Conversations With Great Thinkers

9. Language

by L. James Hammond
© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. How Languages Change  Europeans once believed that Hebrew was the first language, and that Greek and Latin were descended from Hebrew. After all, Hebrew was the language of the Old Testament, the language in which the creation of the world was described. Scholars labored mightily to find connections between Hebrew and Greek/Latin, but their labors bore little fruit. One scholar suggested that since Hebrew was written from right to left, and Greek from left to right, Greek words could perhaps be traced back to Hebrew by being read from right to left. But that suggestion, too, proved unavailing.

In the late 1600’s, the philosopher Leibniz argued that Hebrew wasn’t the first language. Leibniz urged missionaries and travelers to make notes on the languages they encountered; Leibniz inspired the scientific study of language. Travelers in North America noticed that American Indians spoke many different languages, and that these languages changed rapidly. Linguistic variety is caused by political fragmentation; rapid linguistic change occurs when a language is spoken by a small community, and when it isn’t stabilized by a written literature.

The Chinese language has been remarkably stable, since China had a high degree of political unity and a long literary tradition. Since Chinese has changed little, it still has the characteristics of a primitive language. Like all primitive languages, Chinese is composed of nothing but monosyllables; it requires no effort to find the root of a Chinese word, because every word is a root. Chinese roots scarcely deserve to be called “roots” since they lie on the surface, in plain view. Take the days of the week, for example: Monday through Saturday are called Day One, Day Two, etc., up to Day Six. (Sunday is called Day of the Sun, or Day of the Sky.) Since Chinese names of days are so simple, one can’t speak of the “roots” of these names. In English, on the other hand, the names of days are far more complex, and their roots are much deeper, stretching back to Roman and Germanic terms. Wednesday, for example, comes from the Germanic god Woden, and Friday comes from the god Frigga.

In Chinese, the names of months are also very simple; months are numbered one through twelve (Month One, Month Two, etc.). Something similar is found in English; September, October, November and December come from the Latin words for seven, eight, nine and ten. But these names aren’t for Month Seven through Month Ten. Since two months were named in honor of the emperors Julius and Augustus (July and August), the remaining months are mis-named, mis-numbered. September, for example, which comes from the Latin word for seven, is actually the ninth month, etc. If you ask an English-speaker, “what is the root of September?” he isn’t likely to know, whereas a Chinese-speaker would find the question so easy as to be meaningless.

A similar situation prevails with place names. Any Chinese-speaker can tell you that Beijing means “north capital,” Nanjing “south capital,” Sichuan “four rivers,” etc., but how many English-speakers know that Connecticut means “long tidal river”? American Indian names (like Connecticut) are mixed with French names (such as Vermont, “green mountain), Spanish names (such as Arizona, “arid region”), etc. What confusion, what obscurity compared to Chinese!

Like all primitive languages, Chinese has no grammar. The plural form of a Chinese word is formed by adding a word that expresses plurality; the past tense of a Chinese word is formed by adding a word that expresses past time. In short, Chinese words don’t change to express a certain grammatical form; rather, they’re combined with other words that express number, tense, etc.

Unlike Chinese words, Greek and Latin words have many different forms, depending on their grammatical function. The Romans began studying grammar in order to facilitate the study of Greek. Soon grammar became a passion among educated Romans. Caesar wrote a book on grammar during his Gallic campaign; in fact, Caesar invented the grammatical term “ablative.”

It would be wrong to suppose that grammar is a sign of growth, and that Greek and Latin are more advanced than Chinese since they have a more elaborate grammar. Actually, grammar is a sign of decay. All grammatical forms were once independent words, words that gradually decayed into mere endings. Take the English past tense, for example. In English, the past tense is usually formed by adding ed to a verb. This ending was once an independent word — the word did. Instead of saying “I loved,” English-speakers once said “I love did.”

The French adverb is another example of a grammatical form that was once two independent words. The French adverb is formed by adding ment to an adjective. This ending was originally a separate word, mens or mente, meaning mind. For example, fortement (strongly) was originally forti mente (with a strong mind, or strongly).

The process by which independent words coalesce into grammatical forms is sometimes called “phonetic corruption.” Phonetic corruption allows native speakers to speak with less effort, but often makes it harder for foreigners to learn a language. For example, “I loved” is easier to say than “I love did,” but a foreigner may find “I love did” more distinct. When Africans were brought to the U.S. as slaves, they often expressed the present tense with “do” and the past tense with “done”; for example, instead of saying “I love” and “I loved,” they would say, “I do love” and “I done love.”

2. Sanskrit  Just as Europeans were puzzled by the lack of connections between Hebrew and Greek/Latin, so too they were puzzled by the numerous connections between Sanskrit and Greek/Latin. In the late 1700’s, a Scottish writer, Lord Monboddo, noted that “the words in the Sanskrit for the numbers, from one to ten, are, ek, dwee, tree, chatoor, panch, shat, sapt, augt, nava, das, which certainly have an affinity to the Greek or Latin names for those numbers.”1

Sanskrit was an ancient literary language in India, just as Latin was an ancient literary language in the West. Sanskrit is as closely related to Greek and Latin as French is to Italian and Spanish. Some Europeans couldn’t believe that a dark-skinned people in faraway India could have an ancient literary tradition, and a literary language as close to Greek and Latin as Sanskrit was; one scholar argued that Sanskrit, and Sanskrit literature, were a forgery, a modern attempt to imitate European languages and European literature.

In the early 1800’s, the German writer Frederick Schlegel argued that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin were all part of the same language family, a family that also included German and Celtic languages; this language family has become known as the Indo-European family. The Indo-European language family originated among Aryan peoples, probably around the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and was spread to India, Iran and Western Europe by Aryan migrations.

Almost all European languages are part of the Indo-European language family. Hungarian, however, was imported by invading Huns, and is not an Indo-European language. Likewise, the language of the Basques isn’t Indo-European; the Basques were in Europe before the Aryan migrations.

3. Dialects  Every language is originally a collection of dialects. Each village has its own dialect, and the further apart villages are, the more their dialects differ. Once a dialect is written down, it becomes the standard form of a language, and may supplant other dialects. Latin, for example, was once merely one of the dialects spoken in Italy, but after it was written down, it became a standard language. Germany was home to many different dialects, but after Luther translated the Bible into a dialect known as High-German, High-German became the standard form of German.

If a written language becomes ossified, and fails to change and grow, it may become a “dead language”; instead of supplanting the dialects around it, it may be supplanted by those dialects. Thus, Latin was eventually supplanted by its dialects, the Romance Languages. This process may be termed “the revenge of the dialects.”

English was originally a German dialect, one of the so-called “Low-German” dialects. English grammar is of German origin; English pronouns, prepositions, etc. are also of German origin. But while English is fundamentally a Germanic language, two-thirds of the words in an English dictionary are of Latin or Greek origin. English monosyllables can usually be traced to German, and polysyllables can usually be traced to Latin or Greek.

4. Origin of Language  Language has its origins in sound. Language originated in primitive man’s attempt to represent his thoughts and feelings by sounds. One can still see a connection between sound and meaning in such words as gloomy, cheerful, dark, light, sad, happy, fat, skinny, etc.

5. Four Sources of Names  Surnames usually come from one of four sources: occupation, descent, locale or characteristic. Examples of surnames that come from occupation are Carpenter, Tanner, Fuller, Tinker, Sawyer, Smith, Wright, Mason and Weber, which is German for weaver. Examples of surnames that come from descent are Johnson (son of John), Robertson, Thompson, Davidson, Wilson, O’Brien (son of Brian), McDonald (son of Donald), Larsen, Ibsen and Fitzpatrick (natural son of Patrick). Examples of surnames that come from locale are Forest, Lake, Hill, Mount and Kierkegaard, which is Danish for churchyard. Examples of surnames that come from characteristic are Swift, Strong, Short, White, Brown and Black. Some surnames come from more than one of these sources; an example is Kleinschmidt, which is German for little smith.

6. First Names  In the heyday of Protestantism, first names were often based on virtues, and names like Charity, Faith, and Prudence were common. When China was fervently Communist, children were given names like Hong-yu (Red Universe) and Kang-mei (Fight Americans). The character of our consumer culture is apparent in the popularity of names like Lexus, Chanel, Porsche, etc.

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1. Quoted in F. Max Müller, Lectures On The Science Of Language, ch. 4 (Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1882). Other European scholars, such as William Jones, made similar observations. back