1902 Encyclopedia > Anthropology > Language

(Part 5)

V. Language. -- In examining how the science of language bears on the general problems of anthropology, it is not necessary to discuss at length the critical questions which arise, the principal of which are considered elsewhere. (See LANGUAGE) Philology is especially appealed to by anthropologists as contributing to the following lines of argument. A primary mental similarity of all branches of the human race is evidence by their common faculty of speech, while at the same time secondary diversities of race-character and history are marked by difference of grammatical structure and of vocabularies. The existence of groups or families of allied languages, each group being evidently descended from a single language, affords one of the principal aids in classifying nations and races. The adoption by one language of words originally belonging to another, proving as it does the fact of intercourse between two races, and even to some extent indicating the results of such intercourse, affords a valuable clue through obscure regions of the history of civilization.

Communication by gesture-signs, between persons unable to converse in vocal language, is an effective system of expression common to all mankind. Thus, the signs used to ask a deaf and dumb child about his meals and lessons, or to communicate with a savage met in the desert about game or enemies, belong to codes of gesture-signals identical in principle, and to a great extend independent both of nationality and education; there is even a natural syntax, or order of succession, in such gesture-signs. To these gestures let there be added the use of the interjectional cries, such as oh! Ugh! Hey! And imitative sounds to represent the cat's mew, the click of a trigger, the clap or thud of a blow, &c. The total result of this combination of gesture and significant sound will be a general system of expression, imperfect but serviceable, and naturally intelligible to all mankind without distinction of race. Nor is such a system of communication only theoretically conceivable; it is, and always has been, in practical operation between people ignorant of one another's language, and as such is largely used in the intercourse of savage tribes. It is true that to some extent these means of utterance are common to the lower animals, the power of expressing emotion by cries and tones extending far down in the scale of animal life, while rudimentary gesture-signs are made by various mammals and birds. Still, the lower animals make no approach to the human system of natural utterance by gesture-signs and emotional imitative sounds, while the practical identity of this human system among races physically so unlike as the Englishman and the native of the Australian bush, indicates extreme closeness of mental similarity throughout the human species.

When, however, the Englishman and the Australian speak each in his native tongue, only such words as belong to the interjectional and imitative classes will be naturally intelligible, and as it were instinctive to both. Thus the savage, uttering the sound waow! As an explanation of surprise and warning, might be answered by the white man with the not less evidently significant sh! Of silence, and the two speakers would be on common ground when the native indicated by the name bwirri his cudgel, flung whirring through the air at a flock of birds, or when the native described as a jackal-yakkal the bird called by the foreigner a cockatoo. With these, and other very limited classes of natural words, however, resemblance in vocabulary practically ceases. The Australian and English languages each consist mainly of a series of words having no apparent connection with the ideas they signify, and differing utterly; of course, accidental coincidence and borrowed words must be excluded from such comparisons. It would be easy to enumerate other languages of the world, such as Basque, Turkish, Hebrew, Malay, Mexican, all devoid of traceable resemblance to Australian and English, and to one another. There is, moreover, extreme difference in the grammatical structure both of words and sentences in various languages. The question then arises, how far the employment of different vocabularies, and that to a great extent on different grammatical principles, is compatible with similarity of the speaker's minds, or how far does diversity of speech indicate diversity of mental nature? The obvious answer is, that the power of using words as signs to express thoughts with which their sound does not directly connect them, in fact as arbitrary symbols, is the highest grade of the special human faculty in language, the presence of which binds together all races of mankind in substantial mental unity. The measure of this unity is, that any child of any race can be brought up to speak the language of any other race.

To ascertain the causes to which languages owe their unlikeness in material and structure, how far to essential differences of mental type among the races of mankind, and how far to minor causes of variation, which may be called secondary, is a problem of extreme difficulty, towards the precise solution of which little has yet been done. One of the most remarkable of linguistic differences is the tendency of some languages to isolate their words, and of others to form elaborate inflexions. The extremes may be seen, on the one hand, in an ordinary Chinese sentence of isolated monosyllables, such as "yutsze nien chiu, tsin, tung chu," &c., i.e. "in this year autumn ended, winter begun," &c.; and, on the other hand, in one of the monstrous polysyllables into which the Greenlanders will agglutinate a whole phrase, inilertorniarpathlasargqorpa, i.e. "he will probably try too much to get it done soon." Among languages which form grammatical combinations or inflexions, the modes of so doing are as various as possible. Thus, in Africa, the Hottentot noun forms its plural by a suffix, as khoi, "man;" khoin, "men;" while the Zulu employs prefixes to distinguish its numbers, as umu-ntu, " a man;" aba-ntu, "men." The Dinka may supply examples of forming the plural by internal change, ran, "man;" ror, "men." Nor are the differences of syntax in different tongues less absolute. In non-inflecting languages one of the most vital points is the relative position of two nouns, of which the one stands as substantive, and the other as defining it by an attribute. This may be illustrated by English compounds, such as work-house and house-work. Here our rule is to place the attribute-noun first, while, of two neighbouring language of Asia, the Burmese and the Siamese, the one settles this question in our way, the other in exactly the opposite. The Siamese expression for sailors, luk rua, means "sons of the ship," just as the Burmese expression for villagers, rwa tha, means "children of the village;" but in the first case the construction is "sons ship," whereas in the second it is "village children." Again, for reasons not yet fully explained, some languages place the adjective before the substantive, as Chinese pe ma, "white horse;" while other languages reserve this construction, as Maori, rakau roa, "tree long" (i.e., tall tree). These are but examples of possible divergences in linguistic structure, and no prudent ethnologist would assert that racial peculiarities have nothing to do with such various tendencies. At the same time, there is no proof but that they may have resulted from historical circumstances more or less independently of race. Our own Aryan family of nations and languages affords what must always be prominent evidence in this argument. It is acknowledged that Sanskrit, Russian, Greek, Latin, Welsh, English, &c., are, philological speaking, dialects of a single Aryan speech, which no doubt at some ancient period was spoken by a single tribe or nation. Yet the languages sprung from this original Aryan tongue, by various courses of development and accretion, are mutually unintelligible. If a Greek sentence be taken at random, such as this, "Ou NOTE: ARYAN DIALECTS PAGE 118)" and it be translated even too verbally into English. "A counsel-bearing man ought not to sleep all night," the traces of linguistic connection between the Greek and English words (phoros, bear; nux, night) are hardly perceptible except to philologists. Even the essential character of the two languages is seen to be different, for the construction of the Greek sentence depends mainly on the inflexions of the words, while in English such inflexions are almost discarded, and their effect is produced by the syntax an the auxiliary particles. Moreover, as to some most important points of syntax, Aryan languages differ widely from one another thus, to use a familiar instance, French and English take contradictory lines as to the relative position of the adjective and substantive, as also of the object-pronoun and verb,- "c'est un cheval blanc, je le vois," "it is a white horse, I see him." So Hindustani and English, though both Aryan tongues, reverse the positions of the verb and object, as "ghora lao" ("horse bring"0, i.e. "bring the horse!" Thus on the whole, the endless variety in vocabulary and structure among the languages of the world affords important evidence as to the mental diversities of the nations speaking those languages. But the unity of the faculty of speech in man stands as the primary fact, while the character of the grammar and dictionary belonging to any one nation represents only a secondary fact, such as might be fairly set down as resulting from their particular stage and circumstances of linguistic development.

The principles of the development of a family of languages from a single parent tongue are laid down elsewhere. (See LANGUAGE.) It has here to be noticed that the evidence on which such linguistic groups may be treated as allied by descent is of various degrees of fullness and strength. The most perfect available case is that of the Romance languages, comprising Italian, Spanish, French &c., inasmuch as not only does the classic Latin remain substantially the representative of their common original, but the very stages of their development from it are preserved in documents of successive ages. Thus, in comparing the vocabularies of Italian and French, it is, in the first place, seen that they to a great extent correspond, - this corresponding extending to words which one language is least likely to borrow from another, viz., pronouns, the lower numerals, and names of the most universal and familiar objects. It is only, however, by etymological analysis that their depth of correspondence comes fully into view, it being seen that the ultimate elements or roots are largely common to the two languages, as are also the grammatical affixes by which words are formed from these roots, while general similarity of linguistic structure pervades both tongues. Such intimate correspondence could only result from derivation from a common parent language, which in this case exists in Latin. In other groups of languages the existence of the common parent may be inferred from correspondence of this highest order. Thus there must have existed, at some period, what may be called the parent Slavonic, whence descend the Russian, Polish, Bohemian, &c.,; and the parent Keltic, whence descend Welsh, Gaelic, Breton, &c., while behind the various branches of the whole Aryan family are dimly to be discerned the outlines of a primitive Aryan speech. In like manner, a comparison of the Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, &c., shows that these must be all derived from a primitive Semitic speech, containing many of the simple root forms, which still exist in its modern descendants, and being already characterized by the principle of internal inflexion. Beyond the limits of these two, the most important linguistic families, various others have been satisfactorily made out, though hardly with the same completeness of proof. In the Turanian or Tatar family are included the Turkish, Mongo, Hungarian, Finnish, Ostyak, &c.; the Dravidian family takes in the Tamil, Telugu, and various other South Indian dialects; the Polynesian family comprises the languages of the higher race of the South Sea Islands; the Negro-Kafir family consists of the prefixing languages spoken by most African tribes from the equatorial regions southward; the Guareni family in South America, the Algonquin and Athapascan families in North America, and the Australia family, each includes a number of tribes ranging over a vast extent of territory, and so on. As to smaller divisions, it is common for languages to occur in groups of several connected dialects, though not forming part of one of the wider linguistic families; thus the Aztec and Nicaraguan are closely related dialects, as are the Quichua and Aymara, while what philologists describe as isolated languages, as the Basque appears to be, are rather isolated groups of dialects, with no known analogues beyond a limited district.

If the present state of the philological classification of mankind be compared with that of half a century ago, it will be seen that much progress has been made in referring groups of language each to a common ancestral tongue. At the same time, greater cogency of proof is now demanded in such classification. The method of comparing a short vocabulary of twenty words or so in two languages is now abandoned, for where an extensive connection really exists, this is much better proved by a systematic comparison, while a few imperfect resemblances in the two lists might be due to accident, or the adoption of words. Nothing short of a similarity in the roots or elements of two languages, as well as in their grammatical structure, too strong to be explained by any independent causes, is now admitted as valid proof of common descent. This limitation, however, by no means amounts to a denial of the possibility of such descent. Thus it is often argued, on the strength of some similarities between Hebrew and Indo-European roots, that the two so distinct Semitic and Aryan families of language are themselves sprung from some yet some remotely ancient tongue. Thus also it has been attempted to connect the Malay and Tatar groups of languages. Either or both of these opinions may be true; but the general verdict of philologists is, that they are not satisfactorily made out, and therefore cannot be recognized.

Under the present standard of evidence in comparing languages and tracing allied groups to a common origin, the crude speculations as to a single primeval language of mankind, which formerly occupied so much attention, are acknowledged to be worthless. Increased knowledge and accuracy of method have as yet only left the way open to the most widely divergent suppositions. For all that known dialects prove to the contrary, on the other hand, there may have been one primitive language, from which the descendant languages have varied so widely, that neither their words nor their formation now indicate their unity in long past ages, while, on the other hand, the primitive tongues of mankind may have been numerous, and the extreme unlikeness of such languages as Basque, Chinese, Peruvian, Hottentot, and Sanskrit, may arise from absolute independence of origin.

The language spoken by any tribe or nation is not of itself absolute evidence as to its race-affinities. This is clearly shown in extreme cases. Thus the Jews in Europe have almost lost the use of Hebrew, but speak as their vernacular the language of their adopted nation, whatever it may be; even the Jewish-German dialect, though consisting so largely of Hebrew words, is philologically German, as any sentence shows: "Ich hab noch hojom lo geachelt," " I have not yet eaten to-day." The mixture of the Israelities in European by marriage with other nations is probably much greater than is acknowledged by them; yet, on the whole, the race has been preserved with extraordinary strictness, as its physical characteristics sufficiently show. Language thus here fails conspicuously as a test of race, and even of national history. Not much less conclusive is the case of the predominantly Negro populations of the West India Islands, who, nevertheless, speak a their native tongues dialects of English or French, in which the number of intermingled native African words is very scanty: "Dem hitti netti na ini watra bikasi dem de fisiman," "They cast a net into the water, because they were fishermen." (Surinam Negro-Eng.) "Bef pas ca jamain lasce poter cones li;" "Le boeuf n'est jamais las de porter ses cornes." (Haytian Negro-Fr.) If it be objected that the linguistic conditions of these two races are more artificial than has been usual in the history of the world, less extreme cases may be seen in countries where the ordinary results of conquest-colonisations have taken place. The Mestizos, who from so large a fraction of the population of modern Mexico, numbering several millions, afford a convenient test in this respect, inasmuch as their intermediate complexion separates them from both their ancestral races, the Spaniard, and the chocolate-brown indigenous Aztec, or other Mexican. The mother-tongue of this mixed race is Spanish, with an infusion of Mexican words; and a large proportion cannot speak any native dialect. In most or all nations of mankind, crossing or intermarriage of races has thus taken place between the conquering invader and the conquered native, so that the language spoken by the nation may represent the results of conquest as much or more than of ancestry. The supersession of the Keltic Cornish by English, and of the Slavonic Old-Prussian by German, are but examples of a process which has for untold ages been supplanting native dialects, whose very names have mostly disappeared. On the other hand, the language of the warlike invader or peaceful immigrant may yield, in a few generation, to the tongue of the mass of the population, as the Northman's was replaced by French, and modern German gives way to English in the United States. Judging, then, by the extirpation and adoption of languages within the range of history, it is obvious that to classify mankind into races, Aryan, Semitic, Turanian, Polynesian, Kafir, &c., on the mere evidence of language, is an intrinsically unsound method. From the earliest times in which nations have been classified by languages, its unrestricted use has vitiated sound ethnology.

Nevertheless, under proper restrictions, speech affords information as to the affinities of races only second in value to the derived from physical characteristics. As a rule, language at least proves some proportion of ancestry. It could hardly happen that one people should come into so close a relation to another as to supplant its language, without strong intermixture of race in the next generation. This is true in the extreme case of the West Indian coloured population, among whom the majority are now crossed with European blood, so that in each succeeding generation the proportion of absolutely pure Negro families becomes less. Still more fully is it true of coloured races in Mexico or Brazil, whose Spanish or Portuguese language represents at least a large European element pf ancestry. Thus in India many millions of people, whose blood is predominantly that of the darker indigenous race, nevertheless speak dialects of the languages of the fairer Aryans; but then they are for the most part distinctly mixed races of partly Aryan ancestry. With these facts before us, it is not difficult to determine the principles on which the ethnologist may use language as partial evidence of race. In the first place, it strengthens the evidence of bodily characters. Thus in South Africa the Zulu seems by colour, features, shape of skull, &c., to be, if not an absolute Negro, of a mixed and modified Negro type. This view of his origin is strengthened by the fact that the Zulu language belongs to the peculiar prefixing family which extends so widely among the Negro nations farther north. So the Hottentot language, in its evident connection with that of the Bushmen, adds its weight to the physical argument, that these two are descendants more or less mixed and varied from a single race, small, yellow, crisp-haired, and speaking an inflectional monosyllabic language, articulated with clicks. In the second place, language may prove race-connection where bodily characteristics, though they do not contradict, do not suffice. Thus, comparing the dark Andalusian with the fair Swede, we ask the question, whether there is distinguishable common parentage between these two varieties of the white man? The anatomist might hesitate here. Nor, indeed, is the physical problem nearly solved, but at least a partial solution is involved in the philologist's proof that the two peoples speak languages inherited at some remote period from a common Aryan tongue, and must therefore have had a common element in their ancestry of at least sufficient strength to carry language with it. Thus each linguistic family affords at least partial evidence of race, proving, for instance, the existence of a common ancestry of the Irishman and the Russian, of the Jew and the Maltese, of the Tahitian and the Malagasy, though in such pairs of races the actual amount of common ancestry may be less than that of the different race-elements with which it has combined.

As regarded political nationality and the history of civilization, the evidence of speech is of still greater weight. In many cases of the mixture of nations the language of the dominant civilization prevails, as where Latin dialects superseded the native tongues in Western Europe, and Germanic languages encroached on Turanian in Finland, on Slavonic in Russia, and on Keltic in the Scotch Highlands. In other cases, where one nation has received elements of civilization from another, language is apt to keep record of the process by adopting foreign words and ideas together. Thus the language of the barbarian Turks has absorbed masses of Arabic, which itself had in like manner absorbed Persian, when Persia was the fountain-head of early Moslem culture. In the same manner Dravidian languages of South India have been saturated with words and phrases from Sanskrit and its related dialects, so that a page of Tamil literature is of itself the proof of a non-Aryan race having received from an Aryan race a whole system of religion, philosophy, and social order. The most extreme cases of such verbal indication of foreign influence are to be found in languages of low races of America and the Pacific, which have adopted from European languages not only terms for imported arts and ideas, but names of such numerals 6 and 7, previously expressed by more clumsy native combinations. Thus the language of any people, though less effective than was once believed as a means of determining its place in the classified order of mankind, does, to some extent, indicate its physical, and, to a still greater extent, its intellectual ancestry.

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