Johann Gottfried Herder 1772
Treatise on the Origin of Language
Source: Herder. Philosophical Writings, ed., Michael N. Forster, publ. CUP;
About half of the essay is excerpted below, also omitting copious editorial notes.
I do not want to pursue the hypothesis of the divine origin of language any further on a metaphysical basis, for its groundlessness is clear psychologically from the fact that in order to understand the language of the gods on Olympus the human being must already have reason and consequently must already have language. Still less can I indulge in a pleasant detailing of the animal languages, for, as we have seen, it turns out that they all stand completely and incommensurably apart from human language. What I renounce least happily here are the many sorts of prospects which would lead from this point of the genesis of language in the human soul into the broad fields of Logic, Aesthetics, and Psychology, especially concerning the question, How far can one think without language, what must one think with language?, a question which subsequently spreads itself in its applications over almost all the sciences. Let it suffice here to note that language is the real differentia of our species from without, as reason is from within.
In more than one language word and reason, concept and word, language and originating cause [Ursache], consequently also share one name, and this synonymy contains its whole genetic origin. With the Easterners it became the most everyday idiom to call the acknowledgment of a thing name-giving, for in the bottom of the soul both actions are one. They call the human being the speaking animal, and the nonrational animals the dumb – the expression characterizes them sensuously, and the Greek word alogos comprises both things. In this way language becomes a natural organ of the understanding, a sense of the human soul, just as the force of vision of that sensitive soul of the ancients builds for itself the eve, and the instinct of the bee builds for itself its cell.
[It is] excellent that this new, self-made sense belonging to the mind is immediately in its origin a means of connection in its turn. I cannot think the first human thought, cannot set up the first aware judgment in a sequence, without engaging in dialogue, or striving to engage in dialogue, in my soul. Hence the first human thought by its very nature prepares one to be able to engage in dialogue with others! The first characteristic mark that I grasp is a characteristic word for me and a communication word for others!
– Sic verba, quibus voces sensusque notarent
Nominaque invenere – Horace
The focal point at which Prometheus’s heavenly spark catches fire in the human soul has been determined. With the first characteristic mark language arose. But which were the first characteristic marks to serve as elements of language,
Cheselden’s blind man shows how slowly sight develops; with what difficulty the soul arrives at the concepts of space, shape, and color; how many attempts must be made, how much geometry must be acquired, in order to use these characteristic marks distinctly. This was not therefore the most suitable sense for language. In addition, its phenomena were so cold and dumb, and the sensations of the cruder senses in their turn so indistinct and mixed up, that according to all nature either nothing or the ear became the first teacher of language.
There, for example, is the sheep. As an image it hovers before the eye with all objects, images, and colors on a single great nature picture. How much to distinguish, and with what effort! All characteristic marks are finely interwoven, beside each other – all still inexpressible! Who can speak shapes? Who can sound colors? He takes the sheep under his groping hand. Feeling is surer and fuller – but so full, so obscurely mixed up. Who can say what he feels? But listen! The sheep bleats! There a characteristic mark of itself tears itself free from the canvas of the color picture in which so little could be distinguished – has penetrated deeply and distinctly into the soul. “Aha!” says the learning child-without-any-say,like that formerly blind man of Cheselden’s, “Now I will know you again. You bleat!” The turtle-dove coos! The dog barks! There are three words, because he tried out three distinct ideas – these ideas for his logic, those words for his vocabulary! Reason and language took a timid step together, and nature came to meet them half-way through hearing. Nature sounded the characteristic mark not only forth but deep into the soul! It rang out! The soul laid hold – and there it has a resounding word!
The human being is therefore, as a listening, noting creature, naturally formed for language, and even a blind and dumb man, one sees, would inevitably invent language, if only he is not without feeling and deaf Put him comfortably and contentedly on a lonely island; nature will reveal itself to him through his ear, a thousand creatures which he cannot see will nonetheless seem to speak with him, and even if his mouth and his eye remained forever closed, his soul does not remain entirely without language. When the leaves of the tree rustle down coolness for the poor lonely one, when the stream that murmurs past rocks him to sleep, and the west wind whistling in fans his cheeks – the bleating sheep gives him milk, the trickling spring water, the rustling tree fruit – interest enough to know these beneficent beings, urgent cause enough, without eyes and tongue, to name them in his soul. The tree will be called the rustler, the west wind the whistler, the spring the trickler. A small vocabulary lies ready there, and awaits the speech organs’ minting. How impoverished and strange, though, would have to be the representations which this mutilated person associates with such sounds!
Now set all of the human being’s senses free, let him simultaneously see and touch and feel all the beings which speak into his ear. Heaven! What a classroom of ideas and language! Bring no Mercury or Apollo down from the clouds as operatic dei ex machina; all of many-sounded, divine nature is language mistress and Muse! There she leads all creatures past him; each bears its name on its tongue, and names itself to this enshrouded, visible god! as his vassal and servant. It delivers unto him its characteristic word into the book of his governance like a tribute, that he may remember it by this name, call it in future, and enjoy it. I ask whether this truth – “Precisely the understanding, through which the human being rules over nature, was the father of a living language, which it abstracted for itself from the sounds of resounding beings as characteristic marks for distinguishing!” whether this dry truth can ever be expressed more nobly and beautifully in an Eastern way than [in the words]: “God led the animals to him that he might see how he should name them! And however he would name them, thus were they to be called!” Where can it be said more definitely in an Eastern, poetic way: the human being invented language for himself! – from the sounds of living nature! – to be characteristic marks of his governing understanding! And that is what I prove.
If an angel or heavenly spirit had invented language, how could it be otherwise than that language’s whole structure would have to be an offprint of this spirit’s manner of thought, For by what else could I recognize a picture that an angel had painted than by the angelic quality, the supernatural quality of its traits?, But where does that happen in the case of our language? Structure and layout, yes, even the first foundation stone of this palace, betrays humanity!
In what language are heavenly, spiritual concepts the first ones? Those concepts which would also have to be the first according to the order of our thinking spirit – subjects, notiones communes, the seeds of our cognition, the points about which everything turns and [to which] every thing leads back – are these living points not elements of language? After all, the subjects would naturally have to have come before the predicate, and the simplest subjects before the compound ones, that which does and acts before what it does, the essential and certain before the uncertain contingent ... Yes, what all could one not infer, and – in our original languages the clear opposite happens throughout. A hearing, listening creature is recognizable but no heavenly spirit, for resounding verbs are the first ruling elements. Resounding verbs? Actions, and still nothing which acts there? Predicates, and still no subject, The heavenly genius may need to be ashamed of that, but not the sensuous, human creature, for what moved the latter – as we have seen – more deeply than these resounding actions? And hence what else is language’s whole manner of construction than a mode of development of this creature’s spirit, a history of its discoveries? The divine origin explains nothing and lets nothing be explained from it, it is, as Bacon says of another subject, a holy Vestal Virgin -consecrated to God but barren, pious but useless!
The first vocabulary was therefore collected from the sounds of the whole world. From each resounding being its name rang out, the human soul impressed its image on them, thought of them as characteristic signs, How could it be otherwise than that these resounding interjections became the first? And so it is that, for example, the Eastern languages are full of verbs as basic roots of language. The thought of the thing itself still hovered between the agent and the action. The sound had to designate the thing, just as the thing gave the sound. Hence from the verbs arose nouns, and not from the nouns verbs. The child names the sheep not as a sheep but as a bleating creature, and hence makes the interjection into a verb. This matter becomes explicable in the context of the steps of development of human sensuality, but not in the context of the logic of the higher spirit.
All old, savage languages are full of this origin, and in a “philosophical dictionary of the Easterners” each stem-word with its family, properly presented and soundly developed, would be a map of the course of the human spirit, a history of its development, and a whole such dictionary would be the most excellent proof of the human soul’s art of invention. But also of God’s linguistic and pedagogical method? I doubt it!
Since the whole of nature resounds, there is nothing more natural for a sensuous human being than that it lives, it speaks, it acts. That savage saw the high tree with its splendid crown and admired. The crown rustled! That is the work of divinity! The savage falls down and prays to it! Behold there the history of the sensuous human being, the obscure link, how nouns arise from the verbs – and the easiest step to abstraction! With the savages of North America, for example, everything is still alive: each thing has its genius, its spirit. And that it was just the same with the Greeks and the Easterners is shown by their oldest vocabulary and grammar they are, as the whole of nature was to the inventor, a pantheon!, a realm of living, acting beings!
But because the human being related everything to himself, because everything seemed to speak with him, and really acted for or against him, because he consequently took sides with or against it, loved or hated it, and imagined everything to be human, all these traces of humanity impressed themselves into the first names as well! They too expressed love or hate, curse or blessing, softness or opposition, and especially there arose from this feeling in so many languages the articles! Here everything became human, personified into woman or man – everywhere gods; goddesses; acting, wicked or good, beings!; the roaring storm and the sweet zephyr; the clear spring and the mighty ocean – their whole mythology lies in the mines, the verbs and nouns, of the ancient languages, and the oldest vocabulary was as much a resounding pantheon, a meeting hall of both genders, as nature was to the senses of the first inventor. Here the language of those ancient savages is a study in the strayings of human imagination and passions , like their mythology. Each family of words is an overgrown bush around a sensuous main idea, around a holy, oak on which there are Still traces of the impression that the inventor had of this Dryad The feelings are woven together for him; what moves lives; what resounds speaks – and since it resounds for You or against you, it is friend or enemy; god or goddess; it acts from passions, like You!
A human, sensuous creature is what I love when I reflect on this manner of thought: I see everywhere the weak and timid sensitive person who must love or hate, trust or fear, and would like to spread these sensations from his own breast over all beings. I see everywhere the weak and yet mighty creature which needs the whole universe and entangles everything into war or peace with itself, which depends on everything and yet rules over everything. – The poetry and the gender-creation of language are hence humanity’s interest, and the genitals of speech, so to speak, the means of its reproduction. But now, if a higher genius brought language down out of the stars, how is this?, Did this genius out of the stars become entangled on our earth under the moon in such passions of love and weakness, of hate and fear, that he wove everything into liking and hate, that he marked all words with fear and joy, that he, finally, constructed everything on the basis of gender pairings? Did he see and feel as a human being sees, so that the nouns had to pair off into genders and articles for him, so that he put the verbs together in the active and the passive, accorded them so many legitimate and illegitimate children – in short, so that he constructed the whole language on the basis of the feeling of human weaknesses? Did he see and feel in this way?
To a defender of the supernatural origin [of language] it is divine ordering of language “that most stem-words have one syllable, verbs are mostly of two syllables, and hence language is arranged in accordance with the measure of memory.” The fact is inexact and the inference unsure. In the remains of the language which is accepted as being most ancient the roots are all verbs of two syllables, which fact, now, I can explain very well from what I said above, whereas the opposite hypothesis finds no support. These verbs, namely, are immediately built on the sounds and interjections of resounding nature – which often still resound in them, and are here and there even still preserved in them as interjections; but for the most part, as semi-unarticulated sounds, they were inevitably lost when the language developed. Hence in the Eastern languages these first attempts of the stammering tongue are absent; but the fact that they. are absent, and that only their regular remains resound in the verbs, precisely this testifies to the originality and ... the humanity of language. Are these stems treasures and abstractions from God’s understanding, or rather the first sounds of the listening ear, the first noises of the stammering tongue? For of course the human species in its childhood formed for itself precisely the language which a child-without-any-say stammers; it is the babbling vocabulary of the wet-nurse’s quarters – but where does that remain in the mouths of adults?
The thing that so many ancients say , and so many moderns have repeated without sense, wins from this its sensuous life, namely “that poetry was older than prose!” For what was this first language but a collection of elements of poetry? Imitation of resounding, acting, stirring nature! Taken from the interjections of all beings and enlivened by the interjection of human sensation! The natural language of all creatures poetized by the understanding into sounds, into images of action, of passion, and of living effect! A vocabulary of the soul which is simultaneously a mythology and a wonderful epic of the actions and speakings of all beings! Hence a constant poetic creation of fable with passion and interest! What else is poetry?
In addition. The tradition of antiquity says: the first language of the human species was song. And many good, musical people have believed that human beings could well have learned this song from the birds. That is, it must be admitted, a lot to swallow! A great, heavy clock with all its sharp wheels and newly stretched springs and hundredweight weights can to be sure produce a carillon of tones. But to set forth the newly created human being, with his driving motives, with his needs, with his strong sensations, with his almost blindly preoccupied attention, and finally with his primitive throat, so that he might ape the nightingale, and from the nightingale sing himself a language, is – however many histories of music and poetry it may be asserted in – unintelligible to me. To be sure, a language through musical tones would be possible (however Leibniz arrived at this idea!). But for the first natural human beings this language was not possible, so artificial and fine is it. In the chain of beings each thing has its voice and a language in accordance with its voice. The language of love is sweet song in the nest of the nightingale, as it is roaring in the cave of the lion; in the deer’s forest it is troating lust, and in the cat’s den a caterwaul. Each species speaks its own language of love, not for the human being but for itself, and for itself as pleasantly as Petrarch’s song to his Laura! Hence as little as the nightingale sings in order to sing as an example for human beings, the way people imagine, just as little will the human being ever want to invent language for himself by trilling in imitation of the nightingale. And then really, what sort of monster is this: a human nightingale in a cave or in the game forest.
So if the first human language was song, it was song which was as natural to the human being, as appropriate to his organs and natural drives, as the nightingale’s song was natural to the nightingale, a creature which is, so to speak, a hovering lung – and that was ... precisely our resounding language. Condillac, Rousseau, and others were half on the right track here in that they derive the meter and song of the oldest languages from the cry of sensation -and without doubt sensation did indeed enliven the first sounds and elevate them. But since from the mere sounds of sensation human language could never have arisen, though this song certainly was such a language, something more is still needed in order to produce this song – and that was precisely the naming of each creature in accordance with its own language. So there sang and resounded the whole of nature as an example, and the human being’s song was a concerto of all these voices, to the extent that his understanding needed them, his sensation grasped them, his organs were able to express them. Song was born, but neither a nightingale’s song nor Leibniz’s musical language nor a mere animals’ cry of sensation: an expression of the language of all creatures within the natural scale of the human voice!
Even when language later became more regular, monotonous, and regimented [gereiht], it still remained a species of song, as the accents of so many savages bear witness; and that the oldest poetry and music arose from this song, subsequently made nobler and finer, has now already been proved by more than one person. The philosophical Englishman who in our century tackled this origin of poetry and music could have got furthest if he had not excluded the spirit of language from his investigation and had aimed less at his system of confining poetry and music to a single point of unification – in which neither of them can show itself in its true light – than at the origination of both from the whole nature of the human being. In general, because the best pieces of ancient poetry are remains from these language-singing times, the misconceptions, misappropriations, and misguided errors of taste that have been spelled forth from the course of the most ancient poems, of the Greek tragedies, and of the Greek orations are quite countless. How much could still be said here by a philosopher who had learned among the savages, where this age still lives, the tone in which to read these pieces! Otherwise, and usually, people only ever see the weave of the back of the carpet!, disjecti membra poetae! But I would lose myself in an immeasurable field if I were to go into individual observations about language – so back to the first path of the invention of language!
How words arose from sounds minted into characteristic marks by the understanding was very intelligible, but not all objects make sounds. Whence, then, characteristic words for these [other] objects for the soul to name them with, Whence the human being’s art of turning something that is not noise into noise., What does color, roundness have in common with the name which arises from it just as the name ‘bleating’ arises from the sheep ? The defenders of the supernatural origin [of language] immediately have a solution here: “[This happens] by arbitrary volition! Who can comprehend, and investigate in God’s understanding, why green is called ‘green’ and not ‘blue’? Clearly, that is the way he wanted it!” And thus the thread [of inquiry] is cut off! All philosophy about the art of inventing language thus hovers arbitrarily-voluntarily in the clouds, and for us each word is a qualitas occulta, something arbitrarily willed! Only it may not be taken ill that in this case I do not understand the term ‘arbitrarily willed.? To invent a language out of one’s brain by arbitrary volition and without any ground of choice is, at least for a human soul, which Wants to have a ground, even if only a single ground, for everything, as much a torture as it is for the body to have itself tickled to death. Moreover, in the case of a primitive, sensuous natural human being whose forces are not yet fine enough to play aiming at what is useless, who, in his lack of practice and his strength, does nothing without a pressing cause, and wants to do nothing in vain, the invention of a language out of insipid, empty arbitrary volition is opposed to the whole analogy of his nature.
And in general, it is opposed to the whole analogy of all human forces of soul, a language thought out from pure arbitrary volition.
So, to the matter. How was the human being, left to his own forces, also able even to invent for himself.
II. a language when no sound resounded for him as an example?
How are sight and hearing, color and word, scent and sound, connected Not among themselves in the objects. But what, then, are these properties in the objects? They are merely sensuous sensations in us, and as such do they not all flow into one, We are a single thinking sensorium commune, only touched from various sides. There lies the explanation.
Feeling forms the basis of all the senses, and this already gives to the most diverse sensations such an inward, strong, inexpressible bond that the strangest phenomena arise from this connection. I am familiar with more than one example in which people, perhaps due to an impression from childhood, by nature could not but through a sudden onset immediately associate with this sound that color, with this phenomenon that quite different, obscure feeling, which in the light of leisurely reason’s comparison has no relation with it at all – for who can compare sound and color, phenomenon and feeling? We are full of such connections of the most different senses, only we do not notice them except in onsets which make us beside ourselves, in sicknesses of the imagination, or on occasions when they become unusually noticeable. The normal course of our thoughts proceeds so quickly, the waves of our sensations rush so obscurely into each other, there is so much in our soul at once, that in regard to most ideas we are as though asleep by a spring where to be sure we still hear the rush of each wave, but so obscurely that in the end sleep takes away from us all noticeable feeling. If it were possible for us to arrest the chain of our thoughts and look at each link for its connection, what strange phenomena!, what foreign analogies among the most different senses – in accordance with which, however, the soul habitually acts! In the eyes of a merely rational being, we would all be similar to that type of madmen who think cleverly but combine very unintelligibly and foolishly!
In the case of sensuous creatures who have sensation through many different senses simultaneously this collecting together of ideas is unavoidable, for what are all the senses but mere modes of representation of a single positive force of the soul? We distinguish them, but once again only through senses; hence modes of representation through modes of representation. With much effort we learn to separate them in use – but in a certain basis they still function together. All dissections of sensation in the case of Buffon’s, Condillac’s, and Bonnet’s sensing human being are abstractions; the philosopher has to neglect one thread of sensation in pursuing the other, but in nature all these threads are a single web! Now, the more obscure the senses are, the more they flow into each other; and the more untrained they are, the less a person has yet learned to use one without the other, to use it with skill and distinctness, then the more obscure they are! – Let us apply this to the beginning of language! The childhood and inexperience of the human species made language easier!
The human being stepped into the world. What an ocean immediately fell upon him! With what difficulty did he learn to distinguish!, to recognize senses!, to use recognized senses alone! Vision is the coldest sense , and if it had always been as cold, as remote, as distinct as it has become for us through an effort and training lasting many years, then indeed I would not see how one can make audible what one sees. But nature has taken care of this and has shortened the path, for even this vision was, as children and formerly blind people testify, to begin with only feeling. Most visible things move, many make a sound when they move, and where not, then they, so to speak, lie closer to the eve in its initial condition, immediately upon it, and can hence be felt. Feeling lies so close to hearing; I its descriptive terms, for example, hart, rauh, weich, wollig, sammt, haarig, starr, glatt, schlicht, borstig, etc., which of course all concern only surfaces and do not even penetrate deeply, all make a sound as though one felt the thing. The soul, which stood in the throng of such a confluence of sensations, and in need of forming a word, reached out and got hold perhaps of the word of a neighboring sense whose feeling flowed together with this one. In this way words arose for all the senses, and even for the coldest of them. Lightning does not make a noise, but if it is to be expressed, this messenger of midnight!,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both hem en and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say , “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
then naturally this will be done by a word which through the help of an intermediary feeling gives the ear the sensation of what is most suddenly quick which the eye had: Blitz! The words Duft, Ton, suss, bitter, sauer, etc. all make a sound as though one felt – for what else are all the senses originally but feeling? But how feeling can express itself in sound – this we have already in the first section accepted as an immediate natural law of the sensing machine which we may explain no further!
And hence all the difficulties lead back to the following two proven, distinct propositions: 1) Since all the senses are nothing but modes of representation belonging to the soul, let the soul only have distinct representation, and consequently a characteristic mark, and with the characteristic mark it has inner language.
2) Since all the senses, especially in the condition of human childhood, are nothing but ways of feeling belonging to a soul, but all feeling according to a law of sensation pertaining to animal nature immediately has its sound, let this feeling only be elevated to the distinctness of a characteristic mark, then the word for external language is present. Here we come to a mass of special observations concerning “how nature’s wisdom has thoroughly organized the human being so that he might invent language for himself.” Here is the main observation:
“Since the human being only receives the language of teaching nature through the sense of hearing, and without this cannot invent language, hearing in a certain way became the middle one of his senses, the actual door to the soul, and the bond connecting the other senses.” I want to explain myself!
1) Hearing is the middle one of the human senses in regard to sphere of sensitivity from outside. Feeling senses everything only in itself and in its organ; vision throws us far outside ourselves; hearing stands in its degree of communicativity in the middle. What does that do for language. Suppose a creature, even a rational creature, for whom feeling were the main sense (if this is possible!). How small its world is! And since it does not sense this through hearing, it will no doubt perhaps like the insect construct a web for itself, but it will not construct for itself a language through sounds! Again, a creature that is all eye. How inexhaustible the world of its visual observations is! How immeasurably far it is thrown outside itself! Dispersed into what infinite manifoldness! Its spoken language (we have no idea of it!) would become a sort of infinitely fine pantomime, its writing an algebra by means of colors and strokes – but resounding language never! We creatures who hear stand in the middle: we see, we feel, but seen, felt nature resounds! It becomes a teacher of language through sounds! We become, so to speak, hearing through all our senses!
Let us feel the comfortableness of our position – through it each sense becomes capable of language. To be sure, only hearing actually gives sounds, and the human being cannot invent but only find, only imitate. But on the one side feeling lies next door, and on the other side vision is the neighboring sense. The sensations unite together and hence all approach the region where characteristic marks turn into sounds. In this way, what one sees, what one feels, becomes soundable as well. The sense for language has become our middle and unifying sense; we are linguistic creatures.
2) Hearing is the middle one among the senses in respect of distinctness and clarity, and hence again the sense for language. How obscure is feeling! It gets stunned [übertaübt]! It senses everything mixed up. There it is difficult to separate off a characteristic mark for acknowledgment; it proves inexpressible!
Again, vision is so bright and blinding [überglanzend], it supplies such a mass of characteristic marks, that the soul succumbs under the manifoldness, and can for example separate one of them off only so weakly that recognition by means of it becomes weak. Hearing is in the middle. It leaves aside all feeling’s mixed-up, obscure characteristic marks. All vision’s excessively fine characteristic marks as well! But does a sound tear itself free there from the felt, observed object? Into this sound the characteristic marks of those two senses gather themselves – this becomes a characteristic word! So hearing reaches out on both sides; it makes clear what was too obscure, it makes pleasanter what was too bright, it introduces more unity into the obscure manifold of feeling, and also into the excessively bright manifold of vision; and since this acknowledgment of the manifold through one, through a characteristic mark, becomes language, hearing is language.
3) Hearing is the middle sense with respect to liveliness and hence the sense for language. Feeling overpowers [überwältigt]; vision is too cold and indifferent. The former penetrates too deeply into us to be able to become language; the latter remains too much at rest before us. Hearing’s sound penetrates so intimately into our souls that it inevitably becomes a characteristic mark, but still not so stunningly[übertäubend] that it could not become a clear characteristic mark. That is the sense for language.
How brief, tiring, and unbearable the language of any cruder sense would be for us! How confusing and mind-emptying the language of excessively fine vision! Who can always taste, feel, and smell without soon, as Pope says, dying an aromatic death? And who always attentively gape at a color-piano without soon going blind? But we can for longer and almost for ever hear, think words with hearing, so to speak; hearing is for the soul what green, the middle color, is for sight. The human being is formed to be a linguistic creature.
4) Hearing is the middle sense in relation to the time in which it operates, and hence the sense for language. Feeling casts everything into us at once, it stirs our strings strongly but briefly and in jumps. Vision presents everything to us at once, and hence intimidates the pupil through the immeasurable canvas of its side-by-side. Behold how [nature] the teacher of language spares us through hearing! She counts sounds into our souls only one after another, gives and never tires, gives and always has more to give. She thus practices the whole knack of method: she teaches progressiively! Who in these circumstances could not grasp language, invent language for himself?
5) Hearing is the middle sense in relation to the need to express oneself, and hence the sense for language. Feeling operates too obscurely to be expressed; but so much the less may it be expressed – it concerns our self so much!, it is so selfish and self-engrossed! Vision is inexpressible for the inventor of language; but why does it need to be expressed immediately? The objects remain! They can be shown by means of gestures! But the objects of hearing are bound up with movement; they proceed past; but precisely thereby they also resound. They become expressible because they must be expressed, and through the fact that they must be expressed, through their movement, do they become expressible. What an ability for language!
6) Hearing is the middle sense in relation to its development, and hence the sense for language. The human being is feeling through and through: the embryo in its first moment of life feels as does the infant; that is the natural stem out of which the more delicate branches of sensuality grow , and the tangled ball out of which all finer forces of the soul unfold. How do these unfold? As we have seen, through hearing, since nature awakens the soul to its first distinct sensation through sounds. Hence, so to speak, awakens it out of the obscure sleep of feeling and ripens it to still finer sensuality. If, for example, vision was already there unfolded before hearing, or if it were possible that it should be awakened out of feeling otherwise than through the middle sense of hearing -what wise poverty!, . what clairvoyant stupidity! How difficult it would become for such a creature – all eye!, when it should instead be a human being – to name what it saw!, to unite cold vision with warmer feeling, with the whole stem of humanity! However, the very governing assumption [Instanz]turns out to be self-contradictory; the way to the unfolding of human nature – is better and single! Since all the senses function cooperatively, through the sense of hearing we are, so to speak, always in nature’s school, learning to abstract and simultaneously to speak; vision refines itself with reason reason and the talent of referring. And so when the human being comes to the most subtle characterization of visual phenomena – what a store of language and linguistic similarities already lies ready! He took the path from feeling into the sense of his visual images [Phantasmen]no otherwise than via the sense of language, and has hence learned to sound forth what he sees as much as what he felt.
If I could now bring all the ends together here and make visible simultaneously that web called human nature: through and through a web for language. For this, we saw, were space and sphere granted to this positive force of thought; for this were its content and matter measured out; for this were shape and form created; finally, for this were the senses organized and ordered – for language! This is why the human being does not think more clearly or more obscurely; this is why he does not see and feel more sharply, at greater length, more vividly; this is why he has these senses, not more and not different ones – everything counterbalances!, is spared and substituted for!, is disposed and distributed intentionally! – unity and connection!, proportion and order!, a whole!, a system!, a creature of awareness and language, of taking-awareness and creating language! If someone after all [our] observations still wanted to deny this destiny [of the human being] as a linguistic creature, he would have to begin by turning from being nature’s observer into being its destroyer! He would have to tear apart all the indicated harmonies into discords, strike the whole magnificent structure of human forces into ruins, lay waste its sensuality, and in place of nature’s masterpiece feel a creature full of shortcomings and gaps, full of weaknesses and convulsions! And if then now, on the other hand, “language also precisely is as it had to become according to the basic outline and momentum of the preceding creature?”
I shall proceed to the proof of this latter position, although a very pleasant stroll would still lie before me here calculating in accordance with the rules of Sulzer’s theory of pleasure “what sorts of advantages and comforts a language through hearing might have for us over the language of other senses.” That stroll would lead too far, though; and one must forgo it when the main road still stretches far ahead in need of securing and rectifying. – So, first of all:
I. “The older and more original languages are, the more noticeable becomes this analogy of the senses in their roots!”
Although in later languages we characterize anger in its roots as a phenomenon of the visible face or as an abstraction – for example, through the flashing of the eyes, the glowing of the cheeks, etc. – and hence only see it or think it, the Easterner hears it! He hears it snort!, hears it spray burning smoke and storming sparks! That became the stem"? of the word; the nose the seat of anger; the whole family of anger words and anger metaphors snort their origin.
If for us life expresses itself through the pulse, through undulation and fine characteristic marks, in language too, it revealed itself to the Easterner respiring aloud – the human being lived when he breathed, died when he breathed out his last, and one hears the root of the word breathe like the first living Adam.
If we characterize giving birth in our way, the Easterner hears even in the names for it the cry of the mother’s fear, or in the case of animals the shaking out of an afterbirth. This is the central idea around which his images revolve!
If we in the word dawn [Morgenröte]obscurely hear such things as the beauty, the shining, the freshness, the enduring nomad in the Orient feels even in the root of the word the first, rapid, delightful ray of light which one of us has perhaps never seen, or at least never felt with the sense of feeling. – The examples from ancient and savage languages of how heartily and with what strong sensation they, characterize on the basis of hearing and feeling become countless, and “a work of this sort that really sought out the basic feeling of such ideas in various peoples” would be a complete demonstration of my thesis and of the human invention of language.
II. “The older and more original languages are, the more feelings also intersect in the roots of the words.”
Let one open any available Eastern dictionary and one will see the impetus of the desire to achieve self-expression! How the inventor tore ideas out of one type of feeling and borrowed them for another!; how he borrowed most in the case of the heaviest, coldest, distinctest senses!; how everything had to become feeling and sound in order to become expression! Hence the strong, bold metaphors in the roots of the words! Hence the metaphorical transferences from one type of feeling to another, so that the meanings of a stem-word, and still more those of its derivatives, set in contrast with one another, turn into the most motley picture. The genetic cause lies in the poverty, of the human soul and in the confluence of the sensations of a primitive human being. One sees his need to express himself so distinctly; one sees it to an ever greater extent the further away in sensation the idea lay from feeling and sound – so that one may no longer doubt the human character of the origin of language. For how do the champions of another origination claim to explain this interweaving of ideas in the roots of words ? ? M as God so poor in ideas and words that he had to resort to such confusing word usage’. Or was he such a lover of hyperboles, of outlandish metaphors, that he imprinted this spirit into the very basic-roots of his language?
The so-called divine language, the Hebrew language, is entirely imprinted with these examples of daring, so that the Orient even has the honor of designating them with its name. Only, let this spirit of metaphor please not, though, be called ‘Asiatic’ as if it were not to be found anywhere else! It lives in all savage languages – only, to be sure, in each one in proportion to the nation’s level of civilization [Bildung]and in accordance with the peculiar character of the nation’s manner of thought. A people which did not distinguish its feelings much and did not distinguish them sharply, a people which did not have enough heart to express itself and to steal expressions mightily, will also be less at a loss because of nuances in feeling, or will make do with slothful semi-expressions. A fiery nation reveals its courage in such metaphors, whether it lives in the Orient or in North America. But the nation which in its deepest ground reveals the most such transplantations has the language which was the poorest, the oldest, the most original ahead of others, and this nation was certainly in the Orient.
One sees how difficult “a true etymological dictionary” must be in the case of such a language. The so very diverse meanings of a root which are supposed to be deduced and traced back to their origin in a genealogical chart are only related through such obscure feelings, through fleeting side ideas, through coinciding sensations [Mitempfindungen], which rise up from the bottom of the soul and can be but little grasped in rules! Moreover, their relationships are so national, so much according to the peculiar manner of thinking and seeing of that people, of that inventor, in that land, in that time, in those circumstances, that they are infinitely difficult for a Northerner and Westerner to get right, and must suffer infinitely in long, cold paraphrases. Moreover, since they were forced into existence by necessity, and were invented in affect, in feeling, in the need for expression – what a stroke of fortune is necessary to hit on the same feeling! And finally, since in a dictionary of this kind the words and the meanings of a word are supposed to be gathered together from such diverse times, occasions, and manners of thinking, and these momentary determinations hence increase in number ad infinitum, how the labor multiplies here!, what insightfulness [is necessary] to penetrate into these circumstances and needs, and what moderation to keep within reasonable bounds in this in one’s interpretations of various times!, what knowledge and flexibility of soul is required to give oneself so completely this primitive wit, this bold imagination, this national feeling of foreign times, and not ,6 to modernize it according to ours! But precisely thereby there would also “be borne a torch not merely into the history, manner of thinking, and literature of the land, but quite generally into the obscure region of the human soul, where concepts intersect and get entangled!, where the most diverse feelings produce one another, where a pressing occasion summons forth all the forces of the soul and reveals the whole art of invention of which the soul is capable.” Every step in such a work would be discovery! And every new observation would be the fullest proof of the human character of the origin of language.
Schultens has earned himself renown in the development of several such origins of the Hebrew language. Each of these developments is a proof of my rule. But for many reasons I do not believe that the origins of the first human language, even if it were the Hebrew language, can ever be developed fully.
I infer a further remark which is too universal and important to be omitted. The basis of the bold verbal metaphors lay in the first invention. But what is going on when late afterwards, when all need has already disappeared, such species of words and images remain out of mere addiction to imitation or love for antiquity? And even get extended and elevated further, Then, oh then, it turns into the sublime nonsense, the turgid wordplay which in the beginning it actually was not. In the beginning it was bold, manly wit which perhaps meant to play least at the times when it seemed to play most! It was primitive sublimity of imagination that worked out such a feeling in such a word. But now in the hands of insipid imitators, without such a feeling, without such an occasion ... ah!, ampullae of words without spirit! And that has “been the fate in later times of all those languages whose first forms were so bold.” The later French poets cannot stray in peaks because the first inventors of their language did not stray in peaks; their whole language is sound reason’s prose and originally has virtually no poetic word that might belong to the poet. But the Easterners? The Greeks? The English? And we Germans?
From this it follows that the older a language is, the more such bits of boldness there are in its roots, if it has lived for a long time, has developed for a long time, then so much the less must one automatically head for every original bit of boldness as though every one of these intersecting concepts had also on every occasion in every late use been thought of as a component. The original metaphor was [a result of] the impulse to speak. If later, in every case when the word had already gained currency and had worn down its sharpness, it is taken to be fruitfulness and energy to combine all such peculiarities – what miserable examples abound before us in whole schools of the Eastern languages!
One more thing, If, pushing things further, certain fine concepts of a dogma, of a system, adhere to, or get fixed to, or are supposed to be investigated from, such bold word struggles, such transpositions of feelings into an expression, such intersections of ideas without rule or plumb-line heaven!, how little were these word experiments of an emerging or early emerged language the definitions of a system, and how often people end up creating word idols of which the inventor or later usage had no thought! But such remarks would go on for ever. I proceed to a new canon:
III. “The more original a language is, the more frequently such feelings intersect in it, then the less these can be exactly and logically subordinated to each other. The language is rich in synonyms; for all its essential poverty it has the greatest unnecessary excess.”
The defenders of the divine origin, who know how to find divine order in everything, can hardly find it here, and deny the synonyms. Deny them? Fine then, let it be the case that among the 50 words that the Arab has for the lion, among the 200 that he has for the snake, among the So that he has for honey, and among the more than 1,000 that he has for the sword fine distinctions are present, or would have been present but have been lost. Why were they there if they were bound to be lost? Why did God invent an unnecessary vocabulary which, as the Arabs say, only a divine prophet was able to grasp in its entire scope? Did He invent for the emptiness of oblivion, Comparatively speaking, though, these words are still synonyms, considering the many other ideas for which words are quite lacking. Now let someone, then, unfold divine order in the fact that He who enjoyed oversight of the plan of language invented 70 words for the stone, and none for all the so essential ideas, Inner feelings, and abstractions, that He in the former case smothered with unnecessary excess, but in the latter case abandoned in the greatest poverty, so that people had to steal, to usurp metaphors, to talk semi-nonsense, etc.
Humanly, the matter explains itself As improperly as difficult, rare ideas had to be expressed could the available and easy ideas be expressed frequently. The less familiar one was with nature, the more sides one could look at it from and hardly recognize it because of inexperience, the less one invented a priori but in accordance with sensuous circumstances, then the more synonyms! The more people invented, the more nomadic and separated they were when they invented, and yet for the most part invented only in a single circle for a single kind of things, then, when they afterwards came together, when their languages flowed into an ocean of vocabulary, the more synonyms! They could not be thrown away , all of them. For which should be thrown away? They were current with this tribe, with this family, with this poet. And so it became, as that Arab dictionary writer said when he had counted up 400 words for misery, the four hundredth misery to have to count up the words for misery. Such a language is rich because it is poor, because its inventors did not yet have enough of a plan to become poor. And that futile inventor of precisely the most imperfect language would be God?
The analogies of all savage languages confirm my thesis: each of them is in its way prodigal and needy – only each in its own manner. If the Arab has so many words for stone, camel, sword, snake (things among which he lives!), then the language of Ceylon is, in accordance with its people’s inclinations, rich in flatteries, titles, and verbal ornamentation. For the word ‘woman’ it has twelve sorts of names according to class and rank, whereas we impolite Germans, for example, have to borrow in this area from our neighbors. Thou and you are articulated in eight sorts of ways according to class and rank, and this as much by the daylaborer as by the courtier. This jumble is the form of the language. In Si am there are eight ways of saying I and we, depending on whether the lord is speaking with the slave or the slave with the lord. The language of the savage Caribs is almost divided into two languages belonging to the women and the men, and the most common things – bed, moon, sun, bow – the two sexes name differently. What an excess of synonyms! And yet precisely these Caribs have only four words for the colors, to which they must refer all others. What poverty! The Hurons have in each case a double verb for something that has a soul and something that lacks a soul, so that seeing in ‘seeing a stone’ and seeing in ‘seeing a human being’ are always two different expressions. Let one pursue that principle through the whole of nature. What a richness! ‘To use one’s own property’ or ‘the property of the person with whom one is speaking’ always has two different words. What a richness! In the main language of Peru the genders are named in such a peculiarly distinct way that the sister of a brother and the sister of a sister, the child of a father and the child of a mother, are called something quite different. And yet precisely this language has no real plural! -Each of these cases of synonymy is so interconnected with the custom, character, and origin of the people – but everywhere the inventing human spirit reveals its stamp. – A new canon:
IV “Just as the human soul can recollect no abstraction from the realm of spirits that it did not arrive at through occasions and awakenings of the senses, likewise also no language has an abstractum that it did not arrive at through sound and feeling. And the more original the language, then the fewer abstractions, the more feelings.” In this immeasurable field I can again only pick flowers:
The whole construction of the Eastern languages bears witness that all their abstracta were previously sensualities: Spirit was wind, breath, nocturnal storm! Holy meant separate, alone. Soul meant breath. Anger meant the snorting of the nose. Etc. The more universal concepts were hence only accreted to language"? later through abstraction, wit, imagination, simile, analogy, etc. – in the deepest abyss of language there lies not a single one of them!"’
With all savages the same thing happens, according to the level of the culture. In the language of Barantola the word holy, and with the Hottentots the word spirit, could not be found. All missionaries in all parts of the world complain about the difficulty of communicating Christian concepts to savages in their own languages, and yet of course these communications are never supposed to be a scholastic dogmatics but only the common concepts of the common understanding. If one reads here and there samples of this presentation among the savages, or even only among the uncivilized languages of Europe, for example the Lapp, Finnish, or Estonian languages, in translation and looks at the grammars and dictionaries of these peoples, the difficulties become obvious.
If one is not willing to believe the missionaries, then let one read the philosophers: de la Condamine in Peru and on the Amazon river, Maupertius in Lapland, etc. Time, duration, space, essence, matter, body, virtue, justice, freedom, gratitude do not exist in the tongue of the Peruvians, even though they often show with their reason that they, infer in accordance with these concepts, and show with their deeds that they have these virtues. As long as they have not made the idea clear to themselves as a characteristic mark, they have no word for it.
“Where, therefore, such words have entered the language, one clearly recognizes in them their origin.” The church language of the Russian nation is for the most part Greek. The Christian concepts of the Latvians are German words or German concepts transposed into Latvian. The Mexican who wants to express his poor sinner paints him as someone kneeling who is making auricular confession, and his triunity as three faces with halos. It is known by what routes most abstractions have entered “into our scientific language,” into theology and law, into philosophy and other subjects. It is known how often scholastics and polemicists could not even fight with words of their own language and hence had to import arms (hypostasis and substance, homoousios and homoiousios) from those languages in which the concepts were abstracted, in which the arms were whetted! Our whole psychology, as refined and precise as it is, has no word of its own.
This is so true that it is not even possible for mystic fanatics and the enraptured to characterize their new secrets from nature, from heaven and hell, otherwise than through images and sensuous representations. Swedenborg could not do otherwise than intuit-together his angels and spirits out of all the senses, and the sublime Klopstock – the greatest antithesis to him! -could not do otherwise than construct his heaven and hell from sensuous materials. The Negro intuits his gods down from the treetops for himself, and the Chinghailese hears his devil into existence for himself from the noise of the forests. I have crept in pursuit of several of these abstractions among various peoples, in various languages, and have perceived “the strangest tricks of invention of the human spirit.” The subject is much too large, but the basis is always the same. “When the savage thinks that this thing has a spirit, then there must be a sensuous thing present from which he abstracts the spirit for himself.” Only the abstraction has its very diverse species, levels, and methods. – The easiest example of the fact that no nation has in its language more or other words than it has learned to abstract is those doubtless very easy abstractions, the numbers. How few do most savages have, however rich, excellent, and developed their languages may be! Never more than they needed. The trading Phoenician was the first to invent arithmetic; the shepherd who counts his flock also learns to count; the hunting nations, which never have work involving large numbers, only know to describe an army as like hairs on a head! Who can count them? Who, if he has never counted up so high, has words for this?
Is it possible to disregard all these traces of the changing, language-creating mind, and to seek an origin in the clouds? What sort of proof does anyone have of a “single word which only God could have invented?” Does there exist in any, language even a single pure universal concept which came to man from heaven? Where is it even merely possible? “And what 100,000 grounds and analogies and proofs there are of the genesis of language in the human soul in accordance with the human senses and manners of seeing! What proofs there are of the progress of language with reason, and of its development out of reason, among all peoples, latitudes, and circumstances!” Whatear is there that does not hear this universal voice of the nations?
And yet I see with astonishment that Mr. Süßmilch again confronts me and on the path where I discover the most human order imaginable finds divine order.” “That no language has at present yet been discovered which was entirely unsuited to arts and sciences” – what else does that show, then, than that no language is brutish, that they are all human? Where, then, has anyone discovered a human being who was entirely unsuited to arts and sciences? And was that a miracle? Or not precisely the most common thing, because he was a human being? “All missionaries have been able to talk with the most savage peoples and to convince them. That could not have happened without inferences and grounds. Their languages therefore must have contained abstract terms, etc.” And if that was so, was it divine order, Or was it not precisely the most human thing, to abstract words for oneself where one needed them? And what people has ever had even a single abstraction in its language which it did not acquire for itself ? And then, were there an equal number in the case of all peoples? Were the missionaries able to express themselves equally easily everywhere, or has one not read the opposite from all parts of the world? And how, then, did they express themselves but by molding their new concepts onto the language according to analogy with it? And did this everywhere happen in the same manner- About the fact so much, so much could be said! The inference says entirely the opposite: “Precisely because human reason cannot exist without abstraction, and each abstraction does not come to be without language, it must also be the case that in every people language contains abstractions, that is, is an offprint of reason, of which it was a tool.” “But as each language contains only as many abstractions as the people was able to make, and not a single one that was made without the senses, as is shown by its originally sensuous expression, it follows that divine order is nowhere to be seen except insofar as language is through and through human.”
V. Finally, “since every grammar is only a philosophy about language and a method for language’s use, the more original the language, the less grammar there must be in it, and the oldest language is just the previously indicated vocabulary of nature!” I shall sketch a few amplifications.
1) Declensions and conjugations are nothing but abbreviations and determinations of the use of nouns and verbs according to number, tense
and mood, and person. Hence, the more primitive a language is, the more irregular it is in these determinations, and it shows in each step forward the course of human reason. Initially, in the absence of art in use, language is mere vocabulary.
2) Just as the verbs of a language are earlier than the nouns roundly abstracted from them, likewise also at the beginning, the less people have learned to subordinate concepts to one another, the more conjugations there are. How many the Easterners have! And yet there are really none – for what transplantations and violent transpositions of verbs from conjugation into conjugation still occur! The matter is quite natural. Since nothing concerns the human being as much, or at least touches him as much linguistically, as what he is supposed to narrate, deeds, actions, events, it is inevitable that such a mass of deeds and events accumulates originally that there comes to be a new verb for almost every condition. “In the Huron language everything gets conjugated. An art that cannot be explained allows the nouns, pronouns, and adverbs to be distinguished in it from the verbs. The simple verbs have a double conjugation, one for themselves and one which refers to other things. The forms of the third person have both genders. Concerning tenses, one finds the fine distinctions which one observes, for example, in Greek; indeed, if one wants to give the account of a journey, one expresses oneself differently depending on whether one has made it by land or by water. The active forms multiply as many times as there are things that fall under the action; the word ‘eat’ changes with every edible thing. The action of an ensouled thing is expressed differently from that of a thing without a soul. To use one’s own property and that of the person with whom one is speaking has two forms of expression. Etc.” Let one imagine all this multiplicity of verbs’ moods, tenses, persons, conditions, genders, etc. – what effort and art [it would take] to set this in hierarchical order to some extent! To turn what was entirely vocabulary into grammar to some extent! Father Leri’s grammar of the Topinambuans in Brazil shows exactly the same thing! For “just as the first vocabulary of the human soul was a living epic of resounding, acting nature, so the first grammar was virtually nothing but a philosophical attempt to turn this epic into more regular history.” It therefore works itself to exhaustion with very verbs, and works in a chaos which is inexhaustible for the art of poetry, when more ordered very rich for the determining of history, but last of all usable for axioms and demonstrations.
3) The word which immediately followed the sound of nature, imitating it, already followed something past: “past tenses are hence the roots of verbs, but past tenses which still almost hold for the present.” A priori the fact is strange and inexplicable, since the present time ought to be the first, as indeed it has come to be in all languages were formed later. But according to the history of the invention of language it could not have been otherwise. “One shows the present, but one has to narrate what is past.” And since one could narrate what was past in so many ways, and to begin with, in the need to find words, had to do this so diversely, there arose “in all ancient languages many past tenses but only one or no present tense.” In more civilized [gebildeteren] ages, now, the art of poetry and history inevitably found much to rejoice at in this, but philosophy very little, because philosophy does not like a confusing stock. – Here Hurons, Brazilians, Easterners, and Greeks are again alike: everywhere traces of the course of the human spirit!
4) All modern philosophical languages have modified the noun more finely, the verb less but more regularly. For language grew more “for cold observation of what exists and what existed rather than still remaining an irregularly stammering mixture of what perhaps existed.” People got used to expressing the former one thing after another, and hence to determining it through numbers and articles and cases, etc. “The ancient inventors wanted to say everything at once, not merely what had been done but who had done it, when, how, and where it had happened. So they, immediately introduced into nouns the condition; into each person of the verb the gender; they immediately distinguished through preformatives and adformatives, through affixes and suffixes; verb and adverb, verb and noun, and everything flowed together.” The later, the more distinguishing and counting out took place; breaths turned into articles, word endings [Ansätzen] turned into persons, word beginnings [Vorsätzen] turned into moods or adverbs; the parts of speech flowed apart; now grammar gradually came into being. Thus this art of speaking, this philosophy about language, was only formed [gebildet]slowly and step by step, down through centuries and ages, and the first mind who contemplates “a true philosophy of grammar, the art of speaking!” must certainly first have thought over “the history of the same down through peoples and levels.” But if we only had such a history! With all its progressions and deviations it would be a map of the humanity of language.
5) But how was it possible for a language to exist entirely without grammar? A mere confluence of images and sensations without interconnection and determination? Both were provided for; it was living language. There the great attuning participation of gestures so to speak set the rhythm and the sphere to which what was said belonged; and the great wealth of determinations which lay in the vocabulary itself substituted for the art of grammar. Observe the old writing of the Mexicans! They paint sheer individual images; where no image enters the senses, they have agreed on strokes and the interconnection for everything must be given by the world, to which it belongs, from which it gets prophesied. This “prophetic art of guessing interconnection from individual signs” – how far only individual dumb and deaf people can still exercise it! And if this art itself belongs to the language as a part of it, itself gets learned from childhood on as a part of it, if this art becomes ever easier and more perfect with the tradition [Tradition]of generations, then I see nothing unintelligible [in it]. – But the more this art is made easier, then the more it diminishes, the more grammar comes into being – and that is the progressive course of the human spirit!
Proofs of this are, for example, La Loubere’s reports about the Siamese language. How similar it still is to the interconnection of [the language of] the Easterners -especially before more interconnection yet entered through later cultivation [Bildung]. The Siamese wants to say “If I were in Siam, then I would be happy!” and says “If I being city Siam, I happy heart much!” He wants to pray the Lord’s Prayer and has to say “Father us being heaven! God’s name wanting hallowing everywhere, etc.” How Eastern and original that is! just as interconnecting as a Mexican image-writing!, or the stammerings of those who are ineducable in foreign languages!
6) I must explain here one further strange phenomenon which I again see misunderstood in Mr. Süßmilch’s divine ordering, “namely, the diversity of the meanings of a word according to the difference between minor articulations!” I find this knack among almost all savages – as, for example, Garcilaso de la Vega cites it of the Peruvians, Condamine of the Brazilians, La Loubere of the Siamese, Resnel of the North Americans. I find it likewise in the case of the ancient languages, for example, the Chinese language and the Eastern languages, especially Hebrew, where a minor sound, accent, breath changes the whole meaning. And yet, I find in it nothing but a very human thing: poverty and comfort of the inventors! They needed a new word, and since unnecessary invention out of nothing is so difficult, they took a similar word with the alteration of perhaps only a single breath. That was a law of economy, initially very natural for them with their interwoven feelings and still fairly comfortable for them with their more forceful pronunciation of words. But for a foreigner, who has not habituated his ear to this from childhood, and to whom the language is now hissed forth with phlegm, the sound half remaining in the mouth, this law of economy and neediness makes speech inaudible and inexpressible. The more a sound grammar has imported domestic management into languages, the less necessary this parsimony becomes. So [it is] precisely the opposite of an indication of divine invention – in which case the inventor would certainly have been very inept at coping if he had to resort to such a thing.
7) Finally, the progress of language through reason and of reason through language becomes most obvious “when language has already taken a few steps, when pieces of art already exist in it, for example, poems, when writing I is invented, when one genre of writing develops after the other.” Then no step can be taken, no new word invented, no new happy form given currency in which there is not an offprint of the human soul. Then through poems meters, choice of the strongest words and colors, and ordering and zest in images enter language; then through history distinction between tenses and precision of expression enter language; then, finally, through the orators the full rounding-out of the refined sentence enters language. Now just as before each such addition nothing of the sort yet existed in the language, but everything was introduced by the human soul and could be introduced by the human soul, where would one want to set limits to this creativity, this fruitfulness? Where would one want to say “Here the human soul began to operate, but not earlier"? If the human soul was able to invent what is finest, what is most difficult, then why not what is easiest? If it was able to institute, why not to experiment, why not to begin? For after all, what else was the beginning but the production of a single word as a sign of reason? And this the soul had to do, blindly and dumbly in its depths, as truly as it possessed reason.
I am vain enough to suppose that the possibility of the human invention of language is so proven by what I have said, from within in terms of the human soul, and from without in terms of the organization of the human being and in terms of the analogy of all languages and peoples, partly in the components of all speech, partly in the whole great progress of language with reason, that whoever does not deny reason to the human being, or what amounts to the same, whoever merely knows what reason is, whoever in addition has ever concerned himself with the elements of language in a philosophical way, whoever moreover has taken into consideration with the eye of an observer the constitution and history of the languages on the earth, cannot doubt for a single moment, even if I were to add not one word more. [The case for] the genesis [of language] in the human soul is as demonstrative as any philosophical proof, and the external analogy of all times, languages, and peoples [possesses] as high a degree of probability as is possible in the most certain historical matter. However, in order to forestall all objections for good, and also to make the thesis as externally certain as a philosophical truth can be, so to speak, let us in addition prove from all external circumstances and from the whole analogy of human nature “that the human being had to invent his language for himself, and under which circumstances he was able to invent it for himself most suitably.”
Second part: In what way the human being was most suitably able and obliged to invent language for himself
Nature gives no forces in vain. So when nature not only gave the human being abilities to invent language, but also made this ability the distinguishing trait of his essence and the impulse behind his special direction [in life], this force came from nature’s hand no otherwise than living, and hence it could not but be set in a sphere is-here it had to be effective. Let us consider more closely a few of these circumstances and concerns which
straightaway occasioned the human being to develop language when he entered the world with the immediate disposition to form language for himself And since there are many, of these concerns, I collect them under certain main laws of the human being’s nature and of his species:
First natural law
“The human being is a freely thinking, active being, whose forces operate forth progressively. Therefore let him be a creature of language!”
Considered as a naked, instinctless animal, the human being is the most miserable of beings. Here there is no obscure, innate drive which pulls him into his element and into his circle of efficacy, , to his means of subsistence and to his work. No sense of smell or power to scent which pulls him towards plants so that he may sate his hunger! No blind, mechanical master craftsman who would build his nest for him! Weak and succumbing, abandoned to the contention of the elements, to hunger, to all dangers, to the claws of all stronger animals, to a thousandfold death, he stands there!, lonely and alone!, without the immediate instruction of his creatress [nature] and without the sure guidance of her hand – thus, lost on all sides.
But as vividly as this picture may be painted out, it is not the picture of the human being – it is only a single side of his surface, and even that stands in a false light. If understanding and awareness [Besonnenheit]is the natural gift of his kind, this had to express itself immediately when the weaker sensuality and all the poverty of his lacks expressed itself. The instinctless, miserable creature which came from nature’s hands so abandoned was also from the first moment on the freely active, rational creature which was destined to help itself, and inevitably had the ability to do so. All his shortcomings and needs as an animal were pressing reasons to prove himself with all his forces as a human being – just as these human forces were not, say, merely weak compensations for the greater animal perfections denied to him, as our modern philosophy, the great patroness of animals!, claims, but were, without comparison or actual balancing of one against another, his nature. His center of gravity [Schwerpunkt], the main direction of his soul’s efficacies, fell as much on this understanding, on human awareness [Besonnenheit], as with the bee it falls immediately on sucking and building.
If now it has been proved that not even the slightest action of his understanding could occur without a characteristic word, then the first moment of taking-awareness [Besinnung]was also the moment for the inward emergence of language.
Let one allow the human being as much time as one wants for this first distinct taking-awareness [Besinnung]. Let one – in the manner of Buffon (only more philosophically than he) – make this creature that has come into being achieve conscious control gradually. But let one not forget that immediately from the very first moment on it is no animal but a human being, to be sure not yet a creature which takes awareness [von Besinnung]but one which already has awareness [von Besonnenheit], that awakens into the universe. Not as a great, clumsy, helpless machine which is supposed to move, but with its stiff limbs cannot move; which is supposed to see, hear, taste, but with thick fluids in its eye, with a hardened ear, and with a petrified tongue, can do none of this -people who raise doubts of this sort really ought to keep in mind that this human being did not come from Plato’s cave, from a dark jail where, from the first moment of his life on through a series of years, without light or movement, he had sat with open eyes until he was blind, and with healthy limbs until he was stiff, but that he came from the hands of nature, with his forces and fluids in the freshest of conditions, and with the best immediate disposition to develop himself from the first moment. To be sure, creating Providence must have presided over the first moments of coming to conscious control – but it is not the job of philosophy to explain the miraculous aspect in these moments, as little as philosophy can explain the human being’s creation. Philosophy takes up the human being in his first condition of free activity, in his first full feeling of his sound existence, and hence explains these moments only in human terms.
Now I can refer back to what was said before. Since no metaphysical separation of the senses occurs here, since the whole machine senses and immediately works up from obscure feeling to taking-awareness [Besinnung], since this point, the sensation of the first distinct characteristic mark, precisely concerns hearing, the middle sense between seeing and feeling therefore the genesis of language is as much an inner imperative as is the impulse of the embryo to be born at the moment when it reaches maturity. The whole of nature storms at the human being in order to develop his senses until he is a human being. And since language begins from this condition, “the whole chain of conditions in the human soul is of such a kind that each of them forms language further [fortbildet].” I want to cast light on this great law of the natural order.
Animals connect their thoughts obscurely or clearly but not distinctly. just as, to be sure, the kinds which are closest to the human being in manner of life and nerve structure, the animals of the field, often display much memory, much recollection, and in some cases a stronger recollection than the human being, but it is still always only sensuous recollection, and none of them has ever demonstrated through an action a memory that it had improved its condition for its whole species, or had generalized experiences in order to make use of them subsequently. To be sure, the dog can recognize the bodily gesture which has hit him, and the fox can flee the unsafe place where he was ambushed, but neither of them can illuminate for itself a general reflection concerning how it could ever escape this blow-threatening bodily gesture or this hunters’ ruse for good. So the animal still always only remained stuck at the individual sensuous case, and its recollection became a series of these sensuous cases, which produce and reproduce themselves – but never connected “through reflection “; a manifold without distinct unity, a dream of very sensuous, clear, vivid representations without an overarching law of clear wakefulness to order this dream.
To be sure, there is still a great difference among these species and kinds. The narrower the circle is, the stronger the sensuality and the drive is, the more uniform the ability for art and the work in life is, then the less is even the slightest progress through experience observable, at least for us. The bee builds in its childhood as it does in advanced age, and will build the same way at the end of the world as in the beginning of creation. They are individual points, shining sparks from the light of God’s perfection, which, however, always shine individually. An experienced fox, on the other hand, is indeed very different from the first apprentice of the chase; he already knows many tricks ahead of time, and attempts to escape them. But whence does he know them? And how does he attempt to escape them? Because the law of this action follows immediately from such experience. In no case is distinct reflection operative, for are not the cleverest foxes still now tricked in the same way as by the first hunter in the world? In the case of the human being a different law of nature obviously governs the succession of his ideas: awareness. Awareness still governs even in the most sensuous condition, only less noticeably. [The human being is] the most ignorant creature when he comes into the world, but immediately he becomes nature’s apprentice in a way that no animal does; not only does each day teach the next, but each minute of the day teaches the next, each thought the next. It is an essential knack of his soul to learn nothing for this moment, but to marshal everything either along with what it already knew or in readiness for what it intends to link with it in the future. His soul hence takes into account the store which it has already collected or still intends to collect. And in this way the soul becomes a force of steadily collecting. Such a chain continues on until death. [He is,] so to speak, never the whole human being; always in development, in progression, in process of perfection. One mode of efficacy is transcended through the other, one builds on the other, one develops out of the other. There arise periods of life, epochs, which we only name according to the noticeable steps, but which – since the human being never feels how he is growing but always only bow be grew – can be divided infinitely finely. We are always growing out of a childhood, however old we may be, are ever in motion, restless, unsatisfied. The essential feature of our life is never enjoyment but always progression, and we have never been human beings until we – have lived out our lives. By contrast, the bee was a bee when it built its first cell. To be sure, this law of perfecting, of progress through awareness, does not operate with equal noticeability at all times. But is what is less noticeable therefore nonexistent? In a dream, in a thought-dream, the human being does not think as orderly and distinctly as when awake, but nonetheless he still thinks as a human being – as a human being in a middle state, never as a complete animal. In the case of a healthy human being his dreams must have a rule of connection as much as his waking thoughts, only it cannot be the same rule, or operate as uniformly. Hence even these exceptions would bear witness to the validity of the overarching law. And the obvious illnesses and unnatural conditions – swoons, madnesses, etc. – do so even more. Not every action of the soul is immediately a consequence of taking-awareness [Besinnung], but every one is a consequence of awareness [Besonnenheit]. None of them, in the form in which it occurs in a human being, could express itself if the human being were not a human being and did not think in accordance with such a law of nature.
“Now if the human being’s first condition of taking-awareness was not able to become actual without the word of the soul, then all conditions of awareness in him become linguistic; his chain of thoughts becomes a chain of words.”
Do I mean to say by this that the human being can make every sensation of his most obscure sense of feeling into a word, or cannot sense it except by means of a word, It would be nonsense to say this, since precisely to the contrary it is proven that “a sensation which can only be had through the obscure sense of feeling is susceptible of no word for us, because it is susceptible of no distinct characteristic mark.” Hence the foundation of humanity is, if we are talking about voluntary language, linguistically inexpressible. But then, the foundation the whole form? Plinth the whole statue? Is the human being in his whole nature a merely obscurely feeling oyster, then? So let us take the whole thread of his thoughts: since this thread is woven from awareness [Besonnenheit], since there is no condition in it which, taken as a whole, is not itself a taking of awareness [Besinnung]or at least capable of being illuminated in a taking of awareness, since in it the sense of feeling does not rule but the whole center of its nature falls on finer senses, vision and hearing, and these constantly give it language, it follows that, taken as a whole, “there is also no condition in the human soul which does not turn out to be [werde] susceptible of words or actually determined by words of the soul.” To think entirely without words one would have to be the most obscure mystic or an animal, the most abstract religious visionary or a dreaming monad. And in the human soul, as we see even in dreams and in the case of madmen, no such condition is possible. As bold as it may sound, it is true: the human being senses with the understanding and speaks in thinking. And now, due to the fact that he always thinks on in this way and, as we have seen, implicitly puts each thought together with the preceding one and with the future, it must be the case that..
“Each condition which is linked up in this way through reflection thinks better and hence also speaks better.” Allow him the free use of his senses; since the mid-point of this use falls on vision and hearing, where the former gives him the characteristic mark and the latter the sound for the characteristic mark, it follows that with each easier, more formed [gebildeteren]use of these senses language gets formed further [fortgebildet]for him. Allow him the free use of his forces of soul; since the mid-point of their use falls on awareness, and hence does not occur without language, it follows that with each easier, more formed use of awareness language gets more formed for him. 147 Consequently, “the progressive formation of language turns out to be [wird] as natural for the human being as his nature itself.”
Who is there, then, who would know the scope of the forces of a human soul, especially when they express themselves with full effort against difficulties and dangers? Who is there who would assess the degree of perfection at which, through a constant, inwardly complicated, and so diverse progressive formation, the soul can arrive? And since everything comes down to language, how great is that which an individual human being must collect towards language! If even the blind and dumb person on his lonely island had to create a meager language for himself, then the human being, the apprentice of all the senses!, the apprentice of the whole world! – how much richer he must become! What should he eat? Senses, sense of smell, ability to scent, for the plants that are healthy for him, disliking for those that are harmful for him, nature has not given him; so he must experiment, taste, and, like the Europeans in America, learn from watching the animals what is edible. Hence collect for himself characteristic marks of plants, and therefore language! He is not strong enough to confront the lion; so let him flee far from it, know it from afar by its sound, and in order to be able to flee it in a human way and with forethought, let him learn to recognize it and a hundred other harmful animals distinctly, and therefore to name them! Now the more he collects experiences, becomes acquainted with various things and from various sides, the richer his language becomes! The more often he sees these experiences and repeats the characteristic marks to himself, the firmer and more fluent his language becomes. The more he distinguishes and subordinates one thing to another, the more orderly his language becomes! This, continued through years, in an active life, in continual changes, in constant struggle with difficulties and necessity, with constant novelty in objects, is the beginning of language. Unimpressive? And observe!, it is only the life of a single human being!
A human being who was dumb in the sense in which the animals are, who could not even in his soul think words, would be the saddest, most senseless, most abandoned creature of creation – and the greatest self-contradiction Alone, as it were, in the whole universe, attached to nothing and there for everything, secured by nothing, and still less by himself, the human being must either succumb or else rule over everything, with the plan of a wisdom of which no animal is capable, either take distinct possession of everything or else die! Be thou nothing or else the monarch of creation through understanding! Fall in ruins or else create language for thyself! And if, nosy, in this pressing circle of needs all forces of the soul bring themselves to conscious control, if the whole of humanity, struggles to be human – how much can be invented, done, ordered!
We human beings of society can only ever imaginatively project our~ selves into such a condition with trembling: “Oh! If the human being is only destined to save himself from everything in such a slow, weak, inadequate manner ... Through reason’. Through reflection’. How slowly this reflects! And how fast, how pressing his needs are! His dangers!” – This objection can indeed be richly decked out with examples. But it is always fighting against a quite different position [from the one in question]. Our society, which has brought many human beings together so that with their abilities and functions they should be one, must consequently distribute abilities and afford opportunities [to people] from childhood on in such a way that one ability gets developed in preference to another. In this way, the one human being becomes for society entirely algebra, entirely reason, so to speak, just as in another human being society needs only heart, courage, and physical force. This one is of use to society by having no genius and much industry; the former by having genius in one thing and nothing in anything else. Each cog must have its relationship and position, otherwise they do not constitute a whole machine. But let this distribution of the forces of the soul, in which people noticeably suffocate all the other forces in order to excel beyond other people in a single one of them, not be transferred to the condition of a natural human being. Set a philosopher, born and raised in society, who has only trained his head for thinking and his hand for writing, set him suddenly, outside all the protection and reciprocal comforts that society affords him for his one-sided services – he is supposed to seek his own means of subsistence in an unfamiliar land, and fight against the animals, and be his own protecting deity in everything. How helpless! He has for this neither the senses nor the forces nor the training in either! In the strayings of his abstraction he has perhaps lost the sense of smell and sight and hearing and the gift of quick invention – and certainly that courage, that quick decisiveness, which only develops and expresses itself in dangers, which needs to be in constant, new efficacy or else it dies. If, now, he is of an age when the life-source of his mental abilities has already ceased to flow, or is beginning to dry, up, then indeed it will be forever too late to want to educate him into [hineinbilden] this circle. But then, is this the case in question? All the attempts at language that I am citing are not at all made in order to be philosophical attempts. The characteristic marks of plants that I am citing are not discovered as Linnaeus classified them. The first experiences are not cold, slowly reasoned, carefully abstracting experiments like the leisurely, lone philosopher makes when he creeps in pursuit of nature in its hidden course and no longer wants to know that but how it works. This was precisely what concerned nature’s first dweller least. Did he need to have it demonstrated to him that this or that plant is poisonous? Was he, then, so much more than brutish that even in this he did not imitate the brutes ? And did he need to be attacked by the lion in order to be afraid of it? Is not his timidity combined with his weakness, and his awareness combined with all the subtlety of his forces of soul, enough by itself to provide him with a comfortable condition, since nature herself acknowledged that it was adequate for this? Since, therefore, we have no need at all of a timid, abstract study – philosopher as the inventor of language, since the primitive natural human being who still feels his soul, like his body, so entirely of a single piece is more to us than any number of language-creating academies, and yet is anything but a scholar ... why on earth, then, would we want to take this scholar as a model ? Do we want to cast dust in each other’s eyes in order to have proved that the human being cannot see?
Süßmilch is again here the opponent with whom I am fighting. He has devoted a whole section to showing “how impossible it is that the human being should have formed a language further [fortbilden] for himself, even if he had invented it through imitation!” That the invention of language through mere imitation without a human soul is nonsense is proven, and if the defender of the divine origin of language had been demonstratively certain of this cause, that it is nonsense, then I trust that he would not have gathered together a mass of half-true reasons against this nonsense which, as things are, all prove nothing against a human invention of language through understanding. I cannot possibly explain the whole section in its totality here, woven through with arbitrarily-assumed postulates and false axioms about the nature of language as it is, because the author would always appear in a certain light in which he should not appear here. So I select only as much as is necessary, namely, “that in his objections the nature of a human language that forms itself further [sich fortbildenden] and of a human soul that forms itself further is entirely misperceived.”
“If one assumes that the inhabitants of the first world consisted only of a few thousand families, since the light of the understanding already shone so brightly through the use of language that they understood what language is and hence were able to begin thinking of the improvement of this splendid instrument, it follows. ..” But no one assumes anything of all these antecedent propositions. Did people need a thousand generations to understand for the first time what language is, The first human being understood it when he thought the first thought. Did people need a thousand generations to reach the point of understanding for the first time that it is good to improve language? The first human being understood it when he learned to order better, correct, distinguish, and combine his first characteristic marks, and he immediately improved language each time that he learned such a thing for the first time. And then, how, though, could the light of the understanding have become so brightly enlightened over the course of a thousand generations through language if in the course of these generations language had not already become enlightened? So enlightenment without improvement, and after an improvement lasting through a thousand families the beginning of an improvement still impossible? That is simply contradictory.
Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and thought of in complementary terms. An aficionado on subjects ranging from the history of mathematics, philosophical arguments relating to the status of quantum mechanics as a causal theory, comparative evidence bearing on non-human intelligence, and the nature of the conscious and unconscious mind. At SFI we have been searching for the expression of these scientific interests in his novels and we maintain a furtive tally of their covert manifestations and demonstrations in his prose.
Over the last two decades Cormac and I have been discussing the puzzles and paradoxes of the unconscious mind. Foremost among them, the fact that the very recent and “uniquely” human capability of near infinite expressive power arising through a combinatorial grammar is built on the foundations of a far more ancient animal brain. How have these two evolutionary systems become reconciled? Cormac expresses this tension as the deep suspicion, perhaps even contempt, that the primeval unconscious feels toward the upstart, conscious language. In this article Cormac explores this idea through processes of dream and infection. It is a discerning and wide-ranging exploration of ideas and challenges that our research community has only recently dared to start addressing through complexity science.
President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems, Santa Fe Institute
I call it the Kekulé Problem because among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesnt it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”
Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.
A logical place to begin would be to define what the unconscious is in the first place. To do this we have to set aside the jargon of modern psychology and get back to biology. The unconscious is a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.
All animals have an unconscious. If they didnt they would be plants. We may sometimes credit ours with duties it doesnt actually perform. Systems at a certain level of necessity may require their own mechanics of governance. Breathing, for instance, is not controlled by the unconscious but by the pons and the medulla oblongata, two systems located in the brainstem. Except of course in the case of cetaceans, who have to breathe when they come up for air. An autonomous system wouldnt work here. The first dolphin anesthetized on an operating table simply died. (How do they sleep? With half of their brain alternately.) But the duties of the unconscious are beyond counting. Everything from scratching an itch to solving math problems.
Did language meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.
Problems in general are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking—in any discipline—is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived—a sort of milepost—so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe that you actually use language in the solving of problems I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it.
I’ve pointed out to some of my mathematical friends that the unconscious appears to be better at math than they are. My friend George Zweig calls this the Night Shift. Bear in mind that the unconscious has no pencil or notepad and certainly no eraser. That it does solve problems in mathematics is indisputable. How does it go about it? When I’ve suggested to my friends that it may well do it without using numbers, most of them thought—after a while—that this was a possibility. How, we dont know. Just as we dont know how it is that we manage to talk. If I am talking to you then I can hardly be crafting at the same time the sentences that are to follow what I am now saying. I am totally occupied in talking to you. Nor can some part of my mind be assembling these sentences and then saying them to me so that I can repeat them. Aside from the fact that I am busy this would be to evoke an endless regress. The truth is that there is a process here to which we have no access. It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.
There are influential persons among us—of whom a bit more a bit later—who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness. Somewhat like vision, perhaps. But vision we now know is traceable to perhaps as many as a dozen quite independent evolutionary histories. Tempting material for the teleologists. These stories apparently begin with a crude organ capable of perceiving light where any occlusion could well suggest a predator. Which actually makes it an excellent scenario for Darwinian selection. It may be that the influential persons imagine all mammals waiting for language to appear. I dont know. But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.
There are a number of examples of signaling in the animal world that might be taken for a proto-language. Chipmunks—among other species—have one alarm-call for aerial predators and another for those on the ground. Hawks as distinct from foxes or cats. Very useful. But what is missing here is the central idea of language—that one thing can be another thing. It is the idea that Helen Keller suddenly understood at the well. That the sign for water was not simply what you did to get a glass of water. It was the glass of water. It was in fact the water in the glass. This in the play The Miracle Worker. Not a dry eye in the house.
The invention of language was understood at once to be incredibly useful. Again, it seems to have spread through the species almost instantaneously. The immediate problem would seem to have been that there were more things to name than sounds to name them with. Language appears to have originated in southwestern Africa and it may even be that the clicks in the Khoisan languages—to include Sandawe and Hadza—are an atavistic remnant of addressing this need for a greater variety of sounds. The vocal problems were eventually handled evolutionarily—and apparently in fairly short order—by turning our throat over largely to the manufacture of speech. Not without cost, as it turns out. The larynx has moved down in the throat in such a way as to make us as a species highly vulnerable to choking on our food—a not uncommon cause of death. It’s also left us as the only mammal incapable of swallowing and vocalizing at the same time.
The sort of isolation that gave us tall and short and light and dark and other variations in our species was no protection against the advance of language. It crossed mountains and oceans as if they werent there. Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. But useful? Oh yes. We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. I suggested once in conversation at the Santa Fe Institute that language had acted very much like a parasitic invasion and David Krakauer—our president—said that the same idea had occurred to him. Which pleased me a good deal because David is very smart. This is not to say of course that the human brain was not in any way structured for the reception of language. Where else would it go? If nothing else we have the evidence of history. The difference between the history of a virus and that of language is that the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not. The virus comes nicely machined. Offer it up. Turn it slightly. Push it in. Click. Nice fit. But the scrap heap will be found to contain any number of viruses that did not fit.
There is no selection at work in the evolution of language because language is not a biological system and because there is only one of them. The ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.
Influential persons will by now of course have smiled to themselves at the ill-concealed Lamarckianism lurking here. We might think to evade it by various strategies or redefinitions but probably without much success. Darwin of course was dismissive of the idea of inherited “mutilations”—the issue of cutting off the tails of dogs for instance. But the inheritance of ideas remains something of a sticky issue. It is difficult to see them as anything other than acquired. How the unconscious goes about its work is not so much poorly understood as not understood at all. It is an area pretty much ignored by the artificial intelligence studies, which seem mostly devoted to analytics and to the question of whether the brain is like a computer. They have decided that it’s not, but that is not altogether true.
Of the known characteristics of the unconscious its persistence is among the most notable. Everyone is familiar with repetitive dreams. Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you want to do? I dont know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?
To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.
What is at work here? And how does the unconscious know we’re not getting it? What doesnt it know? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?)
The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.
All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.
We dont know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.
So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didnt say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course they dont think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didnt precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old. They havent explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.
One hundred thousand years is pretty much an eyeblink. But two million years is not. This is, rather loosely, the length of time in which our unconscious has been organizing and directing our lives. And without language you will note. At least for all but that recent blink. How does it tell us where and when to scratch? We dont know. We just know that it’s good at it. But the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesnt much like language and even that it doesnt trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?
Apart from its great antiquity the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot. Unless one is an Asperger’s case. In which event memories, while correct, suffer from their own literalness. The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous. But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have read a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.
When you pause to reflect and say: “Let me see. How can I put this,” your aim is to resurrect an idea from this pool of we-know-not-what and give it a linguistic form so that it can be expressed. It is the this that one wishes to put that is representative of this pool of knowledge whose form is so amorphous. If you explain this to someone and they say that they dont understand you may well seize your chin and think some more and come up with another way to “put” it. Or you may not. When the physicist Dirac was complained to by students that they didnt understand what he’d said Dirac would simply repeat it verbatim.
The picture-story lends itself to parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause. The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesnt care what toothpaste you use. And while the path which it suggests for you may be broad it doesnt include going over a cliff. We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic. No one speaks. These are very old dreams and often troubling. Sometimes a friend can see their meaning where we cannot. The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them. To remember them. It doesnt say that you cant ask for help. Parables of course often want to resolve themselves into the pictorial. When you first heard of Plato’s cave you set about reconstructing it.
To repeat. The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not. Or not yet. You have to be careful about inviting Descartes to the table. Aside from inheritability probably the best guide as to whether a category is of our own devising is to ask if we see it in other creatures. The case for language is pretty clear. In the facility with which young children learn its complex and difficult rules we see the slow incorporation of the acquired.
I’d been thinking about the Kekulé problem off and on for a couple of years without making much progress. Then one morning after George Zweig and I had had one of our ten hour lunches I came down in the morning with the wastebasket from my bedroom and as I was emptying it into the kitchen trash I suddenly knew the answer. Or I knew that I knew the answer. It took me a minute or so to put it together. I reflected that while George and I had spent the first couple of hours at cognition and neuroscience we had not talked about Kekulé and the problem. But something in our conversation might very well have triggered our reflections—mine and those of the Night Shift—on this issue. The answer of course is simple once you know it. The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break. When later I told George what I’d come up with he mulled it over for a minute or so and then nodded and said: “That sounds about right.” Which pleased me a good deal because George is very smart.
The unconscious seems to know a great deal. What does it know about itself? Does it know that it’s going to die? What does it think about that? It appears to represent a gathering of talents rather than just one. It seems unlikely that the itch department is also in charge of math. Can it work on a number of problems at once? Does it only know what we tell it? Or—more plausibly—has it direct access to the outer world? Some of the dreams which it is at pains to assemble for us are no doubt deeply reflective and yet some are quite frivolous. And the fact that it appears to be less than insistent upon our remembering every dream suggests that sometimes it may be working on itself. And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy? How might we make inquiries of it? Are you sure?
Cormac McCarthy is a board member and senior fellow of the Santa Fe Institute.