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Part V: The Confusion of Languages
The Original Unity
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.
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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.
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
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
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
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,
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)
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.
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.
it impossible to derive them from a common source. His answer,
though phrased perhaps rather quaintly, was nevertheless to the
wish to assert that languages had various beginnings, you must
prove it impossible that language could not have had a common
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.
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:
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.
Muller's views met with violent opposition. As he put it: (9)
letter on Hamitic languages, which has been the subject of such
7. Ibid., p.333.
8. Ibid., p.336.
9. Ibid., p.338.
. . 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.
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)
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
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.
having said this, he concluded: (11)
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
10. Ibid., p.340
11. Ibid.. p.391.
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)
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
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 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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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
recently, Homburger has pointed out that African languages may
also have once been derived from a single root. He wrote: (17)
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.
L. Washburn has recently suggested that such concepts may give
us a fresh insight into the prehistory of Africa. Thus he remarked:
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.
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.
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)
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. . . .
the other hand would explain the Semitic analogies in Egyptian
by the assumption that Semitic and Hamitic had a common origin.
would go one step further, suggesting a relationship between
the languages of Egypt and Sumer: (21)
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)
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.
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,
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: (24)
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.
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:
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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,
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: (30)
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.
the Mongolic (Hamitic) languages, Conder had this to say: (31)
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.
Of the Semitic languages he wrote:
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)
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.
in the eight classes to which he refers, each root being traced
through virtually all the listed dialects or languages in every
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,
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.
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.
may conclude this chapter, therefore, with one further brief
quotation from Max Muller: (36)
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.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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