On the Stratification of Language. Sir Robert Rede's Lecture, Delivered in the Senate House, Before the University of Cambridge, on Friday, May 29, 1868

By <AUTHOR>MAX MÜLLER</AUTHOR>, M. A., Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, Hon. Doctor of Laws in the University of Cambridge, London : Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer. 1868. 8vo, pp. 44.
THIS is but a brief essay, an hour’s discourse. or pamphlet of less than fifty largetype pages ; but the name of its distinguished author, and the circumstances of its delivery as a lecture before one of the great English universities, naturally draw our attention toward it, and lead us to expect to find in it new light upon one of the most engaging subjects of the day, — the historical study of language. Its title, too, is quaintly inviting, and hints at fresh and inciting aspects of familiar truth. Nor will it, in truth, altogether disappoint the reader. Muller’s style is, in general, truly admirable, often tinged with a poetic quality, almost always exhibiting a fervor of thought and wealth of illustration which are akin with genius, and bear witness of a nature and a training wherein the Muses have had their share. His father was an esteemed poet, and he himself began his literary, even his linguistic career in verse. With these advantages, and upborne by the solid structure of German research, to whose chief results it was his good fortune to attract the attention of the English public, he has done, and is doing, a valuable work for linguistic science. But for a master in the science, for the founder of a school, he lacks some of the essential qualifications. He is inconsequent ; his views not seldom exclude one another ; he tarries in the vague, and loves a degree of imaginative dimness better than the full light of practical reality; logical connection of thought, closeness of method, and cogency of arguments are not the distinguishing characteristics of his works; there is not a volume he has written which is not disappointing, which does not seem less than we have a right to expect from its author ; and the pamphlet now before us falls, upon the whole, below the ordinary level of his productions. Even its style partakes of the inferiority, and is sometimes feeble, sometimes labored and turgid. To call a dictionary an “ herbarium of the linguistic flora of England,” to speak of words as “ welded together into an indistinguishable mass through the intense heat of thought, and by the constant hammering of the tongue,” or of agglutinative language as “ clinging with its roots to the underlying stratum of isolation,” passes the bounds of picturesqueness, and verges on the grotesque. These, it is true, would be insignificant blemishes if the lecture abounded in new truths, or in novel and striking combinations of truths already known. But it is, on the contrary, notably deficient in point; and, what is yet worse, if it commanded the continuous attention of its hearers, and made an appreciable effect upon their opinions, we fear that it left them with more wrong views than right ones. Thus, nearly at the outset, the author conveys the impression that an undue amount of attention has been hitherto paid to studies in IndoEuropean and Semitic language, and that linguistic scholars need to be recalled by him to the examination of other families of tongues, since the two former furnish too scanty evidence to generalize from : while, in fact, men have simply paid their first and fullest attention to w,hat lay nearest them, and was richest in instruction, and have been taking into account the rest of the material as fast as they could gather and master it. Much worse, he pronounces those two families themselves of so exceptional, and even monstrous, a character as to be peculiarly unfitted to instruct us respecting language in general; he styles them “ only two historical concentrations of wild unbounded speech,” — a phrase which needs a few pages of exposition to make it intelligible ; he maintains that, unlike othertongues, they were “fixed and petrified,” at their earliest known stage of development, by literary influences: as if such a thing were practicable in any language, or had ever taken place in these; as if literary culture had done aught but put on record here and there a single phase of speech, more or less ancient, leaving the great mass of dialects to run their course as freely as if letters had never been invented. All this part of our author’s discussion shows, in our view, a very radical misapprehension of the bearing of literature upon the growth of language. In treating briefly of the forces which underlie this growth, he states the two main opposing views, the conventional and the vegetative, that which makes the consenting action of language-speakers the spring of movement, and that which ascribes an organic and prolific life to language itself pronounces them both almost absurd, and yet intimates that no other and better view has been found to supersede them. If he is so hopelessly in the dark as to a matter of such fundamental importance, he should give up the office of lecturer on language until further study and deeper reflection have brought him enlightenment. By a course of loose and easy etymologizing, he finds that “neuter, denominative, causative, passive verbs, optatives and futures, gerundives, adjectives, and substantives, all are formed by one and the same process, by means of one and the same root,'’ namely, the root ya, “ to go.” It will doubtless be long before the details of word derivation are so well understood that we can tell which of these various classes are truly thus produced ; and meanwhile their uncritical and wholesale explanation can only breed distrust in modern etymological methods. Professor Muller has found one man, Herrn Scherer, who almost understands his theory of the joint and mutual action of “ phonetic decay ” and “ dialectic growth ” in language; whether any one will ever come nearer to it may be doubted ; and the fault will be in the theory, not in those who endeavor to approach its comprehension, Much of the latter part of the lecture is taken up with a rather aimless and inconclusive inquiry into the relationship of Indo-European and Semitic language, in the course of which he makes the statement that those who reject it do so because they have laid down as an axiom that the families cannot be related. No sensible philologist, we presume, is guilty of so gross a prejudgment of the case ; he only criticises the evidences offered and the methods of their derivation, holding his opinion meanwhile in reserve ; and a sound criticism has insured thus far the rejection, at least provisionally, of the alleged evidences, MÜiller would have done better if, instead of seeming to encourage Chalmers and Edkins in their work of comparing Chinese roots with those of other great families, he had seriously warned them that the task is one which neither they nor perhaps any other scholars at present are prepared to deal with; that, before it can be profitably attempted, the science of language needs to make no little progress. He quite mistakes the needful tone of advice when he says, at the end : “ I do not defend haste or inaccuracy ; I only say, we must venture on, and not imagine that, all is done, and that nothing remains to conquer in our science.” Or can it be that such vain imaginings, such complacent and monstrous overvaluation of the little that has yet been accomplished in linguistics, should threaten to possess the minds of Cambridge scholars ?