The Linguistic Creation of Man: Charles Darwin, August Schleicher, Ernst Haeckel, and the Missing Link in Nineteenth-Century Evolutionary Theory Robert J. Richards1
The University of Chicago
While reflecting on various aspects of his new theory of species transformation, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) conjured up a singing ape and then one groaning its desires while eyeing a well-proportioned member of the opposite sex. Such utterances, he mused, might have been the phonetic resources for primitive speech. The problem of language had captured Darwin's attention from a quite early period in his theorizing about species descent. His initial concern was to show that language, that most human of traits, had a natural origin and that it developed in genealogical and progressive fashion.2 In a collection of notes, which he jotted down in 1837, shortly after returning from the Beagle voyage, he reflected on these putative features of language. On the very first page of this collection, he wrote:
all speculations on the origins of language.Cmust presume it originates slowlyCif these speculations are utterly valuelessCthen argument failsCif they have, then language was progressive.CWe cannot doubt that language is an altering element, we see words inventedCwe see their origin in names of PeopleCSounds of wordsCargument of original formation.Cdeclensions &c often show traces of origin.3
A bit later he thought of that harmonious ape, when he queried himself: "Did our language commence with singing"? Were we originally like howling monkeys or chirping frogs? On the other hand, perhaps words arose out of expressions of emotion at certain events (e.g., the ape with the opposite sex on its mind) or maybe from efforts at imitation of natural sounds.4 These latter were the kinds of conjectures that Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), the great Oxford linguist, would later derisively call the Apooh-pooh@ and "bow-wow" theories of language formation. Darwin worried, even at this early juncture, that if his views about language origins could not be sustained, then his whole argument regarding evolution might fail, since that argument could not then explain one of man=s essential traits.
For the evolutionary thesis, no other trail lay open than the one Darwin initially began to follow. In the late 1860s, while focusing more determinately on constructing a theory of language, he came to rely in particular on his cousin Hensleigh Wedgwood (1803-1891), who had endorsed a quasi-naturalistic account of linguistic development in his On the Origin of Language (1866); and while working on the Descent of Manand Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin made frequent inquiries of his cousin about the subject. Wedgewood had allowed that it was part of God=s plan to have man instructed, as it were, by the natural development of speech. He argued that language began from an instinct for imitation of sounds of animals and natural events, which under Apressure of social wants@ developed into a system of signs. According to Wedgewood, onomatopoeia served as the Avera causa@ for a natural evolution of language.5 Darwin embraced this confirmation of his original ideas, though, of course, dispensing with the theological interpretation. In the Descent of Man, he mustered this naturalistic account of language acquisition to a surprising purpose.
The principal concern of the Descent of Man, as the title signals, is the evolution of the human animal, with all its distinctive properties, especially that of high intellect.6 Darwin admitted that, as his friend Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1813) had maintained, for survival, man=s ape-like ancestors needed a brain hardly larger than that of an orangutanCactually not much larger, Wallace thought, than that exhibited by typical members of a Victorian gentleman=s club. Wallace was reinforced in this conclusion by his turn toward spiritualism. He came to believe that man's ascent from the animal state occurred through the ministrations of higher, spiritual powersCa proposal that drove Darwin crazy.7 Yet Darwin recognized the force of Wallace's objection. If a large brain, with all that such entailed, were not needed for survival, then natural selection could not account for it. Darwin thus needed another way to explain the refinement and perfection of human intelligence. Language provided the instrument, though not in the way we might acknowledge today. In the Descent of Man, he argued in this fashion:
The mental powers in some early progenitor of man must have been more highly developed than in any existing ape, before even the most imperfect form of speech could have come into use; but we may confidently believe that the continued use and advancement of this power would have reacted on the mind by enabling and encouraging it to carry on long trains of thought. A long and complex train of thought can no more be carried on without the aid of words, whether spoken or silent, than a long calculation without the use of figures or algebra.8 Darwin proposed that our ape-like ancestors must have developed considerable intellectual capacity prior to breaking into the human range of intelligence. That animals displayed conspicuous understanding, approaching that of the human, no English huntsman seriously doubted. Even the great British idealist F. H. Bradley (1846-1924) remarked to a friend: AI never could see any difference at bottom between my dogs & me, though some of our ways were certainly a little different.@9 (This may say more about late Nineteenth-Century British philosophy than about the abilities of English canines.) What was needed, in Darwin=s view, to steam our animal ancestors across the Rubicon of mind was the engine of language. As language evolved through a natural development out of emotional and imitative cries, it would rebound on brain, promoting, as Darwin indicated, a more complex train of thought. Darwin would differ from contemporary neo-Darwininians, however. He believed that the complex patterns of thought that language stimulated would progressively alter brain structures and that these new acquisitions would produce an "inherited effect."10 Darwin thus contended that language created human brain and, consequently, human mind.
From the beginning of his career to the end, Darwin believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. From our current perspective, we can see that he need not have argued in this fashion. He could have employed his own device of natural selection to explain the reciprocal pressures that mind and language might have exerted on one another to produce a continued evolution of both. Darwin did not appreciate that ever more complex language and thought might have had distinct survival advantagesCfor example, language might have served to weave together mutually supportive social networks for our proto-human ancestors. Like Wallace, he conceded that for sheer survival, our progenitors did not require a brain more advanced than that of, say, a great ape. Hence, in those case in which natural selection seemed inapplicable, Darwin fell back on that device he always had at the readyCthe inheritance of acquired characters.
Darwin=s theory of the influence of language on developing mentality seems, at first blush, puzzling. This is not because of his employment of the idea of use-inheritanceCcommon enough for his theory and his time. The puzzle rather arises because Darwin=s proposal ran counter to the usual British empiricists= assumption that language merely expressed or mirrored ideasCit did not create them.11 What then was the source of Darwin=s conviction that language could mold human brain, could create human mind? In what follows I wish to argue that the ultimate source for his conception is to be found in German romanticism and idealism, especially in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), linguist and pedagogical architect of the University of Berlin, and of Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Germany=s greatest philosopher at mid-century. German romanticism and idealism thus forged, I believe, a missing link in Nineteenth-Century evolutionary theory.
Darwin and the Linguistic Rubicon
Though Darwin realized that he would have to give an account of human mind and language if his general theory were to win the day, he kept all overt discussion of human evolution out of the book that first detailed his theory, the Origin of Species (1859). He simply forecast in the concluding chapter that Alight will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.@12 The Origin is, nonetheless, larded with oblique but succulent references to human activity and history.13 The case of language stands out among these. In his chapter on classification and systematics, for instance, Darwin observed:
If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, had to be included, such an arrangement would, I think, be the only possible one.14
In this passage, Darwin recognized an isomorphism between language descent and human biological descent. So not only could the human pedigree serve as a model for tracing linguistic development, as he here emphasized; but the reverse, as he also implied, could be the case as well: the descent of language might serve as a model for the descent of man.
Darwin=s suggestion about a similar genealogy for human beings and language passed casually through only one paragraph of the Origin. He himself did not really employ the model in any systematic way. His own illustration of species evolution, the only graphic illustration in the Origin, was certainly not modeled on language development, as I will show below. The bare suggestion of this apparent isomorphism between the development of language and the development of human varieties, however, caught fire almost immediately. While initially Darwin warmed himself contentedly in the blaze, he did get a bit too close and singed his theory.
Charles Lyell (1797-1875) was Darwin=s long-time friend and a scientist out of whose brain, Darwin said, came half his ideas. Lyell immediately took up Darwin=s suggestion about language descent and further advanced it in his book The Antiquity of Man (1863).Lyell had observed that though there were wide gaps between dead and living languages, with no transitional dialects preserved, competent linguists did not doubt the descent of modern languages from ancient ones. Therefore, gaps in the fossil record of species ought prove no more of an obstacle to transmutation theory than gaps in the record of language proved in linguistic theory. Moreover, the two kinds of descent should have a common explanatory account, he believed. So the formation and proliferation of languages were due, to quote Lyell: to Afixed laws in action, by which, in the general struggle for existence, some terms and dialects gain the victory over others.@15 Lyell thus maintained that the processes of biological evolution could be likened to those of linguistic evolutionCin both the more fit types were selected. Lyell, one of Britain=s leading scientists of the time, thus offered significant support for his friend=s theory.
Lyell, however, could not cross the Rubicon. He thought the principle of natural selection unable to account completely for the intricately designed fabric of language, even that of the more primitive languages of native groups. He judgedCas Darwin groaned his great frustrationCthat natural selection of both language and life-forms could only be a secondary cause, operating under the guidance of higher powers. AIf we confound >Variation= or >Natural Selection= with such creational laws,@ he cautioned, Awe deify secondary causes or immeasurably exaggerate their influence.@16 Such a repair to higher wisdom, of course, eviscerated Darwinian nature of the fecund force with which the Origin invested it. And nature, in Darwin=s theory, resonated of that romantic power of creative action and evaluation that it soaked up from German sources, especially from Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), whom Darwin incessantly read while on the Beagle voyage some years before.17 But another German writer came to Darwin=s attention in the mid 1860s, one whose analyses of language he found considerably more congenial than Lyell=s and one whose ideas he would weave into his own theory of human evolution. This was August Schleicher (1821-1868).
Schleicher and the Romantic Theory of Language
Schleicher=s Response to Darwin
Schleicher was a distinguished linguist working at the university in Jena. He had been urged by his good friend Ernst Haeckel (1839-1919) to read the German edition of the Origin.18Haeckel, who himself had recently converted to Darwinism, recommended the book because of Schleicher=s horticultural interests.19 But it was Schleicher the linguist who resonated more deeply to Darwin=s work. He responded to Haeckel in an open letter, which he published as a small tract with the title Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft (Darwinian theory and the science of language, 1863).20 The book excited considerable controversy, evoking critically negative responses from the likes of Friedrich Max Müller and William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894), and supportive efforts from Frederick Farrar (1831-1903).21 In the Descent of Man, Darwin referred to his cousin Hensleigh Wedgwood and Farrar as sources for his ideas about evolutionary descent of language. He silently prescinded, as one might expect, from the fact that each of his sources reserved a role for the Creator. And he credited Schleicher as well. It was on Schleicher=s thorough-going linguistic naturalism, as I believe, that he principally depended for his theory of the constructive effect of language on mind.22
Schleicher indicated that contemporary languages had gone through a process in which simpler Ursprachen had given rise to descendent languages that obeyed natural laws of development. He argued that Darwin=s theory was thus perfectly applicable to languages and, indeed, that evolutionary theory itself was confirmed by the facts of language descent. This last point was crucial for Schleicher, since it suggested the singular contribution that the science of language could make to the establishment of Darwin=s theory. In the German translation of the Origin, Heinrich Bronn, the translator, had added an epilogue in which he allowed that Darwin=s theory showed that descent was possible but that the Englishman had not shown that it was actual. Darwin had, according to Bronn, no direct empirical evidence, only analogical possibilities.23 Schleicher, like many other Germans, accepted Bronn's evaluation. He yet insisted that language descent, unlike the imaginative scenarios Darwin offered, could be provedCit was already an empirically established phenomenon. Moreover, the linguist's descent trees (Stammbäume) might be used as models for construing the evolution of plant and animal species.
Schleicher was quick to point out that the only graphic representation of descent in Darwin=s Origin consisted of a highly abstract scheme, in which no real species were mentioned, only letter substitutes (see figure 1). He contrasted this with a descent tree of the Indo-Germanic languagesChis own graphic innovationCwhich he attached as an appendix to his tract (see figure 2). Darwin had thus only represented a possible pattern of descent, while the linguist could provide a real pattern, empirically derived. Here, Schleicher believed, was a genuine contribution of linguistics to biological theory, a contribution that undercut Bronn's objection. Schleicher maintained there were some four other areas in which the linguistic model could advance the Darwinian proposal. First, the linguistic system might display a Anatural history of the genus homo.@ This is because Athe developmental history of languages is a main feature of the development of human beings.@ Second, Alanguages are natural organisms@ (Naturorganismen) but have the advantage over other natural organisms since the evidence for earlier forms of language and transitional forms has survived in written recordsCthere are considerably more linguistic fossils than geological fossils. Third, the same processes of competition of languages, the extinction of forms, and the development of more complex languages out of simpler rootsCthese all suggest mutual confirmation of the basic processes governing such historical entities as species and languages. Finally, since the various language groups descended from Acellular languages,@ language provides analogous evidence that more advanced species descended from simpler forms.24
Schleicher intended that these four complementary contributions of linguistics to biological theory should buttress an underlying conviction that received only vague expression in his Darwinsche Theorie, namely that the pattern of language descent perfectly reflected human descent. The implicit justification for this proposition was simply that these two processes of descent were virtually the sameCan idea I will explore further in a moment. And this justification itself was grounded in the doctrine of monism that Schleicher advanced in his tract. The doctrine, as he formulated it, recognized:
Thought in the contemporary period runs unmistakably in the direction of monism. The dualism, which one conceives as the opposition of mind and nature, content and form, being and appearance, or however one wishes to indicate itCthis dualism is for the natural scientific perspective of our day a completely unacceptable position. For the natural scientific perspective there is no matter without mind [Geist] (that is, without that necessary power determining matter), nor any mind without matter. Rather there is neither mind nor matter in the usual sense. There is only one thing that is both simultaneously.25
For Schleicher, the doctrine of monism provided a metaphysical ground for his theory that the organism of language simply represented the material side of mindCwhich meant, therefore, that the evolution of one carried the evolution of the other. This organic naturalism had its roots in the German romantic movement. That movement rejected the mechanistic interpretation of nature and advanced the concept of Aorganism@ as the fundamental principle in terms of which human mentality and all natural phenomena were ultimately to be understood.26
In a small work published two years after Darwinsche Theorie, Schleicher developed some further features of his complementary theories of linguistic and human evolution. In Ueber die Bedeutung der Sprache für die Naturgeschichte des Menschen (On the significance of language for the natural history of mankind, 1865), he argued that the superficial differences among human beings, which morphologists often exaggerated, proved simply insufficient to classify them. He observed:
How inconstant are the formation of the skull and other so-called racial differences. Language, by contrast, is always a constant trait. A German can indeed display hair and prognathous jaw to match those of the most distinctive Negro head, but he will never speak a Negro language with native facility. . . Animals can be ordered according to their morphological character. For man, however, the external form has, to a certain extent, been superceded; as an indicator of his true being, external form is more or less insignificant. To classify human beings we require, I believe, a higher criterion, one which is an exclusive property of man. This we find, as I have mentioned, in language.27
Since some languages were more perfect than others, this would provide a progressive arrangement of human varieties. Schleicher held, perhaps not surprisingly, that the Indo-Germanic and Semitic language groups were the most advanced, since they had features, such as tenses, declensions, and true noun and verb forms lacking in languages like the Chinese. By implication, he thus suggested that the most evolved human groups in the evolutionary hierarchy were those whose native languages were of the Indo-Germanic and Semitic families. Schleicher=s justification for using language to classify human groups was quite simple: Athe formation of language is for us comparable to the evolution of the brain and the organs of speech.@28 This was the position that Darwin endorsed, and it became for him a central feature of his evolutionary conception of mankind.29
Schleicher claimed that he himself had been convinced of the natural descent and competition of languages before he had read the Origin of Species. While it is difficult to corroborate his assertion that he had previously urged a AKampf ums Dasein@ to explain language change, there is little doubt that he had affirmed language competition and descent as natural phenomena prior to reading Darwin and that he had used these concepts to argue for human evolution. Schleicher=s argument, however, displays quite fascinating archeological layers of earlier ideas.
Origin of Schleicher=s Evolutionary Theoryof Language and Mind
Schleicher was born 19 February 1821 in Meiningen (southwest of Weimar in the Thuringian Forest) to a physician with a taste for nature and his musically talented wife.30 The professors of his gymnasium cultivated exotic languages but did not, amazingly, have high hopes for this particular pupil. In fall 1840, Schleicher began the curriculum in theology at Leipzig, and the next semester traveled to Tübingen for more of the same. At Tübingen his passion for the transcendent found secular liberation in Hegel=s writings, which had been recently collected by his students (1832-1840), with many works appearing for the first time. Schleicher also began acquiring languages at a frightening rate: Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Persian initially. With the reluctant permission of his father, he went to Bonn, in 1843, to devote himself to the study of classical languages. There he entered the seminar conducted by the famous classical philologists Friedrich Ritschl (1806-1876) and Friedrich Welcker (1784-1868), who introduced him to the linguistic ideas of Wilhelm von Humboldt.31 Though of oscillating health while at Bonn, Schleicher yet braced his study with participation in gymnastic competitions, a recreation that he and Haeckel would later together pursue with avidity. He received a doctorate in 1846 and would normally have then spent time as a professor in a gymnasium before pursing further study. He fell, however, under the protective wing of Prince Georg von Meiningen, who, admiring of his landsman's talents, arranged for a generous stipend. The money enabled Schleicher to continue his study during a period of two years of extensive travel (1848-1850).
In the summer of 1848, after the February Revolution and the establishment of the Second Republic, Schleicher journeyed to Paris, there to continue his linguistic research in the Bibliothéque Nationale. He augmented his income during this sojourn by serving as correspondent to the Allgemeine Zeitung (Augsburg) and the Kölnische Zeitung. Hereported on the fluctuating political events occurring in Paris and a bit later in Vienna, as revolution spread to the capital of the Hapsburg Empire. Schleicher's reports, tinged with the sympathetic color of a liberal democrat, followed the fate and abortive efforts to establish a republic in the Germanies.32 In addition to his political reporting, Schleicher managed to produce a number of important linguistic studies, which elicited a call from the University of Prag to the position of extraordinary professor. Three years later, he advanced to ordinary professor of German, comparative linguistics, and Sanskrit. He remained in Prag until 1857, when he received an offer to return to his own land. He accepted a position in the philosophy faculty at Jena, the venerable university that two generations earlier, at the turn of the century, had nurtured the romantic movement, serving as redoubt for the likes of Schiller, Fichte, the brothers Schlegel, Schelling, Hegel, and with Goethe right down the road at Weimar. Jena was also the university of Schleicher's father, Johann Gottlieb (1793-1864), who in the summer of 1815 helped found the first Burschenschaft, the student organization that agitated for democratic reform and political unity.33 In the 1850s, the university looked back to a glorious past and forward to a financially precarious future.
Though he initially had high hopes for his time in Jena, undoubtedly recalling his father's stories of revolutionary days at the university, Schleicher came quickly to feel isolated from his colleagues, whose conservative considerations bent them away from the more daring of his own approaches both in linguistics and politics. The poor finances of the university, making scarce the necessities of scholarship, did not improve his attitude. A friend remembered Schleicher remarking that "Jena is a great swamp and I'm a frog in it."34 The frog was saved from wallowing alone in his pond when Ernst Haeckel arrived at the university in 1861. They took to one another immediately and remained fast friends through the rest of Schleicher's short life. He died in 1868, at age forty-eight, apparently of a recurrence of tuberculosis.
In 1848Cafter he returned to Bonn from research in the revolution-torn city of ParisCSchleicher saw published his first monograph, Zur vergleichenden Sprachengeschichte (Toward a comparative history of languages).35 This work framed the theory that would guide him through the rest of his career. In it, he distinguished three large language families by reason of their forms: isolating languages, agglutinating languages, and flexional languages. Isolating languages (e.g., Chinese and African) have very simple forms, in which grammatical relationships are not expressed in the word; rather, the word consists merely of the one-syllable root (with position or pitch indicating grammatical function). Because of their simple structure, these languages cannot, according to Schleicher, give full expression to the possibilities of thought. Agglutinating languages (e.g., Turkish, Finnish, Magyar) have their relational elements tacked on to the root in a loose fashion (indeed, the relational elements themselves are derived from roots). Flexional languages (e.g., the Indo-Germanic and Semitic families) are the most developed. Roots and relations form an Aorganic unity,@ according to Schleicher.36 So, for example, the Latin word Ascriptus@ has Ascrib@ as the root or meaning; Atu@ expresses the participial relationship; and As@ indicates the nominative relationship. Schleicher believed that even the most highly developed languages, the flexional group, originated from a simpler stem, much like the Chinese, but continued to develop into varieties with more perfect forms. Isolating and agglutinating languages, on the other hand, simply did not have the potential to move much beyond their more primitive structures.
Schleicher regarded these three language forms as exhibiting an internal, organic unity. Indeed, he compared them to natural organisms of increasing complexity: crystals, plants, and animals respectively.37 Such comparisons had the authority of those linguists upon whom Schleicher most relied: Humboldt, Franz Bopp (1791-1867), and August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845). These researchers, all tinged by the romantic movement, employed the organic metaphor with alacrity.38 Schleicher, though, did suggest an important disanalogy between languages and biological organisms. Languages had a developmental history, whereas biological organisms, though they came to exist through a gradual process, once established did not alter. They essentially had no history. At least this was Schleicher=s view in 1848.
In 1850, Schleicher completed a large monograph systematically describing the languages of Europe, his Die Sprachen Europas in systematischer Übersicht (The languages of Europe in systematic perspective). He now explicitly represented languages as perfectly natural organisms that could most conveniently be described using terms drawn from biologyCe.g., genus, species, and variety.39 Some of his contemporaries, as well as later linguists, have thought Schleicher's conception of language as a natural, law-governed phenomenon to be erroneous, a denial of man's special status. Such critics then (and now) failed to understand that this was not a denigration of the geistlich character of language; rather, it was, in the romantic purview, an elevation of the natural.40 Romantics and idealistsCsuch as Schelling, Schlegel, and HegelCdeemed nature simply the projection of mind. Schleicher, then, did not reduce in vulgar fashion the spiritual dimension of language to some non-animate concourse of atoms in the void.
In his Die Sprachen Europas, Schleicher suggested (but did not yet graphically illustrate) that the developmental history of the European languages could best be portrayed in a Stammbaum, a stem-tree or developmental tree. He first introduced a graphic representation of a Stammbaum in articles published in 1853,41 representations that indeed looked like trees (see figure 3). By the time of the publication of his Deutsche Sprache, seven years later (1860), he had begun to use Stammbaüme rather frequently to illustrate language descent (see figure 4). Schleicher is commonly recognized as the first linguist to portray language development using the figure of a tree.42 Certainly he thought carefully about how illustrations could make more clear, more intuitive the descent relations that purportedly obtained among languages. So, for instance, he used the angular distance separating the branching of the Staummbaum to suggest the morphological distances of daughter languages (see figure 5).43 Such illustrations, so intuitively seductive, acted as tacit arguments for the theory they depicted.
In Deutsche Sprache, Schleicher reiterated the argument of Die Sprachen Europas that more recent languages had descended from Ursprachen and that their descent conformed to natural laws. He now, however, started to formulate those laws (e.g., AWhen two or more branches of a language stem [Sprachstamm] are quite similar, we may naturally conclude that they have not been separated from each other for very long.@).44 He also made explicit a vague notion that had been floating around in his earlier works. He argued that the descent of languages paralleled the descent of man, that indeed, more primitive animal forms achieved their humanity precisely in acquiring language. As he expressed it: AAccording to every analogy, man has arisen out of the lower forms, and man, in the proper sense of the word, first became that being when he evolved (entwickelten) to the point of language formation.@45 Schleicher further maintained that since human languages were polygenic in origin, so was man. That is, he believed that there was no one Ursprache whence the other languages descended; rather there were many Ursprachen, each having developed in different geographical regions out of cries of emotion, imitation, and ejaculation. Since language and thought were two sides of the same process,46 as language groups developed and evolved independently of one another, so did the different groups of human beings who spoke them.
Schleicher on the Evolution of Man, the Language User
Prior to having read Darwin, Schleicher seems to have already convinced himself that human beings had derived from lower animals. Certainly from the beginning of the nineteenth century, several German biologistsCe.g., Gottfried Treviranus (1776-1837), Friedrich Tiedemann (1781-1861), and Johann Meckel (1781-1833), stimulated by Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1774-1829), had become full-blown evolutionists.47 But was Schleicher full-blown before 1859? His argument for human descent depended on the identification of language and thought. The linkage itself has a venerable history. Authors as far back as Plato understood language and thought to have a close relationship. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), an author every German intellectual of the first half of the nineteenth century assiduously read, contended, in a prizing wining treatise of 1772, that language was necessary for thought, Athat indeed the first and most elementary application of reason cannot occur without language.@ Contrary to the creationists, Herder urged that speech arose gradually in human groups, initially through imitation of natural sounds. ANo Mercury and Apollo,@ he protested, Adescend from the clouds as by opera machineryCthe whole, many-sounding, divine nature is the language teacher and Muse for man.@48 Schleicher would endorse the notion that languages first arose out of imitation of natural sounds, but he conceived an even tighter relationship between language and thought, namely that of virtual identity.49 In doing so, he seems proximately to have developed a theoretical position initially laid down by Wilhelm von Humboldt in his Über die Kawi-Sprache auf der Insel Java (On the Kawi-language on the island of Java,1836).
In his introduction to the Kawi-SpracheCa work often cited by SchliecherCHumboldt certainly argued for the intimate relation between thought and language. He formulated the relationship in this way: "Just as without language no concept is possible, so likewise without language there is no object for the soul, since it is only by means of the concept that any external object can express its complete essence for the soul."50 Humboldt also suggested, equally darkly, that the descent (Abstammung) of language "joined in true and authentic union with physical descent."51 It would take only slightly more conceptual boldness for Schleicher to conclude, as he forthrightly did, that the descent of language paralleled the descent of thought or mind. Thus the conclusion of Deutsche Sprache: with the evolution of different languages comes the evolution of different kinds of human beings.
Yet one can still ask, Did Schleicher's conclusion amount to endorsing something like the Darwinian thesis before Darwin? A clue to the answer to this question can be gleaned from examining a most curious theory in Deutsche Sprache concerning the evolution of language in human groups.
Schleicher argued that human beings, in their acquisition of language, went through three periods of development: a pre-linguistic period, a pre-historical period of language emergence and development, and then a historical period of language decline. In the earliest stage, when no true languages existed, neither did human beingsCsince without language there could be no human thought. In the next, the pre-historical phase of earth=s history, languages (and thus human beings) began to develop. During this period, many different language groups sprang into existence and many died outCindeed, most languages went extinct before achieving their full potential. Others, however, began to spread from one region to another. When languages achieved their maturity, human beings entered the historical period, during which they became self-conscious through the medium of historical understanding. However, with the advent of the historical period, no fundamentally new languages arose. Indeed, during this time, languages began to decline, to devolve! Words started to fall out, forms became simplified, and grammatical relations were lost. Thus Greek and Latin have a much richer store of grammatical forms than modern languages descended from them. Yet, during this historical period, culture and reason dramatically advanced. Schleicher=s scheme of language evolution, with its initial progress and then devolutionary decline, seems perfectly paradoxicalCthat is, until its roots are uncovered.
The fundamental features of this scheme appeared in Schleicher=s first monograph, where it is obvious that the basic conception came from Hegel. In the Zur vergleichenden Sprachengeschichte, Schleicher depicted the three language forms (the isolating, agglutinating, and flexional) as moments in the development of the AWorld Spirit@ (Weltgeist). The Spirit, in the Hegelian view, strove to realize itself, to become fully self-conscious. This striving would be instantiated in the development of human mentality and revealed in language formation. Thus languages would move through dialectical stages, from simple expressions of meaning (in isolating languages), to the structural antithesis in languages that loosely joined meaning and relationships (agglutinating), to a higher synthesis in the Aorganic unity@ of the word, characteristic of the flexional groupsCthe Semitic and Indo-Germanic. AWhatever we recognize as significant in any sphere of the human spirit," Schleicher averred "has blossomed from one of these two groups [i.e., Semitic and Indo-Germanic].@52 In Hegel=s view, one explicitly adopted by Schleicher, during the prehistorical period the World Spirit established the intellectual resourcesCnamely, highly developed languagesCso as to begin the process of historical self-reflection and the attainment of freedom. Once the process had begun, however, the energies required for the refined articulation of language began to be employed in the development of rational laws, state governments, and the aesthetic products of advanced civilization. AHegel thus recognized," according to Schleicher, "the fact that the formation of languages and history cannot take place at the same time, that in the advance of history, rather, language must be worn down.@53
In Hegel's Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte (Lectures on the philosophy of history), from which Schleicher initially drew his theory, the pre-linguistic period of human existence is represented as nonetheless potentially human, with the "germ or drive" to reflective consciousness already built in.54 Hegel certainly stopped short of a full-blown biological evolutionism, and this may be where Schleicher himself stopped in Deutsche Sprache. Yet, there can be little doubt that Schliecher was brought to the conceptual brink of biological transformation theory by Humboldt and Hegel—even if, after 1848, Hegel's name never again appeared in Schleicher's texts. The reading of Darwin's Origin of Species, under Haeckel's tutelage, provided the shove for one who was ready to take the plunge into a new conceptual sphere.
Schleicher=s own evolutionism obviously went through stages of development, finally resting in his adoption of Darwinism in language and human evolution. One significant index of Darwin=s impact on Schleicher=s linguistic ideas was the absence of the theory of language decline in his Darwinsche Theorie. Darwin=s theory of development was thoroughly progressivistic; hence it would have been anomalous to suggest that the natural selection of languages led to a devolution of language. Yet Schleicher would have realized that his original assumption of the perfection of ancient languages was one still widely shared by linguists and cultural critics in love with the classics. He would appear to have only one recourse, which he tookCnamely, silence. For the most part, however, Darwin=s ideas simply overlaid the fundamental features of Schleicher=s prior evolutionary project, which derived from the work of those individuals immersed in German romanticism and idealismCespecially Humboldt and Hegel. They had initially argued that the model of organic growth formed the basic category for understanding the development of consciousness. Their fundamental metaphysical view was monisticCmind and matter expressed two features of an organic UrstoffCand this sort of monism became the assumption of evolutionists during the latter half of the nineteenth century, especially of Haeckel.