17. The Nation as Community of Language

The nation as community of language
Language and culture
Foreign constituents in language
Purism and the development of language
Literary language and popular speech
Religion, science, art, profession, etc., as mediators of new language values
Language and imagery
The significance of loanwords in language development
Oriental symbolism in language
Foreign material in native guise
Speech and thought
Nature and language
Work and language
The symbolism of language
Linguistic atavisms
The illogical in language formation
Constant change in linguistic expression
The inadequacy of psychological language theories

The influence of the cultural circle versus the tie of communal speech
The development of the English language
Idiom and language
The belief in the Ursprache
Concerning the common genealogy of the Aryan languages
Peoples that change their language
Nations with different language districts

Of all the evidences which have been cited for the existence of a national ideology, community of language is by far the most important. Many see in community of language the essential characteristic of the nation. A common language is, in fact, a strong tie for any human grouping; and Wilhelm von Humboldt says with some reason: "The true homeland is really the language." Karl Julius Weber saw in language the real characteristic of nationality: "In nothing does the national character, the imprint of the mental and spiritual power of a people, express itself so clearly as in its language."

Likewise, the best-known representatives of nationalistic ideas in the last century, like Schleiermacher, Fichte, Jahn and the men of the German League of Virtue; Mazzini, Pisacane, Niemojowsky, Lelewel, the "Young Europe," and the German democrats of 1848, confined their concept of the nation to the realm of a common language. Arndt's song, "What is the German's Fatherland?" shows this. It is significant that Arndt as well as Mazzini based their efforts at national unification not on popular speech, but on the written language, so as to include the largest possible fatherland.

A common language naturally appears highly important to the advocates of the national idea because it is a people's highest means of expression and must, in a certain sense, be regarded as a sample of its intellectual life. Language is not the invention of individual men. In its creation and development the community has worked and continues to work as long as the language has life in it. Hence, language appeared to the advocates of the national idea as the purest product of national creativeness and became for them the clearest symbol of national unity. Yet this concept, no matter how fascinating and irrefutable it may appear to most, rests on a totally arbitrary assumption. Among the present existing languages there is not one which has developed from a definite people. It is very probable that there were once homogeneous languages, but that time is long past, lost in the greyest antiquity of history. The individuality of language disappears the moment reciprocal relations arise between different hordes, tribes and peoples. The more numerous and various these relations become in the course of the millenniums, the larger borrowings does every language make from other languages, every culture from other cultures.

Consequently, no language is the purely national product of a particular people, nor even of a particular nation. Towards the development of every one of our cultural languages peoples of the most various origins have contributed. This was inevitable, because a language as long as it is spoken at all continually absorbs foreign elements in spite of all the noise of the purification fanatics. For every language is an organism in constant flux; it obeys no fixed rules, and flies in the face of all the dictates of logic. Not only does it make the most diversified borrowings from other languages, a phenomenon due to the countless influences and points of contact in cultural life, but it also possesses a stock of words that is continually changing. Quite gradually and unnoticeably the shadings and gradations of the concepts which find their expression in words alter, so that it often happens that a word means today exactly the opposite of what men originally expressed by it.

In reality, there exists no cultural language which does not contain great mass of foreign material, and the attempt to free it from these reign intruders would lead to a complete dissolution of the language -- that is, if such a purification could be achieved at all. Every European language contains a mass of foreign elements with which, often, whole dictionaries could be filled. How, for instance, would the German or the Dutch language look if all the words borrowed from French or Latin were removed from it, not to speak of words of other origin? How, the Spanish language, without its countless elements borrowed from the Germans and the Arabs? And what a mass of German, English, and even Turkish words has penetrated into the Russian and Polish tongues! Similarly, the Hungarian language contains a great number of words of Italian and Turkish origin. Rumanian consists only one-half of words of Latin descent; three-eighths of its stock of words are from the Slavic, one-eighth from the Turkish, Magyar and Greek. In the Albanian, until now, only five or six hundred original words have been distinguished; all the rest is a mixture of the most varied elements. Fritz Mauthner remarks very correctly in his great work, Contributions to a Critique of Language, that it is owing simply to "the accident of point of view that, for example, we speak of the French language as Romance and of the English as Germanic." And it is well known that the Latin language itself, from which all the Romance languages trace their descent, contained a body of words of Greek origin, to the number of several thousand.

For the development of every language the acceptance of foreign elements is essential. No people lives for itself. Every enduring intercourse with other peoples results in the borrowing of words from their language; this is quite indispensable to reciprocal cultural fecundation. The countless points of contact which culture daily creates between people leave their traces in language. New objects, ideas, concepts -- religious, political, and generally social -- lead to new expressions and word formations. In this, the older and more highly developed cultures naturally have a strong influence on less developed folk-groups and furnish these with new ideas which find their expression in language.

Many of the newly acquired elements of speech gradually adapt themselves so completely to the phonetic laws of the adopting language that eventually their origin can no longer be recognized. We quite involuntarily feel that words like Existenz, Idee, Melodie, Musik, Muse, Natur, Religion, and a hundred others are foreign words in the German language. And the speech of political life is completely permeated with foreign words. That Bourgeoisie, Proletariat, Sozialismus, Bolschevismus, Anarchismus, Kommunismus, Liberalismus, Konservatismus, Fascismus, Terrorismus, Diklatur, Revolution, Reaktion, Partei, Parliament, Demokratie, Monarchie, Republik, and so on, are not German speech elements, we recognize at the first glance.

But there is also a great mass of words of foreign descent in the German language which have in the course of time become so colloquial that their foreign origin has been completely forgotten. Who would, for example, regard as strangers such words as Abenteuer, Anker, Artzt, Bezirk, Bluse, Bresche, Brief, Essig, Fenster, Frack, Gruppe, Kaiser, Kantor, Kasse, Keller, Keltrr, Kerker, Kette, Kirsche, Koch, Koffer, Kohl, Kreuz, Küche, Lampe, Laune, Markt, Mauer, Mede, Meister, Mühle, Müller, Münze, Oel, Orgel, Park, Pfahl, Pfau, Pfeffer, Pfeiler, Pfirsich, Pflanze, Pforte, Pfosten, Pfühl, Pfütze, Pfund, Pöbel, Prinz, Pulver, Radieschen, Rest, Schiissel, Schule, Schwindler, Schreiber, Siegel, Speicher, Speise, Strasse, Teller, Tisch, Trichier, Vogt, Ziegel, Zirkel, Zoll, Zwiebel, and countless others? [1]

Very frequently the foreign word changes in the course of time so completely that its mutilated form sounds like other words and we involuntarily give it a quite different meaning. Thus Armbrust (crossbow) has nothing in common with either Arm (arm) nor Brust (breast), but instead goes back to the Latin word arcubalista, meaning arc-thrower, or catapult. Likewise Ebenholz (ebony) has no relation to eben (smooth), but again goes back to the Hebrew word, hobnin, from obni, meaning stony. The German Vielfrass (wolverine), which, construed as a Germanic word, equals "much-eater," ³glutton² -- originates from the Norwegian fjeldfross (mountain-cat). Murmeltier (marmot) does not come from murmeln (to murmur), but was formed during the Middle Ages from the Latin murem, accusative of mus (mouse), and montis or montanum -- that is, "mountain mouse." The word Tolpatsch first appeared in the seventeenth century in southern Germany. It was a popular designation for Hungarian soldiers. The word owes its origin to the Hungarian talpas, meaning flat-foot. (In modern German, Tolpatsch means blockhead, booby -- also the dodo.) Ohrfeige (box on the ear) comes from the Dutch word veeg (blow). Trampeltier goes back to the Latin dromedarius. Hängematte (as if from German roots meaning hanging mat) comes from the South American word hamaca. From the thieves' jargon comes Kümmelblättchen (three-card monte), which has nothing in common with Kümmel (caraway seed), but with the Hebrew word gimel (three). Likewise, the word Pleite, so much used today, is of Hebrew origin and comes from pletah (flight). French has left many traces in our language. Thus the quite senselessly conjoined mutterseelenallein, about which there plays for us today all the sickly sentimentality of deutsches Gemüt, comes from moi tout seul 1. Fisimatenten comes from fils de ma tante (son of my aunt). The German words forsch and Forsche have the French base, force. When we say that we throw our lives into the Schanze (in die Schanze schlagen) this has nothing to do with Schanze (bulwark); the expression comes instead from the French chance -- equaling the English chance. Hence also, the expression ³zuschanzen² (Jemanden etwas zuschanzen -- give someone an opportunity). The formerly much used word, Schwager, for coachman, we doubtless owe to the French chevalier.

Such examples can be given for every language by the thousands. They are characteristic of the spirit of language and of the development of human thought in general. It would be quite erroneous to credit this intrusion of foreign speech elements simply to the written language. Because through this the ideas of the educated classes find expression it is often quite unreasonably assumed that the popular speech is better guarded against the intrusion of foreign elements and that it quite instinctively repels them. It is admitted that in the language of the educated, and especially in that of scholars, we have gone too far in the use of quite arbitrarily selected foreign words, so that we can with reason speak of a ³caste language.² When we consider that in the well-known Heyse Dictionary of Foreign Words there are no less than a hundred thousand expressions derived from a dozen different languages which are all supposed to be used in German, we may indeed regard this abundance with a secret dread. Nevertheless, it is quite mistaken to assume that popular speech offers any great resistance to the intrusion of foreign words. The fact is that also in those dialects of all European cultural languages in which the speech of the people finds purest expression we find a body of foreign words. There are quite a number of South German dialects in which, without much difficulty, plenty of Slavic, Romance, and even Hebrew, elements can be observed. Likewise, the Berliners regularly use such Hebrew words as Ganef, Rebach, Gallach, Mischpoche, Tinef, meschugge, and so on. We also remember the well-known words of William II, ³Ich dulde keine mIESmacher!" The word Kaffer, which is used everywhere in Germany to describe a foolish or stupid man, has no relation to the South African tribe of Kafirs, but has its root in the Hebrew kafar, meaning village.

It frequently happens that the original meaning of borrowed words is completely lost and is replaced by other ideas which have hardly any resemblance to the fundamental meaning of the word. One can make very interesting discoveries in this field, open surprising vistas into the inner connections of things. Thus, in my Rhenish-Hessian home, a cross-eyed man is in the popular tongue called a Masik. The word comes from the Hebrew and means demon or goblin. In this case the word's original meaning was changed considerably, but we recognize quite clearly the associations involved; for a cross-eyed person was formerly regarded as being "possessed by demons" or as having an "evil eye."

In southwestern Germany one hails a drunken man with a friendly, "Schesswai," from the French je suis, I am. One discharged from employment explains that he has been "geschassi" from the French chasser, to chase. Mumm comes from the Latin animus (animum in the accusative); Kujohn, from the French coion (rogue); Sclimanfut is from je m¹en fus (I don't give a damn!). Quite a number of blunt foreign expressions found in the writings of that talented maker of language, Johann Fischart, who borrowed from Rabelais, survive even today in popular speech. Furthermore, there are quite a number of foreign words out of that region which have penetrated into the written language and have common currency in southern and southwestern Germany. We need but think of schikanieren, malträtieren, alterieren, kujonieren, genieren, pussieren, and a hundred other expressions. The man of the people uses these words freely and their German rendering would sound strange to him. It is, therefore, completely wrong to prate about the natural purity of the popular tongue, which nowhere exists.

In expressing our thoughts we ought, of course, to use German terms so far as these are at our disposal. The very feeling of language demands this. But we also know that in our best speech there is today a mass of foreign elements of whose origin we are no longer conscious. We know, furthermore, that in spite of all endeavours of so-called "speech purifiers" it is unavoidable that these should continually find admittance into the various languages. Every new intellectual development, every social movement which transcends the narrow frontiers of a country, every new device borrowed from other people, every advance in science with its immediate effects in the field of technology, every change in the general means of intercourse, every change in world economics with its political consequences, every development in art, causes the intrusion of newly borrowed words into the language.

Christianity and the church caused a regular invasion of Greek and Latin word-structures which were unknown before. Many of these expressions have so thoroughly changed in the course of time that the stranger is no longer recognized. We need but think of such words as Abt, Altar, Bibel, Bischof, Dom (cathedral), Kantor, Kaplan, Kapelle, Kreuz, Messe, Mönch, Münster, Nonne, Papst, Priester, Probst (provost), Teufel, and a long list of others used by the Catholic church. The same phenomenon was repeated with the spread of -Roman law in German Jands. The change of legal systems to conform to the Roman pattern brought us a whole body of new ideas which necessarily found admission into the language. In general, by contact with the Roman world, the language of the German people became permeated with new expressions and word-forms, which the Germans, in their turn, conveyed-to their Slavic and Finnish neighbours.

The development of militarism and army organization brought a whole flood of new words from France, which the French in their turn had borrowed from the Italians. Most of these words have retained their foreign imprint completely. Think of Armee, Marine, Artillerie, Infanterie, Kavallerie, Regiment, Kompanie, Schwadron, Bataillon, Major, General, Leutenant, Sergeant, Munition, Patrone, Bajonett, Bombe, Granate, Schrapnell, Kaserne, Baracke, equipieren, exerzieren, fiisilieren, chargieren, rekrutieren, kommandieren, and countless other words from military life.

The introduction of new foods and drinks has enriched our language with a long line of totally foreign expressions. There are Kaffee and Zucker from the Arabic, Tee from the Chinese, Tabak from the Indian, Sago from the Malayan, Reis from the Latin-Greek, Kakao from the Mexican. We will not speak of the new words with which science daily endows the language, nor of the countless coined words which the language of art contains. Their number is quite beyond reckoning. Today sport, which is spreading in Germany quite uncannily, has adorned the language with many English and American technical expressions that hardly enhance its beauty. Even when one tries hard to eliminate these foreign words and replace them by German expressions quite monstrous results sometimes follow.

But we are dealing not alone with so-called loan-words taken from a foreign language and in some form transferred to our own. There is another phenomenon in the development of every language for which the term loan-translation has been coined. When a hitherto unknown idea from another cultural circle penetrates into our mental or social life it does not always happen that, together with the new idea, we accept a foreign expression into our language. It frequently occurs that we translate the newly acquired concept into our own language by creating from the material at hand a word structure not previously used. Here the stranger confronts us, so to speak, in the mask of our own language. In this manner came words like Halbwelt, from demi-monde; Aussperrung, from lockout; Halbinsel, from peninsula; Zwieback, from biscuit; Wolkenkratzer, from skyscraper, and a hundred similar creations. In his Critique of Language, Mauthner mentions a number of these "bastard translations," as he calls them; words like Ausdruck (expression), Bischen (particle), Rücksicht (regard), and Wohliat (beneficence). Of such loan translations there are a great number in every language. These have an actually revolutionary effect on the course of development of the language, and show us most of all the unreality of the view which maintains that in every language the spirit of a particular people lives and works. In reality every loan-translation is but a proof of the continuous penetration of foreign cultural elements within our own cultural circle -- in so far as a people can speak of "its own culture."

Let us take into account how strongly the oriental imagery of the Old and New Testament has affected the heritage of all European languages. We are thinking not only of short phrases like "mark of Cain," "judgment of Solomon," "Job's comforter," "to bear one's cross," and so on, which are quite colloquial; more involved figures from the Bible have penetrated into all languages so deeply that they have become fully naturalized in everyday speech. Here are some examples which could easily be multiplied many times: to sell one's birthright for a mess of pottage; for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle; to gird up one's loins; a wolf in sheep's clothing; heaping coals of fire on one's head; to drive out the Devil with Beelzebub; to put new wine into old bottles; to hide one's light under a bushel; not worthy to tie the shoe-laces of another; being wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove; straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel; a voice crying in the wilderness; poor as job; a light dawning on us; to speak with fiery tongues; to be like unto whited sepulchres; to wash one's hands of guilt; and a whole line of others of the kind.

In fact, loan-translation is one of the most curious things in language. Who thinks deeper here will reach conclusions which completely dispel the fairy tale of the immaculate conception of national speech. Loan-translations testify eloquently how strongly culture unites mankind. This bond is so enduring because it has, so to speak, tied itself and has not been imposed on man by external pressure. Compared with culture, so-called "national consciousness" is but an artificial creation serving to justify the political ambitions of small minorities in society.

Culture knows no such subterfuge, if only for the reason that it was not mechanically made, but has grown organically. It is the sum total of all human activity and motivates our lives unconditionally and without pretence. Loan-translations are nothing but intellectual borrowings by various groups of people within a certain cultural circle-and even beyond it. This influence, the so-called "national consciousness" opposes vainly, and Fritz Mauthrier remarks with good reason:

Before the intrusion of national consciousness, before the beginning of purist movements, the mass of the people borrowed from the treasury of foreign speech. Afterwards, such loans were avoided, but all the more numerously foreign concepts were brought into the language by translation. There are modern people of such touchy national feeling that they have driven purism to the utmost extreme (Neo-Greeks and Czechs). But they can isolate only their language, not their world concepts, their whole intellectual situation. 2

For speech is not a special organism obeying its own laws, as was formerly believed; it is the form of expression of human individuals socially united. It changes with the spiritual and social conditions of life and is in the highest degree dependent on them. In speech, human thought expresses itself, but this is no purely personal affair, as is often assumed, but an inner process continually animated and influenced by the social environment. In man's thoughts are mirrored not only his natural environment, but all relations which he has with his fellows. The closer the union to which we belong, the richer and more varied the cultural relations we maintain with our fellow men, the stronger are the reciprocal effects which unite us with our social environment and continually influence our thought.

Thinking is, therefore, by no means a process which finds its explanation solely in the mental life of the individual; it is likewise a reflection of the natural and social environment which crystallizes in man's brain into definite concepts. From this point of view the social character of human thought is undeniable; and as speech is but the living expression of our thought, its existence is rooted in the life of society and conditioned by it.

This is, indeed, apparent from the fact that human speech is not inborn, but only acquired by man through his social relations. It is not maintained that by this concept all the riddles of thought and speech have been solved. In this field there is very much for which we have no sufficient explanation; and the well-known opinion of Goethe, that really "no one understands another, and no one on hearing the same words thinks what another thinks," has certainly profound meaning. There are still many unknown and mysterious things in us and around us concerning which the last word has not yet been spoken. However, we are not dealing here with such problems, but solely with the social character of thought and speech, which in our opinion is undeniable.

Concerning the origin of language, likewise, we have until now only been able to surmise, but Haeckel's assumption that man commenced his evolutionary course as a mute being appears to us to have little probability. It is reasonable to - assume that man, who had inherited the social instincts of his predecessors in the animal kingdom, was already, upon his appearance on the human plane of life, endowed with certain expressions of speech-however crude and undeveloped these might have been. For language in its widest sense is not the exclusive property of man, but can be clearly recognized in all social species. That within these species a certain mutual understanding takes place is undeniable according to all observations. It is not language as such, but the special forms of human speech, the articulate language which permits of concepts and so enables man's thoughts to achieve higher results, which distinguish man in this respect from other species.

It is probable that human speech was at its beginning limited to certain sounds derived from nature, to which were probably added expressions denoting pain, pleasure or surprise. These sounds became habitual within the horde for the designation of certain things and were inherited by the progeny. With these first paltry beginnings the necessary preconditions for the further development of speech were given. But speech itself became for man a valuable instrument in the struggle for existence and has doubtless contributed most to his fabulous rise.

By communal work, obligatory for the whole horde, there gradually arose also a series of special designations for the tools and objects of daily use. Every new invention, every discovery, contributed to the enrichment of the previously acquired store of language, and this evolution in time led to the formation of definite word pictures or symbols from which a new mode of thinking had to result. Although language was primarily only an expression of thought, it now reacted on thought and influenced its course. The image import of words, which originally sprang from purely sensual impressions, gradually progressed to the mental and created thereby the first precondition for abstract thinking. From this arose that curious reciprocal action between speech and human thought, which during cultural development has become ever more varied and complicated, so that we can with some reason maintain that "language thinks for us."

But it is these very image-expressions, the so-called "word symbols," that have most influenced the course of events and changed their original meanings so thoroughly that they frequently turn into their opposites. This happens, as a rule, against all logic; but then language is not amenable to logic, a fact which seldom occurs to most of the language purifiers. Many words gradually disappear from a language without any clear reason-a process which we can very well observe at the present time. Thus, the old Gasse had to yield precedence to Strasse; Stube is being crowded out by Zimmer; Knabe had to yield to Junge; Haupt, to Kopf; Antlitz, to Gesicht. On the other hand, some words whose original meaning has been lost nevertheless maintain themselves in the language. Thus we still speak of a Flinte, a Feder, a Silbergulden, although the flintlock long ago passed into history, and we have almost forgotten that our fathers and grandfathers made their writing implements from the plumage of a goose, and although gulden really means golden and can consequently have nothing in common with silver. We enjoy a man's "dry humour," and never suspect that the latter word, derived from the Latin, originally meant wetness, juice or moisture. But language accomplishes still stranger things. Thus, a knight returning to his castle from a fight was entrüstet, meaning that he took off his armour, but we now put on our armour when we become entrüstet (indignant). Every language contains a number of such contradictions, the only explanation being that men gradually give to certain things and events new meanings without being conscious of it.

The German philologist, Ernst Wasserzicher, in some excellent studies from which the above examples were taken, has described impressively the symbolism of language and has shown that we speak almost exclusively in images without noticing it. 3 When peasant women lesen (glean) ears of grain in a field, when we übertreten (overstep) a puddle, when our image mirrors in a brook, these are real processes which need no further explanation. But when we lesen from a newspaper, übertreten the law, or a man¹s soul is mirrored in his eyes, then the symbolism of language is at work, visualizing for us certain processes for which sensual -perception can only serve as godfather.

These conceptual images are not only subject to constant change, but every new phenomenon of social life creates new word-forms which were quite incomprehensible to former generations because they lacked the social and mental bases for these new structures in language. The World War, with its immediate accompanying effects in all fields of economic, political and social life, gives an excellent example of this. During it a number of new words were introduced into the language which no one would have understood before the War, for example: drumfire, gas attack, flamethrower, fieldwalker, shock troop, smoke screen, barrage fire, camouflage. Such new formations appear in the course of time in all fields of human activity, and owe their creation to the constant change in the conditions of life. In this manner language changes within certain periods so completely that later generations, looking backward and viewing its creation, find it stranger and stranger, until finally a point is reached where it is no longer understood and has meaning only for the scholar engaged in research.

Already the language of Schiller and Goethe has disappeared. The speech of Fischart, Hans Sachs and Luther presents many problems to us, and frequently requires an explanation to bring the men of that time and their concept of life within our comprehension. The further we hark back-say to the time of Walter von der Vogelwelde and Gottfried von Strassburg-the darker and less understandable becomes the meaning of the language, until we finally reach a point where "our own language" appears to us like a foreign tongue whose puzzles we can only solve by the aid of translations. Let one read a few stanzas from the famous Heilandhandschrift, allegedly composed by an unknown Saxon poet at the instigation of Louis the Pious not long after the conversion of the Saxons to Christianity. This German from the first half of the ninth century sounds to us today like a foreign language; and just as strange to us are the men who spoke it.

The language of Rabelais was hardly understood in France a hundred years after his death. The modern Frenchman can understand the original text of the great humanist only with the aid of a special dictionary. By the establishment of the French Academy in 1629 the French language was given a strict guardian that endeavoured with all its power to eliminate from it popular expressions and figures of speech. This was called "refining the language." In reality it deprived it of originality and bent it under the yoke of an unnatural despotism from which it was later obliged forcibly to free itself. Fénélon, and also Racine, gave this sentiment various expression; Diderot wrote quite plainly.

We have impoverished our language by all too much refinement. Frequently we have only a particular word at our disposal for the expression of a thought, so we prefer to let the thought's force fade because we are afraid to use a new and allegedly ungenteel expression. In this way a number of words have been lost to us which we gladly admire in Amyot and Montaigne. The so-called "good style" has banished them from the language only for the reason that they were used by the people. The people, however, who always strive to imitate the great, after a while refused also to use these words, so that in the course of time they were forgotten.

The language of Shakespeare presents many puzzles even to the educated Englishman, not only because much ancient speech-stuff survives in it which is no longer used in modern English, but principally because the poet uses many words in a sense which does not correspond to their modern meaning. Back to the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer is a very difficult journey, while the original text of the songs of Beowulf is unknown territory to the modern Englishman.

To the Spaniard of today the original of Don Quixote presents many difficulties; and these become increasingly insurmountable as he approaches the old text of El Cid. The deeper we penetrate into the past of a language, the stranger it appears to us; to attempt to discover its beginning would be a vain undertaking. Who could, for example, definitely state when in Italy and France men quit speaking Latin and began to speak Italian and French? Who could say when the corrupted lingua Romana rustica changed into Spanish, or better still, Catalonian? Language alters so gradually that succeeding generations are hardly conscious of the change. With this we reach a point of great significance for our investigation.

The defenders of national ideology maintain that nationality represents a natural inner unity and is in its deepest being something permanent, something unchangeable. Although they cannot deny that the conditions of mental and social life of every nationality are subject to change, they try to save themselves with the assertion that these changes affect only the outer conditions and not the real nature of the nationality. Now if language were in fact the special token of the national spirit, then it would have to represent a special unity which is defined by the nature of a nation and reveals the special character of every people. In fact, such assertions have not been wanting.

Fichte, even, attempted to derive a nation's character from its language. With the full arrogance of his extreme patriotic enthusiasm he asserts of the German language that it reveals the vigour of a natural force which gives it life, power, and expressiveness, while the people of the Latin tongues, more especially the French, have at their disposal only an artificial, purely conventional language which does violence to their nature (and in which the real character of those people is revealed). Later, Wilhelm von Humboldt also developed a complete theory which was to prove that in the structure and expressiveness of a language the special nature of a people reveals itself. "Language is, so to speak, the external expression of the spirit of a people. Their speech is their spirit, and their spirit is their speech. One cannot express too strongly the identity of the two." 4

Since then, similar theories have appeared frequently The attempts of Vierkandt, Hüsing, Finck and others illustrate this. In all these attempts, some of them presented very brilliantly, the wish was father to the thought. They all bear on their face the mark of the manufactured. One feels that they are artificially wound up. Real and indisputable proofs for the correctness of these theories have nowhere been given. Hence, the well-known philologist, Sandfeld-Jensen, is quite right when he disputes Finck's statement that "the structure of the German language should be regarded as the expression of the German world concept," and declares that Finck never gave proof for his assertion and that other researchers could with just as good grounds have reached quite a different conclusion. Says Sandfeld-Jensen, "In this difficult field, usually called folk-psychology, one constantly runs danger of being pushed off the firm ground and losing oneself in empty philosophising." 5

No, language is not the result of a special folk-unity. It is a structure in constant change in which the intellectual and social culture of the various phases of our evolution is reflected. It is always in flux, protean in its inexhaustible power to assume new forms. This eternal change in language accounts for the existence of old and new, living and dead, languages.

But if language constantly changes, if it readily yields to foreign influences and always has an open door for the progeny of another species, then it is a faithful reflection of culture in general. This fact also gives proof that by the aid of language we can never penetrate into the mysterious "nature of the nation" which allegedly is always the same at bottom.

As we conscientiously pursue the origins of a language, we find that it has fewer and fewer relations with the cultural circle to which we belong, the chasm which separates us from the men of past ages becomes ever wider, until at last all is lost in an impenetrable mist. When a Frenchman or an Englishman, be he thinker, statesman or artist, today presents certain thoughts to us, we readily understand him, although we do not belong to the same nation; we do belong to the same cultural circle and are united by invisible ties, the spiritual currents of our time. But the feeling and thinking of men of past centuries remains for us largely strange or impenetrable even when they belong to the same nation; for they were subject to other cultural influences. To bring those ages closer to us we need a substitute which replaces reality-tradition. But where tradition sets in, there begins the realm of fiction. Just as the first history of every people is lost in mythology, so also in tradition the mythical plays the most important part.

It is not alone the so-called "historical conception" which makes events of past ages appear to us in a "special light"; allegedly "objective" history, too, is never free from mythological haziness and historical mistakes. Usually these occur quite unconsciously; everything depends on how strongly the personal attitude of the historian has influenced his interpretation of the received tradition and, consequently, the picture he has made. In this personal attitude of the historian, the social environment in which he lives, the class he belongs to, the political or religious opinions he holds, all play an important part. The so-called "national history" of every country is a great fable having hardly any relationship to actual events. Of the "history" taught in the school books of the various nations we will not even speak. There, history is perverted on principle. Human predisposition, inherited prejudices and traditional concepts, to touch which we are either too cowardly or too lazy, very frequently influence the judgment of even earnest researchers and tempt them to arbitrary judgments having little in common with historical reality. No one is more subject to such influences than the protagonists of nationalistic ideas; for them all too frequently a wish-concept must serve as a substitute for sober facts.

That the origin and evolution of a language does not proceed according to national principles nor spring from the special conception of a particular people is clear for everyone who is willing to see it. Let us glance at the evolution of English, today the most widely spread of all European tongues. Of the speech of the Celtic tribes who inhabited the British Isles before the Roman invasion certain dialects have to this day survived in Wales, the Isle of Man, Ireland, the Scottish Highlands and French Brittany. But ³British² in this sense has no relation whatsoever with modern English either in sentence structure or vocabulary. When during the first century the l6inans subjected the land to their rule, they naturally tried to introduce their language among the people. Presumably the spread of the Latin tongue was confined primarily to the towns and the larger settlements in the southern part of the country where Roman rule had taken strongest root. At any rate, it was inevitable that during almost four centuries of Roman occupation many words were adopted from that language. It is even very probable that in this manner, in the course of time, a special local Latin would have evolved, from which, just as in Italy, France and Spain, a language would have developed.

This development was completely destroyed when in the sixth century the Low German tribes, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, invaded Britain and conquered the land after protracted struggles with warlike tribes of the north. Then the speech of the conquerors gradually became the language of the land, although many words from the local dialects were adopted. With the Danish invasions of the eighth and tenth centuries new Germanic idioms entered the language of the country -- an influence which even today can be clearly recognized. Finally, after the invasion of the Normans under William the Conqueror, the language was thoroughly permeated with Norman French, so that there occurred not only a decided increase of the old speech heritage by so-called loan-words, but also a profound change in the spirit and structure of the language. From these manifold transitions and mixtures of tongues there evolved gradually the modern English speech.

Every language has had a similar evolution, even though the separate phases of the process cannot always be so clearly followed. Not only has every language in the course of its development received many foreign language elements into its stock of words, but very frequently even the grammatical structure of the language has been profoundly changed by close touch with other people. A classic example is the modern speech of the various Balkan states. The various languages can be traced to quite different language roots; nevertheless, these languages have, according to the enlightened testimony of eminent philologists, a remarkably unified imprint, not only in respect to their phraseology, but also in the evolution of their syntax. Thus, for example, in all of them, the infinitive has been more or less lost. One of the most curious phenomena in the evolution of languages is the Bulgarian. According to the united opinion of well-known philologists like Schleicher, Leskien, Brugman, Kopitar and others, the Bulgarian is much closer to the old Slavic church language than any other modern Slavic tongue; yet, besides two thousand Turkish and about one thousand Greek words, it has absorbed numerous expressions from the Persian, Arabic, Albanian and Rumanian. The grammar of the Bulgarian language has assumed quite new forms. Thus the definite article is attached to the noun, as in Albanian and Rumanian. Furthermore, Bulgarian is the only one among the Slavic tongues which has completely lost its seven cases and has replaced them by prepositions, as in Italian and French.

Of such examples comparative philology knows a great number. This is one reason why modern philology comes more and more clearly to recognize that all former classifications of languages according to various original groups can at best be regarded only as a technical device corresponding but little to reality. We know today that even the Tibetan-Chinese and the Ural-Altai and Semitic languages are interspersed with a mass of Indo-Germanic speech elements, as was also the Old Egyptian. Of the Hebrew language it is maintained that while it is Semitic in its structure, in its vocabulary it is Indo-Germanic. G. Meinhof, one of the best experts on African languages, even maintains that Semitic, Hamitic, and Indo-Germanic languages belong to the same speech circle.

But it is not alone foreign influences which affect the evolution of a language. Every great event in the life of a people or a nation which steers its history into new courses leaves deep marks on its language. Thus, the great French Revolution resulted not only in profound changes in the economic, political and social life of France; it also caused a complete about-face in language and burst the fetters which the vanity of the aristocracy and the literary men under aristocratic influence had imposed on it. Especially in France the language of the court and of the salon and of literature had been so immensely "refined" that it seemed to have lost all vigour of expression and spent itself only in sophistications. Between the language of the educated and of the great masses of the people there yawned an abyss just as unbridgeable as the chasm between the privileged classes and the proletariat. Only the revolution stayed the decline of the language. It endowed the newly awakened political and social life with a great number of forceful and popular expressions, most of which maintained themselves, although during the years of the reaction every effort was made to eliminate from the language all expressions reminiscent of the revolution. In his "Neology," published in 1801, Mercier mentions over two thousand words unknown in the age of Louis XIV; yet the number of new creations emanating from the revolution was by no means exhausted. Paul Lafargue says, in a very remarkable essay: "New words and expressions assailed the language in such number that newspapers and periodicals of that time could have been understood by the courtiers of Louis XIV only by means of a translation." 6

Popular speech is, in fact, a chapter in itself. If we choose to regard language as the essential characteristic of a nation we are likely to overlook the fact that mutual understanding between the various members of the same nation is often possible only by the common written language. This language, however, which every nation only gradually evolves, is, compared, with popular speech, an artificial creation. Hence, written language and popular speech are always antagonistic, the latter only unwillingly submitting to external compulsion. It is certain that all written language developed first from a particular dialect. Usually this dialect belongs to a region more advanced economically and culturally, whose inhabitants on account of their higher mental development have also a larger vocabulary which gradually gives them a certain predominance over the dialects of others. This development is clearly observable in every country. Gradually the written language absorbs words of other dialects, and so the possibility of linguistic understanding within a larger territory is furthered. Thus we find in Luther's translation of the Bible, which is based on the High Saxon dialect, quite a number of expressions borrowed from other German dialects. Many words which Luther uses in his translation were totally unknown in Southern Germany, so that they could not be understood without a special explanation: for instance, fühlen, gehorchen, täuschen, Lippe, Träne, Kahn, Ufer, Hügel, and so on. Taken from High German dialects are staunen, entsprechen, tagen, Unbill, Ahne, dumpf; while Damm, Beute, beschuichtigen, flott, düster, sacht, are of Low German origin .7

It is, therefore, the written language, not the popular speech, that serves as a means of understanding in a wider circle. The man from Ditmar or East Prussia is practically in a foreign country when he comes to Bavaria or Swabia. To the Frieslander the so-called "Schwizerdeutsch" sounds as foreign as French, although he has the same written language. That a South German is quite helpless among the various dialects of the Low Germans everyone knows who has had even the least experience. We meet the same phenomenon in the speech of every nation. The Londoner can hardly understand the Scotch dialect; the Parisian is entirely a stranger to the French of the Gascon or the Walloon; while to the Provençal the secrets of the Parisian argot are forever closed, without a special study. The Italian of the Neapolitan is less difficult to the Spaniard than to the Venetian or the Genoese. The speech of the Andalusians is very distinct from that of the Castilians -- not to speak of the Catalonians, who have their own language.

The philologist who could draw a definite line between dialect and language is yet to be born. In most cases it is quite impossible to determine where a dialect ceases and a separate language begins. Hence the uncertainty about the number of the languages on earth, put by some philologists at about eight hundred and by others at fifteen hundred to two thousand.

The speech free from dialects, however, which is created from the written language, is never able to convey to us properly the spirit and the special character of the idiom. Every translation from a foreign language has its deficiencies which can never be quite surmounted. Yet it is easier to translate from one language into another than to translate a dialect of one's own language into the common written language. The bare occurrence of things can be conveyed, but never the living spirit, which stands and falls with the idiom. All attempts to translate Fritz Reuter into High German have so far failed and must always fail, just as it would be love's labour lost to try to translate into the written German the Alemannische Gedichte of Hebel, or the dialect poets like Friedrich Stoltze, Franz von Kobell, or Daniel Hirtz.

Frequently, the question whether a speech is to be regarded as a dialect or as a distinct language is purely a political affair. Thus, Dutch is today a separate language because the Hollanders have their own state organization. If this were not so, Dutch would probably be regarded as a Low German dialect. The same relationship exists between Danish and Swedish. In Germany as well as in Sweden there seem to exist greater differences between various dialects of the country than between German and Dutch or between Swedish and Danish. On the other hand, we see how under the influence of an especially intense nationalism a dead language can be awakened to new life, as the Celtic in Ireland, and Hebrew in the Jewish colonies in Palestine.

But speech everywhere takes quite curious courses and constantly presents new puzzles which no philologist has up to now been able to solve. It is not so very long since we believed that all existing and all vanished languages could be traced to a common original language. Doubtless the myth of the lost paradise played a part in this. The belief in a first pair of mankind logically leads to the concept of a common original language (Hebrew was naturally accepted) -- the "sacred language." Advancing knowledge concerning man's origin put an end to this belief also. This definite break with the old conception first cleared the way for an evolutionary-historical examination of language. The consequence was that the whole mass of arbitrary preconceptions had to be abandoned as being in hopeless disagreement with the results of modern philological research. Thus, among others, fell the hypothesis of a regular evolution of language according to definite phonetic laws, which had been maintained by Schleicher and his successors. Gradually the conclusion was reached that the slow formation of a language is no law-determined process at all, but happens quite without rule or order. When later the theory of the legendary "Aryan race" also gently dissolved, together with the fanciful speculations which had attached themselves to the alleged existence of such a race, the hypothesis of a common origin for the so-called Indo-Germanic languages, frequently called "Aryan," was badly shaken and can hardly be maintained today.

The fable of a common genealogical tree of the so-called Aryan languages can, after the skeptical labours of Johannes Schmidt, be no longer maintained, and is carefully avoided by leading philologists. I see the time as not far distant when the concept of language kinships will no longer be used at all, when the similarity of speech elements can for the larger part be traced to adoptions and the lesser part left unexplained, when we finally quit trying to apply the methods of history when dealing with prehistoric times and the science of tradition to the time without traditions. The genealogical tree-building of comparative philology achieved its triumphs for a time out of which literary sources may have come down to us, but not historical connections. When we recognize these connections in the light of historical time there exist no longer any daughter languages, there are only adoptions by the weaker culture from the stronger (wherein often enough fashion, religion, or war-glory decided what is weaker and what is stronger). There are individual adoptions and mass adoptions, adoptions from a special culture branch and adoptions from a whole culture. 8

The origin and formation of the different languages is wrapped in such impenetrable darkness that we can only feel our way forward with the help of uncertain hypotheses. All the more is caution commanded in a field where we can so easily go hopelessly astray. But one thing is sure; the idea that every language is the original creation of a particular people or a particular nation and has consequently a purely national character lacks any foundation and is only one of those countless illusions which in the age of race theories and nationalism have become so unpleasantly conspicuous.

If one maintains, however, that speech is the characteristic expression of nationality, then one must naturally prove therefrom that a people or a nation ceases to exist when, for one reason or another, it has abandoned its speech, a phenomenon by no means rare in history. Or do we believe that with a change in speech there also occurs a change in the ³national spirit² or the "soul of the nation"? If this were true, it would prove that nationality is a very uncertain concept, lacking any substantial basis.

Peoples have in the course of history frequently changed their language, and it is for the most part only a question of accident what language a people uses today. The people of Germany present no exception in this respect; they have with relative ease accepted not only the morals and customs of foreign peoples, but also their languages, and have forgotten their own. When the Normans in the ninth and tenth centuries settled in Northern France it was hardly a hundred years before they had completely forgotten their own language and spoke only French. At the conquest of England and Sicily in the eleventh century the same phenomenon was repeated. The Norman conquerors in England forgot their acquired French and took over the language of the acquired land, whose development, however, they strongly influenced. In Sicily and Southern Italy, however, the Norman influence vanished entirely or left scarcely a trace. The conquerors were lost entirely in the native population, whose language (and, frequently, oriental customs) they had accepted. And not the Normans alone. A whole line of Germanic peoples have in their wanderings and conquests surrendered their own language and accepted another. We may mention the Lombards in Italy, the Franks in Gaul, the Goths in Spain, not to mention the Vandals, Suevians, Alani, and many others. Peoples and tribes of the most varied stems have had to accept the same fate.

When Ludwig Jahn, the great German patriot, who on principle could not endure a Frenchman, uttered the words: "In its mother tongue every people honours itself, in the treasury of its speech is contained the charter of its cultural history. A people which forgets its own language abandons its franchise in humanity and is only playing a super's part on the world stage," he unfortunately forgot that the people to which he belonged, the Prussians, were also one of the peoples who had forgotten their language and had abandoned their franchise in humanity. The Old Prussians were a mixed people in which the Slavic element was by far predominant, and they spoke a language related to the Lettish and Lithuanian, which maintained itself until the sixteenth century. The philologist, Dürr, therefore, rightly maintains: "There are few, perhaps no, peoples who in the course of history have not changed their language; some of them several times."

In this respect the Jews are remarkable. Their original history, like that of most peoples, is totally unknown; but we may assume that they entered history as a mixed people. During the Jewish rule in Palestine two languages were in use there, Hebrew and Aramaic, and in religious services both languages were used. A considerable time before the destruction of Jerusalem there was in Rome a large Jewish congregation with considerable influence which had adopted the Latin language. In Alexandria also there lived numerous Jews, whose number was increased by countless fugitives after the failure of the rebellion of the Maccabees. In Egypt, Jews adopted the Greek language and translated their sacred writings into Greek, and at the last the text was studied only in these translations. Their best minds participated in the rich intellectual life of the Greeks and wrote almost entirely in their language.

When at the beginning of the eighth century the Arabs invaded Spain, many Jews streamed into the land, where, just as in the north of Africa, a considerable number of Jewish settlements already existed. Under the Moorish rule the Jews enjoyed very great liberties, which permitted them to take prominent part in the cultural upbuilding of the land -- at that time an oasis in the midst of the spiritual darkness wherein Europe was sunk. And Arabic became the speech of the Jewish people. Even religio-philosophical works like the Moreh Nebuchim ("Guide of the Erring") by Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) and the Cosari of the celebrated poet, Jehuda Helevi, were written in Arabic and only later translated into Hebrew. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain many families went to France, Germany, Holland and England, where already existed Jewish communities which had adopted the speech of their hosts. Later, when cruel persecution of the Jews occurred in France and Germany, streams of Jewish refugees went to Poland and Russia. They took their old Ghetto German, largely interpenetrated with Hebrew expressions, into the new home, where in the course of time many Slavic words drifted into their speech. Thus developed the so-called Yiddish, the present speech of the Eastern Jews, which during the last forty years has created a fairly voluminous literature that can very well endure comparison with the literature of the other small peoples of Europe. We are here dealing with a people which in the course of a long and painful history has frequently changed its language without thereby losing its inner unity.

On the other hand, there are a number of instances where community of language does not coincide with the frontiers of the nation at all, and again others where in the same state various languages are used. Thus, by language, the native of Rousillon is much more closely related to the Catalonians, the Corsican to the Italians, the Alsatian to the Germans, although for all that they all belong to the French nation. The Brazilian speaks the same language as the Portuguese; in the other South American states Spanish is the language. The Negroes of Haiti speak French, a very corrupt French, which is, nevertheless, their mother tongue-for they have no other. The United States has the same speech as England. In the lands of North Africa and Asia Minor, Arabic is the common language. Of similar examples there are a great number.

On the other hand, in even so small a country as Switzerland, four different languages are used: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Belgium has two languages, Flemish and French. In Spain, besides the official Castilian, there are Basque, Catalonian and Portuguese. There is scarcely a state in Europe that does not harbour foreign language groups to a greater or less extent.

Language is, therefore, no characteristic of a nation; it is even not always decisive of membership in a particular nation. Every language is permeated with a mass of foreign speech elements in which the mode of thought and the intellectual culture of other peoples lives. For this reason, all attempts to trace the so-called "essence of the nation" to its language fall utterly to carry conviction.

  • 1. A similar list of usually unsuspected foreign words in English follows: alms, bond, bomb, boom, boon, brief, calm, camp, cane, cape, card, case, cash, catch, cave, cell, cellar, cent, centre, chafe, chain, chair, chalk, chance, change, chant, charge, chart, chase, chief, church, circle, city, claim, clerk, cloak, clock, cook, cross, dean, doll, dour, doubt, due, duke, dupe, duty, case, fail, farm, fate, feast, fig, grand, habit, haste, ink, just, lamp, luck, male, master, mile, oil, park, pest, place, plain, plant, part, port, post, pound, prince, school, seal, street, toil -- and so on indefinitely. Translator
  • 2. Fritz Mauthner, Die Sprache, Frankfurt a/M 1906, p. 55.
  • 3. Bilderbuch der deutschen Sprache; Lebenund Weben der Sprache.
  • 4. Einleitung über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichten Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung der Menschheit.
  • 5. Die Sprachwissenwhaft. Leipzig-Berlin, 1923.
  • 6. This essay, from which we have borrowed some passages concerning the development of the French language, first appeared in a Parisian periodical, Era Nouvelle. A German translation appeared in a supplementary number of Die Neue Zeit, No. 15, under the title, "Die französischle Sprache vor und nach der Revolution."
  • 7. See W. Fischer, Die deutsche Sprache von heute. Berlin-Leipig, 1918.
  • 8. Fritz Mauthner, Die Sprache, p. 49.