Some Theories Upon Primitive Language – Sign Language

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Cresollius, writing in 1620, was strongly in favor of giving precedence to gesture. He says, “Man, full of wisdom and divinity, could have appeared nothing superior to a naked trunk or block had he not been adorned with the hand as the interpreter and messenger of his thoughts.” He quotes with approval the brother of St. Basil in declaring that had men been formed without hands they would never have been endowed with an articulate voice, and concludes: “Since, then, nature has furnished us with two instruments for the purpose of bringing into light and expressing the silent affections of the mind, language and the hand, it has been the opinion of learned and intelligent men that the former would be maimed and nearly useless without the latter; whereas the hand, without the aid of language, has produced many and wonderful effects.”

Rabelais, who incorporated into his satirical work much true learning and philosophy, makes his hero announce the following opinion:

Nothing less, quoth Pantagruel [Book iii, ch. xix], do I believe than that it is a mere abusing of our understandings to give credit to the words of those who say that there is any such thing as a natural language. All speeches have had their primary origin from the arbitrary institutions, accords, and agreements of nations in their respective condescendments to what should be noted and betokened by them. An articulate voice, according to the dialecticians, hath naturally no signification at all; for that the sense and meaning thereof did totally depend upon the good will and pleasure of the first deviser and imposer of it.

Max Müller, following Professor Heyse, of Berlin, published an ingenious theory of primitive speech, to the effect that man had a creative faculty giving to each conception, as it thrilled through his brain for the first time, a special phonetic expression, which faculty became extinct when its necessity ceased. This theory, which makes each radical of language to be a phonetic type rung out from the organism of the first man or men when struck by an idea, has been happily named the “ding-dong” theory. It has been abandoned mainly through the destructive criticisms of Prof. W.D. Whitney, of Yale College. One lucid explanation by the latter should be specially noted: “A word is a combination of sounds which by a series of historical reasons has come to be accepted and understood in a certain community as the sign of a certain idea. As long as they so accept and understand it, it has existence; when everyone ceases to use and understand it, it ceases to exist.”

Several authors, among them Kaltschmidt, contend that there was but one primitive language, which was purely onomatopœic, that is, imitative of natural sounds. This has been stigmatized as the “bow-wow” theory, but its advocates might derive an argument from the epithet itself, as not only our children, but the natives of Papua, call the dog a “bow-wow.” They have, however, gone too far in attempting to trace back words in their shape as now existing to any natural sounds instead of confining that work to the roots from which the words have sprung.

Another attempt has been made, represented by Professor Noiré, to account for language by means of interjectional cries. This Max Müller revengefully styled the “pooh-pooh” theory. In it is included the rhythmical sounds which a body of men make seemingly by a common impulse when engaged in a common work, such as the cries of sailors when hauling on a rope or pulling an oar, or the yell of savages in an attack. It also derives an argument from the impulse of life by which the child shouts and the bird sings. There are, however, very few either words or roots of words which can be proved to have that derivation.

Professor Sayce, in his late work, Introduction to the Science of Language, London, 1880, gives the origin of language in gestures, in onomatopœia, and to a limited extent in interjectional cries. He concludes it to be the ordinary theory of modern comparative philologists that all languages are traced back to a certain number of abstract roots, each of which was a sort of sentence in embryo, and while he does not admit this as usually presented, he believes that there was a time in the history of speech, when the articulate or semi-articulate sounds uttered by primitive men were made the significant representations of thought by the gestures with which they were accompanied. This statement is specially gratifying to the present writer as he had advanced much the same views in his first publication on the subject in the following paragraph, now reproduced with greater confidence:

From their own failures and discordancies, linguistic scholars have recently decided that both the ‘bow-wow’ and the ‘ding-dong’ theories are unsatisfactory; that the search for imitative, onomatopœic, and directly expressive sounds to explain the origin of human speech has been too exclusive, and that many primordial roots of language have been founded in the involuntary sounds accompanying certain actions. As, however, the action was the essential, and the consequent or concomitant sound the accident, it would be expected that a representation or feigned reproduction of the action would have been used to express the idea before the sound associated with that action could have been separated from it. The visual onomatopœia of gestures, which even yet have been subjected to but slight artificial corruption, would therefore serve as a key to the audible. It is also contended that in the pristine days, when the sounds of the only words yet formed had close connection with objects and the ideas directly derived from them, signs were as much more copious for communication than speech, as the sight embraces more and more distinct characteristics of objects than does the sense of hearing.


The preponderance of authority is in favor of the view that man, when in the possession of all his faculties, did not choose between voice and gesture, both being originally instinctive, as they both are now, and never, with those faculties, was in a state where the one was used to the absolute exclusion of the other. The long neglected work of Dalgarno, published in 1661, is now admitted to show wisdom when he says: “non minus naturale fit homini communicare in Figuris quam Sonis: quorum utrumque dico homini naturale.” With the voice man at first imitated the few sounds of nature, while with gesture he exhibited actions, motions, positions, forms, dimensions, directions, and distances, and their derivatives. It would appear from this unequal division of capacity that oral speech remained rudimentary long after gesture had become an art. With the concession of all purely imitative sounds and of the spontaneous action of the vocal organs under excitement, it is still true that the connection between ideas and words generally depended upon a compact between the speaker and hearer which presupposes the existence of a prior mode of communication. That was probably by gesture, which, in the apposite phrase of Professor Sayce, “like the rope-bridges of the Himalayas or the Andes, formed the first rude means of communication between man and man.” At the very least it may be gladly accepted provisionally as a clue leading out of the labyrinth of philologic confusion.

For the purpose of the present paper there is, however, no need of an absolute decision upon the priority between communication of ideas by bodily motion and by vocal articulation. It is enough to admit that the connection between them was so early and intimate that gestures, in the wide sense indicated of presenting ideas under physical forms, had a direct formative effect upon many words; that they exhibit the earliest condition of the human mind; are traced from the remotest antiquity among all peoples possessing records; are generally prevalent in the savage stage of social evolution; survive agreeably in the scenic pantomime, and still adhere to the ordinary speech of civilized man by motions of the face, hands, head, and body, often involuntary, often purposely in illustration or for emphasis.

It may be unnecessary to explain that none of the signs to be described, even those of present world-wide prevalence, are presented as precisely those of primitive man. Signs as well as words, animals, and plants have had their growth, development, and change, their births and deaths, and their struggle for existence with survival of the fittest. It is, however, thought probable from reasons hereinafter mentioned that their radicals can be ascertained with more precision than those of words.

MLA Source Citation:

Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881 Web. 16 April 2014. - Last updated on Dec 14th, 2013

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