Recent Theories On The Origin Of Language -- By: John O. Means

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 027:105 (Jan 1870)
Article: Recent Theories On The Origin Of Language
Author: John O. Means


Recent Theories On The Origin Of Language

Rev. John O. Means

How did man first come to speak? Was it instinctive and spontaneous, as soon as he was fairly afloat? Or was there a prolonged period when man was mute, or uttered inarticulate animal cries, from which he slowly learned to speak? If he learned, who taught him? Did he teach himself—invent speech by the natural exercise of his faculties working upon the materials around him? Or did some superior teach infant man at first, as subsequently some superior has taught every infant who has learned to speak?

How he came by the marvellous possession of language is one of the most interesting and important, as it is one of the

most difficult, questions which science is trying to answer. New significance attaches to the various theories now, because of the direct bearing of them upon the larger problem of the origin of the human race, and its antiquity which are the problems of to-day. Those who hold that language is of purely human invention assume vast antiquity as indisputable; and if their view is correct, it is, in turn, a specific and conclusive proof of vast antiquity of the race. Then, as to the origin of mankind, the theory that we came up into the possession of language out of a mute state is a weighty contribution to Mr. Darwin’s doctrine. In fact, Professor Whitney, one of the most recent and able supporters of this theory, scarcely disguises his leaning to Darwinism.

Scientific men do not pretend to have reached solid conclusions on this subject. We are as yet in the region of speculative theories. With one voice the eminent philologists confess that their investigations do not reveal the origin of language. Some of them honestly declare that linguistic researches never can reveal the origin; that this necessarily lies beyond the scope and outside the range of purely philological inquiries; that, however they push towards the beginning, touch it they never can. Ernest Renan places it among the things which are ante-historical, and which must remain so. Max Müller declares that it is not for the philologist to pronounce upon the point, and proposes to take no definite ground himself. Professor Whitney says that, so far as any decision can be reached, the decision must be upon general considerations and analogies. While speaking thus, however, so fascinating is the question that no philologist is content to pass it by. Neither of these scholars refrains from arguing, and that dogmatically, in favor of his own theory. It is in a special treatise bearing the very title of “The Origin of Language,”1 and devoted to the discussion and determination of this question, tha...

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