You are here

Lecture 11. The Materials for the Study of Natural Religion.

Language Myth Customs and Laws Sacred Books.

HAVING first determined by means of definition the exact limits of Natural Religion and having afterwards explained the reasons why the Historical Method seems to be the most advantageous for a truly scientific treatment of the religions of the world we have now to find out what materials there are accessible to us from which to study the growth and decay of Natural Religion in the widest sense of the word.

These materials may be divided into four classes.

First comes language which in its continuous growth leads us back to the earliest periods of thought or at all events to periods which cannot be reached by any other kind of evidence.

The second class is formed by what it is the fashion to call mythology which as I shall show is really an inevitable phase in the development of language and thought.

The third class of evidence comprises religious customs and laws which may be studied either in historical documents or by actual observation of such customs and laws as are still prevalent among civilised as well as uncivilised races.

The fourth class consists of the Sacred Books of the great religions of the world.

Language as Evidence.

If as I hope to show every word was originally a deed was in fact a creative act calling into life a concept which did not exist before it will sound less surprising that it is possible to discover in words taken by themselves a record of the most primitive thoughts of mankind. It is true that a dictionary by itself conveys no meaning and that it is only in a sentence that words become significant. But we know now that originally every word was a sentence. When a man said sar-it river he really said ‘running (sar) here (it)’; when he said dar-u tree he said ‘splitting (dar) here (u)’ But men who called their trees ‘splitting here’ or what is split must have been men who had learnt to use trees for certain purposes and who probably possessed some tools however rude to help them in carrying out their work. Men who called their horse a quick runner as-va equus ἵππος must have been men to whom the horse had become useful as a runner for there were many wild animals quicker than the horse though they were not even singled out for a name but were comprehended under the general term of wild animals.

You will see now how if we can but find an entrance into the ancient workshop of language we can still listen there to the earliest thoughts of man. But where is that workshop?

In order to answer that question. I shall have to devote some of my next lectures to giving you a short account of the discoveries made by the students of the Science of Language. That science has opened before us a new world and it will be necessary for me to place before you a map of that new world though in the broadest outline only in order that you may be able to watch the earliest migrations not only of language but of thought of myth of religion and of law and custom.

Survey of Languages. Aryan Family.

Let us begin with Europe and in Europe with England1.


Have you ever asked yourselves what it means that we speak English what a language is what the English language is where it sprang up or how it was made and how it came to be spoken in these distant isles and from thence again over nearly the whole civilised world?

Nothing seems to me so wonderful as the power which man possesses of ceasing to wonder at what is most wonderful. It has been said with great truth that a sign or wonder can never exist twice for when it happened the second time we should call it quite natural and cease to wonder at it. Some philosophers go even further and maintain that a sign or wonder ceases to exist the moment it does exist because whenever it exists there must have been a sufficient reason for it and whatever has a sufficient reason ceases to be wonderful. Well whatever the reason may be we certainly all of us seem to have acquired what Orientals consider a proof of the highest breeding namely to wonder at nothing to be surprised by nothing the old Nil admirari.

Here we find ourselves in a small island adjacent to what is a mere promontory of the vast Asiatic continent. And in this small island which we call Great Britain and in this mere promontory which we call the Continent of Europe we speak a language which is to all intents and purposes the same as that which is spoken in Ceylon an island adjacent to the southern promontory of the same Asiatic continent called the Dekhan or Southern India.

This discovery of the unity of language in India and England is only about a hundred years old and when it was first announced it startled some of the most learned and judicious men to that extent that Dugald Stewart for instance declared it was an utter impossibility and that Sanskrit must be an invention of those arch-deceivers the Brahmans who wanted to make themselves as good as ourselves and as old as ourselves; nay a great deal better and a great deal older too.

We have recovered from that surprise and we find now at the beginning of most Latin and Greek grammars a few paragraphs about the Indo-European or Aryan family of speech and a statement that much may be learnt from Sanskrit the sacred language of the inhabitants of India as to the antecedents of our own language and as to how Latin and Greek became what they are.

But there are still greater miracles in English such as we find it spoken at the present day if only we had eyes to see and ears to hear them. English is said to consist of 250000 words and most of these words are capable of ever so many changes which we call declension conjugation degrees of comparison composition and all the rest. That is to say there is ready made for every one of us an instrument with at least several millions of keys on which we play as if it were a pianoforte with ninety-six keys.

When uncivilised people hear an organ for the first time they generally feel a curiosity to open it to see how it acts and what it is made of. But this gigantic organ which we call our language we never try to open we never ask how it was made or who made it. No we take it for granted or given and we think we may thump and hammer on it to our heart's content trusting that it will always remain in tune.

Veda οἰδα.

But though the relationship between the languages of India Persia Armenia Greek Latin Celtic Slavonic and Teutonic has now become part and parcel of the general stock of knowledge it is seldom realised how close that relationship really is. It is known that the roots of all these languages are the same that their grammatical articulation is the same that a number of important words such as the numerals names for father mother sky sun and moon horse and cow are the same. But it was only a study of Sanskrit and of the most ancient the Vedic Sanskrit which enabled scholars to discover that so mysterious a change as that which we observe for instance in the vowels of to wit to know and I wot I know or in German in Ich weiss I know and Wir wissen we know has its first cause in a change of accent which took place in the most ancient Sanskrit. We must remember that the accent exists or at all events is marked in Vedic Sanskrit only that it was in fact unknown to scholars till the Veda began to be studied and we shall then understand what it means that a change of accent observed in Sanskrit three thousand years ago still determines the vowels of words which we use to-day. I wot is the AS. wât the Gothic wait I know. We have the infinitive preserved in the phrase to wit. This wit is the Sanskrit vid to know. From it is formed in Sanskrit a perfect véda having the meaning of the present just like the Greek οἰ̑δα i.e. Faida. The change of i into ai or ê is due to the accent which in Sanskrit falls in the singular on the first syllable. This diphthong ai in Sanskrit ai in Gothic becomes regularly â in AS. and o in English.

But that is not all. Why did the Greeks say οἰδα in the singular but ἵσμϵν in the plural? In Greek the accent does not move it remains throughout on the first syllable. But in Sanskrit the accent which is on the first syllable in the singular must migrate in the plural to the last syllable. Why it did so is a question difficult to answer but the most natural reason seems to be that the differentiating terminations in the plural continued to be felt as such and therefore retained their stress longer than those of the singular. Hence we say véda véttha véda but vidmás vidá vidús. This rule and this rule alone enables us to account for ἵσμϵν in ancient Greek for Ich weiss and Wir wissen in modern German.

This will give you an idea of the solidarity as the French call it that binds the languages and if the languages then the thoughts of all the members of the Aryan people together. And now as to their various degrees of relationship.


English as now spoken may be traced back in one uninterrupted line to Anglo-Saxon. Of Anglo-Saxon we have the earliest documents in the seventh century such as the Beowulf an ancient epic of Teutonic origin. The language in which that poem is written was brought to England or rather to the British isles by emigrants and conquerors who came from the Continent. They were as you know Jutes Saxons and Angles and they all spoke not High German but Low German. Low German does not mean vulgar German but the German spoken in the low-lands of Germany. This Low German is in fact one of the four principal branches of the Teutonic class of the Aryan family the other branches being Gothic Scandinavian and High German.


Gothic was spoken on the Danube in the fourth century and it has left us the oldest specimens of Teutonic speech the translation of the Bible of Ulfilas who died in 881.

Continental Saxon.

Low German comprises the Saxon of the Continent preserved to us in the Heljand a poem of the ninth century; the Anglo-Saxon which we have already mentioned; the Old Frisian known to us by documents of the thirteenth century and slowly dying out at the present day; and lastly the Old Dutch or Low Franconian of which we have specimens in the so-called Carolingian Psalms ascribed to the ninth century and which is afterwards represented by Middle Dutch Modern Dutch Flemish and the spoken Low Franconian.


The third branch the Scandinavian is represented by the Old Scandinavian literature between 800 and 1000 A.D. and is divided into (1) West-Nordish i.e. Icelandic and Norwegian with a literature dating from the eleventh century; and the East-Nordish that is Swedish and Danish.

The ancient literature of Iceland the two Eddas and numerous Sagas will be of great importance to us for mythological purposes.

These three branches have one common characteristic feature they are all under what is called ‘Grimm's Law’ that is to say to put it broadly they offer an aspirate where the other Aryan languages have a tenuis they offer a tenuis where the others have a media and they offer a media where the others have an aspirate.

We must not suppose because Gothic is in so decided a minority as compared to Sanskrit Greek Latin Celtic or Slavonic that therefore its aspirate is a corruption of a more ancient tenuis or its media a corruption of a more primitive aspirate or its tenuis a corruption of a former media. Looked upon as merely phonetic corruptions such changes as t to th th to d and d to t in one and the same language would defy all principles of phonetic science. Gothic is as old and as independent a national dialect of Aryan speech as Sanskrit and as such had as much right to fix on tenuis aspirate and media for the discrimination of certain roots as Sanskrit had in fixing on media tenuis and aspirate. Thus the three roots which appear in Sanskrit as tar dhar and dar would from the beginning appear in Gothic as thar dar and tar but one and the same language would never change tar into thar dhar into dar and dar into tar. We know Gothic at a later time than Sanskrit but that does not make Gothic a less primitive language than Sanskrit. And what applies to language applies to mythology also. We know Vedic mythology at a much earlier date than Teutonic mythology but that does not prove that the names and characters of the Teutonic gods were borrowed from the Veda.

Thorr and Thursday.

It is quite true for instance that if we want to know the original meaning of the Icelandic god Thorr we have to trace back that word to the Anglo-Saxon Thunor the modern thunder. It is true also that we have only to replace th by t in order to be able to identify thunor with the Latin ton-are. But that does not prove that the Teutonic god Thorr who still lives in the name of Thursday dies Jovis was not as old a god as any of the Vedic deities and that from the very beginning he did not thunder with an initial aspirate instead of an initial tenuis.

Týr and Tuesday.

If we apply Grimm's Law we generally begin with what we are accustomed to call the classical languages Sanskrit Greek and Latin. If therefore we find Dyu nom. Dyaus in Sanskrit Ζϵύς for Δyϵυς in Greek Iu-piter for Dyu-piter in Latin we trace them back to Gothic Icelandic Anglo-Saxon in fact to Low German by simply replacing the media by the tenuis. This gives us the Icelandic Týr which is preserved in Týsdagr dies Martis and in Tuesday the Anglo-Saxon Tiwesdœg. But all this gives us no right to treat Týr as a later corruption of the Vedic Dyaus.

Wodan and Wednesday.

Comparison no doubt helps us in discovering the origin of the names of the Aryan gods and as the ancient mythology of the Veda is more richly developed or at all events has been more carefully preserved than that of any other Aryan race we generally look upon the Sanskrit names as the most primitive. But historically this is a false position. We may for instance derive the name of the Teutonic god Wodan or Odin from a Sanskrit root which if we replaced d by dh would be vadh to strike. From it we have the Vedic vadh-ar thunderbolt the Anglo-Saxon weder storm and weather and from it we may guess the original purport of Wod-an to have been the god of the thunderstorm who still lives in the name of Wednesday as Wódnes-dæg. But there is no god in the Veda who could be represented as the exact prototype of Wodan though there are several Vedic gods running parallel to him just as the Gothic language runs parallel to Vedic Sanskrit.

High German.

Distinct from these three branches of the Teutonic class is the fourth the High German which as a rule represents classical tenuis by media classical aspirate by tenuis and classical media by an aspirate. In other respects however High German is very close to Low German so that many scholars now group Low and High German together as West-Teutonic and Gothic and Scandinavian as East-Teutonic.

Old High German is known to us from about 700 to 1100; it is then succeeded by Middle High German from 1100 to 1500 and this by Modern High German spoken and written to the present day.


Besides the Low German which took possession of Britain in historic times chiefly after the fall of the Roman dominion another branch of Aryan speech overspread these isles in prehistoric times the Celtic. The Celts too came from the Continent where we find them migrating from East to West through Gaul and Spain occasionally bursting into the Balkan and the Italian peninsulas and sending out one colony as far as Galatia in Asia.

The Celtic class is divided into two branches the Cymric and the Goidelic. The former comprises Welsh the extinct Cornish and the Armorican of Brittany; the Goidelic the Irish Gaelic and Manx. There are besides the ancient inscriptions of Gaul which are sometimes treated as a third branch the Gallic. Interesting as the Celtic languages are for etymological and grammatical purposes their literature is recent not going back beyond the eighth century A.D. Whatever there is of mythology and ancient religion has evidently passed through a Christian and Romanic filtering and has to be used therefore with extreme caution for comparative purposes.2


The next class of Aryan speech which has likewise reached the shores of the British isles is the Italic. The literary language of Rome was but one of several dialects elaborated by the Aryas when they settled in Italy. Besides the Latin we find the Oscan and the Umbrian and several smaller dialects of which we possess monumental fragments. After reaching its classical culmination Latin became the lingua vulgaris of the civilised portion of Western Europe and developed new vulgar and afterwards literary languages in Italy Gaul Spain Portugal in the Grisons and by colonies in Roumania. We have the earliest documents of French in the ninth century of Provençal in the tenth of Italian Spanish and Portuguese in the twelfth.

The language of England was touched twice by the waves of the Latin river the first time through the Roman legions who took possession of Britain the second time through the Norman conquerors warriors of Teutonic extraction and Scandinavian blood who after their conquest of Normandy had exchanged their Teutonic speech for that of Northern Gaul. They brought with them into England a Romanic language Romanic thought manners and tastes but little of Romanic blood. There may be some Celtic admixture in the Teutonic blood of England; but the grammar the blood of the English language has remained Teutonic throughout.


The next class is the Hellenic. And here we must guard against what was formerly a very common view namely that the Aryas who came to people Greece and Italy were more closely related than the other scions of the Aryan family. Many scholars went so far as to suppose that the ancestors of the Greeks and Romans remained united for a time after they had become separated from the rest. There is no foundation however for this hypothesis at least not so far as language is concerned. Greek shows greater similarity with Sanskrit than with Latin Latin shows greater similarity with Celtic than with Greek. This is a point of great importance to us in our mythological and religious researches. In historical times the Latin language and the Roman mythology and religion have borrowed so much from Greek that scholars are apt to forget that the borrower was not altogether a pauper that there was in fact a fully developed religion and mythology in Italy before the contact with Greece and that it is this prehistoric phase of Italian life which is of chief interest to the student of ancient folk-lore.

The Hellenic class in its four dialects the Doric Aeolic Attic and Ionic is so well known that I need say no more about it in this place.


We have still one more class of Aryan languages in Europe the Slavonic or as I prefer to call it the Windic. I prefer the name of Windic because the oldest name under which the tribes speaking those languages became known to us is not Slaves but Winidae.

This class is divided into three branches the Lettic the South-East Slavonic and the West Slavonic.

The Lettic comprises (1) the Lettish now spoken in Kurland and Livonia the Baltic provinces of Russia. Its literature dates from the sixteenth century.

(2) The Lithuanian spoken in Eastern Prussia and in Russia by about a million of people. Its literature dates from 1547 of which date we possess a small catechism.

(3) The old Prussian which became extinct in the seventeenth century and left behind a few fragments only of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The South-East Slavonic comprises the old Bulgarian in which we possess the translation of the Bible of the ninth century which is still used as the ‘authorised version’; the Slovenian Servian and Croatian (sometimes comprehended under the common designation of Illyrian) with literary remains of the tenth century and the Russian the literary language of the Russian Empire.

The West Slavonic consists of the Polish with a literature dating from the fourteenth century; the Bohemian with a literature dating from the tenth century and the dialects still spoken by Wends and Sorbs in Lusatia.

North-Western Division.

These five classes of Aryan speech which we have hitherto passed in review belong all to Europe and form together what I call the North-Western division of the Aryan family.

Various attempts have been made to prove that before they became settled in their present seats some of them remained together for a longer time than the rest and therefore shared certain features in common which are absent in others. To me it seems that all these attempts have been in vain and that all the evidence that is brought forward in support of what has been called a genealogical tree of the Aryan languages can be fully accounted for if we admit that the dialectic varieties which afterwards grew into national languages existed before the Aryan Separation that whatever forms seemed fittest to this or that clan survived but that after the family was once broken up each dialect went its own way unconcerned about its neighbours. Every other hypothesis creates as many difficulties as it is meant to solve. That geographical contact has nothing to do with grammatical similarity we see most clearly in Greek and Latin which though very close neighbours are really as distinct as any other two Aryan languages. Celtic shows certain features in common with Latin Latin with Greek Teutonic with Lettic but not one of these casual coincidences requires for its explanation more than the admission of that common dialectic fermentation which preceded here as elsewhere the formation of national languages.

South-Eastern Branch.

It is useful however particularly for comparative purposes to distinguish between those five branches which together form the North-Western division of the Aryan family and the South-Eastern division which consists of the languages of India and Persia. There is one language which is now supposed to hold an intermediate position between these two divisions the Armenian but its exact relationship is still a matter of controversy.

Why this division into a North-Western and South-Eastern branch is useful historically we shall see when we come to consider the question of what intellectual level had been reached by the Aryan family before they separated. As it is quite clear that in historical times no exchange took place between the Aryas who travelled in a South-Eastern direction to Persia and India and those who had followed a North-Western direction towards Europe every word which they share in common and particularly all words connected with mythology and religion can be claimed as the common property of the whole Aryan race before its first dispersion.

The languages belonging to this South-Eastern division are of special interest to us as the principal sacred books are composed in them. Europe has never produced a religion. All religions have their cradle in the East and the languages of India and Persia have become the vehicles of three of the greatest religions of the world Brahmanism Buddhism in its three divisions of Southern Buddhism Northern Buddhism and Gainism and Zoroastrianism. These languages therefore will require more careful consideration.

Indic Class. Vedic Hymns.

Let us begin with India. The oldest monument of Indian speech is the Veda. It is curious that wherever we have sacred books they represent to us the oldest language of the country. It is so in India it is the same in Persia in China in Palestine and very nearly so in Arabia. How the Veda which is referred to about 1500 B.C. was preserved to the present day is a kind of fairy story which I must pass by as we are at present concerned with the history of the language only; but we shall have to consider it when we come to examine the fourth class of our materials for studying Natural Religion viz. the Sacred Books.

The language of the Veda must of course have been at one time the spoken language of those who composed the Vedic hymns probably in the North-West of India. But in the history of India that language is always the sacred language and it possesses words grammatical forms and syntactical constructions unknown in later Sanskrit.


The next stage of this language is still Vedic but whereas the Vedic hymns are all in metre the next stage shows us the prose of the Brâhmanas works intended for the elucidation of the Vedic hymns and the Vedic sacrifices. The Sanskrit of these Brâhmanas is more settled and regular than that of the hymns but it still represents a period of language prior to that which is presupposed by the grammar of Pânini or what used to be called classical Sanskrit.


The next phase of Sanskrit is that of the Sûtras which is likewise in some points different from the Sanskrit which Pânini would consider as regular but approaches to it so closely that the chronological interval separating the two can only have been very small.

The whole of this literature which has been preserved to us in its three stages is exclusively a priestly literature and what seems at first sight almost incredible the whole of it was preserved for a long time by oral tradition only. The hymns must at a very early time have become the subject of the most careful study. Not only every word but every letter and every accent were settled in the teaching of the schools and the only marvel is that so many irregular forms should have escaped the levelling influence of teachers from generation to generation. Still with all its irregularities the Vedic language as we know it has clearly passed through a grammatical discipline and we actually possess dating from the third or the Sûtra period a number of treatises the so-called Prâtisâkhyas which show us with what extraordinary minuteness the hymns of the Veda had been analysed.

ninean Sanskrit.

With the Sûtras this stream of Vedic language comes to an end. The famous grammar of Pânini which is generally referred to the fourth century B.C. treats the Vedic Sanskrit as already exceptional and antiquated and presupposes a language and a literature of a different character.

We must never forget that in ancient times literature gives us generally specimens of one dialect only and that this literary dialect being lifted out of the living stream of language becomes what is called classical that is stagnant and dead. The other non-literary dialects withdraw themselves from our observation but if after a time a new language rises to the surface and brings with it a new literature that new language is always a sister dialect rather and not a direct descendant of the old classical language. The language for which Pânini's rules are intended is not Vedic Sanskrit but a Sanskrit nevertheless closely allied to it. From Pânini's time to the present day that Sanskrit as a new literary language has remained perfectly stationary for the simple reason that any infraction of Pânini's rules any deviation from the classical type as fixed by him would have been considered and is considered to the present day a grammatical blunder.

Inscriptions of Piyadasi Third Century B.C.

If we only knew the language of India in these two channels the Vedic and the Pâninean all would be intelligible. But the marvel is that when for the first time we come across an historical specimen of the spoken language of India that language is totally different. The first truly historical documents in India are the inscriptions of Piyadasi or Asoka in the middle of the third century B.C. These inscriptions we have now before us as they were written at the time. They contain edicts intended to be understood by the people and we are safe in supposing that the language in which they are composed must have been if read out intelligible to the people.

I cannot describe the state of that language better than by representing it to you as a spoken vulgar dialect of Sanskrit just as Italian was a spoken vulgar dialect of Latin. Thus while the Vedic and the Pâninean Sanskrit present to us two old dialects regulated by careful grammatical study and reserved for literary purposes these inscriptions of the third century B.C. represent to us the living dialects of the people reduced by phonetic wear and tear to a mere ghost of their former self.

And that is not all. While the Sanskrit of the Veda as well as the Sanskrit of Pânini is rendered uniform by rule the language as recorded in these inscriptions allows an unbounded variety such as would not be tolerated in any purely literary language. We have here the language of India as it was actually spoken in the third century B.C. and its discovery was no small surprise to the believers in one uniform classical Sanskrit.

Buddhist Sanskrit.

Nor is this all. While Brahmanism disdained to use any language but Sanskrit for religious subjects Buddhism which was at that time the rising and growing religion of India availed itself of the spoken dialects in order to influence the great masses of the people; and so we find that one collection of the sacred writings of the Buddhists commonly called the Northern is composed in an irregular dialect closely resembling the dialect of Asoka's inscriptions while the second collection commonly called the Southern is written in another vulgar dialect but essentially differing from the former by having evidently received a more careful grammatical polish. The former dialect is generally called the Gâthâ dialect or Mixed Sanskrit the latter is called Pâli and may be called Mâgadhî though it ought not to be confused with the later Prâkrit dialect of the same name. These two dialects we can fix histoxically at least so far that we may assign to the literature composed in the Gâthâ dialect a date anterior to the Christian era because we have Chinese translations of some of the books of the Northern canon about that time. The text of the Southern canon after having been handed down by word of mouth was reduced to writing in 88 B.C.3 What chiefly distinguishes the Southern Pâli text from the Northern Gâthâ text is that the former has clearly undergone a strict grammatical revision while the latter has not.

Renaissance of Sanskrit Literature.

After the end of the first century A.D. Sanskrit that is to say the Pâninean Sanskrit comes more and more to the front and we see it used for the ordinary purposes of life and likewise for public inscriptions. What we generally understand by Sanskrit literature begins about 400 A.D. and to about the same period we may refer the grammatical cultivation of the Prâkrit dialects.


These Prâkrit dialects are probably the lineal descendants of the ungrammatical dialects preserved to us in the inscriptions of Asoka and again in some of the texts of the Northern Buddhist canon. But whereas at that time they were like wild-growing plants they have now been trimmed and shorn and regulated by strict grammatical rules after the pattern of Pânini's grammar. In that form they are used in the Sanskrit plays much in the same manner as the Italian dialects were used in the Comedia delle arte where the Doctor always speaks Bolognese Arlechino Bergamese Pantaleone Venetian while the pure Tuscan or Roman was reserved for the Amorosos and Inamoratas4.


But again while the classical Sanskrit and the now equally classical Prâkrit remained henceforth stationary the old springs of language were not stopped but poured on chiefly in two great channels the Western and the Eastern the former represented in our time by Sindhî Gujarâtî Panjâbî and Western Hindî the Eastern by Bihârî Bengâlî Uriyâ and Asâmî. The Nepâlî in the North shows more affinity with the Western the Marâthî in the South with the Eastern division.

Sacred Books.

It is necessary to keep this outline of the growth and the ramification of language clearly before our mind for the Sacred Books with which we shall deal have grown as it were on the branches of this tree of speech. We have the hymns of the Veda the Brâhmanas and Sûtras preserved to us in Vedic Sanskrit. We have the Law Book of Manu and the Purânas composed in literary Sanskrit according to Pânini's pattern. We have the Southern canon of Buddhism in Pâli the Aṅgas of the Gainas in old Mahârâshtrî and the Northern canon of the Buddhists in ungrammatical Prâkrit. We shall see that there is even a certain parallelism between the growth of language and the growth of religion and that without a knowledge of the historical development of the language many points in the history of the religions of India would remain unintelligible.

Iranic Class.

The last class of the Aryan family which we have still to examine is the Iranic. Here we find much the same phenomena as in India. The most ancient specimen of the language is found in the sacred book of Persia the Avesta. It is called Zend which though it is an entire misnomer will probably remain the recognised name. It is supposed with considerable probability that this ancient dialect was that of Media rather than of Persia.

Cuneiform Persian Inscriptions.

When however we get the first glimpse of the language of Persia in contemporary documents I mean in the cuneiform inscriptions of Cyrus Darius and Xerxes we find there a language closely allied to that of the sacred writings of Zoroaster yet different from it. These inscriptions cover the time of the Achaemenian dynasty from about 500 to 336 B.C.


Then follows a break of more than five centuries; but when we meet again with a new literature at the time of the Sassanian dynasty in the first half of the third century A.D. the language then called Pehlevi is a decayed Persian written no longer in cuneiform letters but in a Semitic alphabet and syllabary. The Pehlevi literature chiefly concerned with the explanation of the Avesta and with religious questions lasts till about 900 A.D. With 1000 A.D. begins the modern Persian as we have it in its purity in the great epic of Firdusi the Shâhnâmeh while in later times it becomes more and more mixed with Arabic words through the influence of the Mohammedan religion.

These are the principal languages of the Aryan family and those which are of special interest to us in the study of religion. There are some other languages such as Armenian and Ossetian in Asia and Albanian in Europe which are clearly of Aryan descent but which have not yet been referred with perfect precision to any of the great classes of that family. Modern Albanian is supposed to represent the ancient Illyrian. Armenian may constitute a language by itself more closely related as shown by Hübschmann to the North-Western than to the South-Eastern division.

Bask and Etruscan.

Before we leave the Aryan family we should still mention two languages not Aryan in character but surrounded on all sides by people of Aryan speech and well-nigh absorbed by them those of the Basks and the Etruscans.

The Basks interesting as they are for linguistic purposes yield us little information with regard to what their ancient religion may have been. The Etruscans on the contrary have left us ample materials in monuments and inscriptions though it must be confessed that not until a really safe key to their language has been discovered will there be any chance of our understanding the true character of their religion.

Semitic Family.

Quite independent of this enormous stream of language which dominates India Persia Armenia and nearly the whole of Europe there is another stream the Semitic running in a bed of its own from the very beginning and feeding two if not three of the great religions of the world that of the Jews that of the Christians and that of the Mohammedans.

The Semitic family may be divided into three branches the Aramaic the Hebraic and the Arabic or into two the Northern comprising the Aramaic and Hebraic and the Southern the Arabic.


The Aramaic comprises the ancient language of Assyria and Babylon so far as it has been discovered and deciphered in the cuneiform inscriptions. The grammatical structure of this ancient language is not yet sufficiently made out to enable scholars to trace its exact relation to the later Aramaic. Geographically however the ancient language of Mesopotamia may for the present be classed as Aramaic. If some of these cuneiform inscriptions go back as some scholars maintain to 4000 B.C. they would represent the oldest remnants of Semitic speech. And if that Semitic literature was preceded as seems very generally admitted by another civilisation not Semitic and generally called Sumero-Accadian we should get an insight into a past more distant than even that which is claimed for Egypt and China. It may be so but even though chronologically the religious ideas conveyed to us by the sacred hymns of Babylon should prove to be so much earlier than those of any of the Aryan races I must say at once that they appear to me much more advanced much more modern in point of civilisation. They presuppose towns temples idols a knowledge of metals and all kinds of precious stones familiarity with writing and a number of abstract ideas which we should look for in vain in the Vedic hymns. Linguistically also there is little in these inscriptions which we should call much more primitive than what we see in the grammatical structure of Syriac Arabic or Hebrew. Many difficulties have here still to be cleared up. An important mine however for religious studies has no doubt been opened there and several of the antecedents of Hebrew tradition have already been discovered in the cuneiform literature of Babylon. If as we read Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees his language ought to have been akin to that of the cuneiform inscriptions. But his name and all connected with him passed in later times through the channel of a different language which we now call Hebrew; and the date at which whatever was known of him was reduced to writing in that form in which we now possess it is still uncertain but at all events much later than was formerly supposed.

Chaldee and Syriac.

In historical times we find Aramaic spoken in the kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria and spreading thence into Syria and Palestine. Owing to the political and literary ascendancy of these kingdoms Aramaic seems for a time to have been a kind of lingua franca extending its influence to Persia Syria Asia Minor Egypt and even to Arabia.

It has been usual to distinguish between the Aramaic as used by the Jews and the Aramaic as used in later times by Christian writers the former being called Chaldee the latter Syriac. It may be true that the name Chaldee owes its origin to the mistaken notion of its having been introduced into Palestine by the Jews returning from the Babylonian captivity. But the name has been too long in possession to make it advisable to replace it by a new name such as Western Aramaic.

This Jewish Chaldee shows itself first in some of the books of the Old Testament such as Ezra and Daniel. Afterwards we find it in the Targums or Chaldee translations of the Pentateuch (Onkelos) and the Prophets (Jonathan) which were read in the Synagogues long before they were finally collected in about the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. The Jerusalem Targums and the Jerusalem Talmud represent the Chaldee as spoken at that time by the Jews in Jerusalem and in Galilee. Christ and his disciples must have employed the same Aramaic dialect though they also used Greek in addressing the people at large. The conquests of the Arabs and the spreading of their language interfered with the literary cultivation of Chaldee as early as the seventh century; but it continued to be employed by some Jewish writers down to the tenth century.

The Samaritans translated the Pentateuch into their own Aramaic dialect which differs but little from that of the Jews.

The Mandaeans also a somewhat mixed Christian sect in Babylonia spoke and wrote a Chaldee dialect which is preserved in their writings and in the jargon of a few surviving members of that sect.

Syriac though spoken long before the rise of Christianity owes its literary cultivation chiefly to Christian writers. The Old and New Testaments were translated into Syriac (the Peshito) in the second century and became the recognised text in the school of Edessa and elsewhere. A large literature accumulated from the third to the seventh century and extended its influence to Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire. The Arabic conquests however put an end to the literary cultivation of this language also though it lived on both as a written and spoken dialect to the twelfth century and afterwards as a language of the learned to the present day.

The Neo-Syriac dialects still spoken in some parts of Mesopotamia chiefly by Nestorian Christians in the neighbourhood of Mosul and in Kurdistan as far as Lake Urmia are not directly derived from the literary Syriac but represent remnants of the spoken Aramaic. One of these dialects has lately received some literary cultivation through the exertions of Christian missionaries.


The second branch the Hebraic comprises Phenician and Carthaginian as known to us from inscriptions dating from about 600 B.C. and the Hebrew of the Old Testament.

The Moabites spoke Hebrew as may be seen from the language of the inscription of King Mesha about 900 B.C. The Philistines also seem to have spoken the same language though it may be with dialectic varieties. About the time of the Maccabees Hebrew and its cognate dialects ceased to be spoken by the people at large though Hebrew remained the language of the learned long after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. Even at present the Jews employ an artificial and corrupt Hebrew for literary discussions and among themselves.


The third branch the Arabic has its home in the Arabian peninsula where it is still spoken by the bulk of the inhabitants and from whence it spread over Asia Africa and Europe at the time of the Mohammedan conquests. There was a popular Arabic literature long before Mohammed (Mo'allakât) and there are inscriptions in the north of the Hijâz commonly called Thamudic which are supposed to be of an ante-Christian date. Arabic inscriptions continue to be found attesting the use of Arabic as a cultivated language long before the age of Mohammed. The trilingual inscription of Zabad (Aramaic Arabic Greek) dates from 513 A.D.; a bilingual inscription of Harran (Arabic and Greek) from 568 A.D. A new impulse was given to the literary life of the Arabs by the new religion preached by Mohammed and his successors. The language of the Qur‘ân became a new type of literary excellence by the side of the ancient Bedouin poetry. In the second century after the Hejra grammatical studies fixed the rules of classical Arabic permanently and after 1200 years the Qur'ân is still read and understood by all educated Arabs. The spoken Arabic however differs dialectically in Egypt Algeria Syria and Arabia. One Arabic dialect continues to be spoken in Malta.

Sabaean or Himyaritic.

In the South of the Arabian peninsula there existed an ancient Sabaean civilisation remnants of which have been discovered in colossal monuments and in numerous inscriptions written in a peculiar alphabet generally called Himyaritic. Their age is doubtful but some of them are supposed to date from before our era and to extend to the fourth century A.D. It is possible to distinguish traces of different dialects in these Sabaean inscriptions but they are all closely connected with Arabic. The Sabaean language was probably spoken in the South of the Arabian peninsula till the advent of Mohammedanism which made Arabia the language of the whole of Yemen.


In very early times a colony from Arabia or more correctly from Sabaea seems to have crossed to Africa. Here south of Egypt and Nubia an ancient and very primitive Semitic dialect closely allied to Sabaean and Arabic has maintained itself to the present day the Ethiopic or Abyssinian or Geez. We have translations of the Bible in Ethiopic dating from the third or fourth century. Other works followed all of a theological character.

There are inscriptions also in ancient Ethiopic dating from the days of the kingdom of Axum which have been referred to 350 and 500 A.D.

This ancient Ethiopic ceased to be spoken in the ninth century but it remained in use as a literary language for a long time.

Beginning with the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a new language appears the Amharic. In it the Semitic type has been intensely modified probably owing to the fact that the tribes who spoke it were of Hamitic origin. It is a spreading language and has given rise in modern times to a new literature.

Other dialects such as Tigré Ehkili and Harrari so called from the localities in which they are spoken have not yet been sufficiently explored to enable Semitic scholars to pronounce an opinion whether they are varieties of Amharic or representatives of more ancient independent dialects5.

The family likeness of the Semitic is quite as strong as that of the Aryan languages nay even stronger. Their phonetic character is marked by the preponderance of guttural sounds their etymological character by the triliteral form of most of the roots and the manner in which these roots are modified by pronominal suffixes and prefixes; their grammatical character by the fixity of the vowels for expressing the principal modifications of meaning a fixity which made it possible to dispense with writing the vowel signs. These characteristic features are so strongly developed that they render it quite impossible to imagine that a Semitic language could ever have sprung from an Aryan or an Aryan from a Semitic. Whether both could have sprung from a common source is a question that has often been asked and has generally been answered according to personal predilections. Most scholars I believe would admit that it could not be shown that a common origin in far distant times is altogether impossible. But the evidence both for and against is by necessity so intangible and evanescent that it does not come within the sphere of practical linguistics.

  • 1.

    I have left here this short survey of languages, which I found it necessary to give in my first course of lectures, in order to avoid the necessity of explaining again and again the names and the relationship of the languages in which the religions of the world found their expression. Readers who require fuller information, may consult my Lectures on the Science of Language.

  • 2.

    See Professor Rhŷs, Hibbert Lectures, 1886.

  • 3.

    Vinaya-pitaka, in Sacred Books of the East, vol. xiii, p. xxxv.

  • 4.

    Cf. M. M., On Bengali, in Report of the British Association for 1847, p. 322.

  • 5.

    The latest and best account of the Semitic languages is given by Nöldeke in the Cyclop. Britannica.

From the book: