Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
The Expressiveness of Speech,
Or, Mouth-Gesture as a Factor in the Origin of Language
(S518: 1895)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An analysis printed in the 1 October 1895 issue of Fortnightly Review. Although Wallace was not the first to propose a mouth-gesture theory of the origin of language, he was an early and convincing proponent. The theory continues to attract advocates to this day. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S518.htm


    [[p. 528]] The science of language, as treated by its modern students and professors, is so largely devoted to tracing the affinities, and the laws of growth and modification, of existing and recently extinct languages, that some of the essential characteristics of human speech have been obscured, and the features that contribute largely to its inherent intelligibility overlooked. Philologists have discovered, as the result of long and laborious research, what they hold to be the roots or fundamental units of each of the great families of language; but these roots themselves are supposed to be for the most part conventional, or, if they had in the very beginning of language any natural meaning, this is held to have been so obscured by successive changes of form and structure as to be now usually undiscoverable. As regards a considerable number of the words which occur under various forms in a variety of languages, and which seem to have a common root, this latter statement may be true, but it is by no means always, and perhaps not even generally, true. In our own language, and probably in all others, a considerable number of the most familiar words are so constructed as to proclaim their meaning more or less distinctly, sometimes by means of imitative sounds, but also, in a large number of cases, by the shape or the movements of the various parts of the mouth used in pronouncing them, and by peculiarities in breathing or in vocalisation, which may express a meaning quite independent of mere sound-imitation.

    These naturally expressive words are very often represented by closely allied forms in some of the Teutonic, Celtic, or other Aryan languages, and they have thus every appearance of constituting a remnant of that original imitative or expressive speech, the essential features of which have undergone little change, although the exact form of the words may have been continually modified. But even when it can be shown that a word which is now strikingly suggestive of its meaning has been derived from some other words which are less, or not at all, suggestive of the same idea, or which even refer to some totally different idea, the obvious conclusion will be that, even in the present day, there is so powerful a tendency to bring sound and sense into unison, as to render it in the highest degree probable that we have here a fundamental principle which has always been at work, both in the origin and in the successive modifications of human speech.

    [[p. 529]] Many writers have discussed the interjectional and imitative origin of language--especially, in this country, Archdeacon Farrar and Mr. Hensleigh Wedgwood--but neither in their volumes, nor in any other English work with which I am acquainted, is the subject elaborated with any approach to completeness, while many of its most important features appear to have been overlooked. One of the most celebrated philological scholars and writers has treated it with extreme contempt, and has christened it the "Bow-wow and Pooh-pooh theory"; and, perhaps in consequence of this contempt, its advocates often adopt an apologetic tone, and, while urging the correctness of the principle, are prepared to admit that its application is very limited, and that it can only be used to explain a very small portion of any language. This is, no doubt, true, if we go no further than the ordinary classes of interjectional and imitative words--the Oh! of astonishment, the Ah! and Ugh! of pain, the infantile Ba, Pa, and Ma, as the origin of father and mother terms, and the direct imitation of animal or human sounds, as in cuckoo, mew, whinny, sneeze, snore, and many others, together with the various words that may be derived from them. But this is merely the beginning and rudiment of a much wider subject, and gives us no adequate conception of the range and interest of the great principle of speech-expression, as exhibited both in the varied forms of indirect imitation, but more especially by what may be termed speech or mouth-gesture. During my long residence among many savage or barbarous people I first observed some of these mouth-gestures, and have been thereby led to detect a mode of natural expression by words which is, I believe, to a large extent new, and which opens up a much wider range of expressiveness in speech than has hitherto been possible, giving us a clue to the natural meaning of whole classes of words which are usually supposed to be purely conventional.

    My attention was first directed to this subject by noticing that, when Malays were talking together, they often indicated direction by pouting out their lips. They would do this either silently, referring to something already spoken or understood, but more frequently when saying disána (there) or ítu (that), thus avoiding any further explanation of what was meant. At the time, I did not see the important bearing of this gesture; but many years afterwards, when paying some attention to the imitative origin of language, it occurred to me that while pronouncing the words in question, impressively, the mouth would be opened and the lips naturally protruded, while the same thing would occur with our corresponding English words there and that; and when I saw further that the French and cela, and the German da and das, had a similar open- [[p. 530]] mouthed pronunciation, it seemed probable that an important principle was involved.1

    The next step was made on meeting with the statement, that there was no apparent reason why the word go should not have signified the idea of coming and the word come the idea of going; the implication being that these, like the great bulk of the words of every language, were pure conventions and essentially meaningless; or that if they once had a natural meaning it was now wholly lost and undecipherable. But, with the cases of there and that in my mind, it seems to me clear that there was a similar open-mouthed sound in go, with the corresponding meaning of motion away from the person speaking; and this view was rendered more probable on considering the word with an opposite meaning, come, where we find that the mouth has to be closed and the lips pressed together, or drawn inwards, implying motion towards the speaker. The expressiveness of these two words is so real and intelligible that a deaf person would be able to interpret the mouth-gestures with great facility. The fact that words of similar meaning in several other European languages are equally expressive, lends strong support to this view. Thus for go, we have the French va, the Italian vai, the German geh, and the Anglo-Saxon gân, all having similar open-mouthed sounds; while the corresponding words for come--venez, vieni, komm, and kuman--are all pronounced with but slight movements of the mouth and lips, or even with the lips closed.

    If, now, we assume that the word-gestures here described afford us indications of the primitive and fundamental expressiveness of what may be termed natural, as opposed to mere conventional speech, we shall be prepared to find that the same principle has been at work in the formation of many other simple words, though in some cases its application may be less obvious. We must, however, always bear in mind that, though to us words are for the most part mere conventions, they were not so to primitive man. He had, as it were, to struggle hard to make himself understood, and would, therefore, make use of every possible indication of meaning afforded by the positions and motions of mouth, lips, or breath, in pronouncing each word; and he would lay stress upon and exaggerate these indications, not slur them over as we do. The various examples of these natural forms of speech which will now be adduced will be almost wholly confined to the English language, since I have no sufficient knowledge of foreign tongues. I also think that the importance and reality of the principle will be better shown by illustrations drawn [[p. 531]] from one language only, while such a method will certainly be both more intelligible and more interesting to general readers.

    First, then, we have a considerable number of pairs of words which are pronounced with mouth-gestures very similar to those of go and come. Thus we have to and from, out and in, down and up, fall and rise, far and near, that and this; in all of which we have, in the first series the broad vowels a or o, pronounced, expressively, with rather widely-open mouth, while in the second series we have the thin vowels e, i, or u, or the terminal consonants m, n, or p, which are pronounced either within the mouth or with closed lips; and in each special case the action will be found to be expressive of the meaning. Thus, in to the lips are protruded almost as much as in go (always supposing we are speaking impressively and with energy), while from requires only a slight motion of the lips ending with their complete closure; in out we have an energetic expiration and outward motion of the lips, while in is pronounced wholly inside the mouth, and does not require the lips to be moved at all after the mouth is opened; in down we have a quick downward movement of the lower jaw, which is very characteristic, since the word cannot be spoken without it; while in up the quick movement is upward, after having opened the mouth as slowly as we please; in fall we require a downward motion of the jaw as in down, but slower, and the word is completed with the mouth open, indicating, perhaps, that fall is a more decided and permanent thing than down, which implies position rather than motion, while in rise we have a slight parting of the lips with a decided inspiration, and the meaning would probably be made clearer by the gesture of raising the head, which is natural during inspiration. In repeating the lines--

"On the swell
The silver lily heaved and fell,"

we feel the motion in our heaving and falling chest, and we may be sure that with early man, such motions, when they helped the meaning of the words, were always fully emphasised.

    Of the same general character as the words just considered, are the personal pronouns--thou, you, he, they--all of which are pronounced with outward breathing, and more or less outward motion of the lips, as compared with I, me, we, us, which require only slightly parted lips, and which are easily and naturally pronounced during an inspiration, thus clearly marking the difference between inward and outward, self and not-self. In like manner, there is spoken open-mouthed, and with strong outward breathing, while here requires but a slightly open mouth, and although slightly aspirated may be, and usually is, spoken during an inspiration.

    Mr. E. B. Tylor has called attention to "the device of conveying [[p. 532]] different ideas of distance by the use of a graduated scale of vowels," as being one of great philological interest, on account of "the suggestive hint it gives of the proceedings of the language-makers in most distant regions of the world, working out in various ways a similar ingenious contrivance of expression by sound." He then gives a list of the words for this and that, here and there, I, thou, and he, in twenty-three languages of savage or barbarous tribes in both hemispheres, in all of which the ideas of nearness and distance, or self and not-self, are conveyed by the "similar ingenious contrivance" of different vowel-sounds.2 But he does not appear to have observed that there is a method in the use of vowels, and that they are not therefore merely "ingenious contrivances," or contrivances at all in the true sense of the word, but are natural expressions of the difference of meaning in the way here pointed out. This is decidedly the case in eighteen out of the twenty-three languages given by Mr. Tylor, the broad, open-mouthed sounds ah, o, and u, being used to express outwardness or distance, while the contrasted vowels, e and i, occur whenever self-hood or nearness is implied. In the other five languages the vowels are apparently reversed, which may be due either to a mistake of the compiler of the vocabulary--not at all an uncommon thing when vocabularies are obtained through interpreters--or, possibly, to a real change of the letter used, owing to some of the numerous causes which bring about modifications of language, and even reversals of the original meaning of words. The tendency to preserve or add to the expressiveness of speech evidently varies much among different peoples, and we must not, therefore, be surprised at finding some incongruities in the use of even the most simple and natural sounds.

    We now come to a series of words in which the action of breathing is the expressive part, the motion of the lips being very slight or altogether imperceptible; such are air, which is merely a modulated breathing; wind, in which more movement of the lips is required, with a slight indication of the characteristic murmuring sound; while in blow, we almost exactly imitate the action of blowing. The words breath and life are related, inasmuch as the life-giving action of breathing is the fundamental part of both, modified by a different, slight action of the lips and tongue, and it is suggestive that in many languages breath is used for spirit or life. High and low are also breath-words, the former being probably pronounced during an inspiration, with the accompanying gesture of raising the head, the latter, during expiration, and with an opposite gesture. Slight modifications of the former word would lead to sky, and perhaps also to fly, in both of which the idea of height is prominent.

    We next have a group of words of which the essential character [[p. 533]] seems to be that the mouth remains open when they are spoken, as in the word mouth itself, in which the lips, teeth, and tongue are all employed; and in all, in which the mouth is still more widely opened. This is especially the case in words denoting round objects, such as moon, ball, ring, wheel, round, in all of which, as well as in many of the corresponding words in other languages, the chief feature is that the lips are held apart, and the mouth more or less rounded in pronouncing them. Sun may well belong to the same group, if it is not the chief of them, since it is the only object in nature that is always perfectly round, a feature that would be more easily represented in primitive speech than the light or heat which to us seems its most important characters. The root su, and the various forms of sun in other Aryan languages, have all the same character of open-mouthed pronunciation, and the term for south, or sunward, is clearly derived from it. In Mr. Kavanah's work on Myths traced to their Primary Source in Language, the symbol O, representing the sun, is held to have been the first word and symbol used by primitive man, and a vast wealth of illustration from various sources is brought together to support the somewhat fantastic idea.

    Other characteristic mouth-words are mum (silence), a mere parting and closing of the lips, whence comes mumble and perhaps dumb. Spit also is a labial imitative word, but it imitates the action of spitting as well as the sound. Sleep may also be considered a mouth-word, and in pronouncing it we gradually close the mouth in a very suggestive manner, while in wake, awake, we abruptly open it.

    We now pass on to words for nose, and whatever appertains to it, which, in a considerable proportion of known languages, are formed by nasal sounds, such as are represented by our letters m, n, ng, with the sibilants s or z. Thus we have snout, nozzle, nostril, snore, snort, sneeze, sneer, sniff, snivel, all things or actions immediately connected with the nose, while smell, stink, stench, and nasty, are also expressive nasal words.

    A distinct set of words, appertaining to the teeth, tongue, or palate, are characterized by t, d, s, and n sounds, and are pronounced wholly within the mouth without any definite action of the lips. Thus, besides tooth and tongue, we have tusk, eat, gnaw, gnash, and taste; while perhaps knee, knot, knob, knoll, knuckle, and some other words of doubtful derivation, may get their characteristic type from the analogy of a tooth-like projection. It is to be noted that nasal and dental sounds characterize words of similar meaning, not only in European languages, but more or less all over the world.

    Before passing on to consider the various modes in which sounds, actions, and even qualities, are expressively represented in speech, attention must be called to the way in which certain groups of consonants are utilised to indicate differences in the general character of [[p. 534]] sounds and motions. When either of the following letters--f, l, m, n, ng, r, v, s, or z--occur at the end of a word, either with or without a final vowel, we can dwell upon them and thus give them a continuous sound; and the more important of these have been termed liquids, because they seem to flow together and form one continuous sound. But the letters b, d, g, k, p, and t, have a very different character, and when any of them comes at the end of a word, and are not silent, the sound ends abruptly, and we find ourselves altogether unable to dwell upon and lengthen out the sounds of these letters as we can those of the first group; neither does the addition of a final e help us to dwell upon them. Compare, for instance, the words "ball" or "bear" with "bat" or "dog." In the former the sound of the final letters can be continued indefinitely, while in the case of the latter we come to a dead stop, and by no effort can continue the sound.

    Now, the various sounds which occur in nature may be broadly divided into two classes, the continuous and the abrupt; and it is a most suggestive fact that these two classes of sounds are almost always represented in our language by words which, owing to their terminal letter, are of a corresponding character. Thus, among continuous sounds we have roar, snore, hiss, sing, hum, scream, wail, purr, and buzz, all of which end in letters of the first series, enabling us to dwell upon the word as long as we please. But when we name abrupt sounds, such as rap, clap, crack, tick, pop, thud, grunt, and many others, we find that the word ends as abruptly as does the sound it represents, and that the final letter does not in any case admit of being dwelt upon and drawn out as in the case of words of the first series.

    But even more curious is the fact that the same law of expression applies in the case of motions. These, too, are either continuous or abrupt; and these are also represented by words whose terminal letters either can or cannot be dwelt upon. Of the former kind are--fly, run, swim, swing, move, crawl, turn, whirl, and slide; and these words all indicate the continuity of the various kinds of motion by their terminal sounds being indefinitely continuous. But motions whose chief characteristic is their abrupt termination, such as step, hop, jump, leap, halt, stop, drop, bump, wink, or actions which imply such motion as strike, hit, knock, pat, slap, stamp, stab, kick, all have a corresponding ending in non-continuous letter-sounds.

    This remarkable series of correspondences is highly suggestive of a law of primitive word-formation. At a very early stage in the growth of speech, it would be observed that some vocal sounds were capable of being drawn out, while others necessarily had an abrupt termination; and, as natural sounds and motions had also these contrasted features of abruptness or continuity, it was the most natural [[p. 535]] thing in the world to make the names of these sounds, motions, or actions, agree in this respect with the things named. Most of these words are very similar in other Teutonic languages, and however much they may have changed in the course of ages, they have, as we see, retained this particular form of expressiveness in a very remarkable degree. In all this we have no mere convention or ingenious contrivance, but a natural imitative expressiveness, arising out of the very nature and limitations of articulate speech.

    We will now proceed to a brief discussion of the various classes of words which are more directly sound-imitations; and though many of these are among the most familiar examples adduced by the exponents of the imitative origin of language, yet their great range, the variety in their modes of imitation, and their marvellous power of indicating not only sounds, but even motions, actions, and physical qualities, have hardly received sufficient attention.

    Human cries have already been referred to when noticing the difference between abrupt and continuous sounds, but there are a few points of detail that may be noted here. In the word whistle we have the nearest representation a word can give to the action of whistling; in babble we have the ba ba of infancy; in whisper we have a word which is a mere articulate breathing or aspirate; in hush! we have a gentle aspirate alone; in cough, wheeze, and spit, we have not merely the sounds but the actions closely represented in words; in pronouncing yawn we open the mouth and produce a throat sound as in yawning; in scream, screech, squall, and yell, we have a fair imitation of loud and energetic cries due to sudden pain or anger; while in moan, groan, wail, sigh, and sob, we hear the more subdued indications of grief or pain. Stutter and stammer almost exactly reproduce the acts indicated.

    In naming the sounds or voices of animals we use words which are almost universally imitative, and are so well known that they need not be here given; but we may note how well chirp and warble represent the voices of the less and more musical of our small birds, as do the cawing of the rook, and the cooing of the dove, those of larger species.

    It is when we come to the varied sounds of inanimate nature that we begin to realise the wonderful expressiveness and picturesqueness of our every-day speech, and how far superior it is to any purely conventional language as a means of conveying to another person a description of the varied scenes, actions, and passions of life.

    And first, how well the word murmur serves to represent the low, modulated sound of a gentle wind among trees, or of the distant waves; while breeze indicates the distant rustle of leaves shaken by a stronger wind; and from these sounds and motions the word trees and tremble have not improbably arisen, as they occur with but slight [[p. 536]] modifications in all the Teutonic languages. Then, again, how well the minute differences of quality between various common sounds are represented in their names--the light and moderately sharp tap, the much sharper snap, the fuller and broader clap, with the less abrupt flap, the duller flop, and the softer and still duller thud.

    Sounds which have an element of vibration in them are represented by words containing r or cr when harsh, as in creak and crack; but when the vibration is of a more pronounced or musical character we have clang, ring, and sing; and when vibratory objects strike together we have clink and clash. How well the sound of boiling liquids is represented by bubble; the confused sound of various hard objects striking together by chatter or rattle; while hiss, whizz, and fizz well represent the effects of rapidly escaping air or gases.

    Words imitating the sounds of various kinds of breaking objects are highly characteristic. Beginning with squash, which applies best to soft fruits, we find crush, in which the cr represents the somewhat harsh sound of the initial break, as in crack; and crunch, in which we seem to hear the final crushing up of the hard pieces into which the first crack reduced the object. In grind we have this final breaking up into dust alone represented; while in crumble we have the disintegration of a much softer substance under moderate pressure. Split represents the sudden, sharp sound of splitting wood; tear, the violent pulling asunder of a woven fabric; and rip, the still harsher sound when a seam is cut or torn apart. In scratch, we have the sound first represented, followed by the interjectional ach of pain which is the result of the action. In the word saw we have an imperfect imitation of the sound produced by sawing, though in Sanscrit, and in many of the languages of semi-civilised peoples, it is more exactly imitative.3

    The sounds produced by liquids in motion are often indicated by sh, as in wash, splash, and dash; a quantity of liquid falling to the ground causes a slop which represents the sound it makes, as does drop when caused by a small globular portion; while quench well represents the noise produced by water used in sufficient quantities to extinguish a fire.

    Many natural objects appear to have been named from their characteristic sound. Brass and glass, from their resonance; tin, from its more delicate, tinkling sound; iron, perhaps from its peculiar harsh vibration when struck; lead and wood, from the dull sound, or thud, which they produce. In ice we have probably the indications of the sh of "shiver" caused by touching it, and its transparency may have led to the use of the somewhat similar [[p. 537]] term for glass. In pronouncing the word fire we seem to imitate with the lips and breath the wavy flickering motion of flame, and the name for the fir tree, almost identical in many of the Scandinavian and Celtic languages, is doubtless in reference to the upward-growing, pointed form, like that characteristic of fire. Glow seems to represent the steady light of embers as contrasted with the incessant motion of fire, for while the latter word requires a double motion of the lips, the former is pronounced wholly inside the mouth by means of the tongue and palate, the lips remaining motionless. In the words step, stamp, and stop, we have a very close representation of the sound of the bare foot upon the ground in walking, and it seems quite probable that the root sta, from which they are said to be derived, had this origin.4

    We now pass on from mere sounds to the various kinds of motions to be observed in nature; and we shall find that these also are represented by curiously expressive combinations of vocal utterances, often requiring imitative motions in the organs of speech. The modes of indicating the difference between continuous and abrupt motions have already been referred to, but each particular kind of motion has also its characteristic combination of letters. The word slow, to be spoken distinctly and impressively, must be pronounced slowly, while quick and swift, on the contrary, must be spoken rapidly. Move takes time to pronounce it distinctly, and implies slow and smooth motion, as fly implies swifter motion. In crawl, the harsh sounds at the beginning and end of the word imply slow and difficult motion, and the still harsher sound in drag recalls the noise of a heavy object forcibly drawn over an irregular surface. In flutter and flicker we have complex motions of the lips, tongue, and palate, corresponding to those they indicate; in hurry and flurry we seem to hear the rapid breathing of a tired or excited person; while in wobble and hobble, the clumsy movements are reproduced in the mouth of the speaker. How perfectly is smoothness of motion imitated while we say slide or glide; while the slow down and up motion of the lips in pronouncing wave is highly suggestive of wave-motion. The more rapid wave-movement we term vibration is indicated by the br in vibrate; while in tremble we have a more irregular shaking denoted by the tr at the beginning, and the bl at the end of the word. When we say twist or screw, there is a tendency to twist the mouth; while shiver represents a trembling motion accompanied by the sh of cold. In stream and flow the liquid consonants well represent the smoothness and continuity of liquid motion; and in glow we have, as already stated, a corresponding word to imply the smooth and steady light of incandescent matter, so different from the unsteady flicker which is characteristic of flame. [[p. 538]] A similar use of liquid sounds in blush and flush serves to indicate a gradual and steady increase of colour.

    We have now to take another step--and a most important one--in the development of language, and to show how the various qualities or properties of inanimate objects, and even the powers and faculties of men and animals, are clearly indicated by characteristic combinations of vocal sounds, affording us many striking examples of the expressiveness of speech.

    Just as certain motions were seen to be distinguished by the use of harsh or liquid sounds, so are the qualities of objects on which these varied kinds of motion often depend equally well characterised. Compare, for example, the words smooth, even, polished, with rough, rugged, gritty, and we at once see that these are not merely conventional terms, but that they are as truly and naturally expressive as are the most direct imitations of human or animal cries. Corresponding to these, we have the names of many smooth substances--as oil, soap, slime, varnish, characterized by smooth or liquid sounds; and, on the other hand, such objects as rock, gravel, grit, grouts, ground, all containing the harsh sounds implying roughness. When we pronounce the words sticky, or clammy, we seem to feel the tongue and palate stick together, and have to pull them apart; and the same peculiarity applies to the words cling and glue.

    There are in all languages words allied to foul, putrid, pus, &c., which are usually traced to the interjectional expressions of disgust, puh! fie! Similar expressions are shown by Mr. Tylor to be used among the most widely separated races in all parts of the world, and the reason of this identity is to be found in the natural and almost involuntary action of blowing away, through both mouth and nostrils, the emanations from putrid matter--as when we draw back the head and say "puh!"--an action more or less common to all mankind.

    The words hard and soft are also expressive, though it is more difficult to define why. The former word, however, is pronounced with a strong aspirate, and the terminal rd requires more effort to pronounce than the gentle sibilant and terminal ft of soft. But when we consider the various terms designating contrasts of size, we have no such difficulty. The words great, grand, huge, vast, immense, monstrous, gigantic, are all pronounced with well-opened mouth and with some sense of effort, and the more stress we lay upon the word, the more distinctly we show our meaning by the wide opening of the mouth. In the correlative words small, little, wee, tiny, pigmy, on the contrary, we use no effort, and hardly need to open the mouth at all, the pronunciation being effected almost wholly by the tongue and teeth. Even when new words are invented they follow the same rule, as in Swift's "Brobdingnag" and "Lilliput"; while the languages of uncivilised peoples are usually, as regards these words, [[p. 539]] equally characteristic. Though usually limiting my illustrations to our own language, I will here give the words for great and small in several of the languages of the Malay Archipelago; thus--busar, bagut, baké, lamu, ilahé, maina, all with broad open-mouthed vowel-sounds, mean great or large; while kichil, chili, kidi, koi, roit, kemi, anan, fek, didiki, all meaning small in the same languages, are in every case pronounced inside the mouth, and with but slightly parted lips.

    Even more expressive are the words by which we indicate power or effort, such as might, strive, strenuous, struggle, laborious, strong, strength--this last being one of the most remarkably expressive in the language, consisting, as it does, of no less than seven consonants and only one vowel, all the consonants being fully and distinctly sounded. To pronounce this word distinctly and emphatically requires a considerable effort, and we thus seem to be exerting the very quality it is used to express. How different are the words of opposite meaning, such as weak, weary, languish, faint, which can all be spoken with the minimum of effort, and with a hardly perceptible motion of the lips; and the same contrast is found in the common adjectives, difficult and easy.

    How much the natural expressiveness of words adds to the beauty of descriptive poetry may be seen everywhere. In Pope's well-known lines--

"When Ajax strives some rock's huge weight to throw,
The line too labours and the words move slow,"

the very nature of the words which are of necessity employed, produces that effect of appropriateness which we are apt to think is due wholly to the skill of the poet. In another couplet from the same poem--

"A needless alexandrine ends the song,
And like a wounded snake drags its slow length along,"

the natural expressiveness of the words, drags, slow, and length, is what conveys such a sense of appropriateness to the simile. Tennyson also is full of such naturally descriptive passages. The lines--

"The myriad shriek of wheeling ocean-fowl,
The league-long roller thundering on the reef,"

owe much of their force and beauty to the natural expressiveness of our common words; and the same is the case in the still more beautiful lines--

"Myriads of rivulets hurrying through the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees."

    A few examples of words that are especially expressive may now be given, in order to illustrate some of the varied ways in which the principle has acted, and how largely it has influenced the formation [[p. 540]] of language. The word growth is expressive of the gradual extension of a young plant owing to the circumstance that we begin its pronunciation far back in the mouth, and that it seems to move outwards till the tongue touches the teeth or even the protruded lips. If we watch carefully we shall see how curiously, when we say "growth," we imitate with our vocal organs the very process which the word implies. From this foundation the name of the colour green has been derived, as that of growing things, and probably also grass, graze, and even ground. This last word is usually supposed to be allied to grind, as implying that the ground is dust, earth, or rock ground up. But this is surely a very unlikely idea to have occurred to primitive man, since the natural ground is usually firm and covered with some kind of vegetation or "growth," whence its name would be naturally derived.

    When pronouncing the word suck, we are evidently imitating both the sound and the action of sucking, by drawing back the tongue during an inspiration; and in taste we are equally imitating the act of tasting, by moving the tongue twice within the mouth into contact with the palate, as we do when using it to move about and taste a savory morsel. So, in the word sweet, we seem to draw in and taste an agreeable substance; while in sour we open the mouth and the tongue remains free from either teeth or palate, as if we desired to get rid of a too biting flavour. Now sweet, with various modifications of form and meaning, occurs in all the Teutonic and Latin languages, but its whole significance as a naturally expressive word is lost when we are referred for its origin to the Aryan root swad, to please.5 In Sanscrit, svad is to taste, and svádu sweet; and the more probable inference would be that the abstract root swad, to please, was derived from the more primitive and naturally formed terms for taste and sweetness.

    Even moral qualities may be indicated by words which are naturally expressive, as in right and wrong. The former is, in most languages, connected with straight and stretch, the latter word being imitative of the sound produced when stretching a cord, the only straight line accessible to primitive man; while wrong is undoubtedly the same word essentially as wrung, from wring, wry, wrench, wrest, and other words meaning twisted, in pronouncing which and giving its full sound to the initial w, we seem naturally to give a twist to the mouth. When we speak of "rectitude," of an "upright" man, of "crooked" dealings, of a "perverted" disposition, we show how easy it is to describe moral characteristics by means of words applicable to mechanical or physical qualities only.6

    [[p. 541]] I have now briefly sketched and illustrated the varied ways in which many of the most familiar words of our language are truly expressive of the meaning attached to them, and have shown how far these carry us beyond the range of interjectional and imitative speech, as usually understood. Besides the more or less direct imitation of the varied sounds of nature, animate and inanimate, we have form, indicated by the shape of the mouth; direction, by the motion of the lips; such ideas as those of coming and going, of inward and outward, of self and others, of up and down, expressed by various breathings or by lip and tongue-motions; we find the distinct classes of abrupt or continuous sounds, as well as the corresponding contrasted motions, clearly indicated by the use of expressive terminal letters; motion of almost every kind, whether human, animal, or inorganic, we find to be naturally expressed by corresponding motions of the organs of speech; the physical qualities of various kinds of matter are similarly indicated; while even some of the mental and moral qualities of man, as well as many of his actions and sensations, are more or less clearly expressed by means of the various forms of speech-gesture.

    If we consider the enormous changes every language has undergone; that words have often taken on new meanings, or have been displaced by foreign words quite distinct in derivation and original signification; that inflections have been altered or altogether dropped; and that, in various other ways, words have been undergoing a continual process of growth and modification, the wonder is that so much of the natural foundations of our language can still be detected. Philologists give us innumerable examples of how words come to be used in ways quite remote from their original meanings, and how several quite distinct words grow out of a common root--as when cannon, a great gun, and canon, meaning either a dignitary of the church or a body of ecclesiastical or other laws, are alike derived from canna, a cane or reed, used either as a tube or as a ruler, while from canistrum, a reed basket, we get canister, now used chiefly for metal cases of a particular form.

    [[p. 542]] The late Mr. Hyde Clarke has shown how very widely the primitive terms for mouth, tooth, tongue, &c., are applied to other things of like form or motions, or having a supposed or real analogy to them; thus, languages can be found in which the words for head, face, eye, ear, sun, moon, egg, ring, blood, and mother, are derived from mouth, for reasons which we can, in most cases, perceive or guess at. It follows that, whenever people use any form of written symbol for words or things, the growth of language goes on more rapidly, because symbols which were at first actual representations of the object for convenience become conventionalised, and then other objects, which resemble the modified symbol are given either the same or an allied name. With us, door is named after the opening used for entering a house, and is allied to through; but, according to Mr. Hyde Clarke, in some languages the door-way or opening is derived from mouth--as we ourselves say the mouth of a pit or cavern--while the door itself is formed from a word meaning tooth.7 The words hill and mountain have no light thrown upon their real origin by a reference of the former to the Latin collis, and the latter to mons and montanus; but, on the principles here set forth, both of them, as well as the German berg, owe their characteristic form of open-mouthed aspirated words to the natural panting ejaculations of those who ascend them. Yet in many languages they have been named from their form-resemblances, as in the well-known terms dent, sierra, peak, pap, ben, &c.

    Some of the correspondences which have been here pointed out between words and their meanings, will doubtless be held by many to be mere fantastic imaginings. But if we try to picture to ourselves the condition of mankind when first acquiring and developing spoken language, and struggling in every possible way to produce articulate sounds which should carry in themselves, both to the speaker and the hearer, some expression of the things, motions, or actions represented, it will seem quite natural that they should utilise everything connected with the act of speaking which could in any way further that object. We are apt to forget that, though speech is now acquired by children solely by imitation, and must be to them almost wholly conventional, this was not its original character. Speech was formed and evolved, not by children, but by men and women who felt the need of a mode of communication other than by gesture only. Gesture-language and word-language doubtless arose together, and for a long time were used in conjunction and supplemented each other. It is admitted that gesture-language is never purely conventional, but is based either on direct imitation or on some kind of analogy or suggestion; and it is therefore almost certain that word-language, arising at the same time, would be developed in the same [[p. 543]] way, and would never originate in purely conventional terms. Gesture would at first be exclusively used to describe motion, action, and passion; speech to represent the infinite variety of sounds in nature, and, with some modification, the creatures or objects that produced the sounds. But there are many disadvantages in the use of gesture as compared with speech. It requires always a considerable muscular effort; the hands and limbs must be free; an erect, or partially erect, posture is needed; there must be sufficient light; and, lastly, the communicators must be in such a position as to see each other. As articulate speech is free from all these disadvantages, there would be a constant endeavour to render it capable of replacing gesture; and the most obvious way of doing this would be to transfer gesture from the limbs to the mouth itself, and to utilise so much of the corresponding motions as were possible to the lips, tongue, and breath. These mouth-gestures, as we have seen, necessarily lead to distinct classes of sounds; and thus there arose from the very beginnings of articulate speech, the use of characteristic sounds to express certain groups of motions, actions, and sensations which we are still able to detect even in our highly-developed language, and the more important of which I have here attempted to define and illustrate.

    It may be well to give an example of how definite words may have arisen by such a process. Each of the words--air, wind, breeze, blow, blast, breathe--has to us a definite meaning, and a form which seems often to have nothing in common with the rest. Yet they possess the common character that the essential part of each is a breathing, more or less pronounced and modulated; and at first they were probably all alike expressed by a strong and audible breathing or blowing. For convenience and to save exertion, this would soon be modified into an articulate sound or word which would enable the act of blowing to be easily recognised. Then, as time went on and the need arose, some one or other of the different ideas comprised in the word would be separated, and this would be most effectually done by the use of different consonants with the same fundamental form of breathing or blowing, and the distinction caused by the r and l in these two words well illustrates the principle. Thus, every such class of expressive words would have a natural basis, while the detailed modifications to differentiate the various ideas included in it might be to a considerable extent conventional.

    In conclusion, I venture to submit the facts and arguments here set forth as a contribution to the fascinating subject of the origin of language. Of their novelty and value I must leave Anthropologists and Philologists to judge.8


Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1. The botanical explorer, Martius, describes lip-pointing as used by certain Brazilian tribes, but he does not seem to have connected it with the character of the word accompanying the gesture, or to have drawn any conclusions from it. [[on p. 530]]

2. Primitive Culture, vol. i., p. 199. [[on p. 532]]

3. See Tylor's Primitive Culture, vol. i., p. 191, where a rather full account is given of imitative words in the languages of all parts of the world. [[on p. 536]]

4. A considerable number of these directly imitative words are given in Archdeacon Farrar's Essay on the Origin of Language, chap. iv. [[on p. 537]]

5. Skeat's Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, under "Sweet." [[on p. 540]]

6. As examples of this transference of meaning from the physical to the mental or moral, Archdeacon Farrar gives, "imagination," the summoning up of an image before [[p. 541]] the inward eye; "comprehension," a grasping; "disgust," an unpleasant taste; "insinuation," getting into the bosom of a thing or person; "austerity," dryness; "humility," related to the ground; "virtue," that which becomes a man; "courtesy," from a court or palace: "aversion" and "inclination," a turning away from, and a bending towards anything; "error," a wandering; "envy," "invidious," a looking at, with bad intent; "influence," a flowing in; "emotion," a motion from within, or of the soul. (See Origin of Language, p. 122.) To which we may add, "evident," to be seen clearly; and from the same Latin words--videre, to see, and visus, sight--a whole series of English words are derived, among which are "advice," according to a person's judgment or seeing; "provide" and "prudent," to act with foresight; "visit," to go to see a person; "visage," the face or seeing part; "view," that which is seen; and many others. Hence it is easy to perceive that, once given terms for the physical characteristics and qualities of objects, and the whole range of language which refers to mental and moral qualities can be easily developed. [[on pp. 540-541]]

7. See letter in Nature, vol. xxvi., p. 419, and vol. xxiv., p. 380. [[on p. 542]]

8. The fundamental idea of mouth-gesture was stated by the present writer in a review of Mr. E. B. Tylor's "Anthropology," in Nature, vol. xxiv. p. 242 (1881). [[on p. 543]]


*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Return to Home