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Lecture 14. Language and Thought.

Lecture 14.
Language and Thought.
What should we be without Language?
AFTER we have finished our survey of the languages which are spoken at present over the civilised world and which have been spoken there so long as we know anything of the presence of the human race on this planet of ours it is time to ask the question what language really is.

Now I ask Do you know anything in the whole world more wonderful than language?

No doubt even if we were not able to speak we should still be able to see to hear to taste to smell and to feel.
We could taste what is sweet and like it and taste what is bitter and dislike it. We might run away from the fire because it burns and turn towards the water because it is cool or because it quenches our thirst; but we should have no words to distinguish fire from water or hot from cold or sweet from bitter. We should be like children who have burnt their fingers and cry who have tasted sugar and smile who have swallowed vinegar and howl. Some people might call this running away from what hurts and turning towards what is pleasant rational just as they say that a dog is rational because he runs away from his master when he raises his stick and jumps up at him when he holds out a piece of meat.
If by a bold metaphor this is to be called reason we need not object if only we distinguish between conscious and unconscious between worded and unworded reason and if we remember that by using reason in that very enlarged sense we may be driven in the end to call even the shutting of our eyes at the approach of a blow an act of reasoning.
However with or without language we might certainly do all this and a great deal more. We might fight and kill we might love and protect. We might if we were very clever accumulate dispositions and habits which by repeated inheritance would enable our descendants to build nests or warrens or beehive huts. The strongest might possibly learn to act as sentinels and make themselves obeyed; the weaker sex might even invent signals of danger and other signs of communication.
I doubt not that chivalrous and unchivalrous feelings also might be aroused in our breast such as we see among the higher animals and that jealousy and revenge as well as friendship and love might influence our actions.
But with all this imagine that we were sitting here looking at one another with a kind of good-natured bovine stare but without a single word not only on our lips but in our minds; our mind being in fact a mere negative plate without our being able to lay hold of any of the outlines drawn on it by saying this is this and this is that!
Definition of Thinking.
Some philosophers as you know hold that men like animals though they possessed no language might still sit silent and think. Unfortunately they do not tell us what they mean and what they do not mean by thinking but it seems clear that they use thinking as synonymous with every kind of mental activity. Des Cartes when discussing his fundamental principle Cogito ergo sum did the same; but as an honest philosopher he warned us that be used cogitare in that widest sense1 so as to include sensation perception memory imagination and all the rest. If the meaning of to think is avowedly stretched to that extent no one would dream of denying that animals though speechless can think and that we also could think without language that is to say without ever having possessed language without knowing one word from another.
What are we thinking of?
But now let us ask those philosophers the simple question If we can think without language what are we thinking of? What indeed? I do not wish to lay a trap like a cross-examining lawyer. Of course if you told me what you were thinking of you could do it only by using a word. Nor do I claim to be a thought-reader and tell you without your having told me what you are thinking off for that of course I could only do by using a word. But I ask you to ask yourselves what you are thinking of if you are thinking of anything and I shall join myself in that experiment. Suppose we were all thinking as we call it of a dog then as soon as we attempt to answer to ourselves the question What are we thinking of? we can only do it by saying to ourselves or to others Dog. It is perfectly true that canis chien Hund woulddo as well and we need not even pronounce any of these words while remembering a certain dog or while hearing the barking of a number of dogs about us. But though we may suppress the sound or recollection of a word after we have once heard it or replace it even by another word taken from another language we cannot possibly become conscious to ourselves of what we are thinking without having the word in reserve or as the Italians say in petto or as some savages say in the stomach.
Thinking in German or English.
If any doubt still remains in your mind on the impossibility of real thought without language ask yourselves what you mean in asking a foreigner who has long lived in England whether he thinks in German or in English? What would you say if he were to answer In neither. You would I believe think and think rightly that he was a fool.
Why we cannot think without words.
But if that is so if thought in the properly restricted sense of that word is impossible without language you may well ask why that should be so. Many people suppose that we first form our thoughts or as they call it our ideas and that afterwards we go in search of certain sounds which we attach to our ideas and which we retain because we find them very useful for the purpose of communication. Now I ask you is such a process possible or conceivable? Do we ever find ourselves in possession of a concept but without a name for it unless indeed we have forgotten and know that we have forgotten the name which we formerly possessed? Or is there anywhere in the whole world a place where we could find empty sounds such as father and mother meaning nothing as yet but ready for use when wanted? I know some people speak of inexpressible thoughts but they mean feelings; others say they may have a clear concept of a plant without knowing its name; they speak of that plant Oh what do you call it? But is not plant a name is not vegetable a name is not object a name is not it a name is not even What do you call it a name?
We often do not know the exact or right name but in that case we always know the more general name. If we had never seen or heard of an elephant we should not know its name but we should know that it was an animal and call it so; we should know that it was a quadruped and call it so. If we did not know whether what we saw was an inanimate lump or a plant or a bird fish or mammal we should have no name for it beyond the name thing. We could not name it further because we know no more about it because we could not bring it under any more definite conceptual name. We may see hear and touch the elephant we may have a more or less exact image of it but until we can predicate or name some distinguishing feature of it we could neither name nor know it in the true sense of that word.
To suppose as is done by most philosophers that we first find ourselves in command of an army of naked concepts and that we afterwards array them in verbal uniforms is impossible for two very simple reasons; first because there is no magazine which could supply these verbal uniforms and secondly because we never meet with naked concepts; or to put it more strongly still because we never meet with a rabbit without a skin or an oyster without a shell.
The reason why real thought is impossible without language is very simple. What we call language is not as is commonly supposed thought plus sound but what we call thought is really language minus sound. That is to say when we are once in possession of language we may hum our words or remember them in perfect silence as we remember a piece of music without a single vibration of our vocal chords. We may also abbreviate our words so that such expressions as ‘If Plato is right’ may stand for a whole library. We may in fact eliminate the meaning of the word so that the word only remains as a symbol2; we may even substitute algebraic signs for real words and thus carry on processes of reckoning or reasoning which in their final results are perfectly astonishing. But as little as we can reckon without actual or disguised numerals can we reason without actual or disguised words. This is the last result to which the Science of Language has led us and which has changed the Science of language into the Science of Thought. ‘We think in words’ must become the charter of all exact philosophy in future and it will form I believe at the same time the reconciliation of all systems of philosophy in the past.
Communication not language.
But surely it is said men communicate and animals too communicate without language. Yes they certainly do we all do some more others less successfully. The Polynesians as Chamisso3 tells us in his charming Voyage round the world (1815-1818) are sparing of words and a wink often takes the place of a long speech. Perhaps it does so even among less savage races. They do not even say Yes when they can help it but only move their brow. It is only to a stranger that they will say Inga yes. But such communication is not thought if we use our words properly.
I go even a step further and maintain that we are so made that whether we like it or not we must show by outward signs what passes within us. There are few people who can so repress their emotions as not to let others see when they are angry or happy. We blush we tremble we frown we pout we grin we laugh we smile and what can be more tell-tale and sometimes more eloquent than these involuntary signs? I have no doubt that animals betray their feelings by similar signs and that these signs are understood by their fellow-creatures. You have only to disturb an ant-hill and see what happens. A number of ants will run away on their beaten tracks they will stop every ant they meet and every ant after having been touched and communicated with will run to the ant-hill to render help with the same alacrity with which a member of the fire-brigade runs towards the place of conflagration after hearing the bugle in the street. We cannot understand how it is done but that little head of an ant not larger than the head of a pin must have been able to express terror and implore help even as a dog will run up to you and express in his face terror and by his motions implore your help. But when will people learn that emotions are not thoughts and that if we call anger or joy thought we simply muddle our own thoughts and confound our own language?
I believe that some of these involuntary manifestations of our feelings may in time lead to intentional gestures; and we know from pantomimes also from communications that are said to take place in America and Australia between tribes speaking different languages that this gesture-language may be brought to a very high degree of perfection. But we must not forget that in all cases where this communication by means of gestures has been observed the parties concerned are each in possession of a real language that in fact they think first in their own conceptual language and then translate their thoughts back into pantomime4.
The subject however is curious and deserves more study than it has hitherto received. We imagine we can understand why a person kneeling down is supposed to implore mercy why another shaking his fist is supposed to say Stand off! But these gestures as used in different countries have not always the same meaning and even the expressive signs used by deaf and dumb people are by no means identical all over the globe5.
Children again long before they are able to speak can imitate the acts of eating drinking riding on their father's; but a wish is not a thought as little as fear and horror. If some philosophers like to call these states of feeling thought they may do so at their own peril but they ought at all events to let us know in order that others may be able to discount such license.
Some more serious philosophers put in a claim for images. Images they say such as our senses leave in our memory may surely be called thought. They may no doubt if only we let others know that in our own philosophical dialect we use thinking in that extended sense. But it is surely better to distinguish and to keep the term imagination for signifying tho play of our images. I myself hold it impossible that human beings should have real images without first having framed them in names; and among physiologists Helmholtz denies the possibility of our having perceptions without names. But of course if careful observers such as Mr. Galton assure us that they have images without knowing what they are images of and without remembering what they are called we are bound to believe them even though we cannot follow them. What they are anxious for is evidently to show that animals though they have no language have images that they combine these images and that their acts their sensible or as they like to call them their rational acts are determined by them. Let that be so at least for argument's sake. But even then is not this imagination or even this reasoning without language utterly different from imagination and reasoning with language? Suppose a dog instead of coming to me as one of my dogs did expressing his uneasiness and then dragging me on to his rug which was red and showing me that it was occupied by my other dog who ought to have been on his own rug which was blue looking at me reproachfully till I had ordered the other dog away and then taking possession with all the pride of an injured innocent of his own red rug—suppose that dog instead of wheedling and barking were suddenly to stand up on his hind legs and say to me ‘The other dog has taken my rug; please Sir order him away’ should we not almost go out of our mind?
Or let us place an infant and a grown-up man side by side the one struggling and crying for a cup of milk the other saying plainly ‘I should like that cup of milk.’ Is not the distance between these two acts immeasurable the one being merely the result of the direct or reflex action of our senses the other the result of a growth that has gone on for thousands of years? The grown-up man also if he were dying of thirst might no doubt rush towards the cup and swallow it without saying a word and we might call the expression of his impetuous features language and his rushing movements reason. But we should gain nothing by the use of this metaphorical language. There are philosophers who tell us that an infant could not stretch out its arms without going through a silent syllogism: ‘By stretching out our arms we obtain what we wish for; I wish for this cup of milk therefore I stretch out my arms.’ It may be so but we know nothing about it and never shall till the infant is able to speak that is to say ceases to be an infant and then tells us what it thinks.
Between the infant however and the man who is able to speak there is not a distance of ten or twenty years only. The language which carried on for thousands of years. The original framing of our words and thoughts is a process which no one but the geologist of language has even the most remote idea of and to suppose that one human being could in the space of ten or twenty years have accumulated the wealth of his grammar and dictionary is like believing that the earth with its mountains and rivers could have been made in six days. It is extraordinary that the same argument which has been answered ad nauseam is brought forward again and again. It is quite true that the infant and the parrot are for a time without language and that both learn to say after a time ‘How do you do?’ But the child learns to speak human language while the parrot never speaks Parrotese.
Involuntary and voluntary sounds.
The next step after what has been called the language of gestures leads us on to involuntary and voluntary sounds. I call involuntary sounds interjections which have a direct natural origin which express joy fear anger admiration assent or dissent. To us accustomed to our own interjections there seems a natural appropriateness in their sound but here too a comparative study teaches us that it is not so. No for instance does not always mean no; in Syrianian it means yes. Even in Irish we find for No not only naicc but also aicc6. Voluntary interjections I call such imitative sounds as bow wow for dog and moo for cow. Here too we find that what seems to us perfectly natural and intelligible is not always so. Whereas to our ears the dog says bow wow he says kliff klaff to a German ear.
It is extremely difficult to render inarticulate sounds by our alphabet. Many attempts have been made to write down the sounds uttered by birds but hitherto with small success. A great phonetician well acquainted with the latest theories of physiological phonetics has spent many days and nights in watching the notes of the nightingale; and what do you think his rendering has come to? The real note of the nightingale as reduced to alphabetical writing is:
Dailidurei faledirannurei lidundei faledaritturei.
You know that before languages were studied scientifically it was a very general idea that all human speech arose in that way and that the ultimate elements of our words were imitations of natural sounds or involuntary interjections. I called these theories the Bow-wow and Pooh-pooh theories. Some philosophers have lately added a third theory which they call the Yo-heho theory but which is really a subdivision only of the Pooh-pooh theory. By a most extraordinary mistake this theory has been ascribed to Noiré who was really one of its most determined opponents. According language would have been derived directly from the cries uttered by people while engaged in pulling rubbing digging rowing and similar primitive occupations.
In this the supporters of this Yo-heho theory have no doubt touched on a very important phase in the growth of language and thought as we shall see presently; but if they look upon sounds such as Yo-heho as mere interjections they are still in the bitterness of the Pooh-pooh theory that is to say they have not even perceived the difficulty of the problem which they wish to solve.
The names Bow-wow Pooh-pooh and Yo-heho theories have sometimes been objected to as too homely and as possibly offensive. But as these theories in their crude form are no longer held by any scholar these names are really quite harmless and they are certainly useful because they tell their own tale. If we are afraid of them we must use the cumbersome names of Mimetic Onomatopoetic or Interjectional theory every one of them requiring an elaborate commentary.
The Bow-wow pooh-pooh and Yo-heho theories.
These three theories however were by no means so illogical as they seem to us now. They were no doubt a priori theories but they had certain facts to support them. There are interjections in every language and by the general analogy of language some of them have been raised into verbs and adjectives and substantives. Hush for instance the German husch is an interjection which in German is used to drive away birds to express any quick movement to attract attention while in English it is now chiefly employed to enjoin silence. From this interjection and from no root are derived in German the adjective husch meaning quick and the substantive Husch quickness also a blow a box on the ear. Thus the lines in Shakespeare's Hamlet
And we have done but greenly
In hugger mugger to inter him
are translated in German by
Und thöricht war's von uns so unter'm Husch Ihn zu bestatten.
We have besides a German feminine substantive Die Husche which means a shower of rain and two verbs huschen to move quickly and huscheln to scamp one's work. In English to hush has taken the exclusive meaning of to enjoin silence to quiet.
This would be an illustration of the Pooh-pooh theory.
The Bow-wow theory can claim a number of words the best known being cuckoo in Greek κόκκυξ in Latin cucûlus in Sanskrit kokila. In Greek we have also a verb κοκκύξϵιν redupl. perfect κϵκύκκυκα to cry cuckoo.
The Yo-heho theory is really a subdivision of the Pooh-pooh theory but it may be illustrated by bang! as an interjection that accompanies a blow; to bang to beat violently and banged hair which has lately been much admired.
It would be a most interesting subject to collect all the words which whether in English or in German or in Latin Greek and Sanskrit are formed direct from interjectional elements. And it would teach us better than anything else that after we have claimed all that can rightly be claimed for this amorphous stratum of human speech we have only taken the mere outworks while the real fortress of language has not been touched.
That fortress could not be taken by storm but only by a regular siege;—it will not surrender to a priori arguments but only to a posteriori analysis. This analysis was carried out by the founders of Comparative Philology by Bopp Grimm Pott and others; but it bad been attempted more than two thousand years ago by Sanskrit grammarians. They had taken Sanskrit one of the richest and most primitive of Aryan languages and by submitting every word of it to a careful analysis that is to say by separating all that could be separated and proved to be merely formal they had succeeded in discovering certain elements which would yield to no further analysis and which they therefore treated as the ultimate facts of language and designated as roots.
The number of roots admitted by these ancient Sanskrit grammarians was far too large however. We have now reduced their number to about 800—I believe they will be reduced still further—and with these we undertake to account for all the really important words which occur in Sanskrit literature. In more modern languages many clusters of words derived from one root have become extinct and their place is taken by secondary and tertiary derivatives of other roots so that for the English Dictionary (now being published at Oxford) which is said to comprehend 250 000 words no more than about 460 roots7 are required to account for all that has been said by Shakespeare Milton and Byron. But more than that: the number of independent concepts conveyed by these 800 Sanskrit roots is not 800 or anything like it but has been reduced to the small number of 121. With these 121 radical concepts every thought that has ever passed through a human brain can be and has been expressed. This would have sounded like a wild dream to Plato and Aristotle nay even to Locke and Kant and yet it is a fact that can no more be questioned than the fact that the whole kaleidoscope of nature—all that was ever seen in this myriad-shaped world of ours—is made up of about sixty elementary substances.
With regard to the meaning of the 800 roots of Sanskrit we find that most of them express acts such as striking digging rubbing crushing pounding cutting gathering mixing sprinkling burning—acts in fact which represent some of the primitive occupations of man but which by means of generalisation specialisation and metaphor have been made to express the most abstract ideas of our advanced society. A root meaning to strike supplied names for a good stroke of business and for striking remarks. To dig came to mean to search for and to inquire. To rub was used for rubbing down softening appeasing; to burn came to mean to love and also to be ashamed; and to gather did excellent service for expressing in primitive logic what we now call observation of facts the connection of major and minor or even syllogism.
And now we must gather up the threads of our own argument.
We saw that real thought was impossible without words. We have now seen that all words are made of roots and that these roots expressed originally primitive co-operative acts such as would be performed by men in the earliest stages of their social life.
Words derived from conceptual roots.
But this is not all. Let us remember that what shook for the first time the faith of those who thought they could explain all the words of our language as imitations of natural sounds was the strange fact that in the names of animals there was no trace whatever of these sounds. After the cuckoo had been claimed as a case in point as the great trophy or totem of the Bow-wow theory everything else collapsed. In the names for dog there names for horse no trace of neighing in the names for donkey no trace of braying in the names for cow no trace of mooing. On the contrary it was found that every word which was derived from a root expressed a general concept. The name for horse the Latin equus the Sanskrit asva was derived from a root meaning to be sharp or quick; hence it became clear that the horse had been conceived and named as a runner or racer. From the same root came words of sight for stone spear needle point sharpness quickness of thought to the very 'cuteness of the New World.
The serpent was called from a root meaning to creep along and another name of it the Sk. ahi the Greek ἔχις came from a root meaning to throttle.
Sun Gothic sunna is derived from a root su to bring forth; son Gothic sunus comes from the same root in a passive sense and meant originally the begotten filius.
Hand comes from a root which exists in Gothic as hinthan to seize.
Eye Gothic augo Lat. oc-ulus Sk. aksha all come from the same root which meant originally to point to pierce. Another name for eye in Sanskrit is netram which means the leader from nî to lead.
So we could go on for ever tracing back every word to its root and its radical concept. I do not mean to say that we succeed in every case. There are still many words which have not been brought to disclose their secret history and there is still plenty of work to do for critical etymologists.
There are many words which require no knowledge of Sanskrit at all for their etymological explanation and which we use constantly without thinking of their etymological meaning. Thus a settle is clearly what we sit on and so also though less directly a saddle; a road is what we ride on; a stand what we stand on; a bier is what bears us a burden what we bear ourselves; a shaft is what is shaved or planed; a draft what is drawn a drift what is driven a rift what is riven. A thrill of joy or a thrilling story both come from to thrill to pierce to perforate: but to bore also whatever its historical origin may have been is now used to express that slow rotatory worrying talk which is apt to make us gnash our teeth8.
Well then you may take it as an established fact that with the exception of some onomatopoetic survivals our words are in the main conceptual; that they are derived from conceptual roots or to put it differently that our words are concepts. If therefore it is admitted that we cannot think except in concepts it will be easy enough to understand why we cannot think except in words:
Are Concepts possible without Words?
But you may say Cannot a concept exist without a word? Certainly not though in order to meet every possible objection we may say that no concept can exist without a sign whether it be a word or anything else. And if it is asked whether the concept exists first and the sign comes afterwards I should say No; the two are simultaneous: but in strict logic the sign being the condition of a concept may really be said to come first. After a time words may be dropt and it is then when we try to remember the old word that gave birth to our concept that we are led to imagine that concepts come first and words afterwards.
I know from my own experience how difficult it is to see this clearly. We are so accustomed to think without words that is to say after having dropt our words that we can hardly realise the fact that originally no conceptual thought was possible without these or other signs. No strong man unless be was told would believe that originally he could not walk without leading-strings. Berkeley seems to have struggled all his life with this problem and honest as he always is he gives us the most contradictory conclusions at which he arrived from time to time. It was one of the fundamental principles of his philosophy that concepts or what were then called general ideas are impossible except by attaching a word or sign to a percept or what he called a particular idea. Hence he knew that Concepts were impossible without words and discursive thought impossible without concepts. But in spite of that he was often very angry with these words and in the Introduction to his ‘Treatise concerning the principles of Human Understanding’ (1710) he wrote: ‘Since therefore words are so apt to impose on the understanding [I am resolved in my enquiries to make as little use of them as possibly I can]: whatever ideas I consider I shall endeavour to take them bare and naked into my view keeping out of my thoughts so far as I am able those names which long and constant use have so strictly united with them9.’
Again in his Common-place Book (Works ed. Fraser vol. i. p. 152) he says: ‘If men would lay aside words in thinking 'tis impossible they should ever mistake save only in matters of fact. I mean it seems impossible they should be positive and secure that anything was true which in truth is not so. Certainly I cannot err in matter of simple perception. So far as we can in reasoning go without the help of signs there we have certain knowledge. Indeed in long deductions made by signs there may be slips of memory.’ Having thus delivered his soul against words—the very signs without which concepts as he shows were impossible or which were at all events strictly united with our thoughts—he breaks forth in another place (vol. iv. p. 455) in the following panegyric: ‘Words (by them meaning all sorts of signs) are so necessary instead of being (when duly used or in their own nature) prejudicial to the advancement knowledge or an hindrance to knowledge that without them there could in mathematiques themselves be no demonstration.’
It seems to me that most modern philosophers are just in the same state of haziness with regard to the relation between thought and language as Berkeley was; only they are not quite so honest towards themselves. The Bishop for instance in another passage of his Common-place Book (vol. iv. p. 429) after having satisfied himself ‘that it would be absurd to use words for recording our thoughts to ourselves or in some private meditations’ interpellates himself by adding the following note ‘Is discursive thought then independent of language?’ He forgot that he had given the answer himself namely that it was not and that it could not be.
process of naming.
Suppose we see the same colour in snow milk chalk and linen. We cannot single it out take it away or abstract it from the different sensuous objects in which it occurs unless we have a sign or handle to do it with and that sign for all the ordinary purposes of thinking is a word such as white. Until that word is there we may have different sensations but no concepts not even percepts in the true sense of the word. It is the electric spark of the word which changes something common to various sensations into a percept as afterwards it changes something common to various percepts into a concept and something common to various concepts into a higher concept.
But whence came that electric spark? Where did men find that sign to signify many things; and did not that sign already in order to be applicable to different perceptions require something of a comprehensive or conceptual character?
Origin of concepts.
Yes it did. And here lies the punctum saliens of the whole philosophy of language. Long before the question was asked how man came in possession of words there was the old question how man came in possession of concepts. Nearly all philosophers drew the line of demarcation between man and beast at concepts. Up to concepts the two seemed alike.
Then the question arose How did man alone go beyond percepts and arrive at concepts?
The usual answer was that man possessed some peculiar gift or faculty which enabled him to form concepts and to comprehend the manifold as one. Even now many philosophers are satisfied with that mythology. But this answer is no answer at all. We might as well say that man began to write because he had the faculty of writing. We want to know what forced man to form concepts whether he liked it or not. Why should he not have been satisfied with what the senses gave him with seeing this with hearing that? Why should he have gone beyond the single images and looked for the general? He might have been very happy in the world of sensations perceptions and images. Why should he ever have left it?
What we Call the roots language betray the secret. Almost all of them express as we saw the common acts of man. Now before man is conscious as yet of any object as an object he cannot help being conscious of his own acts and as these acts are mostly repeated and continuous acts he becomes conscious without any new effort of his many or repeated acts as one. Here lies the genesis of the most primitive and I may add the first inevitable concepts: they consist in our consciousness of our own repeated acts as one continuous action. To rub for instance was not only to rub once and then again and then again but it was the continuous act of rubbing afterwards of smoothing softening appeasing; and thus the root meaning originally to rub came in time to mean to appease the anger of the gods. There is an uninterrupted chain or development between our saying Oh God have mercy! and our earliest ancestors' saying Be rubbed down be smooth be softened ye gods!
Former theories.
It will now perhaps become clear why the three old theories of the origin of language and thought the Pooh-pooh theory the Bow-wow theory and the Yo-heho theory completely fail to explain what has to be explained namely how conceptual words arose. Cuckoo would be an imitation of the sound of the cuckoo bow-wow of the barking of the dog pooh-pooh of our contempt yo-heho of our labour; but with all this we should never get out of the enchanted circle of mere sensuous knowledge. We want conceptual sounds. How can we get them?
Now here the advantage of what I shall call in future the Synergastic theory will at once become evident. If as we know people in a primitive state accompany most of their common acts by sounds then the clamor concomitans of these acts is not the sign of a single act but the inseparable accompaniment of our consciousness of our many repeated acts as one action. Here we see the first dawn of conceptual thought. If this is once clearly perceived it will likewise be perceived that the difference between this theory of the origin of conceptual language and the old onomatopoetic theories is not one of degree but of kind and marks a greater advance in the Science of Language than the Copernican theory did in the Science of Astronomy. Here lies Noiré's real merit. He was the first who saw that the natural genesis of concepts was to be found in the consciousness of our acts. I was able to give the proof of it by showing that nearly all roots in Sanskrit were expressive of our acts. Those who do not see the difficulties which have to be explained when we ask for the origin of our conceptual roots may consider the old Pooh-pooh and Bow-wow theories quite sufficient. To the true philosopher the Synergastic theory is the only one which approaches or touches the hem of the problem that has to be solved namely how concepts arose and how concepts were expressed.
The ‘Clamor concomitans.’
One question only we are unable to answer namely why the clamor concomitans of the different acts of men the consciousness of which constituted their first concepts should have been exactly what it was. Why in crushing they should have uttered MAR in carrying VAH in stretching TAN in scattering STAR is beyond our ken. All we can say is that the possibilities in uttering and still more in fixing these sounds were almost unlimited and that though we may imagine that we perceive some reasonableness in some of them we very soon come to the end of such speculations.
Who does not imagine that there is some similarity between the root VÂ to blow and the sound of our own breathing or if we adopt the mimetic theory the sound of the wind? But if that is so with VÂ what shall we say to DHAM to blow and SVAS to breathe? That there should be in some cases some vague similarity between the sound of a root and the sound produced by the work which it accompanies is intelligible and so far the speculations on the supposed inherent meaning of certain letters which begin as early as Plato's Cratylos are not without some value. Possibly if we could go back to an earlier stage in the formation of roots his speculations might seem still better founded. But we must here too learn to be satisfied with what is within the reach of historical knowledge or if we must needs stretch our powers of vision beyond follow the example of Plato and not assume too serious a countenance.
A few quotations from Plato will serve to make my meaning clear.
‘Now the letter R’ he says10 ‘appeared to the imposer of names an excellent instrument for the expression of motion; and he frequently used the letter for this purpose: for example in the actual words ῥϵι̑ν and ῥαή he represents motion by r; also in the words τρόμος trembling τραχύς rugged; and again in words such as θραύϵιν to crush κρούϵιν to strike ἐρϵίκϵιν to bruise θρύπτϵιν to break κϵρματίξϵιν to crumble ῥύμβϵιν to whirl: of all the sorts of movement he generally finds an expression in the letter R because as I imagine he had observed that the tongue was most agitated and least at rest in the pronunciation of this letter which he therefore used in order to express motion.’
Let us consider these remarks for one moment. Nothing would be easier than to produce an equal number of words in which r occurs and which express not motion but rest; for instance ῥάχις rib bone spine; ῥάχος a hedge; ῥῑγέω to freeze; ῦιζα a root; ῥῡτόν rein; ῥώννυμι to strengthen; ῥώσταξ pillar &c. Secondly in several of the words mentioned by Plato the meaning of motion can easily be shown to be secondary not primary. If κϵρματίζϵιν for instance means to crumble to cut into small slices this is because κέρμα means a small slice and it does so because it is derived from κϵίρω to shave having been called originally a chip.
But I doubt whether a serious refutation of these remarks is justified. They are useful only as showing what latitude there is and must be in this subject. While modern speculators see an imitation of the blowing of the wind in the root VÂ Plato sees or rather hears an imitation of what is windy in the sound of the letters ϕ ψ σ and ζ (l.c. pp. 427 434) because their pronunciation is accompanied by great expenditure of breath. When Socrates considers further that the closing wads pressure of the tongue in the utterance of d and t was an expression of binding and rest that 1 expressed smoothness g clamminess n inwardness we must not forget that Hermogenes is made to reply immediately: ‘O Socrates Cratylos mystifies me; he says that there is a fitness of names but he never explains what fitness is.’
This is the right spirit in which such guesses should be treated. There may be some truth in them here and there but even if there is it is beyond our reach. Custom is so strong that we all imagine we perceive a certain appropriateness in a root STA meaning to stand or stop in a root MAR meaning to rub in a root TUD meaning to strike. There may be some truth in that fancy but if we take a more comprehensive view of radical sounds and radical meanings not only in the Aryan but likewise in the Semitic and Turanian languages we soon find that our fancy is as often contradicted by the facts as it is confirmed by them. There seems to be neither necessity nor absolute freedom in the choice of the sounds expressive of our acts. Even those who imagine that they can detect some reasonableness in them must confess that they have no means of testing or proving it. We can well understand that among the concomitant clamours of thought the struggle for existence must have been intense though we have hardly any opportunities left for watching that struggle. If some scholars imagine they can know or feel why SAR expressed our consciousness of moving on while VABH expressed our consciousness of weaving we need not contradict them but we could easily show that in other families of speech the same sounds have a totally different meaning. Take for instance the root SAR in Finno-Ugric. It means11
1. to sprout forth to bubble up to rise; to be long to be slim to be straight;
2. to stir to awake to be busy;
3. to rub to wipe to whet to shear;
4. to stir to mix; to make variegated to grind to defile;
5. to push away to squeeze to narrow to break to split to wound; to suffer to be oppressed to shrink to die;
6. to speak to narrate.
Though Professor Donner the highest authority on Finnish philology treats all these meanings as modifications of one central concept he would probably be willing to admit that possibly such meanings as to speak or to narrate might flow from an independent source and have nothing in common with such concepts as sprouting bubbling stirring and all the rest; but other scholars might insist on babbling being but a modification of bubbling and spouting of sprouting. Here if anywhere in the study of language much latitude must be allowed to personal dispositions and idiosyncrasies. We may be able to form a general idea how what we call roots survived in a conflict of ever so many possibilities but we shall never be able to discover anything like necessity in the character of those historical roots which have been discovered by an analysis of real languages or families of language.
The conceptual foundation of Language.
But what is no longer a theory or a mere dream but a simple fact is that all our words are derived from these conceptual roots and that all or nearly all of them signify originally some primitive acts of man. These are facts and the only thing we have to supply is an explanation why language should have started from such roots and not from the imitation of the sounds of nature. I do not go so far as other scholars in denying the possibility of any words being formed from mimetic sounds. After all cuckoo is a word though perhaps not in the strictest sense. To hush is a word which has come to express a concept. The same process which yielded such words might have been carried much further so far as we know. But the fact remains that it was not and what we have to explain is not what language might have been but what it is. That roots expressing acts should have been the true feeders of language becomes intelligible when we consider that the earliest possible or I should say the earliest inevitable concepts could not well have arisen under more natural and favourable circumstances than from our consciousness of our own repeated acts. Even man's bodily organism his possessing two arms two legs two eyes two ears would have helped towards making him comprehend two as one; and the Dyad is the beginning of all that we call conceptual thought. Then would follow the consciousness of our own repeated continuous acts and if such acts particularly when performed in common were accompanied by natural sounds by sounds understood therefore by many people the battle was won. Man knew what it was to have concepts and intelligible signs of concepts at the same time. Everything else as we know from the history of language would then follow as a matter of course.
We can see all this historical growth of language from its very beginning most clearly in the Aryan languages because they have been analysed most carefully. But the Semitic languages also tell us the same tale only that here the formation of triliteral roots prevents us often from watching the earliest phases in the growth of roots and radical concepts. Triliteral roots must have been originally biliteral or monosyllabic but though this can be proved in some cases it cannot yet be done with perfect certainty in all. Here we must wait for new light from the most ancient Babylonian Inscriptions.
With the Finno-Ugric languages great progress has been made of late. Professor Donner in his Comparative Dictionary of the Finno-Ugric Languages is doing for that branch of human speech what others have done for the analysis of the Aryan and Semitic languages. The number of roots seems smaller here than in Sanskrit or Hebrew and the growth and ramification of subsequent meanings become therefore all the more instructive.
Other families or classes of language have as yet been analysed with partial success only still wherever a beginning has been made the result has always been the same and we may take it as a fundamental principle admitted by all students of language in whatever part of the world that in the beginning there were roots and radical concepts and that with these roots human speech was built up from beginning to end.
There are languages like the ancient Chinese in Which words and roots are identical at least in outward appearance where all is material and nothing as yet purely formal. In such languages whatever their age may be we have again a tangible proof of the theory which we formed for ourselves from an analysis of more developed languages such as Sanskrit and Hebrew namely that language begins with roots and thought with concepts and that the two are one.
Our conceptual world.
When the human mind had once reached the conceptual stage the battle was won an entrance into the ideal world had been effected. With the of first real word a new world was created the world of thought our real home.
When we have once seen that thought in its true sense is always conceptual and that every word is derived from a conceptual root we shall no longer be surprised when we are told that words being conceptual can never stand for a single percept. There can be nothing in the world of sense corresponding even to such simple words as dog tree apple table to say nothing of colour virtue goodness and all the rest for they are all conceptual. We can never expect to see a dog a tree an apple or a chair. Dog means every kind of dog of tree from the greyhound to the spaniel; tree every kind of tree from the oak to the cherry; apple every kind of apple from the pineapple to the pippin; chair every kind of chair from the royal throne to the professorial chair. People often imagine that they can form a general image of a dog by leaving out what is peculiar Let every individual dog or to every kind of dog. Let them try the experiment which Mr. Galton has tried for human faces namely photograph a greyhound and over it a spaniel and then a St. Bernard and then a Scotch terrier and so on till every breed has been superadded. They will then see what kind of general image they would arrive at and they will strongly object to harbouring such monsters in their mind.
Here also Berkeley acted as a most resolute pioneer. He showed that it is simply impossible for any human being to make to himself a general image of a triangle for such an image would have to be at the same time right-angled obtuse-angled acute-angled equilateral isosceles and scalene. This is impossible whereas it is perfectly possible to have an image of any single triangle to name some characteristic feature common to all triangles namely their possessing three angles and thus to form a name and at the same time a concept of a triangle. This mental process which Berkeley described so well as applied to modern concepts we can watch with regard to all even the most primitive concepts if we examine the annals of language. Man discovered in a smaller or larger number of trees before they were as yet trees to him something which was interesting to him and which they all shared in common. Now trees were interesting to primitive man for various reasons and they could have been named for every one of these reasons. For practical purposes however trees were particularly interesting to the primitive framers of language because they could be split in two cut shaped into blocks and planks shafts and boats. Hence from a root dar to tear they called trees dru or dâru lit. what can be split or torn or cut to pieces.
From the same root they also called the skin δέρμα because it was torn off and a sack δόρος because it was made of leather (Sanskrit driti) and a spear δόρυ because it was a tree cut and shaped and planed.
Such words being once given they would produce ever so many offshoots. The Gauls called their priests Druides12 the Irish drui literally the men of the oak-groves. The Greeks called the spirits of the forest-trees Dryades; and the Hindus called a man of wood or a man with a wooden or as we say flinty heart dâruna cruel.
What applies to this single word for tree applies to all words. They are all derived from roots they are all conceptual they all express something Common to many things and therefore something that can be thought of and spoken of but can never be perceived with our senses as a single and real object.
If then we think in words and in words only is there anything in the world I will not say now more wonderful simply but more momentous more serious more paramount for tall our intellectual work than our words? And if that is so need we wonder that religion also has its deepest roots in language nay would be perfectly inconceivable without language. It has often been said that numina are nomina and if our line of argument hitherto has been straight we shall not only accept this statement but understand its true meaning. Try to realise Zeus or Hera without their names and you will see that there is nothing to realise. But do not let us say therefore that Zeus and Hera are mere names. This expression mere names is one of the most objectionable and self-contradictory expressions in the whole dictionary of philosophy. There is no such thing as a mere name as little as there is a mere concept. There is something that was meant by Zeus and even by Hera and though these names were weak and tentative only and exposed to all the dangers of mythology yet the best among the Greeks never forgot what the name of Zeus was really intended for—the Infinite it may be the nameless Power behind all names. You all remember the words of Aeschylus in the Chorus of the Agamemnon—for who that has read them can ever forget them again:—
‘Zeus whoever he is if this be the name by which he loves to be called—by this name I address him. For if I verily want to cast off the idle burden of my thought proving all things I cannot find any on whom to cast it except Zeus alone13.’
Aeschylus knew or divined what we want to prove that religion is the language or interpretation of the Infinite. There may be nothing corresponding to Zeus as pictured by Phidias and as believed in by the people of Greece. But Zeus was not a mere name for all that. It was but one out of many names by which the Greeks and as we shall see not the Greeks only but all the Aryas tried to grasp the Infinite behind the Finite tried to name the Unknown by the Known tried to see the Divine behind the veil of nature.

  • 1.

    Des Cartes, Méditations, ed. Cousin, vol. i. p. 253; ‘Qu'est ce qu'une chose qui pense? C'est une chose qui doute, qui entend, qui conçoit, qui affirme, qui nie, qui veut, qui ne veut pas, qui imagine aussi, et qui sent.’

  • 2.

    Science of Thought, p. 35.

  • 3.

    Chamisso's Werke, vol. i. p. 357.

  • 4.

    In the island of Gomera, one of the islands of the Canary Archipelago people communicate by means of a whistling language. The island is traversed by many deep ravines and gullies which run out in all directions from the central plateau. They are not bridged, and can often only be crossed with great difficulty, so that people who really live very near to each other in a straight line have to make a circuit of hours when they wish to meet. Whistling has therefore become an excellent means of communication, and has gradually assumed the proportions of a true substitute for speech. But what they whistle is their own language.

  • 5.

    Mallery, Sign Language among the North-American Indians.

  • 6.

    Zeuss, Grammatica Celtica. Yes in Old Irish is iss ed, ‘est hoc,’ or simply ed, =Goth. ita.—Whitley Stokes.

  • 7.

    Science of Thought, p. 210.

  • 8.

    On the introduction of the word bore, see Academy, Jan. 5, 12, 19, 1889.

  • 9.

    The Irish bull, enclosed in brackets, was omitted in the second edition.

  • 10.

    Cratylos, p. 426.

  • 11.

    Donner, Vergleich. Worterb. der Finnisch-Ugrischen Sprachen, ii. p. 1.

  • 12.

    Hibbert Lectures, John Rhys, p. 221.

  • 13.

    Lectures on the Science of Language, ii. 485.

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