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Language and its Importance in the History
of the Development of the Human Race.
[A Lecture delivered at the Commercial Club of Frankfort-on-the
Maine, December 7, 1869.]
In the restless activity which science displays in our times, there appears, with ever-increasing distinctness, a phenomenon which, more than any other, confers on it a noble humanity and significance: it is the interpenetration of the practical and ideal. The period is not yet far behind us when practical and scientific labour stood apart from each other as strangers. On the one side was seen the great mass of the toiling people, who did not understand how to respect their own activity, and were almost ashamed of it; on the other, erudition, confined to a class, and often barren of any result. Occasionally there arose a lonely uncomprehended thinker, who carefully concealed himself from his contemporaries, because to be understood was almost sure to entail excommunication and death. How different is it now, when mechanical labour finds a higher reward in the elevating consciousness of having co-operated in the mighty and arduous work of rendering mankind happy than in the wages it earns, and when science takes refuge in warm, feeling hearts, to share their cravings and hopes, and perhaps, too, to raise them to those heights from which she has descended !
The chemistry of our days gives us information about the air we breathe, the provisions we are to select; it teaches us how to cultivate the soil and how to produce thousands of objects of art and industry; but at the same time it lays open to us the mysterious nature of things. In decomposing before our eyes an apparently uniform body into various invisible elements, it rends the veil of outward appearance and of illusion, teaches us to doubt the evidence of our senses, and at the same time to comprehend the perpetual transformation and growth in nature. Mechanics, by means of which man's machines are built and the giant forces of heat and electricity rendered subservient to his use, at the same time put the great question to him, what light, sound, heat, and electricity are; and suggest to him a primitive power which disguises itself, as it were, in all these phenomena, appearing now as sound, now as heat, and may be finally transformed even into mechanical force, a pressure, or an impulse. Equally so the study of language, besides its practical objects known to us all, has in our days acquired an incomparable philosophical importance, seeing that it affords a key to one aspect of the world and existence which physical science could never have reached, and gives us an explanation of what we are and of what once we were, of our reason and our history.
The first commonplace object which may induce us to study languages is, in the first instance, a purely practical one. We may wish to find our way in the streets of some foreign city or learn to converse with: foreigners who have come to visit us. But, however commonplace such a proficiency may be, it already touches, without our always being aware of the fact, upon a marvellous domain. We face a being which thinks as we do, but which seems by nature to be relegated to another sphere as regards its mode of expression. The strangeness of this phenomenon is felt by every one who, for the first time, hears a foreign child speak its native language or sees himself surrounded abroad by people all speaking a foreign tongue. Language seems to us so natural and human, and it seems such a matter of course that what we say should be at once understood—and now, all of a sudden, behold! there is a barrier between man and man, analogous to, though infinitely thinner than, that between man and the brute, who likewise do not understand each other by nature, and can learn to do so only very imperfectly by art. The first discovery of a people speaking a foreign language must have been attended with tremendous surprise; at least as great as the first sight of men of a different colour of the skin. In speaking a foreign tongue, therefore, we surmount in reality a barrier raised by Nature herself, and as the ocean, which, in the words of the Roman poet, was created to separate the nations, has by navigation been converted into an immense channel of communication,
the study of living languages tends to create an association of men out of groups of peoples scattered about by nature. In reading distinguished authors in a foreign language, we feel a kind of emancipation from the narrow boundary of nationality; new spheres of thought, new conceptions are opened up to us with every newly unlocked literature; the peculiar forms in which each people clothes its divinations, its love, its scientific thought, its political hopes, and its inspirations, enrich our minds; all these become ours, we become all these. And how much greater will be our profit if we do not content ourselves with merely crossing the boundary line which a mountain or a stream or an accidental circumstance in the migration and spreading of our ancestors has drawn for our nation, but find in language a means of penetrating the darkness of ages, of transposing ourselves into the past in order to communicate with the minds of primeval times! It is no small matter to say to one's self, “ These words which I am reading, the sounds which I am reviving with my lips, are the same as those with which Demosthenes once called upon his native city, ensnared by treason, to try to regain her freedom,– the same in which Plato couched his own and his master's lofty teachings.” By the Nile on the Theban plain there is seen a gigantic statue of King Amenophis, enthroned on high—the so-called pillar of Memnon -sixty feet high. In the days of the Roman Empire there was heard in this statue daily at sunrise a musical sound; all the world went on a pilgrimage to