Cornhill Magazine,  8 (1863), 197–202.

Primitive Language

[John Bowring]




Language, Comparative Philology, Anthropology, Race, Human Species, Progress, Nomenclature

    Describes the 'latest claim' that a particular race 'speak the primeval language—the language of Adam and Eve in Paradise'. John Rae has lately 'put forward [...] the Hawaiian, or the language of the Sandwich Islands, as being that from which the venerable Sanskrit and all its descendants are derived'. (197) Remarks that, with the exception of 'Tea', 'scarcely a single word' of 'the Hwan-hwa, the classic speech of China [...] has made its way to the vocabularies of civilization', and finds in this 'an evident proof that the language of those remote regions had not a common origin', thereby refuting theories advanced by the 'advocates of a single primitive tongue'. Also notes that 'In languages, as in races, the law of progress prevails. What is imperfect perishes. The strong, the intellectual, supersede the barbarous and the weak. No dialectic of antiquity can compare in strength and variety with those which represent modern civilization [...] and it may be doubted whether an inhabitant of ancient Athens or Rome would understand many of the adaptations from Greek and Latin, of which modern science has availed itself'. (199) Primitive language 'only represented objects visible or tangible to the external senses. Inward emotions displayed themselves in the changes of countenance (such as animals exhibit, but which appear in man with vastly superior power of expression)', and 'All languages retain these, with much similarity and even identity of character'. Concludes that the 'migration of words affords as various and as wide a field for study as that of seeds, or fishes, or birds, or beast, or men' (202).

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