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About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI


Part V: The Confusion of Languages

Chapter 1

The Original Unity of Language

     SO LONG AS Adam and Eve were considered real people, originators of the human race, and so long as their first appearance was not set back beyond a few thousand years from which time the world's population began a fairly rapid multiplication, there seemed no reason to doubt that the whole race had maintained for some time a single language. It was assumed that the faculty of speech was part of Adam's original endowment and the art of conversation had never been lost, so that no entirely new starts were needed. At the same time, it was recognized that such great diversities of speech as are now observed among nations could hardly have arisen in so short a time unless some very serious disruption of natural processes of development had occurred at some point along the way. The record of the Confusion of Tongues at Babel seemed a most reasonable explanation of this diversity.
    When, however, according to scientific theories the first human couple were set back in time, not merely thousands of years, but hundreds of thousands of years; and when the picture of population growth thereafter was of exceedingly small families of scarcely human creatures scattered in dreadful isolation over the globe, developing their own embryonic forms of speech in total independence of one another through eons of time then it seemed meaningless to speak of mankind in any real sense as ever having shared a single form of language.

There was another objection to taking the story seriously. According to Ussher's chronology, the Flood occurred only about 2500 B.C. If we follow the Septuagint, we gain only a few centuries at most. But many scholars, particularly the Higher Critics like S. R. Driver, were fond of pointing out that there are inscriptions from the Middle East considerably antedating 3000 B.C., written in the languages which the story of Babel tells us did not arise until some

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time after the Flood. (1) They therefore concluded that the story of the Confusion of Tongues is dated far too late, proving it to be nothing but a myth fabricated long after the event it was supposed to explain.
     However, as so often has been the case, the issue hinges upon the accuracy of our dating systems -- that is to say, our interpretations of biblical chronology and our reconstruction of the chronology of secular history in antiquity. At the present moment we cannot be absolutely sure of either, and the finality of Driver's conclusions must be called in question. Or to put it another way, we do not know for sure that such inscriptions in these languages really do antedate Babel. The issue has to be settled, if possible, by some other means.
     All that can be said at the present is that evidence exists in pre-dynastic times in Mesopotamia of the presence of three linguistic stocks: to use V. G. Childe's words, "'Japhethites' (known only inferentially from a few place names): Semites (speaking a language akin to Hebrew and Arabic): and the dominant Sumerians."
(2) As far as the date is concerned, Childe points out that Sumerian (Hamitic) was being written in Sumer before the close of the Uruk phase which according to Meek, would be sometime before 3000 B.C. (3) Meek states that dates before this are largely guesses supported only by cross-datings and cultural synchronisms. He says the earliest dynasty to be attested by actual inscriptions is the first dynasty of Ur which cannot be dated much earlier than 2700 B.C. We simply do not know enough about the Middle East pre-dynastic times to be able to establish conclusively just how early these three distinctive language groups first made their appearance.
     Without concerning themselves too greatly with the dating of the Confusion, many conservative Christian scholars toward the end of the last century occupied themselves rather with the evidence for the veracity of the Genesis account by a study of ancient Middle Eastern languages. But before considering some of their findings, it seems appropriate, first of all, to examine the conclusions of a very famous non-Christian scholar, Max Muller. He, while denying that any light on the subject could be derived from the biblical story, was quite willing to admit -- indeed, to argue -- that there was nothing unreasonable in the idea of there having once been a single language shared by all men.
      Max Muller's position is set forth in his classic two-volume

1. Driver, S. R., The Book of Genesis, Methuen, London, 1904, p.133.
2. Childe, Vere Gordon, What Happened in History, Pelican Books, London 1946, p.81
3. Meek. T. T. The Present State of Mesopotamian Studies, Haverford Symposium on Archaeology and the Bible, 1938. pp.159, 167.

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work, The Science of Language. (4) He was probably the greatest authority in the world, and it is doubtful whether his erudition and breadth of knowledge have ever been equalled. His opinion is all the more significant from our point of view in that he took pains to demonstrate that his conclusions were based on a scientific study of the subject and quite uninfluenced by his attitude toward the Old Testament. In fact, toward the end of the first volume he expressed the view that the Mosaic records must now be stripped of any claim as inspired writing!
     Because of the weight of his authority, I should like to give a brief resume of his conclusions. In the first volume, his analysis of languages from all over the world had led him to group them into categories which he terms respectively the radical, the terminational, and the inflectional. Although he showed these to be fundamentally distinct and different, in answer to the question, "Can we reconcile with these the admission of one common origin of human speech?" he answered, "Decidedly, yes!"
(5) Muller continued subsequently, (6)

     Now it has been the tendency of the most distinguished writers on comparative philology to take it almost for granted, that after the discovery of the two families of language, the Aryan and Semitic, and after the establishment of the close ties of relationship which unite the members of each, it would be impossible to admit any longer a common origin of language. It was natural, after the criteria by which the unity of the Aryan as well as the Semitic dialects can be proved had been so successfully defined, that the absence of similar coincidences between any Semitic and Aryan language, or between these and any other branch of speech, should have led to a belief that no connection was admissible between them.

     What he was saying, if I may be permitted to emphasize it, is that there is so obviously a family of languages which is called Aryan (this is part of our Japhetic family) and so obviously a family of languages which is Semitic, that they must be held as quite clearly distinct from one another as families, showing superficially not the slightest tendency to blend into each other. Whence comes the impression that derivation of one family from another is impossible? The two bundles of languages are so securely and tidily wrapped up that there are no free elements left which could serve to relate them to one another. Nevertheless Muller confessed that he had found quite inconclusive the oft-repeated argument that the existence of such distinct families

4. Muller, Max, The Science of Language, Scribner, Armstrong, N.Y., 1875, 2nd edition, revised, 2 vols.
5. Ibid., p.329.
6. Ibid., p.332.

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made it impossible to derive them from a common source. His answer, though phrased perhaps rather quaintly, was nevertheless to the point: (7)

     If you wish to assert that languages had various beginnings, you must prove it impossible that language could not have had a common origin.
     No such impossibility has ever been established with regard to a common origin of the Aryan and Semitic dialects, while on the contrary the analysis of the grammatical forms in either family has removed many difficulties, and made it at least intelligible how, with materials identical or very similar, two individuals, or two families, or two nations, could in the course of time have produced languages so different in form as Hebrew and Sanskrit.
     But still greater light was thrown on the formative and metamorphic processes of languages by the study of other dialects unconnected with Sanskrit or Hebrew. . . . I mean the Turanian languages. The traces by which these languages attest their original relationships are much fainter than in the Semitic and Aryan families, but they are so of necessity.

     The term Turanian may not be familiar to most readers. From a biblical point of view it would be fair to substitute the term Hamitic just as Aryan may be equated with Japhetic. Thus referring further to the Hamitic branch, he continued: (8)

     To myself the study of the Hamitic family was interesting particularly because it offered an opportunity of learning how far languages, supposed to be of a common origin, might diverge and become dissimilar by the unrestrained operation of dialectic regeneration.
     In a letter which I addressed to my friend, the late Baron Bunsen, which was published by him in his "Outlines of the Philosophy of Universal History," it had been my object to trace, as far as I was able, the principles which guided the formation of agglutinative languages, and to show how far languages may become dissimilar in their grammar and vocabulary, and yet allow us to treat them as cognate dialects. In answer to the assertion that it was impossible, I tried to show how it was possible, that, starting from a common ground, languages as different as Mandshu and Finnish, Malay and Siamese, should have arrived at their present state, and might still be treated as cognate tongues. . . .  I felt justified in applying the principles derived from the formation of the Hamitic languages to the Aryan and Semitic families. . . .  If we can account for the different appearance of Mandshu and Finnish, we can also account for the distance between Hebrew and Sanskrit. It is true that we do not know the Aryan speech during its agglutinative period, but we can infer what it was when we see languages like Finnish and Turkish approaching more and more to Aryan type.

     Evidently Muller's views met with violent opposition. As he put it: (9)

     In my letter on Hamitic languages, which has been the subject of such

7. Ibid., p.333.
8. Ibid., p.336.
9. Ibid., p.338.

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fierce attacks. . .  I had preferred the term of "group" for the Hamitic languages, in order to express as clearly as possible that the relation between Turkish and Mandshu, between Tamil and Finnish, was of a different one, not in degree only, but in kind, from that between Sanskrit and Greek. "These Hamitic languages," I said, "cannot be considered as standing to each other in the same relation as Hebrew and Arabic, Sanskrit and Greek. They are radii diverging from a common centre."
     I endeavored to show how even the most distant members of the Hamitic family, the one spoken in the north, the other in the south of Asia, the Finnic and the Tamulic, have preserved in their grammatical organization traces of a former unity; and, if my opponents admit that I have proved ante-Brahmanic or Tamulic inhabitants of India to belong to the Hamitic family, they can hardly have been unaware that this, the most extreme point of my argument, be conceded, then all else is involved and must follow by necessity.

     I should like to draw the reader's attention to the fact that he distinguished the Hamitic group from the Japhetic and Semitic families. As we shall attempt to show, there is some evidence that the confusion of languages was in fact limited to the descendants of Ham only, so that as a group they bear a somewhat unique relationship to one another which differs from the Japhetic and Semitic families. To sum up, Muller set forth his views in two paragraphs as follows: (10)

     Nothing necessitates the admission of different independent beginnings for the material elements (i.e., vocabulary) of the Hamitic, Semitic and Aryan branches of speech: nay, it is possible even now to point out roots which, under various changes and disguises, have been current in these three branches ever since their first separation.
     Nothing necessitates the admission of independent beginnings for the formal elements (i.e., grammar) of the Hamitic, Semitic and Aryan system of grammar from the Semitic, or the Semitic from the Aryan; we can perfectly understand how, either through individual influences, or by the wear and tear of speech in its own continuous working, the different systems of grammar of Asia and Europe may have been produced.

     And having said this, he concluded: (11)

     The Science of Language thus leads us up to that highest summit from which we see into the very dawn of man's life on earth; and where the words which we have heard so often from the days of our childhood -- "and the whole earth was of one language and of one speech" -- assume a meaning more natural, more intelligible, more convincing, than they ever had before.

     While Muller was concentrating upon the more familiar languages of Europe and Asia, others were beginning to discover

10. Ibid., p.340
11. Ibid.. p.391.

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underlying relationships between the languages of the New World. Thus for example, Sir William Dawson observed, in terms which are perhaps a little too sweeping and yet in some respects more fully justified today than when first uttered: (12)

     It is a common popular statement that the languages of the American continent are innumerable and mutually unintelligible. In a very superficial sense this is true: but more profound investigation shows that the languages of America are essentially one. Their grammatical structure, while very complex, is on the same general principle throughout. But grammar is, after all only the clothing of language. Its essence consists in its root words, which bear a definite relation to the mental habits and vocal organs of the speakers and very often equally definite relations to the things spoken of. Now multitudes of root words are identical in the American languages over vast areas some of them with precisely the same senses, and others with various shades of analogical meaning. If we leave out of account purely imitative words, as those derived from the voices of animals, and from natural sounds, which necessarily resemble each other everywhere, it will be found that the most persistent words are those like "God," "house," "man," etc., which express objects or ideas of constant recurrence in the speech of everyday life, and which in consequence become most perfectly stereotyped in the usage of primitive peoples. Further, a very slight acquaintance with these languages is sufficient to show that they are connected with the older languages of the Eastern continent by a great variety of more permanent root words, and with some even on grammatical structure. So persistent is this connection through time, that pages might be filled with modern English, French, or German words, which are allied to those of the Algonquin tribes as well as to the oldest tongues of Europe, Basques and Magyar, and the East.

     Some of this linguistic evidence was carefully tabulated in a series of learned papers presented before the Royal Canadian Institute by A. F. Chamberlain. (13) It is true that a few of his statements need serious qualification, but the very extensive lists of words common to a wide range of Mongol languages in the New World and the Far East cannot be lightly dismissed. No one can fairly review the evidence he presents, even making allowances for some errors in transcriptions and some wrongly reported spellings, without coming to the conclusion that both the East and the New World were peopled by tribes (including the Eskimos) who derived their language from a single source.
     The Hamitic "family" of languages (using the term in the biblical sense) is clearly very extensive, including as it does the Mongol group, the African, certain languages of Europe (Basque,

12. Dawson, Sir William, Fossil Men and Their Modern Representatives, Hodder and Stoughton Montreal, 1883, p.310.
13. Chamberlain, A. F., "The Relationship of American Languages," in Canadian Institute, Series 3, vol. 4, 1885-86, p.57ff. and subsequently

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etc.), and the languages of Oceania. Within the Mongol languages are to be found the native tongues of all the American Indians, North and South, as well as the Far East. An early edition of Chamber's Encyclopedia, referring to the views of Max Muller on the subject of philology, pointed out that the Mongol group includes within itself some languages which carry us through the Middle East up into Europe and into Finland: (14)

     Max Muller classed them in two great divisions, the northern and the southern. The northern division falls into five sections, the Tungusic, Mongolic, Turkic, Finnic and Samoyedic. Of these, the Tungusic dialects which extend north and west from China are the lowest in organization, being, some of them, nearly destitute of grammatical forms, as the Chinese. The Mongolic dialects are superior to Tungusic. The Turkic occupy an immense area and are extremely rich in grammatical forms, especially the conjugation of the verb. The most important members of the Finnic class are the Finnic of the Baltic Coasts and the Hungarian language or Magyar. The southern division comprises among others the Dravidian of South India, the Tibetan, the Tair or the dialects of Siam, and the Malaic or Malay and Polynesian dialects.

     You will note that reference is made here to languages from Oceania. It may be remarked in passing that Kenneth Macgowan has proposed possible links between the languages of the Australian aborigines and the American Indians. He says: (15)

     P. Rivet, following many a student from Leibniz to Thomas Jefferson, proposed to trace the origin of the American peoples through comparing their languages with those of the Old World. In 1925 he came up with something more than the usual random identity between words. Indeed, the parallels which he drew between the present speech of the Tshon of Patagonia and the Australians seemed to R. B. Dixon to be impossibly close (i.e., to be fortuitous) after centuries upon centuries of separation from one another and of contact with other peoples.

     The relationship between all the languages which were used by people right around the Pacific Ocean was pointed out long ago by Sir William Dawson when he observed: (16)

     Mr. Edkins in his remarkable book, "China's Place in Philology," has collected a large amount of fact tending to show that the early Chinese in its monosyllabic radicals presents root forms traceable into all the stocks of human speech in the Old World. And the American languages would have furnished him with similar links in affinity. In investigations of this kind, it is true the links of connection are often delicate and evanescent: yet they have conveyed to the ablest investigators the strong impression that the phenomena are rather those of division of a radical language than of union of several radically distinct.

14. Chamber's Encyclopedia, under "Philology," in vol.VII, 1868, p.485.
15. Macgowan, Kenneth, Early Man in the New World, Macmillan, New York, 1950, p.169.
16. Dawson, Sir William, The Origin of the World, Dawson Publications, Montreal, 1877, p.288.

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     This impression is further strengthened when we regard several results incidental to these researches. Latham has shown that the languages of men may be regarded as arranged in lines of divergence, the extreme points of which are Fuego, Tasmania and Easter Island: and that from these points they converge to a common center in Western Asia, where we find a cluster of the most ancient and perfect languages: and even Haeckel is obliged to adopt in his map of the affiliation of races of men a similar scheme. Moreover, the languages of the various populations differ in proceeding from these centres in a manner pointing to degeneracy such as is likely to occur in small and rude tribes separating from a parent stock.

     More recently, Homburger has pointed out that African languages may also have once been derived from a single root. He wrote: (17)

     In the so-called Cushite Zone of North-east Africa, in the Nile Valley and in all the Sudan from the Nile to the Atlantic Ocean, there are a few "countries" in which the clans and tribes speak languages which are easy to recognize as being distinct from one another: such as Nubians, Kanue (Boru?), Hausa, Mande, Wolof. But the differences do not prevent the recognition of common elements; a careful study has led most linguists to the conclusions first formulated by me in 1913: all Negro-African languages have a common basis.

     S. L. Washburn has recently suggested that such concepts may give us a fresh insight into the prehistory of Africa. Thus he remarked: (18)

     In teaching Physical Anthropology this year, the most helpful idea that has come to me is Greenberg's classification of the languages of Africa because they show the interrelationship of a group of languages in Eastern Africa which goes contrary to the traditional thinking of Physical Anthropology and which fits a whole block of the information better than the Physical Anthropology classification did. The incidence of sicklemia, a hereditary disease in East Africa, fits Greenberg's linguistic classification and not the traditional Physical Anthropology classification.

     Many years ago a Spanish Jesuit, Hervas, wrote a famous Catalogue of Languages, which was published in six volumes in the year 1800. (19) He proved by a comparative list of declensions and conjugations that Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Amharic are all but dialects of one original language and constitute one family of speech, the Semitic. He also perceived clear traces of affinity in Hungarian, Lapponian, and Finnish, three dialects which seem to be now classed as members of the Hamitic group. But one of his most brilliant discoveries was the establishment of the Malay and Polynesian family of speech extending from the island of Madagascar east

17. Homburger, L., "Indians in Africa," in Man, Feb., 1956, p.20.
18. Washburn, S. L., in A. L. Kroeber, An Appraisal of Anthropology Today, University of Chicago Press, 1953. p.84.
19. Hervas, Catalogue of Languages, 6 vols., published in Spanish, 1800.

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of Africa, over 208 degrees of longitude, to the Easter Islands. Many years later, Humboldt arrived at exactly the same conclusion. In ancient Egypt we seem to have a case of linkage between Hamitic and Semitic. As Vere Gordon Childe put it: (20)

     Many philologists regard the Egyptian language as a compound or hybrid speech in which a Semitic strain allied to Assyrian or Hebrew has been grafted into an African Hamitic stock such as is represented in purer form, for example, in Berber. . . .
     Junker on the other hand would explain the Semitic analogies in Egyptian by the assumption that Semitic and Hamitic had a common origin.

     Childe would go one step further, suggesting a relationship between the languages of Egypt and Sumer: (21)

     The hieroglyphic script itself, though its elements consist of purely Nilotic plants and animals, agrees so strikingly with the Babylonian in its curious combination of phonetic signs with ideographs and determinants, that the two systems must somehow be interrelated.

     An even more remarkable linkage was noted by A. H. Sayce when he pointed out: (22)

     Attempts have been made to show that Sumerian was akin to the language of China, and that between the first Chinese emigrants to the "Flowery Land" and the pre-Semitic inhabitants of Chaldea there was a linguistic as well as a racial relationship.

     There is even evidence in support of the view that links between Semitic and Japhetic languages are revealed by a careful study of Hebrew, although, for reasons which do not concern us here, the idea of deriving Japhetic languages from something akin to Hebrew has been scouted. In 1890 Benjamin Davies published a well-known Hebrew and Chaldean lexicon based largely on the works of Gesenius, in which he presents much that surely indicates such a relationship. (23) In his lexicon perhaps every fourth or fifth root word

20. Childe, Vere Gordon, New Light on the Most Ancient East, Kegan Paul, Trench, London, 1935, pp.8-9 and 303 note 5. The possible links between ancient Egyptian and Indo-European were interestingly explored by John Campbell, "The Coptic Element in Languages of the Indo-European Family," in Canadian Journal, Toronto, New Series, vol.76, July, 1872, p.282-303.
21. Childe, Vere Gordon, ref. 20, p.126.
22. Sayce, A. H., The Races of the Old Testament, Religious Tract Society, London, 1893, 2nd edition, p.61. Also see S. L. Caiger, Bible and Spade, Oxford University Press, 1936, p.2. Indeed T. Pinches wrote in 1882 ("Recent Discoveries in Assyriology," Transactions of the Victorian Institute, vol.26, p.178): "Oppert, H. Rawlinson, Lenormant, Delitzsch, Hommel and Sayce all maintained that Sumerian was closely akin in grammatical structure and language to the Mongol, Turkic, and Finnic languages of later times." Also see G. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible, American Sunday School Union, Philadelphia, 1933, p.72.
23. Davies, Benjamin, A Compendious and Complete Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, Bradley and Co., Boston, 1890.

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in Hebrew is translated into English and then accompanied by a list of words from other Indo-European languages which seem so clearly cognate that one wonders why other scholars have not followed up the cues provided. Most modern linguists, Christian or otherwise, tend to repudiate any such idea. But a study of Davies' work would seem to make it necessary for them to explain how such parallelisms could exist, not merely for a few possibly borrowed words, but for a vast number of words which are basic to any vocabulary: numerals, personal relationships, household objects, things of prime and immediate importance for individual survival or well-being, and so forth.  
     It seems clear to me that if Language A is related to Language B, and Language B can in turn be shown to be related to Language C, then Language A must of necessity be considered as related to Language C. This seems so obvious as hardly to need stating. Relationships are acknowledged, as we have seen, between Hamitic and Semitic and between Semitic and Japhetic, and yet there is a tacit denial of any possibility that Hamitic could be related to Japhetic or, in other words, that all languages are related: A, B, and C. Thus J. H. Greenberg in a symposium paper stated:

     Genetic relationship among languages is, in logical terminology, transitive. By a "transitive" relation is meant a relation such that, if it holds between A and B, and between B and C, it must also hold between A and C.

     Yet Beals and Hoijer seem to feel there is no evidence whatever to support the contention so clearly implied by the conclusions of the many scholars who have written about fragments of the total picture.(25) As they put it:

     Consequently, though it is possible that all modern languages go back to a single source, their divergencies today are so great as to provide no evidence of such a relationship.

     However, J. B. S. Haldane, writing in The Rationalist Annual (and one could scarcely accuse either the author or the publisher of Christian bias) made the statement: (26)

     Existing languages are very different from one another, but a number of recent workers have found similarity between languages of quite different families. Rae and Paget in England and Johannesson in Iceland . . . and Marr

24. Greenberg, J. H., "Historical Linguistica and Unwritten Languages," in A. L. Kroeber An Appraisal of Anthropology Today, University of Chicago Press, 1953, pp.274-75.
25. Beals, Ralph L., and Harry Hoijer, An Introduction to Anthropology, Macmillan, New York 2nd edition, 1959, p.594.
26. Haldane, J. B. S., "The Origin of Language," in the Rationalist Annual., Watts and Co. London, 1952, pp.39-40. See also A. Johannesson, "Gesture Origin of Indo-European Languages," in Nature, Feb. 5, 1944, p.171, and Nature, July 8, 1950, p.60.

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in the Soviet Union have claimed to have traced the ancestries of many different languages to a common source. . .
     Workers have found connections between quite dissimilar languages, such as the Aryan group, the Semitic group, the Chinese and Polynesian.

     Among the members of the Semitic family it is comparatively easy to establish an essential unity for their original form of speech. Though the Indo-European family of languages has diverged somewhat more extensively from their assumed original than the Semitic, nevertheless they also are quite clearly a single family. J. L. Myers remarked: (27)

     Though the Indo-European languages differ far more widely from one another than even the most distinct of the Semitic group, they all possess a recognizable type of grammatical structure and a small stock of words common to them all, for the numerals, family relationships, parts of the body, certain animals and plants, etc., from which it is still generally believed in spite of much discouraging experience in detail that it is possible to discover something of the conditions of life in regions where a common ancestor of all these languages was spoken.

     It may, in fact, be said -- if some over-simplification is permitted -- that Indo-European languages have tended to change by simplifying themselves; (28) Semitic languages have tended rather to preserve themselves with little change; and those which comprise the Hamitic family have tended to proliferate or multiply -- often to an almost unbelievable extent, as we shall show. To put it another way, the "confusion" is greatest among the Hamitic languages, very much less among the Japhetic languages, and virtually absent from the Semitic.
I shall never forget the thrill I experienced when I first came across a paper by Major C. R. Conder which was published in the Transactions of the Victoria Institute some years ago. (29) Although he was not an accepted "scholar" in the formal sense, he was nevertheless one of those rare individuals for whom the mastery of a new language seems to be child's play. He spent the larger part of his life in the Middle East, surrounded by the three great families of languages. He acquired familiarity with them all.

27. Meyers, J. L., The Dawn of History, Home University Library Series, 1927, p.195. C. S. Coon supports the view that the term Japhetic is a perfectly proper one for the Indo-European family of languages; see his Races of Europe, Macmillan, New York, 1939, p.175.
28. See Robert Lowie, Social Organization, Rinehart, New York, 1949, p.33, where the author is showing that evolution cannot usually be applied to the development of language, since it frequently proceeds from complex to simple, i.e., in reverse. See also C. Kluckhohn (Mirror for Man, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1949, p.149): "In contrast to the general course of cultural evolution, languages move from the complex to the simple."
29. Conder, Maj. C. R., "On the Comparison of Asiatic languages," in Transactions of the Victorian Institute, vol. 27, 1893-94, p.203ff

     pg.11 of 14     

     Far from being overwhelmed by the diversities of them, Conder became increasingly convinced that these three families could by sufficient examination of their basic vocabularies be shown to have originated from a single root. Although most linguists today would smile at such an undertaking, he set forth in his paper what he believed to be the evidence that there are some 400-450 basic root forms in each of the three language families, and that of these about 170 roots, all connected with the most ordinary ideas, are common to all three. About one third of these are still traceable throughout the entire range of Asiatic languages, in Sumerian, Egyptian, Indo-European, Semitic, and Mongolic alike. He considered himself incompetent to review the evidence from the languages of Africa, with the exception of Egyptian.
     Because most readers would not be in a position to examine his paper personally, it seems appropriate to give here a few quotations which sum up the evidence as he saw it. Of the Aryan (Japhetic) languages he wrote:

     The labours of such scholars as Fick, Curtius, and others have reduced the Aryan languages to a list of about 450 original roots, but it has been perceived by Max Muller that this enumeration errs rather on the side of excess than the reverse. In an interesting paper on the "Simplicity of Language," he claims that the list may be yet further condensed to an original enumeration of not more than 150 roots, which, by subsequent variation and by the building up of words, has produced the enormous totals of modern vocabularies.

     Of the Mongolic (Hamitic) languages, Conder had this to say: (31)

     Three great divisions of this group of languages may be recognized, (1) the Mongol proper, spoken over a wide extent of Asia, (2) the Turkic in the steppes of Central Asia; and (3) the Finnic and Ugric in Europe; but all these divisions are intimately connected, by vocabulary, by grammar, and by the identity of suffixes and pronouns; they are all remarkable for agglutination, and for the almost entire absence of inflection, save when Aryan influence has tended to cause such an advance. The labours of Castren, Donner, Bohtlingk and Vambery, and of many other distinguished scholars have established a comparative study of dialects and languages, reaching from Siberia to Hungary, which, though less perfect than that of the more-studied Aryan languages, is equally based on sound scholarship and research. The number of roots to which the vocabularies are reduced is even smaller than that of the Aryan system, because they are more easily divided from their added suffixes, and are found to be almost entirely monosyllabic. Vambery enumerates about 200 roots for Turkic speech, and these recur in the other divisions of the group.

30. Ibid., p.213.
31. Ibid., p.216.

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     Of the Semitic languages he wrote: (32)

     A Hebrew dictionary contains nearly 1500 roots, but out of these not a third in all are perfect, that is to say, consist of three consonants forming two syllables. The rest, called quiescent, defective, and double, are either formed with a vowel, or are monosyllabic in the imperative which is the true root in every language. The perfect roots . . . represent an advanced stage in language, such as will not be denied to be that reached by Semitic speech. These perfect roots are, in some cases as we shall see, the same in sound and meaning found in Aryan languages; and in many cases they can be resolved into an original monosyllable with a suffix, much as in other languages. Thus we find Bad, "separate"; Badal, "separate"; Badak, "cleave"; where the suffixes l and k have evidently been attached to the old original root Bad, which may be compared with the Aryan root Bhid, "to divide." Such indications, and others which need not now be detailed, may incline us to suppose that the original roots of Semitic languages were monosyllables, and that the present structure arises from the preference for secondary roots, as more distinctly conveying a special signification...
     The Semitic languages are singularly rich in distinctions of meaning, and in the addition of new roots formed from the old, but those which remain clearly traceable to one old common form are so numerous as at once to reduce the vocabulary by considerably more than half, and in the end it would appear that the original roots are not more numerous in Semitic than those of other families of speech.

     He concluded: (33)

     To compare the nouns of one language with those of another will generally be unconvincing, but when we are able to compare the roots whence these nouns are formed, and from which the verbs and other parts of speech also spring, we are following a method safer, and more likely to lead to real conclusions. . . .
     Turning to a consideration of the simple roots consisting of one consonant and one vowel, which run through all Asiatic languages, and from which it would seem probable that the more complicated classes of roots are built up, we find that they are easily arranged in seven classes, according as they refer to the sensations connected with various organs, 1st, life or breathing with the nose; 2nd, light, sight, and fire, with the eye; 3rd, sound, with the ear; 4th, movement, with the leg, 5th, swallowing, eating and drinking with the mouth; 6th, holding, and striking, with the hand; and 7th, work, which however is not very clearly distinguishable from the preceding class. A final class of roots which, with two exceptions, are secondary (having two consonants) refers to love and desire.

     These simple forms are then listed, examples being taken from the following languages: Sumerian, Egyptian, Aryan, Hebrew, Assyrian, Arabic, Turkic, Finnic-Ugric, Mongol, Cantonese (dialect of Chinese), Proto-Medic, and Susian. Then 172 root forms are

32. Ibid., p.219.
33. Ibid., p.221.

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examined in the eight classes to which he refers, each root being traced through virtually all the listed dialects or languages in every case. (34)
     It may seem that 170 root forms is a very small fragment of any language's total wealth of words upon which to base any very decisive argument. But it is widely recognized that the significance of the size of a sample is not dependent upon its size per se but upon the character of it. One drop of blood can speak for all the rest of the blood in a man's body. A propos of this, it is interesting to find A. L. Kroeber commenting upon a paper on this very subject, observing:

     The relationship between the form of a word and the meaning, except in the case of a few onomatopoeic words, is completely arbitrary, and if you get between two languages more than a certain small percentage of words of definitely similar sound that have definitely similar meaning, that fact must have a significance, and the significance is that of historical connection.

     The links between the three great families of language, as Conder perceived them, are not of the genealogical type -- that is to say, they do not prove the derivation of one family of language from another: for example, Japhetic from Hamitic. What they do indicate is that all three were probably united as a single language until something occurred to begin their independent development, from which time onward they diverged in characteristic ways.
We may conclude this chapter, therefore, with one further brief quotation from Max Muller: (36)

     The assertion so frequently repeated, that the impossibility of classing all languages genealogically proves the impossibility of a common origin of languages, is nothing but a kind of scientific dogmatism, which, more than anything else, has impeded the free progress of independent research.


34. Ibid., pp.233-52. Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose investigations into the basic roots and conceptual ideas of native American languages gained for him wide recognition in the field of metalinguistics actually concluded that "probably quite all the present known native vocabulary of Nahuatl (the Aztec language of Mexico) is derived from the varied combination and varied semantic development of NO MORE THAN THIRTY-FIVE ROOTS" [capitals his]. He stated his firm belief that "it now begins to seem very unlikely that their number will be increased." Yet he is very quick to point out that the total vocabulary which grew out of these root forms is every bit as effective a vehicle for communication as any Indo-European language. (Language, Thought and Reality, Selected Writings, edited by J. B. Carroll, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wiley, New York, 1956, p.13.)
35. Kroeber, A. L., An Appraisal of Anthropology Today, University of Chicago Press, 1953, p.61.
36. Muller, Max, ref. 4, p.176.

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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