik der hanptsächlichsten Typen des Sprachbaues;' Berlin, 1860, p. 114, etc.
  10. Nibel. Nôt, 37.
  11. Kant, 'Anthropologie;' Königsberg, 1798, p. 49. Schmalz, p. 46.
  12. Sicard, 'Théorie,' vol. ii. p. 632, etc.
  13. Kruse, p. 54.
  14. Lieber, On the Vocal Sounds of Laura Bridgman, in Smithsonian Contrib., vol. ii.; Washington, 1851.
  15. Heyse, 'System der Sprachwissenschaft;' Berlin, 1856, p. 39.
  16. Steinthal, Spr. der T. pp. 907, 909.
  17. Heinicke. p. 103. etc.
  18. Schmalz, pp. 2, 32.
  19. Steinthal, Spr. der T., p. 917.
  20. Heinicke, p. 137, etc.
  21. Schmalz, p. 216 a.
  22. Eschwege, 'Brasilien;' Brunswick, 1830, part i. p. 59.
  23. Mela, iii. 9.
  24. Plin. vi. 35.
  25. Lord Monboddo, 'Origin and Progress of Language,' 2nd. ed.; Edinburgh, 1774, vol. i. p. 253.
  26. Spix and Martius, 'Reise in Brasilien;' Munich, 1823, etc., vol. i. p. 385, etc.
  27. Ida Pfeiffer, 'Eine Frauenfahrt um die Erde;' Vienna, 1850, p. 102.
  28. Sir J. Emerson Tennent, 'Ceylon,' 3rd ed.; London, 1859, vol. ii. p. 441.
  29. Milligan, in Papers and Proc. of Roy. Soc. of Tasmania, 1859; vol. iii. part ii.
  30. Burton, 'City of the Saints,' p. 151. See Schoolcraft, part i. p. 564.
  31. J. G. Wood, 'Nat. Hist. of Man;' vol. i. p. 266.
  32. J. Bailey, in Tr. Eth. Soc.; London, 1863, p. 300.
  33. The objection to trusting native information as to grammatical structure, may be seen in the difficulty, so constantly met with in investigating the languages of rude tribes, of getting a substantive from a native without a personal pronoun tacked to it. Thus in Dr. Milligan's vocabulary, the expressions puggan neena, noonalmeena, given for "husband" and "father," seem really to mean "your husband," "my father," or something of the kind.
  34. See W. R. Scott, 'Remarks on the Education of Idiots;' London, 1847.
  35. For further remarks on such mixed expression by gesture and word, as bearing on development of language, see the author's 'Primitive Culture,' chap. v. and vii. [Note to 3rd Edition].
  36. Herod, ii. c. 2. Lindsay of Pitscottie, 'Chronicles of Scotland,' vol. i. p. 249. For other European legends, see De Brosses, 'Traité des Langues,' vol. ii. p. 7; Farrar, 'Chapters on Language,' p. 13.
  37. 'Purchas, His Pilgrimes;' London, 1625–6, vol. v. (1626) p. 516. Catrou, 'Hist. Gén. de l'Empire du Mogol;' Paris, 1705, p. 259, etc. A Singhalese legend in Hardy, 'Eastern Monarchism,' p. 192.