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XXXVI. the new theory of language.

In a late number of Science1 a new theory of the utmost interest is brought forward by one of the most eminent of American philologists, Horatio Hale. It forms the substance of an address given at Buffalo, New York, in his capacity as vice-president of the anthropological section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He thinks that it solves one of the scientific questions that seemed most hopeless; and the solution has peculiar interest as showing how the most important results may follow from things usually held trifling — in this case, from the most unintelligible chatter of children. For many readers his conclusions will have especial interest through this fact, that the earliest clew to this remarkable discovery — if such it be — was given by the observations of a mother in her nursery.

No puzzle outstanding in science has been greater than how to account for the variety of languages among men. It is easy enough to explain the diversity [182] that exists among various dialects of the same stock; as that, taking the most familiar case, between French, Italian, and Spanish; or, in a wider sense, among all the 60 languages of the Aryan or Indo-European stock, the 20 of the Semitic family (Hebrew, Chaldaic, etc.), the 168 of the great South African stock, the 35 of the Algonkin (Indian) stock, and so on. These groups offer comparatively slight variations within themselves; but the moment we go beyond a single stock, the several groups seem to have nothing in common. The parent stock in the Aryan group, for instance, is absolutely separated from the Semitic, that from the Chinese, and so on. Of these last two it was said by Wilhelm von Humboldt — who was not inclined to supernatural explanations — that it was easier to believe that each came by some direct communication from Heaven than that either could have been developed out of the other. And as there are estimated to be about 200 of these utterly distinct and remote parent stocks, the difficulty of accounting for them has hitherto seemed almost insuperable. Yet all this while, Mr. Hale thinks, the real solution was one of the simplest things in the world, and lay close at land, namely, in the nursery. Some observations made by a woman and recorded-not, unhappily, at once, but long after-gave the key to the whole mystery. The solution is to be found, [183] according to Mr. Hale, in what he calls “the language-making instinct of very young children.”

There were born near Boston in 1860 twin boys, who were peculiarly devoted to each other. They began to talk at the usual age, but the language they talked was not even so near to English as is usual in such cases — in fact, it was not English at all. They made up a jargon of their own, and entirely refused to speak anything else. Their mother could not really understand it, but only guessed at what was essential; yet they perfectly understood one another, so that it was, for all purposes of communication, a complete language. At last they were sent to school, where they learned English as a foreign tongue, and forgot their own prattle, only one word of which, unluckily, was preserved. The matter was not made public till eighteen years afterwards, when it was described by Miss E. H. Watson, of Boston, in an essay on the origin of language, prefaced to her edition of a work by her father, the late George Watson, on “The structure of language.” Miss Watson did not herself observe the children, but had the facts afterwards from the mother, and her statements attracted little attention.

It happened fortunately, however, that in the interval between these facts and their record a series of more exact observations was made and published by an Albany physician, Dr. E. R. Hun. In a periodical [184] of small circulation, the Monthly Journal of Psychological Medicine, he gave what Mr. Hale calls “a clear and scientific account” of something more of the same kind. It was a language contrived by a little girl four years and a half old, in connection with her brother of three. “About twenty of the words are given, most of which are used in several allied acceptations, as mea, meaning both cat and furs; migno-migno, water, wash, bath; ban, soldier, music; odo, to send for, to go out, to take away; waia-waiar, black, darkness, a negro. The language 1had its own forms of construction, as in mea waiawaiar, ‘dark furs,’ literally ‘furs dark,’ when the adjective follows its substantive.” Dr. Hun says the children talked in this way with the greatest rapidity and fluency.

Further inquiries have shown, Mr. Hale says, that this phenomenon is not unusual, and the theory he founds upon it is very simple. The only question is, indeed, whether it is not too simple. Suppose, he thinks, a family of children, in whom the language-making instinct is thus strong, to be suddenly placed by some social or physical catastrophe in a position of entire isolation, were the parents presently die. If the children are very young, they will also die; but if they are old enough to survive — which would be particularly easy in a tropical country — they will grow up speaking a wholly new language, [185] not derived directly from any other. In time, should other wanderers join them, the language will be accepted by these also. The children.of the little colony will grow up hearing no other. In time philologists will get hold of it-by which time it will have worked out a grammar and inflections of its own-and they will vainly speculate whence it came. There is noticing intrinsically impossible in such a situation; and if it be said that it would be one of extreme rarity, it must be remembered that the world is very large, and that two hundred such instances would account for all the entirely distinct stocks upon the face of the earth.

Mr. Hale points out, in confirmation of this theory, that much the larger part of these separate linguistic stocks may be traced to the warm regions of the globe, where such scattered households of very young children could best be kept alive. Many of them occur among the American aborigines, with whom it is a thing of frequent occurrence for a single family to wander off from the main tribe into banishment, or be exiled for some offence against the tribal law. Then there are the wide island populations of the world, where the isolation is more complete than that of sierras and prairies. But, after all, the important facts may he close at hand. Mr. tale suggests a field for scientific observation in every nursery. Nothing has as yet been less reduced [186] to careful investigation or statement than the process by which a child learns to talk-the most wonderful mental feat, probably, that any of us have ever achieved. If such important inferences follow, in the judgment of philologists, from a few stray observations made by mothers and nurses, how probable it is that there are multitudes of other facts easily observable, but never yet carefully watched or recorded!

1 August 27, 1886.

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