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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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In all cultures men learn to speak at roughly the same
age, starting in the first or second year of life, mastering
most of the grammar of their language by the age of
six, but increasing their vocabulary all through their
lives. This means that we learn to speak long before


we are able consciously to reflect on language. Speak-
ing comes naturally to human beings, like breathing
or walking. It is not necessary to give children formal
instruction in how to speak: it is sufficient for them
to grow up in a normal human environment. In this
respect speaking differs from other intellectual activ-
ities such as mathematics, or practical activities such
as ploughing or driving an automobile. We acquire
these abilities by conscious efforts, while the compli-
cated mechanism of language develops within us with-
out our being in the least aware of it.

At a very early age most English children are able
to use correctly the auxiliary verb do, or the definite
and indefinite article, thereby showing that they master
a set of quite complicated rules and classifications. Yet
neither they nor (for the most part) their parents have
the slightest conscious knowledge of those rules. Con-
trast with this the inability of most of us to multiply,
say, 537 by 894 without using pencil and paper. Yet
the rules for this arithmetical operation are far simpler
than the ones governing the use of the do-auxiliary.
In the language of the electronic computer, it seems
as if our brain is pre-programmed to assimilate the
kinds of rules that are needed for language, while a
special program has to be fed into it for the rules of
arithmetic. The contrast is the same as that between
walking and driving. Walking involves an extremely
complicated series of coordinated muscular movements
and sensory feedback, which are undoubtedly very
largely pre-programmed. Driving an automobile is in
almost all respects far simpler, but has to be learned
before it becomes automatic, going on without con-
scious control.

As the rules of language are normally not conscious,
they are difficult to study. Indeed, the ordinary man
has difficulty in realizing that the rules exist—just as
he has difficulty in realizing that air can have weight.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the study of language
seems to be a late development in all cultures. It is
not easy to visualize any utilitarian motive for studying
language. To study arithmetic brings immediate re-
wards by increasing the ability to carry out arithme-
tical operations. But to study language does not neces-
sarily increase the ability to speak, since we know how
to speak without instruction. It must generally seem
about as futile as instruction in how to walk. An in-
centive to study language therefore hardly arises until
the language causes difficulty. There are two condi-
tions, in particular, where this occurs. First, when the
language in question is a foreign one. Second, when
it represents a peculiar dialect of our native tongue.

The number of different languages spoken in the
world at the present time runs into hundreds, if not
thousands. There is little reason to suppose that the
number has ever been much smaller. Judging from
fossil remains, the human species has had basically its
present physical characteristics for several hundred
thousand years. In all probability language has been
a characteristic of the species during most of this pe-
riod. We know from the evidence of recorded history
that it takes only a few thousand years for isolated
dialects of what was once a single language (or nearly
so) to become mutually incomprehensible and hardly
recognizable as similar: witness Hindu and Gaelic,
Greek and Swedish. Even if, at one time, the whole
human species consisted of just a single tribe, living
in a very limited area (and there is little reason to
believe this), it would not take long for different lan-
guages to develop, as the species expanded over the
face of the earth.

We may therefore assume that occasions for learning
foreign tongues have existed in practically all human
communities. In fact, ability to cope with more than
one language may even have been a condition for
survival in small nomadic communities like those of
many American Indian tribes. This does not mean, of
course, that complete bilingualism or multilingualism
has ever been a common phenomenon. At the present
day, bilingual states, like Switzerland, Belgium, or
Finland, are the exception rather than the rule. And
even there the overwhelming majority of the individ-
uals grow up with one language as very definitely their
first and most important vehicle of communication.
Most people come to learn their second language con-
siderably later and less well than their first. We may
assume that this has always been the case.

It is for this reason that language is one of the most
powerful instruments for tightening the coherence of
a community. In this respect it may be considered as
on a par with such species-forming vehicles as, say,
the courtship behavior of animals. It is surely no mere
accident that nation and language community tend on
the whole to become coextensive terms. A common
language and a common literary heritage have at all
times been among the most powerful factors for cre-
ating a feeling for national unity.

But though in nearly all communities, there have
always existed individuals who have learned to speak
more than one language, an increased awareness of the
nature of language has not always resulted. There are
at least two explanations for this. In the first place,
to learn a language sufficiently to use it as a means
of communication is far more a question of practice
than of theory. The appearance of pidgin languages
all over the world shows that it is possible to under-
stand and make oneself understood, even if the gram-
matical niceties that differentiate languages from one
another are left out of account. In fact, language con-


tacts of this kind may merely have strengthened the
naïve idea that language is essentially just a collection
of names for things and activities, and that learning
a new language is just to learn a set of new names.
The insufficiency of such a view naturally becomes
apparent to those who try to speak their second lan-
guage as well as the natives do. But such complete
mastery is seldom attempted, except when the second
language has a higher prestige.

This leads us to the second reason why the study
of language has not in general grown out of contacts
between different languages. Those who have had to
go through the process of learning a second language
completely and well have not, in the main, belonged
to the dominant culture of the time. The attitude of
the ancient Greeks is quite typical. They did not con-
sider the languages of the barbarians (whose speech
sounded as bar-bar) as worth their attention. The
Chinese have felt the same, and it is no coincidence
that the English have accepted with equanimity the
charge of being “bad linguists” in the popular sense
of that word.

In view of all this it is perhaps not surprising to find
that the study of language has practically everywhere
originated from problems concerning the inter-
pretation of an old literary or religious tradition in the
language of the dominant culture, rather than from
problems arising out of a confrontation with foreign
peoples. This also means that the appearance of linguis-
tic studies is closely linked up with the creation of a
writing system. It is only when writing has been cre-
ated that it is possible to preserve an older stage of
the language with such accuracy that an objective
statement of the linguistic problems can be attempted.
The nature of the writing system is not unimportant
either. An alphabetical or syllabic script obviously
gives a far more detailed representation of the outward
form of the language than does an ideographic one.
Hence it is not surprising that the contribution of the
Chinese to the development of linguistics is far less
than that of the Greeks and the Indians.

It should not be thought, however, that the study
of language has been wholly subordinated to the prac-
tical or supposedly practical object of understanding
old texts. Language is not only a means of communi-
cation among men, it is also a most important instru-
ment of thought. Hence the study of language also
becomes a natural concomitant of philosophy. Such
branches of philosophy as logic and epistemology have
been and are still regarded by many philosophers as
branches of language study. The intimate connection
between philosophy and linguistics is especially appar-
ent in ancient Greece. In the Western world it is
emphasized again in medieval scholasticism, in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in our own
age. European linguistics in the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, on the other hand, may be charac-
terized as more scientific and less philosophical. It was
concerned far more with the outward form of language
than with the connection between language and the
external world, a problem which occupies the linguistic
philosopher above all others.