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HERDER'S "URSPRUNG DER SPRACHE" 

In 1769 the Berlin Academy gave out as the subject of a com- 
petitive prize essay the following, couched, as was customary, in 
French: "En supposant les hommes abandonn6s a leurs facult6s 
naturelles, sont ils en 6tat d'inventer le langage? et par quels 
moyens parviendront-ils d'eux-mSmes k cette invention?" There 
are two points in the wording of this theme which are interesting 
and characteristic of the time. In the first place, it will be 
noticed that the pivot of the discussion was to be this: whether 
language was of natural — i. e., human — or supernatural origin. 
It could by no means be taken for granted then, as normal in- 
vestigators would nowadays, that the gift of speech was acquired 
by man in a purely normal way; the burden of proof, in fact, 
lay upon those who disputed the divine origin of language. In 
the second place, the query of the academy speaks of language 
as an "invention." Just as a machine is a tool, a means for 
bringing about certain desired mechanical effects, so language 
was looked upon as a tool, a means for bringing about certain 
other desired mechanical effects — namely: the communication of 
ideas by means of audible, secondarily by means of visible, sym- 
bols. And since history and experience showed, or seemed to 
show, that machines were "invented" by the application of cer- 
tain powers of intelligence, the logic of parallelism seemed to 
require that also that most admirable tool called language should 
have been the "invention" of some intelligence. The only ques- 
tion, then, was this: Was the human mind intelligent and 
resourceful enough to invent so fine a machine, or did the latter 
require the master-hand of the Deity? Voila tout. 

The attitude of a modern linguist toward the proposed subject 
is certainly very different from that of the eighteenth-century 
philosopher. To the first half of the question he would unhesi- 
tatingly answer "Yes;" to the second he would reply: "Language 
was not invented in any true sense at all;" or, as Topsy would 

109] 1 [Modeen Philology, July, 1907 



2 Edwaed Sapie 

put it: "It wasn't born, it growed." It is in these two points, 
after all, that the chief progress from the older to the modern 
view of the question lies; and for both of them, the doing away 
with the conception of divine interference, and the introduction 
of the idea of slow, but gradual and necessary, development from 
rude beginnings, we are very largely indebted to Herder. The 
very answer that Herder gave to the question posed made the 
question itself meaningless; henceforth there could be no serious 
and profitable discussion of the divine origin of language, while 
the crude conception of the "invention" of a language had to 
give way more and more to that of the unconscious, or, as we 
should perhaps say now, largely subconscious, development of 
speech by virtue of man's psychic powers. The question resolved 
itself into another: Just what factor or factors were most promi- 
nent in that exceedingly slow process of mental evolution that 
transformed a being giving vent to his emotions in inarticulate 
cries to one giving expression to a rich mental life by an elaborate 
system of auditory symbols? Despite the vast accumulation 
of linguistic material that has been collected since Herder's time, 
and the immense clarification that has been attained in linguistic 
conceptions, processes, and classifications, we cannot today make 
bold to assert that this problem is satisfactorily answered, or 
apparently in a way to be satisfactorily answered in the immediate 
future. Bearing this in mind, we shall be able more justly to 
value the great service Herder accomplished in merely shifting 
the point of view. That alone was an inestimable service. 

It was to be expected that the proposed subject should appeal 
strongly to a mind of Herder's stamp, occupied, as it was, with 
problems touching the most important phases of human culture. 
We thus find him, while still in Nantes, writing to his publisher- 
friend Hartknoch that he was intending to work up the theme the 
following year. He speaks of it as "eine vortreffliche, grosse und 
wahrhaftig philosophische Frage, die recht fur mich gegeben zu 
sein scheint." 1 The latest time at which the competing essays 
could be handed in was January 1, 1771; yet Herder did not set 
to work at the actual composition of his treatise until well on in 

1 R. Haym, Herder nach aeinem Leben und seinen Werken dargettellt, Vol. I, pp. 400-403. 

110 



Herder's "Ursprung der Sprache" 3 

December, 1770, when his Strassburg period was drawing to a close. 
To excuse the peculiar defects of it, he wrote to Nicolai early in 
1772 that it was written "fluchtig, in Eile, in den letzten Tagen 
des Decembers." 1 So rapidly, indeed, was this 166-page 2 essay 
composed that it was finished even before Christmas and was sent 
away anonymously, with accompanying billet, to Tourney, the 
secretary of the academy. This almost incredible rapidity of 
composition can be explained only by assuming, as we have every 
reason to do, that Herder had thought out the whole problem in 
considerable detail long before, or, as Suphan suggests, even 
made the first rough draft 3 at Nantes, and had now simply to 
mold these ideas into literary form. Although few would ven- 
ture to call the Preisschrtft a model of literary form, yet the dis- 
tinctness of the theme and the short time in which it had to be 
got ready give the treatise "a directness and ease that is too often 
wanting in his other works." 4 In few other subjects had Herder 
been so deeply interested up to 1771 as in this one concerning 
the origin and development of language. As early as 1764, 
according to Suphan, he had drawn up a plan for the somewhat 
elaborate investigation of the origin of language, writing, and 
grammar. One of his contributions to the Eiga Gelehrte Anzei- 
gen dealt with the problem, "Wie weit alte und neue, fremde 
und die Muttersprache unsern Floiss verdienen" — an essay that 
anticipates some of the striking phrases found in the Preisschrift. 
In his first important work, the famous Fragmente, Herder had 
already given expression to some of his later thoughts, among 
other things maintaining the human origin of language. When 
Sussmilch's Beweis, dass die Sprache gottlich set, which had 
been read at the Berlin Academy ten years before publication, 
appeared in 1766, Herder was deeply interested, and wrote to 
Scheffner (October 31, 1767) : "Da Siissmilch sich in die Sprach- 
hypothese neulich gemischt und es mit Rousseau gegen Moses 
[i. e., Moses Mendelssohn] aufgenommen, so hatte ich wohl Lust, 

1 Haym, op. cit. 

2 As contained in Herder's Collected Works, edited by Johann von Mailer (Carlsruhe 
1820). 

3 Distinguished by Suphan as "a." See p. lii, Vol. V, of his edition. 

* Nevinson, Herder and His Times, p 162. 

HI 



4 Edwaed Sapik 

auch ein mal ein Paar Worte offentlich zu sagen." ' With what 
had been said on the subject by Rousseau, Condillac, Abbt, Lam- 
bert, and others, Herder was well acquainted, so that his own 
Preisschrift, while in every sense a pathfinding work, takes a 
definite historically conditioned place in the linguistic-philosophic 
speculations of the eighteenth century. 

Before proceeding with the detailed analysis of Herder's 
epoch-making work, we must briefly consider the theories on the 
origin of language which prevailed at the time he wrote it. By 
far the most commonly held theory, at least in Germany, was that 
supported by Sussmilch, the orthodox view. According to this, 
language was given or revealed to man by God. The power to 
create the subtle mechanism of speech was considered by the 
supporters of this theory beyond the earliest human beings ; they 
had to receive the first rude concept of language, the first fruitful 
suggestions, at least, from without. In earlier stages of linguis- 
tic speculation, particularly at the time of the Reformation, it 
was believed, on inferred biblical evidence, that this earliest God- 
made language was the Hebrew tongue, from which all other 
idioms, the Greek and Latin as well as the Chinese, were derived 
by processes of corruption, transposition of letters, or what not. 
In Herder's day, however, it was no longer considered necessary 
by all supporters of the orthodox view to maintain the absolute 
primitiveness of Hebrew, although Hebrew was regarded, among 
others by Herder himself, as a peculiarly primitive or "original" 
language. Many deemed it sufficient to assert the revelation to 
man of some form, however imperfect, of speech, and were willing 
to concede the possibly somewhat late advent of the Holy Tongue. 
We can easily understand some of the reasons that led to the sup- 
port of this, it is needless to say, now wholly antiquated view. 
In the first place, scriptural evidence, in general, seemed to imply 
the divine origin of language ; although we are told that the Lord 
brought the various denizens of the field and forest before Adam, 
that he might give them names, still this appears to have been 
done under careful paternal supervision. In the second place, 
there was good, in fact irrefutable, evidence, from an orthodox 

■See Haym, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 402. 

112 



Herder's "Ursprung deb Sprache" 5 

point of view, for the divine authorship of the industries; and it 
seemed illogical to suppose that a much higher factor of civiliza- 
tion than the industries, namely language, had been left to the 
ingenuity of primitive man. In the third place, the less than six 
thousand years which had elapsed since the creation of the world 
were looked upon, and with good reason, as quite inadequate for 
the development from the crudest possible beginnings of our 
modern, richly organized languages. Even long after Herder 
had demonstrated the untenableness of the orthodox theory, many 
scholars still clung to a view which made God, as Goethe put it, 
"a kind of omnipotent schoolmaster." I note, by way of illus- 
tration, that our Noah Webster still considered it the most prob- 
able explanation. From a psychological point of view, granting 
the possibility of revelation, the theory is, of course, absolutely 
useless. Its advocates do not seem to have perceived that the 
imparting of a language to the first speechless human beings, 
accompanied, as it presumably was, by grammatical instruction, 
must have been a fairly impossible task, implying, in fact, lin- 
guistic training in the recipient ; moreover, the theory begged the 
question, by assuming the existence of what it set out to explain. 
The modern critical standpoint has been well, if somewhat cyni- 
cally, formulated by Fritz Mauthner in his entertaining Kritik 
der Sprache: 

Wir wissen kaum, was der abstrakte Begriff Sprache bedeutet, wir 
wissen noch weniger, wie wir den Begriff Ursprung zeitlich begrenzen 
sollen, wir wissen gar nicht mehr den Gottesbegriff zu definieren; da 
konnen wir mit dem "gottlichen Ursprung der Sprache" wirklich nicht 
mehr viel anfangen. 1 

A second theory, supported notably by Rousseau and the 
German Rationalists, was very similar in character to the contract- 
theory of the origin of government, also held by Rousseau. They 
conceived the matter approximately thus: Primitive men, after 
having long been compelled to get along without speech, at last 
awoke to a consciousness of the manifold inconveniences of their 
then condition; were in particular troubled by the important 
problem of communicating ideas. To remedy, if possible, this 

1 Fritz Mauthner, Kritik der Sprache, Vol. II, " Zur Sprachwissenschaft," p. 353. 

113 



6 Edward Sapie 

deplorable state of affairs, our primitive ancestors, or perhaps 
only the wisest of them, put their heads together to devise ways 
and means for the more practicable interchange of thoughts. 
After much cogitation — not deliberation, for language was not as 
yet— they hit upon the excellent device of representing things 
and actions to each other by means of arbitrarily chosen symbols, 
presumably auditory. Henceforth they had no difficulty in under- 
standing each other, civilization progressed more rapidly than 
heretofore, and all was well. One is amazed to find that men in 
the eighteenth century were willing to maintain so ridiculous a 
theory, even if not presented in quite so absurd a light as above. 
It is not difficult to point out the vicious circle implied therein. 
Man could not conceivably have advanced so far as to perceive 
the advantages of speech as a means of communication without 
already being possessed of it ; on the other hand, if primitive man 
could already successfully communicate such abstract ideas as 
those of symbols, one fails to see the necessity of a change in 
method. 

A far more valuable theory than these two was that held by 
the English and French "naturalists," though a crude, mechan- 
istic psychology makes their speculations often seem rather infan- 
tile today. The "naturalists," generally speaking, were inclined 
to look upon language as a reflex, expressed in cries, of the sen- 
sations and perceptions imprinted upon the human mind by man's 
environment. They considered the growth of a vocabulary abso- 
lutely co-ordinated with the growth of experience, and were pretty 
sure, most of them, that untaught children, if isolated from the 
companionship of their fellow-beings, would develop a language 
of their own. Condillac, probably the most profound of the 
philosophes, attempted in his Essai sur Vorigine des connais- 
sances humaines to show how two human beings of opposite sex 
might naturally be led to acquire speech. He supposes that at 
the outset all their desires and emotions are expressed by purely 
instinctive cries, accompanied by violent gestures. By the 
psychic processes of memory and association these cries gradually 
come to serve as the fixed means of communicating the more ele- 
mentary feelings, such as fear, joy, and the like. Says Condillac: 

114 



Herder's "Ursprung dee Sprache" 7 

Meanwhile, while these human beings have acquired the habit of 
associating several ideas with arbitrary signs, the natural cries served 
them as model to make a new language. They articulated new sounds 
and, repeating them several times and accompanying them by some 
gesture which indicated the objects they wished to call attention to, they 
accustomed themselves to giving names to things. At first the progress 
of this language was extremely slow. The organ of speech was so inflex- 
ible that it could articulate only a few very simple sounds. The obstacles 
that presented themselves in pronouncing others even prevented them 
from suspecting that the voice was capable of moving beyond the small 
number of words they had imagined. This pair had a child, who, pressed 
by wants that he could give expression to only with difficulty, violently 
moved all the limbs of his body. His very flexible tongue curled itself 
in an extraordinary manner and pronounced an entirely new word. The 
want, still continuing, again gave rise to the same effects; this child 
moved his tongue as before, and again articulated the same sound. The 
surprised parents, having finally guessed what he wished, attempted, 
while giving it to him, to repeat the same word. The difficulty they had 
in pronouncing it made it evident that they would not of themselves have 
been able to invent it. 1 

In such wise Condillac thinks their language would be slowly 
and painfully enriched; not until after many generations would a 
language in our sense be approximated. A fairly ingenious 
theory, and much to be preferred to either the orthodox or the 
rationalist views, yet not truly convincing. The great difficulty 
that Herder found with it was the failure to draw a sharp line 
between the instincts of the animals and the higher mental powers 
of man. One does not clearly see why, according to Condillac, 
the animals should not have likewise developed a language. 
Herder, although he inclined on the whole to the views of the 
French "naturalists," attempted to avoid their shallow mechan- 
istic psychology, and was chiefly concerned in showing that the 
peculiarly human faculty of speech was a necessary correlative 
of certain distinctly human psychic conditions. 

The analysis of Herder's views here given is based, not on the 
second edition of the prize essay (Berlin, 1789), but on its first 
published form (Berlin, 1772), as given in Suphan's edition of 
Herder. Following the formulation of the academy's theme, he 
divided his treatise into two parts, the first answering the ques- 

i CEuvres de Condillac (Paris, 1798), Vol. I, pp. 264, 265. 

115 



8 Edward Sapib 

tion: "Haben die Menschen, ihren Naturfahigkeiten uberlassen, 
sich selbst Sprache erfinden konnen?" 1 the second dealing with 
the problem: "Auf welchem Wege der Mensch sich am ftiglich- 
sten hat Sprache erfinden konnen und mfissen?" 2 

Herder begins his treatise with the postulation of a "natural 
law.' ' All the higher animals involuntarily respond to their emo- 
tions, particularly the more intense ones, such as pain, by cries. 
As Herder formulates the "law": "Here is a sentient being, 
unable to inclose within itself any of its intense feelings; which, 
in the first moment of surprise, must give expression in sound to 
every feeling, even without intention and purpose." 3 But this 
sentient being is not an isolated phenomenon. There are other 
beings, besides itself, similarly constituted, that respond to like 
stimuli in the same way. Hence the instinctive cries of each sen- 
tient being find a responsive echo in other beings of like organ- 
ism, very much as a vibrating string will cause other strings to 
vibrate that are pitched in harmony to itself. These tones con- 
stitute a species of language, "a language of feeling" directly 
given by nature (unmittelbares Naturgesetz) ; its genesis it does 
not occur to Herder to explain. Such natural cries are not 
peculiar to the animals, but are shared also by man. No matter 
how highly developed a language may be, it always includes a 
number of vocables that are intelligible per se as emotional expres- 
sions. These are represented on paper — with miserable inade- 
quacy, as Herder strongly emphasizes — by the interjections 
(such as ach, O, and so forth) ; their real existence, however, is 
in their utterance in the appropriate emotional milieu. It is true 
that in our modern, metaphysically refined idioms, these emo- 
tional elements play a very subordinate role, but in the older 
oriental and in the primitive tongues Herder thinks to find more 
numerous survivals of the earliest linguistic conditions. It may 
be noted that all through the essay Herder, quite uncritically 
from our modern point of view, considers the oriental, by which 
he means one or two Semitic, dialects and the languages of primi- 

iHerder's Sammtliche Werke, herausgegeben von Bernhard Suphan (Berlin, 1891), 
Vol. V, p. 3. 

ilbid., p. 91. sibid., p. 6. 

116 



Herder's "Ursprung der Sprache" 9 

tive peoples as essentially more "original" than our modern ver- 
naculars. We should never forget that Herder's time-perspective 
was necessarily very different from ours. While we unconcern- 
edly take tens and even hundreds of thousands of years in which 
to allow the products of human civilization to develop, Herder 
was still compelled to operate with the less than six thousand 
years that orthodoxy stingily doled out. To us the two or three 
thousand years that separate our languages from the Old Testa- 
ment Hebrew seems a negligible quantity, when speculating on 
the origin of language in general ; to Herder, however, the Hebrew 
and the Greek of Homer seemed to be appreciably nearer the 
oldest conditions than our vernaculars — hence his exaggeration of 
their UrsprilnglichkeU. The, supposedly "primitive," or rather 
"original," character of the languages of savages was due to a 
very natural, though, unfortunately, on the whole erroneous, con- 
clusion from a priori considerations. 

Herder next proceeds to take up and refute one of Sussmilch's 
arguments for believing that language is God's direct work. 
Sussmilch contended that it was evident in the alphabetic uni- 
formity of all languages, pointing to an original divine simplicity ; 
all the sounds found in the multiform idioms of the earth, he 
thought, could be adequately represented by about twenty letters. 
This queer argument Herder conclusively showed to be a mere 
orthographic quibble. It is a huge fallacy, as Herder clearly 
saw, to imagine that even one language could be perfectly repre- 
sented by an alphabet at all, let alone one of twenty letters. He 
recognizes, apparently as clearly as any modern linguist, that the 
real elements of language are spoken sounds of which letters are 
but makeshift and imperfect substitutions. He quotes from trav- 
elers as to the extreme difficulty of representing many of the 
dialects of primitive peoples through the medium of our letters; 
but he calls attention also to the very faint idea that one gets of 
even spoken English and French from the written forms of those 
languages. That a comparatively "original" language (I speak 
in Herder's terms) like the Hebrew did not orthographically rep- 
resent the vowels is due, he thinks, to their finely modulated, 
natural, almost unarticulated character. "Hire Ausprache war so 

117 



10 Edwakd Sapik 

lebendig und feinorganisiert, ihr Hauch war so geistig und 
athemisch, dass er verduftete und sich nicht in Buchstaben fassen 
liess." 1 Hence he concludes that the nearer a language comes to 
the original conditions, the less possible to mirror it in ortho- 
graphical symbols. 

After this digression on the Stlssmilch argument, Herder 
returns to a consideration of the natural emotional sounds of man 
and the animals: he emphasizes the great influence that these 
still have emotionally, and sees in them the closest bond of union 
between the various members of animated creation. "Their 
origin," Herder declares, "I consider very natural. It is not only 
not superhuman, but evidently beastlike {thierisch) , the natural 
law of a machine capable of feeling." 2 But — and here comes a 
critical point in Herder's argument — it is impossible to explain 
the origin of human language from these emotional cries. 

All animals, down to the dumb fish, give vent to their feelings in 
tones; but no animal, not even the most perfect, has on that account the 
slightest genuine disposition toward a human language. Let one form and 
refine and fix this natural cry as one will; if no understanding is present, 
so as purposely to use the tone, I fail to see how human, conscious lan- 
guage is ever going to arise. Children utter emotional sounds, like ani- 
mals: is not the language, however, that they learn from men quite 
another idiom ? 3 

All writers, notably Condillac and Maupertuis among the 
French philosophes, and Diodorus and Vitruvius among the 
ancients, that have attempted to derive human speech from 
instinctive animal cries, are, then, on the wrong path at the very 
outset of their investigations. Since, among all living beings, 
man alone has developed a language, in the ordinary sense of the 
word, and since it is, after all, this power of speech which chiefly 
separates man from the animals, any rational attempt to explain 
its origin would have to begin with a consideration of the essen- 
tial psychic differences between the two. Herder, consequently, 
proceeds to seek for the most fundamental of these psychic dif- 
ferences, and finds it in this, "that man is far inferior to the 
animals in strength and sureness of instinct; indeed, that he lacks 

•Herder, op. cit., p. 13. s/6td., p. 17. tlbid., pp. 17, 18. 

118 



Herder's "Urspbung deb Spbaohe" 11 

entirely what in so many animal species we term inborn art- 
capabilities or impulses (Kunstfdhigkeiten und Kunsttriebe).'''' 1 
This inferiority in instinctive power Herder ascribes to a greater 
sphere of attention and activity oh the part of man. Herder 
finds by observation "that the sharper the senses of the animals, 
and the more wonderful their works of art, the narrower their 
sphere, the more uniform their art-work;" 2 and inversely, "the 
more scattered their attention to various objects, the more unde- 
fined their mode of life, in short, the larger and more manifold 
their sphere, the more do we see their sense-powers divided and 
weakened." 3 Now all instincts, even such complicated ones as 
those we see manifested in the construction of beehives and spider- 
webs, are to be explained by the intense, specialized activities of 
the senses within a narrow sphere. Hence Herder feels justified 
in assuming that intensity of the senses and perfection of instinct 
are in inverse proportion to the amplitude of the sphere of atten- 
tion. Since man has the widest possible sphere, is the least 
specialized of all creatures in his activity, it follows that he is 
least endowed with inborn mechanical dispositions; in other 
words, is at birth apparently the most helpless of all living 
beings. It is inconceivable, however, that nature should have 
acted in so stepmotherly a fashion as to intend man for the widest 
field of activity, and at the same time fail to grant him powers 
successfully to maintain himself in his complex environment. 
There must be some psychic element which secures him his due 
position in the world; if we succeed in discovering this psychic 
element, we shall also have obtained the distinctive characteristic 
of man; and if, furthermore, we can show the human faculty of 
speech to be a resultant of this mental characteristic, our problem 
is practically solved. The peculiarly human characteristic sought 
is conditioned by the wide range of attention; for this latter 
implies that the human senses, unrestricted to any narrowly 
specialized field, are left free for development and the acquisition 
of clearer impressions. Now, this clearness of view leads to what 
is variously termed understanding, reason, judgment. Herder, 
who is alone to be held responsible for the psychology of all this, 

i Op. cit., P. 22. 2 Ibid., p. 22. 3 ibid., p. 23. 

119 



12 Edward Sapib 

is indifferent about the name applied (he himself suggests Beson- 
nenheit, "reflection"); he very strongly emphasizes, however, 
that this Besonnenheit is not a faculty superimposed upon the 
lower animal mind-elements and transforming them into the human 
mind, but rather a certain disposition or aspect of the really 
unanalyzable unity called the "mind." It is truly refreshing to 
find Herder, in the age of neatly pigeon-holed faculties, boldly 
asserting these to be but more or less convenient abstractions; to 
Herder the human "mind" is an indivisible entity, in no wise 
genetically related to the animal mind. As he expresses it: "Der 
Unterschied (zwischen der menschlichen und der tierischen 
Seele) ist nicht in Stufen, oder Zugabe von Kraften, sondern in 
einer ganz verschiedenartigen Richtung und Auswickelung aller 
Krafte." 1 Furthermore, Besonnenheit must have been present in 
the human race from the very start, must have been implanted in 
it by the Creator; although this, of course, does not mean that it 
is not capable of growth with the increase of experience. Any 
attempt, then, to bridge over the gulf separating man and the 
animal world is to Herder absurd. 

Does not reflection or Besonnenheit, however, imply the inven- 
tion — or, better, genesis — of language? Herder proceeds: 

[Der Mensch] beweiset Reflexion, wenn er aus dem ganzen schweben- 
den Traum der Bilder, die seine Seele vorbeistreichen, sich in ein 
Moment des Wachens sammlen, auf einem Bilde freiwillig verweilen, es 
in helle ruhigere Obacht nehmen, und sich Merkmale absondern kann, 
dass dies der Gegenstand und kein andrer sei. Er beweiset auch Reflex- 
ion, wenn er nicht bloss alle Eigenschaften lebhaft oder klar erkennen; 
sondern eine oder mehrere als unterscheidende Eigenschaften bei sich 
anerkennen kann; der erste Aktus dieser Anerkenntniss 2 giebt deutlichen 
Begriff; est ist das erste Urtheil der Seele. 3 

Further, the singling out and apperception of any attribute, the 
formation of a clear concept, is in itself, in the true sense of the 
word, language, even though it be not uttered ; for language can 
very well be defined as series of associated attributes or concepts, 
symbolically interpreted. For the purpose of illustration, Herder 

1 Herder, op. cit. p. 29. 

2 By Anerkenntniss Herder means about as much as "apperception." 

3 Op. cit., p. 35. 

120 



Hebder's "Uespeung der Spraohe" 13 

supposes a sheep to pass by primitive man. 1 The latter, with 
mind unobscured by the wolfish instinct to tear the sheep to 
pieces, will, by virtue of his power of Besonnenheit, quietly per- 
ceive the white, wooly phenomenon. Suddenly the sheep bleats; 
involuntarily primitive man picks out this remarkable sound as 
the characteristic attribute in the complex of sensations presented 
to him by the sheep. The sheep crosses his path once again. 
Primitive man, not yet fully practiced in the apperception of 
objects, does not at first recognize his wooly friend. But the 
sheep again bleats, whereupon he remembers the similar sound 
heard before; the characteristic attribute then, in this case the 
bleating, serves to establish the identity of the two sensation- 
groups. Ever thereafter the remembered audible image of bleat- 
ing will associate itself with the totality of images, visual, tactile, 
and others, that go to make up the phenomenon sheep. Does not 
this mean that the image of bleating becomes the name of the 
object, even though the speech-organs of primitive man never 
attempt to reproduce the sound? With the acquisition of a num- 
ber of constant images of apperceived attributes language is now 
fairly begun, and is shown to be, in Herder's opinion, a necessary 
corollary of the postulated Besonnenheit, peculiar to man. 

At this point Herder takes up certain arguments advanced by 
some to prove the impossibility of the human origin of language. 
Slissmilch contended that without the use of language no act of 
reason was possible. Consequently man, in order to reason, must 
have been in prior possession of the gift of speech. But it is 
impossible that he should have himself invented it; for reason, 
not yet in operation, would evidently have been necessary there- 
for. The only way out of the difficulty, then, is to assume that 
God first taught man the use of language, by the employment of 
which the exercise of reason followed. Herder has no difficulty 
in showing the circle in the argument. If man was to grasp 
the linguistic instruction of God, and not simply repeat his 
words in parrot-like manner, he must already have been in pos- 
session of an elaborate complex of concepts and, therefore, also of 
language ; for, according to his analysis, the genesis of the two is 

i The illustration was borrowed by Herder from Moses Mendelssohn. 

121 



14 Edward Sapie 

simultaneous. To seek a parallel for divine instruction in the 
language-teaching of children by their parents is of no avail. 
The child recognizes most attributes and acquires his store of 
concepts by his own unaided experience — that is, the real acqui- 
sition of language is his own unaided work; all that the parents 
do is to force him to label his stock of concepts with those arbi- 
trary symbols which they happen to use themselves. 

So far Herder has discussed only the singling-out of attributes 
in general. The question now arises which attributes are most 
likely to be picked out originally as the first elements of language. 
The sense of sight, Herder believes, develops at the start with too 
great difficulty to allow visual attributes to be seized upon as the 
characteristic ones of objects ; moreover, light-phenomena are too 
"cold" (this is Herder's term) to appeal to primitive man. The 
lower senses, notably that of touch, on the other hand, receive 
impressions that are too coarse and undefined for the purposes of 
speech. It remains, then, for the sense of hearing to give the 
characteristic attributes and, as Herder expresses it, become Lehr- 
meister der Sprache. Thus the sheep, as we have seen, becomes 
to man the "bleater;" the dog, the "barker;" the wind, the 
"rustler;" and so on indefinitely. The abstraction, then, of 
sound-attributes, coupled with a mechanical and spontaneous imi- 
tation of these, forms the first vocabulary of man. The biblical 
sentence, "Gott fuhrte die Thiere zu ihm, dass er sahe, wie er sie 
nennte, und wie er sie nennen wurde, so soil ten sie heissen," 
Herder chooses to consider a poetical, peculiarly oriental rendi- 
tion of the soberly expressed philosophic truth : " Der Verstand, 
durch den der Mensch uber die Natur herrschet, war der Vater 
einer lebendigen Sprache, die er aus Tonen schallender Wesen zu 
Merkmalen der Unterscheidung sich abzog." 1 

If language were the invention of the Creator, we should 
expect to see his spirit — that is, pure reason — reflected in his 
work. But such is by no means the case. Pure reason or logic 
would require us to seek nouns as the most original constituents 
of the vocabulary of a language; for evidently, in strictly logical 
reasoning, the subject comes before the predicate, the thing 

t Herder, op. cit., p. 50. 

122 



Herder's "Ursprung der Sprache" 15 

that acts before the action. As a matter of fact, however, the 
radical elements of languages are not substantive in character, 
but verbal ; this we can explain, if we bear in mind that primitive 
man was most impressed by sounding actions ( tOnende Handlun- 
gen). Since these actions were manifested in certain objects, it 
followed that the latter were named by the same natural sounds as 
the former; thus we have nouns developing out of verbs, and not 
vice versa. "The child names the sheep, not as sheep, but as a 
bleating animal, and thus turns the interjection into a verb." 1 
All old and primitive languages clearly show, Herder is very 
sure, the verbal origin of nouns, and a philosophically arranged 
dictionary of an oriental language would be "a chart of the 
course of the human spirit, a history of its development, and 
.... the most excellent proof of the creative power of the 
human soul." 2 It is somewhat strange to find as keen a mind as 
Herder's occupying itself with so useless and at bottom meaning- 
less a problem as the priority of the parts of speech. It goes 
without saying that in the earliest period of language-formation 
there could not have been the slightest differentiation in word- 
functioning. Making use of Herder's favorite example, there is 
no reason to suppose that the remembered audible sensation 
"bleating" should originally have had more reference to the 
action of bleating than to the sheep itself. We shall probably be 
nearer the truth if we assume that the word made in imitation of 
bleating was employed to signify all that had reference to the 
remembered phenomenon. The word, which we may assume for 
the sake of argument to be "baa," might in modern terms signify 
"to bleat," "sheep," "wooly," or what not; only we must beware 
of imagining that "baa" had any clearly defined . grammatical 
function. Herder speaks of the sheep as "ein blockendes 
Geschopf ;" noting that bloolcend is a verbal form, he concludes 
that the verb was the original part of speech. 

Nature, Herder proceeds, appears to man as a resounding 
(tonend) whole; hence man infers that nature is animated, living, 
and personifies all the phenomena presented to his consciousness. 
By this peculiarly human tendency to vivify the inanimate and 

1 Op. cit., pp. 52, 53. 2 Ibid., p. 53. 

123 



16 Edwabd Sapib 

relate to his own experience the vast sea of extra-human phe- 
nomena can be easily explained the most primitive religions, the 
grammatical category of sex-gender, which Herder, erroneously 
of course, seems to imagine is particularly widespread, and, above 
all, the genesis of poetry. For what was this earliest language, 
imitating the sounds of living nature and expressing ideas in vivid 
imagery, but poetry ? Furthermore, this language was song, not 
learned, as Herder well shows, from the birds, but "song, that 
was as natural to him, as suited to his organs and natural impulses, 
as the nightingale's song to herself." "All nature sang and 
resounded, and the song of man was a concert of all these voices ; 
in so far as his understanding needed them, his feeling grasped 
them, [and] his organs could give expression to them." 1 That the 
oldest song and poetry are derived from this primeval condition 
of identity of song and language Herder considers proved; he is 
inclined to look upon the Homeric poems as survivals from this 
earliest time; and even today the originally musical character of 
speech is attested by the accents of many savage idioms. 

All of this enthusiastic speculation of Herder's on the singing- 
speech of primitive man — ideas which he had already developed 
in the earlier Fragmente — must now, of course, be taken with a 
grain of salt. That song and poetry are among the most natural 
forms of expression, and are found, inseparably linked, practically 
all over the world, is now fully recognized. Moreover, we have 
no difficulty in supposing that the earliest forms of language were 
more expressive emotionally than now; the human voice may, 
very possibly, have had a more decided pitch-modulation, have 
moved at greater musical intervals, than now, and thus have pro- 
duced much of the effect of song. Even this, however, is mere 
speculation. But to suppose that the earliest speech was, in any 
true sense of the word, melodic song, from which the vocal art of 
the Greeks could be more or less directly derived, is to be con- 
sidered the wildest and most improbable fancy. As to the finished 
art-works of Greece being survivals from Herder's hypothetical 
period of spontaneous poesy, that needs no comment here. 

It is not difficult to understand how objects that have distinctive 

1 Herder, op. cit., p. 58. 

124 



Hebdeb's "Ubspbung deb Spbache" 17 

sound-attributes, such as a bleating sheep, can be symbolized 
by sound images. But how is it with phenomena that do not of 
themselves suggest suitable audible symbols? How are the 
impressions of sight and feeling, taste and smell, to be naturally 
expressed in terms of auditory impressions? Herder seeks the 
solution of this puzzling question in a psychologic truth, which 
one is somewhat surprised to see grasped so clearly in the 
eighteenth century. His remarks are so illuminating that I can- 
not do better than quote from them: 

What are these properties [i. e., of sight, hearing, etc.] in objects? 
They are merely sensed impressions in us, and as such do they not all 
flow into one another? We are one thinking sensorium commune, only 
affected on various sides — therein lies the explanation. Feeling under- 
lies all senses, and this gives the most disparate sensations, so intimate, 
strong, indefinable a bond of union, that out of this combination the 
strangest appearances arise. There is more than one instance known to 
me of persons who, naturally, perhaps from some impression of child- 
hood, could not do otherwise than directly combine by some rapid muta- 
tion [we should say " association " nowadays] this color with that sound 
with this appearance that entirely different, indefinite feeling, that, when 
viewed through the light of slow reason, has absolutely no connection 
therewith : for who can compare sound and color, appearance and feeling? ' 

From this now experimentally well-established psychologic law of 
an ever-present, at times indefinite but always real, undercurrent 
of feeling, accompanying and coloring the ever-flowing stream of 
sensation, Herder derives a somewhat nebulously stated corollary, 
an application of the law to the genesis of language. He declares : 

Since all senses, particularly in the condition of man's childhood, are 
nothing but forms of feeling of one mind; and since all feeling, according 
to an emotional law of animal nature, has directly its own vocal expres- 
sion; therefore, if this feeling is heightened to the intensity of a character- 
istic mark (Merkmal), the word of external language is there. 2 

Furthermore : 

Since man receives the language of nature only by way of hearing, 
and without it cannot invent language, hearing has, in some manner, 
become the central one of his senses, the gate, as it were, to the mind, 
and the bond of union between the other senses. 3 

1 Op. cit., p. 61. tlbid., p. 64. 3Ibid., p. 64. 

125 



18 Edward Sapik 

That the sense of hearing does really occupy so relatively 
important a place is, of course, at least questionable ; but Herder, 
undismayed by disquieting doubts, proceeds to give six reasons 
for thinking so. First, hearing occupies a medial position 
among the senses in regard to range of impressivenesss (Sphdre 
der EmpfindbarlceU) ; being richer than the tactile, and less over- 
whelming and distracting than the optic, sense. Thus it stands 
in the closest connection of any with the other senses, and is well 
adapted to serve as a transformer into linguistically usable 
images of the impressions conveyed through the medium of sight 
and touch. Secondly, hearing is a middle sense in the matter of 
clearness ; the sense of touch gives too dull, undefined impressions, 
while the impressions of sight are too bright and manifold. Hear- 
ing effectively heightens the former, modifies the latter. Thirdly, 
hearing occupies a middle position as regards vividness (Lebhaf- 
tigkeit) ; feeling is too warm a sense, lodges itself too deeply and 
overpoweringly in one's consciousness, while visual impressions 
are too cold and leave one indifferent. The auditory sense is, 
then, for the whole mind, what the color green, as it were, is for 
the visual sense — neither too dull nor too intense. Fourthly, 
hearing is the middle sense in respect to the time in which it 
operates ; tactile impressions are sudden and momentary ; those of 
sight, on the other hand, confuse by their simultaneity. As 
opposed to these, auditory impressions generally take place in 
progression — not very much is offered at any one moment, but 
the flow of auditory sensation is fairly continuous. Fifthly, the 
images induced by the sense of hearing need outward expression. 
Impressions produced by feeling are too dark and self-centered 
to need such expression; the objects revealed by the sense of 
sight are generally permanent and can be indicated by gesture; 
"but the objects that appeal to hearing" Herder says, "are con- 
nected with motion : they slip by ; but just on that account they 
give rise to sounds. They are capable of expression because they 
must be expressed, and because they must be expressed, because 
of their motion, they become capable of expression." 1 This 
quotation is a fair specimen of Herder's method of ratiocina- 

1 Op. cit., p. 67. 

126 



Herder's "Ursprung der Sprache" 19 

tion at times. Sixthly and finally, hearing is the middle sense 
in point of order of development, feeling coming before and 
sight after. Thus Herder proves, apparently to his own 
entire satisfaction, that all the impressions of sense become 
capable of adequate linguistic expression by way of their close 
connection with the supposedly middle sense — that of hearing. 
Let us not bother with an unprofitable critique of Herder's anti- 
quated and subjectively confused psychology, and consider it 
proved, for the sake of his argument, that all intense outward 
stimuli, no matter of what description, find their natural response 
in vocal expression. 

Herder next proceeds to lay down a series of theses on the 
characteristics of "original" (ursprtingltchen) languages, the 
purpose of which is to show how clearly the imprint of the human 
mind is visible in them. This to us is very axiomatic, but we 
should not forget that it was necessary for Herder to demonstrate 
it in order to disprove the orthodox theory of divine origin. The 
first of these Sdtze reads : " The older and more original languages 
are, the more is this analogy of the senses noticeable in their 
roots." 1 Where we characterize in terms of sight or feeling, the 
oriental often prefers to have recourse to the sense of hearing. 
"Anger," for instance, is most commonly in later times thought 
of in terms of visual phenomena, such as blazing eyes and glow- 
ing cheeks ; the oriental, however, finds its characteristic mark in 
the fierce snort of the nostrils. 2 Again, "life" is to most of us 
moderns best characterized by the pulse-beat, while the oriental 
hears in the living breath the most salient element of animated 
existence. And so on indefinitely. 

Herder's second thesis reads: "The older and more original 
languages are, the more do the various shades of feeling cross 
each other in the roots of the words." 3 He proceeds: 

Let one open any oriental lexicon at random, and one will perceive 
the struggling desire to express ideas! How the inventor tore out ideas 
from one feeling and borrowed them for another! How he borrowed 
most of all from the most difficult, coldest, clearest senses ! How every - 

1 Op. cit., p. 70. 

2 Herder had in mind probably Heb. 'aph "anger", dual , appdyim "nostrils." 

3 Op. cit., p. 71. 

127 



20 Edward Sapib, 

thing had to be transformed into feeling and sound, in order to gain 
expression! Hence the strong, bold metaphors in the roots of words! 
Hence the extensions from feeling to feeling, so that the meanings of 
stem-words and, still more so, those of their derivatives, when put next 
to each other, present the most motley picture. The genetic cause lies 
in the poverty of the human mind and in the flowing together of the 
emotions of a primitive human being. 1 

The whole discussion of the metaphorical character of "original" 
languages is one of those wonderfully intuitive bits of insight 
that one meets with frequently enough in Herder's writings. He 
saw clearly the perfectly natural, and, indeed, psychologically 
inevitable, play of metaphor that runs through the history of 
language. This was remarkable at a time when figures of speech 
were thought to be the artistic flowers of polite literature. The 
modern semasiologist can, however, be bolder than Herder. He 
recognizes clearly that metaphor operates with equal power at 
all periods in the development of a language, not chiefly in the 
relatively older phases, as Herder thought, but just as well in 
times nearer the present. Moreover, he is inclined to believe 
that not merely a large part of the vocabulary of a language is 
metaphorically transferred in meaning, but that practically all of 
it has undergone an indefinite number of gradual semantic trans- 
mutations. 

Herder's third thesis is as follows: 

The more original a language is, the more frequently do such feelings 
cross in it; the less easily can these be exactly and logically subordinated 
to one another. The language is rich in synonyms; alongside of real 
poverty it has the most unnecessary superfluity. 2 

How can so ill-arranged a mass of material be the work of God? 
As coming from the hand of man, however, the presence of 
synonyms is entirely explicable. Herder argues: 

The less acquainted one was with natural phenomena; the more 
aspects one could in inexperience observe therefrom and hardly recognize; 
the less one invented d, priori, but rather according to circumstances of 
sense: the more synonyms. 3 

This great wealth of synonyms is seen not only in the proverbial 
two hundred words of the Arab for "snake" and about one 

1 Op. ctt., p. 71. ilbid., p. 75. 3/6td.,p. 76. 

128 



Heedeb's "Ubspbung dee Spbaohe" 21 

thousand for "sword," but also in most languages of primitive 
tribes. Herder points out that the latter, although often lacking 
terms for ideas which seem to us most necessary of expression, 
frequently possess an astonishing wealth of words for ideas but 
slightly differentiated in our own minds. 

As fourth canon Herder enunciates the following: 

Just as the human mind can recall no abstraction out of the realm 
of spirits which it did not obtain by means of opportunities and awaken- 
ings of the senses, so also our language contains no abstract word which 
it has not obtained by means of tone and feeling. And the more original 
the language, the fewer abstractions, the more feelings. 1 

That all abstract ideas are originally expressed in terms of con- 
crete images is almost self-evident, and Herder has, indeed, little 
difficulty in proving his point. Again he has recourse for his 
illustrations to the language of the Orient and of primitive peoples. 
"Holy" was, for instance, originally "set apart" in meaning; 
"soul" meant really "breath." Missionaries and travelers unani- 
mously testify to the great difficulty of rendering abstract terms 
in the idioms of comparatively uncultured peoples; the history 
of civilization shows that many of the terms used in philosophy 
and other regions of abstract thought are simply borrowed from 
the vocabularies of nations already farther advanced in specula- 
tion. All this, Herder rightly emphasizes, points to the operation 
of purely human powers; no terms are found for abstractions not 
absolutely necessary to the thought of the people who use them, 
while in every case such terms are originally of purely sensational 
origin. Surely there can be no talk here of divine intervention, 
where only human weakness is manifest. 
Herder's fifth and last thesis runs: 

Since every grammar is only a philosophy of language and a method 
of its use, it follows that the more original the language, the less grammar 
there must be in it, and the oldest [language] is simply the vocabulary of 
nature. 2 

Herder devotes several pages to a consideration of this matter, but 
his whole treatment seems now confused and antiquated. One 
acquainted with the elaborate formal machinery, particularly in 

1 Op. cit., p. 78. 2 Ibid., pp. 82, 83. 

129 



22 Edward Sapir 

regard to the verb, of the Semitic and of many North American 
Indian languages, both of which Herder considered particularly 
"original" in character, will be inclined to deny point-blank the 
validity of his thesis. Herder, however, is not blind to this 
grammatical complexity. On the contrary, he asserts, paradoxi- 
cally enough, that this very complexity is a sign of the lack of a 
true grammatical sense. He thinks that those languages that 
make use of complicated grammatical schemes show thereby their 
inability to arrange their material systematically and logically; 
the Germans or French, for instance, he implies, with fewer para- 
digms, have more of a grammar in the true sense of the word. 
Speaking more particularly of verb-forms, he says: 

The more conjugations [are found], the less thoroughly one has 
learned to systematize concepts relatively to each other. How many the 
orientals have! and yet they are not such in reality, for what transplanta- 
tions and transferences of the verbs are there not from conjugation to 
conjugation! The matter is quite natural. Since nothing concerns man 
so much, at least appears to him so linguistically suitable, as that which 
he is to narrate: deeds, actions, events; therefore, such a multitude of 
deeds and events must originally have been gathered that a new verb 
arose for almost every condition. 1 

Herder's arguments do not, it is almost needless to observe, 
bear inspection. Herder thought of grammar, as was very 
natural in the eighteenth century, as something which was, 
with increasing civilization, brought to bear on language from 
without. With this conception in his mind, it seemed that to 
admit the existence of complex grammatical form in "original" 
languages was playing into the hands of Siissmilch. Today, 
however, owing to the vast stock of comparative and historic 
linguistic material at our disposal, we see clearly that grammar, 
so far from needing the loving attention of the grammarians, 
takes very good care of itself and develops along definite lines. 
We need not, therefore, deal in paradoxes and can admit, with a 
clear conscience, that many typically "original" languages, to 
adopt Herder's now unserviceable terminology, possess truly 
grammatical features of incredible complexity, as in the case of 
the Eskimo verb or Bantu noun. 

i Op. cit., p. 83. 

130 



Herdbb's "Ursprung der Sprache" 23 

Herder ends the first part of his prize essay with a paragraph 
which contains the following statement: 

Ich bilde mir ein, das Konnen der Empfindung menschlicher Sprache 
sei mit dem, was ich gesagt .... so bewiesen, dass wer dem Menschen 
nicht Vernunft abspricht, oder, was eben so viel ist, wer nur weiss, was 
Vernunft ist: wer sich ferner je um die Elemente der Sprache philoso- 
phisch bekilmmert, .... der kann nicht einen Augenblick zweifeln, wenn 
ich auch weiter kein Wort mehr hinzusetze.' 

And, indeed, Herder might have logically concluded the essay 
at this point, though we should not like to miss some of the 
thoughts in the second part. The form of the question as put by 
the academy, seemed, however, to Herder to demand an arrange- 
ment of his subject-matter into two distinct parts. Inasmuch as 
both of the queries posed are practically answered by Herder in 
the first part, we need not analyse in detail the trend of his argu- 
ment in the second, which ostensibly discusses "auf welchem 
Wege der Mensch sich am fuglichsten hat Sprache erfinden 
konnen und mussen," but which, in reality, deals chiefly with the 
gradual development of language. It is itself subdivided into 
four sections, each of these discussing a natural law operative in 
this development. 

The first of these Naturgesetze, which Herder takes so seri- 
ously as to put in the imperative form, reads: "Man is a freely 
thinking, active being, whose powers work on progressively; 
therefore he shall be a creature of language (Oeschdpf der 
Spr-ache)." 2 As the wording of this law implies, Herder here 
recapitulates, with amplifications, a good deal of what he had 
already presented in the first part. But there is a new thought 
introduced here — that of development in the line of progress. 
The gift of speech is, it is true, as characteristic of man as the 
ability to construct a hive is native to the bee — with this notable 
difference: the bee, acting mechanically by virtue of its inborn 
instinctive powers, builds as efficiently the first day as the last, 
and will build so, Herder believes, to the end of time ; the lan- 
guage of man, however, increases in power and efficiency with 
every use that is made of it. The reason for this law of linguistic 
growth in the individual is evident when we consider the relation 

1 pp. cit, p. 89. 2 ibid., p. 93. 

131 



24 Edwabd Sapir 

between thought and language. "There is no condition of the 
human mind," Herder says, "which is not capable of linguis- 
tic expression or not really determined by words of the mind 
( Worte der Seele). ,u Hence growth in the power of reflexion or 
Besonnenheit, conditioned by the growth of experience, entails 
also advance in the employment of language. "The growth of lan- 
guage," as Herder puts it, "is as natural to man as his nature 
itself." 2 Siissmilch had objected to the idea of a human develop- 
ment of language on the ground that such a proceeding would 
have required the thought of a philosophically trained mind, 
such as it would be utterly absurd to imagine primitive man to 
have been in possession of. Herder points out the shallowness 
of his argument in very emphatic terms — an argument that, 
lacking absolutely all sense of historical perspective, would pic- 
ture primitive man as placed in the same environment and 
governed by the same conventions as prevailed in the pseudo- 
philosophical atmosphere of the eighteenth century. Herder 
gives a most excellent characterization of the spirit of his time in 
a few sentences which express his profound dissatisfaction with it : 

Es ist fur mich unbegreiflich, wie man sich so tief in die Schatten, in 
die dunklen Werkstatten des Kunstmassigen verlieren kann, ohne auch 
nicht ein mal das weite, helle Licht der uneingekerkerten Natur erkennen 
zu wollen .... Aus den Meisterstticken menschlicher Dichtkunst und 
Beredsamkeit [sind] Kindereien geworden, an welchen greise Kinder und 
junge Kinder Phrasen lernen und Regeln klauben. Wir haschen ihre 
Formalitaten und haben ihren Geist verloren; wir lernen ihre Sprache 
und fuhlen nicht die lebendige Welt ihrer Gedanken. Derselbe Fall 
ist's mit unserm Urtheilen iiber das Meistersttick des menschlichen 
Geistes, die Bildung der Sprache tiberhaupt. Da soil uns das todte 
Nachdenken Dinge lehren, die bloss aus dem lebendigen Hauche der 
Welt, aus dem Geiste der grossen wirksamen Natur den Menschen 
beseelen, ihn aufrufen undfort bilden konnten. Da sollen die stumpfen, 
spaten Gesetze der Grammatiker das Gottlichste sein, was wir verehren, 
und vergessen die wahre gottliche Sprachnatur, die sich in ihren Herzen 
mit dem menschlichen Geiste bildete, so unregelmassig sie auch scheine. 
Die Sprachbildung ist in die Schatten der Schule gewichen, aus denen 
sie nichts mehr fur die lebendige Welt wirket : drum soil auch nie eine 
helle Welt gegeben sein, in der die ersten Sprachenbilder leben, fiihlen, 
schaffen, und dichten mussten. 3 

> Op. cit., p. 100. 'Ibid., p. 101. 3 Ibid., pp. 111. 112. 

132 



Hebdee's "Ubspeung dee Speaohe" 25 

Herder's second natural law carries the development of lan- 
guage one step farther; the first law dealt with the growth of 
language in the individual, the second is devoted to its develop- 
ment in the family. The law reads: "Man is, according to his 
nature, a being of the herd, of society: The development of a 
language is therefore natural, essential, necessary to him." 1 The 
great physical weakness of the human female as compared with 
the male, and the utter helplessness of the newborn child, make 
it absolutely necessary that human beings, even more so than is 
the case among the animals, form into families, sharing a common 
abode. The primitive man, more experienced than his mate and 
offspring, would naturally proceed to teach them that stock of 
linguistic information which he had himself so laboriously gath- 
ered. The child, entirely dependent as he is upon the exertions 
of his father, would babblingly repeat the sounds uttered in his 
neighborhood, and in time become inheritor of his parent's entire 
vocabulary. Arrived at maturity, he would go on enriching the 
store of linguistic knowledge on the basis of his own experience. 
In this way the institution of the family becomes an important 
means for the perpetuation from generation to generation and for 
the gradual enrichment of language. Moreover, in the very 
process of teaching, the language becomes more definitely organ- 
ized, the stock of ideas becomes more and more clearly defined; 
Herder, indeed, sees in this earliest process of language-instruc- 
tion the genesis of grammar. 

The most interesting portion of the second part of Herder's 
essay is the discussion of the third natural law, dealing with the 
rise of nationally distinct languages. Herder formulates his law 
thus: "Just as the whole race of man could not possibly remain 
one herd, so also it could not retain one language. There arises 
consequently the formation of various national tongues." 2 Herder 
begins his discussion by clearly pointing out that, in the exact 
or, as he terms it, "metaphysical" sense of the word, no two per- 
sons speak precisely the same language, any more than they are 
exact physical counterparts. Setting aside, however, such minute 
individual differences, it can easily be shown that more distinctly 

1 Op. cit., p. 112. a/6td., pp. 123, 124. 

133 



26 Edward Sapib 

marked linguistic groups or dialects would, in the nature of things, 
form. Every family -group puts its own characteristic stamp upon 
the inherited linguistic stock; differences of climate work upon 
the speech-organs, and consequently, Herder supposes, upon the 
language itself; 1 the preference for different words and turns of 
expression in different sections of the linguistic field gives rise to 
dialects. "Original" languages, moreover, being less hampered, 
according to Herder, by grammatical rules, are more liable to 
dialectic disintegration than more cultured idioms; although here, 
too, the most careful modern linguistic research does not uncon- 
ditionally bear out Herder's presumption. The oft-asserted and 
oft-repeated statement of the incredibly rapid change of the 
languages of primitive tribes is founded chiefly on the untrust- 
worthy reports of linguistically inefficient missionaries; many of 
the extreme statements formerly and even yet current are absurdly 
untrue. Indeed, the most startling cases of linguistic conserva- 
tism are found among certain primitive peoples, such as the 
Eskimos. 

Man, Herder proceeds, with an almost naive anthropomorphic 
teleology, is made for all the earth and all the earth for man. 
Hence we find him at home as well in the regions of eternal snow 
as under the burning sun of the tropics. As is to be expected, 
under widely diverse geographical and climatic conditions, the 
originally homogeneous race of man differentiates into diverse 
races, while the originally homogeneous speech of man differ- 
entiates first into dialects, then, with the lapse of ages, into 
mutually quite unintelligible languages. Hence is to be explained 
the bewildering Babel of tongues; as Herder expresses it: "Die 
Sprache wird ein Proteus auf der runden Oberflache der Erde." 2 
It is to be borne in mind, of course, that the now familiar con- 
ception of independent linguistic stocks was in the main a foreign 
one to Herder; it did not arise until after a lucky fate discovered 
the relationship of the idiom of ancient India with that of far- 
distant Greece and Rome. If Herder's view of the gradual 

1 It should be stated here, however, that, contrary to all expectation, anatomical investi- 
gation has never succeeded in demonstrating differences of vocal anatomy to be the basis of 
differences in dialect or language. 

2 Op. ciU P- 127. 

134 



Herder's "Ursprung der Spraohe" 27 

differentiation of speech is correct, we expect to find linguistic 
modifications congruent to geographic differences. How comes 
it, then, that totally diverse languages are often found spoken 
side by side? Herder thinks to be able satisfactorily to explain 
this puzzling condition by the hatred with which neighboring 
tribes frequently regard each other. Such discord would oper- 
ate quite as effectively as geographical barriers toward linguistic 
isolation. The description of the confusion of tongues in Genesis 
Herder interprets as a characteristically oriental method of pre- 
senting this truth. 

The fourth and last Naturgesetz reads: 

Just as, according to all probability, the human race forms a pro- 
gressive whole from one origin in one great system; so also all languages, 
and with them the whole chain of culture. 1 

After a brief resume of the links in the chain of linguistic develop- 
ment — development in the individual, in the family, and in the 
nation — Herder most emphatically supports a monogenistic view 
of language as the most rational. His chief reason for the con- 
tention is the evident similarity he finds in the grammatical 
structure of the various languages — a similarity that he believes 
to be so great as to preclude all possibility of polygenism. The 
only serious departure from the common grammatical outlines is 
found, according to Herder, in the case of Chinese, which how- 
ever, is but an exception. Herder advances as another argument 
in favor of linguistic monogenism the almost universal use of the 
same or very similar alphabets. This universality was more 
apparent in Herder's time than now, for the Egyptian and various 
cuneiform records had not as yet been deciphered. Still one is 
rather surprised to find a man of Herder's stamp so lose sight of 
the perspective of history as to present so lame an argument. 
One might have expected him to perceive that in any case the 
formation of written alphabets must have taken place long after 
independent languages had developed, and that the wide spread 
of the so-called Phoenician alphabet was due to several stages of 
borrowing, to a great extent, within historic times. 

The latter part of the essay rapidly summarizes the orthodox 

1 Op. cit., p. 134. 

135 



28 Edward Sapik 

stand taken by Sfissmilch and his followers as against the more 
philosophical and psychologically sounder view of Herder con- 
cerning the origin of language. Herder makes bold to call the 
orthodox view "nonsense" (Unsinn), and accuses its supporters 
of petty anthropomorphism in their conception of God's activity. 
On the other hand, he claims: 

Der menschliche [Drsprung] zeigt Gott im grossesten Lichte; sein 
Werk, eine menschliche Seele, durch sich selbst, eine Sprache schaffend 
und fortschaffend, weil sie sein Werk, eine menschliche Seele ist. 1 

At the very end of the essay we find Herder's own statement of 
his aim, with which I shall close my analysis of his work as a 
perfectly good formulation of the spirit to be pursued in investi- 
gations of such a character even today: 

Er [i. e., der Verfasser] befliss sich feste Data aus der menschlichen 
Seele, der menschlichen Organisation, dem Bau aller alten und wilden 
Sprachen, und der ganzen Haushaltung des menschlichen Geschlechts 
zu sammlen, und seinen Satz so zu beweisen, wie die festeste philo- 
sophische Wahrheit bewiesen werden kann. 2 

It is hardly necesssary to go into any general criticism on 
Herder's prize essay, particularly as various points in Herder's 
argument have been the subject of critical comment in the course 
of our analysis. That much of the work is quite antiquated, both 
in subject-matter and general attitude, is, of course, self-evident ; 
it is rather to be wondered at how much in the essay is still valid, 
and with what remarkable intuitive power Herder grasped some 
of the most vital points both in psychology and language. One 
wishes that we today could be so cocksure of the solution of cer- 
tain linguistic problems as Herder seems to have been ; but, then, 
that was characteristic in a large measure of the age of rationalism. 
The philosophers of the eighteenth century, relying very heavily 
on pure reason unfettered by hard facts, proceeded, with admir- 
able courage, to attack and solve the most obscure and intricate 
problems in the history of human culture — problems to the solu- 
tion of which we have now learned to proceed quite timidly. Some 
of this blind trust in pure reason is apparent in our prize essay; 
yet Herder attempted, as much as possible, to make use of what 
linguistic material was at hand in the verification of his theories. 

1 Op. cit., p. 146. 2 Ibid., p. 147. 

136 



Herder's "Ursprung der Sprache" 29 

It is not necessary, either, to go into any analysis of the 
literary style of Herder's essay, as the important thing in our 
subject is not Herder's language, but rather his thought. The 
characteristic qualities of Herder's style are here in evidence as 
elsewhere ; wealth of figurative expression ; a lavish use of rhetori- 
cal periods, as outwardly indicated by a generous sprinkling of 
exclamation points, interrogation points, and dashes (it may be 
noted that the treatise ends with a dash) ; and a warm, enthusias- 
tic diction, which often carries the author away from the imme- 
diate object of discussion. In general, however, the essay is 
remarkable, at least when considered as a Herder document, for 
the systematic development of the theme and for clearness of 
exposition. 

It is certainly very strange, and almost incredible, that one 
who succeeded so well in demonstrating the human origin of 
language should himself have later been in doubt as to the 
validity of his conclusions; yet such was the melancholy case 
with Herder. When Herder wrote the prize essay, during the 
latter part of his stay in Strassburg (1770), he was still, in the 
main, in sympathy with the rationalistic advocates of reason, even 
though the bloodless Aufkldrung of a Nicolai was not exactly to 
his taste. Hence we find in the essay a strong aversion for the 
mystic and supernatural, and a desire to explain all cultural 
phenomena in the light of human intelligence. In the early part 
of his Blickeburg residence, however, Herder's ideas underwent 
a tremendous change. So radical, indeed, was the transformation 
effected in his general mental attitude that the Preisschrift may 
be conveniently considered as marking the end of a definitely 
limited period in Herder's life. The mental change referred to 
was a break with the older standpoint of "enlightenment" (Auf- 
kldrung), which had on the whole, despite Hamann's influence, 
dominated Herder's thoughts, if at times equivocally. He now 
(1771-72), very largely under the influence of the mystically 
pious Countess of Buckeburg, leaned toward romanticism, and a 
philosophy and theology that did not seek the final explanation 
of things in reason. Hence, when the news reached Herder that 
he had been awarded the prize, he was anything but elated; the 

137 



30 Edward Sapir 

whole spirit and tendency of his essay were now quite distasteful to 
him, and belonged already for Herder to the dim past. Despite 
the change in Herder, congratulations on the winning of the prize 
came in from all sides; "the townspeople," he writes, "regard me 
as the most celebrated of men because I have now gained the 
prize." 1 These congratulations, as might well be expected under 
the circumstances, brought Herder more vexation than satisfaction. 
At Easter of the year 1772, Herder's former preceptor, Hamann, 
who had not corresponded with his disciple since the latter had 
left Riga, and from whom Herder had in the meanwhile become 
somewhat estranged, intellectually speaking, wrote a cold and 
hostile review of the Ursprung der Sprache in the KOnigsberger 
Journal. Though many ideas developed in the essay had been 
largely inspired by suggestions of Hamann himself, nevertheless 
Herder's flat denial of the direct agency of God in the invention 
of language was by no means to the other's taste. The stand 
taken by Hamann is well summarized by Nevinson: "God might 
act through nature and the voices of beasts, but from God lan- 
guage, as all else, must come, for in God we live and move and 
have our being." 2 Herder felt the sting of criticism all the more 
keenly in that he was now largely in sympathy with Hamann's 
views, and felt drawn toward his former teacher more powerfully 
than ever. Through the mediation of their mutual friend, Hart- 
knoch, a reconciliation was effected between the two, Herder 
recanting the heresies of which he had been guilty. In a second 
and more favorable review, and in a treatise entitled The Last 
Words of the Red-Cross Knight on the Divine or Human Origin 
of Language, Hamann clearly shows that the friends of old were 
friends again. Perhaps nothing can prove more clearly the 
unhealthy element in the mysticism of Herder's Buckeburg 
period than his amazing repudiation of the doctrines he had him- 
self so unanswerably demonstrated. For a time he occupied 
himself with the thought of adding some words of explanation 
and semi-apology to the essay, published by authority of the 
Academy in 1772, but nothing came of the plan. Fritz Mauthner, 

1 Seo Nevinson, Herder and His Times, p. 185. 

2 Ibid., p. 196. 

138 



Heedee's "Uespbung deb Sprache" 31 

in the work already referred to, speaks impatiently of Herder's 
inconstancy : 

Herder bringt sich urn jeden Kredit, wenn er seine Preisschrift schon 
1772 (in einem Brief an Hamann) als "Schrift eines WitztOlpels" ver- 
leugnet; die Denkart dieser Preisschrift konne und solle auf ihn so 
wenig Einfluss haben, als das Bild, das er jetzt an die Wand nagle. Da 
ist es denn kein Wunder, wenn Herder in der Polgezeit den lieben Gott 
wieder um die Erfindung der Sprache bemuht. 1 

Certainly disingenuous is Herder's statement, in the long letter 
of explanation addressed to Hamann, that after all he had not 
seriously differed from his preceptor, and that in writing for "an 
enlightened royal Prussian Academy " 2 he had been forced to put 
on the mask of the "Leibnitzian aesthetic form." 3 After Herder 
had freed himself from the mists of Biickeburg mysticism, a 
reversal in judgment set in in favor of his earlier comparatively 
rationalistic views, so that, when seventeen years later, in 1788-89, 
he prepared a second edition of the Preisschrift, he found little 
to change in the text, save in the matter of chastening the wild- 
ness of the language. We may then safely look upon our Preis- 
schrift as the most important and genuine expression of Herder's 
views upon the subject of language. 

Concerning the influence of Herder's prize essay on sub- 
sequent linguistic speculation it is difficult to speak definitely, 
from the very nature of Herder's work. Herder did not, as we 
have seen, definitely systematize, nor could his solution of the 
problem be considered in any way final; his own subsequent 
vacillation shows, perhaps more clearly than anything else, the 
unsatisfactory nature of much of the reasoning. Contradictions 
even of no small significance and lack of clearness in the terms 
used will have been noticed in the course of our exposition of 
Herder's essay; the weak points in it, both when judged from 
the standpoint of Herder's own time and from that of the post- 
Humboldtian and pre-evolutionary view-point of the sixties, are 
probably best pointed out by the psychologist and linguistic 
philosopher, H. Steinthal, in his Ursprung der Sprache. Setting 
aside faults in the essay itself, it is evident that the new vistas of 

i F. Mauthner, "Zur Sprachwissenschaft" (Vol. II of Kritik der Sprache), pp. 47-50. 
2 See Nevinson, op. cit„ p. 197. *Ibid. 

139 



32 Edwakd Sapir 

linguistic thought opened up by the work of Karl Wilhelm von 
Humboldt, and the more special labors of Bopp and Grimm, 
speedily relegated Herder's treatise to the limbo of things that 
were, so that even as early as the period at which Steinthal and 
Grimm wrote their works on the origin of language, Herder's 
Preissclirift had already become of chiefly historical interest. 
The real historic significance, then, of Herder's work would be 
shown to lie in the general service it rendered by compelling a 
sounder study of the psychologic and historic elements involved 
in the investigation of the problem, and perhaps also in the sug- 
gestions it gave Humboldt for his far deeper treatment of the 
same and closely allied themes. 

Perhaps the best testimony which could be offered on the sub- 
ject of Herder's more general influence is the following quotation 
from Jacob Grimm at the close of his own work on the origin of 
language : 

Enden kann ich nicht, ohne vorher dem Genius des Mannes zu hul- 
digen, der was ihm an Tiefe der Forschung oder Strenge der Gelehr- 
samkeit abging, durch sinnvollen Tact, durch reges Gefuhl der Wahrheit 
ersetzend, wie manche andere, auch die schwierige Prage nach der 
Sprache Ursprung bereits so erledigt hatte, dass seine ertheilte Antwort 
immer noch zutreffend bleibt, when sie gleich mit anderen Griinden, als 
ihm schon dafur zu Gebote standen, aufzustellen und bestatigen ist. 1 
On his immediate contemporaries the prize essay doubtless made 
a deep impression. To Goethe, who was just at that time under 
Herder's personal influence, the author showed the essay while still 
in manuscript. Goethe had not thought very much about the 
subject, and was inclined to consider it as somewhat superfluous. 
"For," he says, "if man was of divine origin, so was language; 
and, if man must be regarded in the circle of nature, language 
must also be natural. Still, I read the treatise with great pleasure 
and to my special edification." 2 

The extent and even existence of Herder's influence on Hum- 
boldt, on the other hand, is a disputed question. It is all the 
more important because practically all the later thought on the 
philosophy of language (Steinthal, Schleicher, and others) is 

'Jacob Grimm, Uber den Ursprung der Sprache (Berlin, 1852), p. 56. 
2 See Nevinson, op. cit., p. 163. 

140 



Herder's "Ursprung der Sprache" 33 

connected quite directly with Humboldt's ideas developed in his 
t)ber das vergleichende Sprachstudium in Beziehung auf die 
verschiedenen Epochen der Sprachentwickelung, and still more 
in the Einleitung in die Kawisprache: uber die Verschiedenheit 
des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die gei- 
stige Entwickelung der Menschengeschichte. Steinthal, himself 
an enthusiastic follower and developer of Humboldtian views, 
most emphatically denies any indebtedness on Humboldt's part 
to Herder. 1 

Haym, Herder's biographer, on the other hand, just as emphati- 
cally asserts the perceptible influence of Herder in Humboldt's 
writings, and claims that the latter is most decidedly to be con- 
sidered as standing on his predecessor's shoulders. He says: 

Er [i. e., Humboldt] wiederholt die Gedanken Herder's — er vertieft, 
er verfeinert, er bestimmt, er klart sie, er denkt das von jenem gleichsam 
athemlos Gedachte mit ruhig verweilender Umsicht zum zweiten Male 
nach und durch. 2 

He goes on to show how, as with Herder, so also with Humboldt, 
man is "ein singendes Geschopf, aber Gedanken mit den Tonen 
verbindend"; 3 language is to Humboldt very much as to Herder, 
"die naturliche Entwickelung einer den Menschen als solchen 
bezeichnenden Anlage." 4 To Humboldt the chief task of gen- 
eral linguistics is the consideration from a single point of view of 
the apparently infinite variety of languages, "und durch alle 
Umwandlnngen der Geschichte hindurch dem Gange der geisti- 
gen Entwickelung der Menschheit an der Hand der tief in die- 
selbe verschlungenen, sie von Stufe zu Stufe begleitenden Sprache 
zu folgen." 5 This is evidently little else than a more satisfactory 
and scientific formulation of Herder's idea of the gradual growth 
of language in concomitance with the growth of Besonnenheit. On 
the whole, I should be inclined, in view of the greater probability 
of the historic continuity of ideas, to side with Haym. A com- 
prehensive statement of the position that Herder occupies in the 
history of linguistics is given by Lauchert. 6 

1 H. Steinthal, Der Ursprung der Sprache (Berlin, 1858), p. 12. 

2 Haym, Herder nach seinem Leben und seinen Werken dargestellt, p. 408. 

3 Ibid. 4 ibid. 6 ibid. 

«F. Lauchert, "Die Anschauungen Herders Ober den Ursprung der Sprache," Eupho- 
rion, Vol. I, p. 766. 

141 



34 Edward Sapie 

Es genuge, darauf hingewiesen zu haben, dass die neuere Sprach- 
philosophie, soweit sie einerseits nicht auf dem Boden des positiven 
Christentums und der Schopfungslehre desselben steht, andrerseits aber 
auch noch nicht auf dem der modernen naturalistisch-materialistisehen 
Weltanschauung, direkt oder indirekt unter Herder's Einfluss steht. 

As the last general linguist to discuss language problems from 
the standpoint that maintained the existence of a wide, impassable 
gulf between man and the lower animals, and stoutly denied any 
genetic relationship between animal cries and the rude beginnings 
of human speech, should perhaps be mentioned Max Muller. Like 
Herder and Humboldt, he saw in language the distinguishing 
mark that separated man from the brute world, and was never 
tired, to the end of his days, of arguing that this possession of 
language was the death-blow to Darwinism. The idea of the 
interrelation of language and reason, and of their simultaneous 
growth, common to Herder and Humboldt, we find pushed to its 
utmost limit by Max Muller. So impressed was he by this theory 
of the essential identity of language and reason that his slogan 
in later days was: "Without reason no language ; without language 
no reason." 1 As is well known, his assertion of this principle 
brought on a fruitless logomachy with William Dwight Whitney. 
Despite Max Muller, however, it seems to me that the path for 
future work on the prime problems, more especially the origin, of 
language lies in the direction pointed out by evolution. A new 
element, the careful and scientific study of sound-reflexes in higher 
animals, must now enter into the discussion. Perhaps this, with a 
very extended study of all the various existing stocks of languages, 
in order to determine the most fundamental properties of lan- 
guage, may assist materially in ultimately rendering our problem 
more tractable. We should not only try to imagine to what 
beginnings the present state of language reaches back, but also 
to reconstruct an ideal picture of the evolution of howls and cries, 
under the favoring conditions, whatever those were, into less rude 
forms of audible expression. Perhaps the ends of the two series 
can be bridged over? 

Edward Sapir 
Columbia University 

J See, e. g., title-page of M. Mailer's Science of Thought (New York, 1887). 

142