I lately had the advantage of hearing the modern science of language explained by a master of that art. Its principles, as I gathered them, appear to be these. Men are different from brutes in that they are gifted with reason, and having reason they are also gifted with speech. Parrots have organs of speech, and speak, but they have no language, because they have no reasonable ideas to express. Such ideas as they have, they express in their own way, by tones, not words. Men then being gifted with reason and the faculty of speech, began to speak; and expressed their ideas by sounds, which are the roots of language. Languages pass through stages of growth and decay, and so far as has been ascertained, there are three stages, of which examples exist.
Languages whose words are all roots, which have neither verbs nor adjectives, nor terminations, such as Chinese, which, as it would seem, has never grown, though much cultivated.
Languages in which one word is glued to another and becomes a termination, and loses its independent meaning.
And languages which have passed through these two stages, where the roots and terminations have become so intimately joined and altered by time and use that it requires a practised workman to distinguish them, and hunt them back to their sources.
All languages, it is assumed, have passed, or will pass, through these stages of growth and decay; and the modern languages of the great Aryan family are in the third stage. Of the Aryan family of languages, the Sanscrit, is the oldest known, and this system of roots and growths, the principle on which letters change, and the framework of the whole science, existed centuries ago amongst the sages of the East, where writings have been discovered, read, and adopted, by modern philosophers.
A philologist, then, with sacred and profane history pointing eastwards, with Sanscrit books, and eastern learning at his command, with a stock of roots gathered in the East centuries ago, begins at some leaf or twig, some word, in the West, and works backwards to find the root; or he starts at the root, and works upwards to the modern word, and so by patient grubbing, and bold leaps, by force of intellect and power of speech, men strive to reach the truth in this, as in other sciences. They use the faculties which have been given them to solve this problem, as other men have used the same implements to solve problems as hard. As geologists have dug into the history of the world, and astronomers have scaled the stars, so a philologist hops like a squirrel from bough to bough, and strives to understand the growth of the great tree of human language.
Now, surely if it be a study worthy of philosophers to trace out the sounds which are the seeds from which speech grew; it is at least as interesting to trace the growth of untutored thoughts which words express; and so this study of popular tales must come to take its place beside the science of language, if that is to be admitted to a high place in the mystic circle.
If men began to express ideas by language, they must have had ideas to express, and if ever these early ideas, the growth of unaided minds, are to be discovered, it will be by a process of patient inquiry, and bold speculation, like that which has raised up the sciences of Philology, Geology, and Astronomy.
When we hold a tradition, we have something like a modern word, or leaf; when we have ancient writings we have something like a Sanscrit root, and as time goes on and knowledge increases, the connection between the peasant’s nursery tale and some old world belief will become clearer and clearer. And when that has been done, and when many old pagan beliefs have been hunted out, the truth will certainly appear beyond it all by following this road as well as another.
The science of philology has not yet proved, but it points to a single common language, and an eastern origin for the human race; comparative mythology points the same way, and this wonderful community of popular tales throughout the world joins with them in pointing to a common eastern origin for mankind.
And that origin certainly cannot be a gorilla, for in all their researches men find no trace of primæval gorilla roots, languages, myths, or tales.
Men are distinguished from gorillas, for they have intellects and tales; birds still differ from men in that they cannot learn the use of their organs of speech, though there was once a magpie who told tales of her mistress, and was taken in by her superior cunning, and unjustly put to death. On fine days the whole neighbourhood of a certain square in London echoes to the most lamentable sounds of human woe – heart-rending shrieks and wailings fill the air. It is a green parrot expressing his delight at the bright sun and the fresh air, by repeating what he must have learned in a very cross nursery.
Now if “storyology” be a science, it is worthy of a system and systematic study, and the process might be somewhat like this; – Begin anywhere; and read any collection, and there will appear a certain number of incidents which are repeated over and over again. They are never expressed twice in the same words, but they are clearly the same nevertheless, and they are easily recognised.
Take, for example, the idea of a giant whose life is not in his body, but stowed away elsewhere (No. IV., vol. i.), and wherever that idea turns up hereafter, compare it with the first mention of it; and so by degrees it will appear that the notion of a man with his life elsewhere is very commonly associated with certain other ideas which have to do with a hostile dragon, beasts, birds, fish, and trees, earth, air, water, supernatural powers, and the loves of a man and woman. When this cluster of ideas is commonly found in one country, it becomes an incident belonging to the people of that country, and all that specially belongs to that people and no other may be removed, and then with a fossil incident picked out of the stratum in which it was first found, the “storyologist” may proceed to pick out other notions in the same way. When he has subjected any one collection to this sifting, there will certainly remain a number of primæval fossil incidents, and a lot of historical debris which may be left, in the meantime, for historians to sift in their turn. With such a collection of incidents stored and arranged, it is easy to recognise similar specimens elsewhere, and it is startling to find them in some of their resting places. No doubt hereafter a scientific nomenclature will be devised. The incident which I have taken as an example might be called the hieroglyphic incident, for it occurs, as I am told, in an Egyptian papyrus, and the Norse giant with no heart in his body, and the Arabic djinn who kept his life at the bottom of the circumambient ocean might be called the Norse and Arabic varieties. And so when many collections have been made and explored, it will be found out who has, and who has not got this and that idea, and what ideas are common to all. I have little doubt that this particular notion will be discovered to belong to some ancient system of mythology, like that of Egypt, and to relate to a deluge and a creation. It would seem to be very old, and it is very widely spread. The question is, who were the people who held this notion of a common terminable life for all nature, and a man and a woman who overcame the natural powers by the help of a superior intelligence, and when and where did they live, if they lived before the Egyptians.
I have formed no theory on the subject, but it seems worth inquiry, and this is one way to puzzle out some parts of the ancient history of the human race, from the traces of the human mind. Let a sufficient number of incidents be gathered together, and treated as roots, wherever they may be found; exactly as AR and TRA are hunted through forests of Aryan words, and storyology will become a science like any other ology, and it is fully as amusing as most of that dusty tribe. It is more amusing to read faces than it is to read books; it is quite as satisfactory to catch a new idea as it is to land a fresh salmon, bag a pheasant, run a fox to ground, or draw a badger, and the pursuit may best be carried on in the open air, amongst the wildest of glens, and mountains, and mountaineers.
And what were these first efforts of reason left to itself? Surely to find out the reason of things.
In early youth, I was taught a definition which I have never been able to forget.
Q. “What is a river?”
A. “A river is a stream of water running through the lowest accessible levels of a country into the sea, and returning to it the water which having evaporated had formed clouds and fallen over the land in rain.”
A simple man in search of knowledge, who had found all that out for himself, might well think he had got the two ends of his chain of reasoning fast linked together, and describe a circle in the sand, to express the discovery completed.
The river runs because the rain falls; the rain falls because the rivers runs, so the chain is endless and unbroken, and the river something everlasting. Men having a tendency to admire the fruit of their own brains might well sit down content, and mayhap fall down and worship the river itself, or set up a circle, or a symbolical serpent with his tail in his mouth, to express eternity, and exclaim – “how beautiful is this great everlasting river, which is older than my grandfather, which flows down from his lofty clouds in the air to water my fields, and return to his native skies.” And so the river might become a god, and acquire a name, and a history, and temples, and priests, and a religious system, and a form, mayhap that of a fish’s tail tacked on to a human body.
But some other thinker might feel cramped within this water circle flowing about the earth, and seek to know why the river was material, and ran down northwards, and flew up southwards, and suspect that the water god had more to do than water fields. If he thought hard, he might find out that water rose up when it was heated by fire, that the sun was hot, and that the river flew through the air because the sun shone; that the fields gave their increase, not because of the water god, whose own watery regions produced nothing but weeds and fish, but because the sun compelled the water to work, and then warmed the fields into fertility. And so a new astronomical circle, and a larger symbolical serpent, with his tail in his mouth, new priests, images and ceremonies, might be set up in honour of the bountiful Sun God, who rose and set to watch over the fields of his faithful worshippers. And then the dethroned river god, with his scaly tail, would sink in public estimation, and might become “Abdallah of the sea,” and his wife a mermaid, and then all the history of the past religion would gradually sink into a nursery tale.
Another thinker might upset the worship of fire, and point out that the air in which the sun, and moon, and stars had their lofty being was something greater than fire, for no animal, or man, or fire could live without it, and a good blast of it would extinguish the best candle.
A fourth might discover, that without the earth all else was nought, and that everything grew and had its being from the earth, and returns to it. And so a whole host of elemental divinities might spring up from a study of nature, flourish and decay, and so become the spirits of the earth, and the air; the djinns of fire, and air, and water; Peris and earthly ghouls dressed in their idol forms, and retaining shreds of their former grandeur.
But as each new circle become too narrow for reason, one set of despairing philosophers might come to think the whole world of nature a fortuitous concurrence of atoms, and worship nothing at all; while a second worshipped their own passions; and a third still pressed onwards, and sought to know whence the atoms came, and why they concurred and how the particular concurrence of atoms, of which they were composed, managed to think about such things, or to think at all. Such thinkers must be driven at last to say, “We cannot explain this; but we believe that there is a reason greater than ours, which we cannot attain to, beyond it all.”
So nursery tales are often the debris of natural religions, which are all fading away before the light of revealed religion, but subsisted along with it before the flood. Plain men and women are found dealing with heroes and heroines, mermaids, dragons, great birds, and subterranean powers; the powers of water, fire, air, and earth, who were once gods and goddesses; the elements personified, worshipped, dethroned, and now degraded to be demons and hobgoblins, fiends and fairies, ghosts and bogles, and monsters of land and sea. But above and beyond all these there is always some dimly seen power greater and more powerful than they; the hidden reason and cause towards which every train of just reasoning must certainly tend, though it never can reach it without its aid.
Jupiter was subject to the Fates; the world and its supporters stood upon a tortoise, or rested upon the shoulders of Atlas, but what they stood upon no one knew. Fairies are more powerful than mortal men, but they are but “fallen angels,” and the wise man who advised the fisherman’s son in the “Sea-maiden” was a greater power than he, or any of the monsters which he destroyed, or the magic creatures of air, earth, and water which aided him and his wife to overcome the evil powers of the sea.