Only now is it possible to consider with advantage the problem of the development of languages. Are all equally capable of this? If a linguistic association develops in categories of communal life to a point where its language cannot keep pace, those concerned must either be checked in their development or abandon their own language and adopt another, hitherto strange to them, but more apt for development. For the majority of languages have limits to their potential development.
How far can an incorporative language develop — that of the Algonquin, for example, in which, when wishing to express a thought, it is necessary to form an expression so compounded that “it is really whole sentences”?555 And is it certain that there are no languages standing lower than Algonquin?
Who will undertake to find out whether there were and are not still systems for organising language so faulty that they do not allow of any emergence from the primitive? More than one language which had barely begun died and vanished without trace. If the Indians had risen to a level of average education, they would have been obliged to abandon their languages, for the incorporative system would not have taken them far. Everything that a man thinks, says and does, what happens in him and through him outside him, must be expressed according to some system and where that is inauspicious it spoils everything and even the greatest efforts remain fruitless. There may be causes for the disappearance even of a language with a sound system; but a language with a bad system will never stand up to competition from neighbours of superior system.
Scholars puzzle over the pygmies’ lack of any language of their own. They have used negro languages for a very long time, since they now speak the languages not of neighbouring but of distant negroes, and often in forms already archaic, so that the languages must have been adopted in an earlier epoch of their development, before the establishment of current linguistic forms.556 Similar doubts arise about the Vedda in Ceylon.557
These pygmies, the dwarfs of Central and Central-Southern Africa, of the Andaman archipelago, the island of Luzon and the Malaccan peninsula are in all probability one of the primaeval races: it is the “oldest relic and the most ancient monument of the mysterious beginnings of the culture of mankind” (some do not know how to kindle fire, the Africans do not know pottery, do not cook, only bake and roast).558 Despite this arch-primitiveness it is impossible to support the idea that they never had their own language, for we know that without this bond of society it is impossible to achieve and consolidate any kind of advance in social life. Thus we have an instance of the strangely early disappearance of a language (or languages) based, as I suppose, on some system so faulty that it could not meet the needs of even the very lowly level of civilisation which the pygmies reached. They were languages unapt for development.
The highest criterion of creativeness in the development of language is, in my view, the construction of a clear and logically articulated compound sentence, and the highest achievement the so-called period. Here much depends on syntax, which is not developed even in all inflected languages. Some (Hebrew for example) are restricted to so-called parallelism, expressing the relations between two or more thoughts by placing them in separate sentences, entirely severed and without connection with other sentences. This is a feeble method in comparison with the structure of the period, with the system of principal and subordinate clauses.
Let us glance at Japanese syntax: “The basic rule of Japanese syntax is the placing of everything which refers to properties of a given expression before that expression; which means the most detailed definition and description of a thing before it is named. This custom places the hearer somewhat at a disadvantage, in that a whole long story may almost have ended before it is given him to know what the talk is really about; in fact, however, the thing is even more difficult for the speaker, who is forced to construct the whole sentence in his mind before he begins to speak”.559
But we are more concerned with writing than speech, for it is only from writing that an all-round intellectual tradition is born. Writing may also contribute to greater development of the language or retard, impede its development.
Our alphabet of sounds, clothed in the universal garment of Latin letters, enables every man of Latin civilisation to read what is written in those letters in any language, but he will say it wrongly and will not understand a word. Our alphabet makes necessary the learning of languages and translation from one to the other. We lose much time on this, but on the other hand the alphabet does not limit any language, and since it is a highly mobile form, makes possible unceasing development. Most important, we learn to read and write with such minimal effort and so quickly that a ten-year-old child is already proficient at both. The saving of time and psychical energy achieved thereby outweighs a thousandfold the losses involved in translations and the learning of foreign languages.
Chinese writing is the opposite of this but Arabic and its combinations also rouse doubts on the score of time-saving and psychical energy. Very curious is the impression made on a Pole by Turkish writing:
“It might appear that in every language, in order to learn to read letters must first be recognised, and then put together. This should not be done with Turkish. Turkish writing is a series of abbreviations, really a stenography; it is not possible to read words until one recognises them and knows what they mean”.560 But in 1928 the Turkish Government introduced the Latin alphabet compulsorily, acting in the matter as true Asians; for the results it will obviously be necessary to wait some time.
In the Far East, the oldest of the literary languages, Korean, has an alphabet of 44 signs, 25 vowels and 19 consonants. According to Sieroszewski a kinship with the Japanese popular alphabets hira-gana and kata-kana may be discerned: “it must be supposed” that the Korean symbols “derive directly from them”.561 But Japanese writing fell into too close dependence on Chinese, which in time came to the forefront throughout the Far East. It may be that Korean loss of cultural primacy and Chinese winning of first place followed upon the Chinese discovery of a universal writing.
The Chinese are a grouping of multi-lingual peoples. These languages are related in that all possess the monosyllabic character; but the populations of the various provinces do not understand one another, and have no common literary language: a common written language suffices them. It is true that a common official language — Mandarin — was evolved, and novels were even written in it, but knowledge of this language “would probably not be enough for an ordinary dragoman today”.562
This is an ideographic writing reduced to abbreviations which became subtle calligraphic signs revealing no connection with the original hieroglyphs. There is no alphabet. Of such signs there are more than 40,000, but despite this profusion, the same sign is used for expressions which sound the same as the expression which the sign was originally used to signify (this also occurs in ancient Egyptian writing); in addition, there may be many signs for one sound, each meaning something different. There are for instance 150 signs read as i, each with a distinct meaning.563 Since the signs signify ideas, they may be read in all the languages of the world, in the same way as mathematical signs. Peoples using Chinese script do not need translations and are joined by the closest cultural tie, having reading and writing in common.
Learning is gauged by the number of ideograms a man knows, which is of course like an examination in the number of his ideas. But scholars also need long years for this, and the man who goes on learning without pause, who devotes himself to study, is learning the art of reading and writing all his life, trying himself to develop the language further. And so it is that Chinese scholars have no lime for true study.
Adopted from Tibet to Japan, this script was adapted to agglutination, a process involving real contortions. The Japanese language is itself poor in sound, disposing of only 54 basic syllables, but combinations are plentiful for it is not a monosyllabic language. Since agglutinative affixes fit with difficulty into purely Chinese script, known in Japan as Kanji, to write these down the Japanese invented another script called hira-gana, composed of 54 signs for their 54 syllables — and these signs are added below the Chinese signs. For example the expression tabemasu (I eat) is composed of the main expression tube, which is written in Kanji, but ma-su, the addition for present time, is written below by two signs in hira-gana. Or for example ai, the expression denoting love, is written by the Chinese sign and three Japanese signs are added below — ma-si-fa — to give the reading “I loved”. Not everything can be written in hira-gana, because of the multiple meanings of syllables.564
For instance the syllable ko (spoken in an entirely uniform manner) may denote several entirely different things: woman, powder, child, etc. In the same way the syllable san may mean gentleman, mountain, three, etc., according to the Chinese ideogram employed. This is why it is possible to see Japanese who are discussing simple subjects rapidly sketching with a finger of their right hand on the palm of the left those ideograms whose pronunciation might be a cause of misunderstanding. So unable to use only hira-gana in the printing of popular books and papers, and wanting to make it possible for uneducated people to read them, alongside the less-known, more difficult Chinese characters the corresponding hira-gana signs are often added in small print (one or several, according to the number of syllables indicated by the hieroglyph).
“For this same reason, that is the multiple meaning of certain syllables and expressions, it is impracticable to introduce our Latin letters (called romajf in Japanese), particularly where it is a question of complicated and unusual sentences and words. Thus for example to make possible the use of the typewriter, in Japanese business correspondence English is generally used. It is true that there is in existence a machine with 3,000 Chinese ideograms attached to a special roller device, but the searching out and transferring (by means of a handle) of so many signs takes too long (longer than writing by hand), and requires great proficiency. This machine is therefore mostly used for duplicating, clear copies, etc.”.
Thus, Japanese writing is even more difficult than Chinese. Sister Zaborowska writes on this: “There are three kinds of writing. Of these I already know the two easier, but with the large characters it is a difficult matter. There are some 30,000 of them! Even born Japanese learn them to their dying day!”565
The third kind of Japanese writing, kata-kana or hata-gana, also composed of 54 signs, more pointed, is used in elementary schools and by foreigners.566 A grown-up Japanese would be ashamed to use writing regarded as clumsy because less suited to artistic calligraphy; for the Japanese draws when writing. With a language and script of this capacity, the twelve-page Tokio daily “Asa-hi” needs about 150 type-setters, although its “vocabulary” does not exceed 3,000 signs.567
Realising the unfavourable sides of its universal script, on November 3, 1919, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued an order for the use of phonetic script. Opinion in China and Japan is divided, and the horoscopes cast by Far Eastern experts varied. Some regard it as impossible to carry out, and at best applicable only to ordinary correspondence. If however, this reform is accepted, will it not be the beginning of the end of Chinese civilisation on its present vast territory? Phonetic transcriptions are never of general application. All will depend on whether China develops at least a common literary language — that is whether one of the Chinese languages succeeds in obtaining hegemony in China.
Thus having reached a high level of civilisation the road is nevertheless barred to others still higher because the written language — to a certain degree the language itself — fails, breaks down. There is no doubt that languages are far from uniformly capable of development. We see that the highest possible development of an ideographic script has in one place brought stagnation with it. But have the incorporative languages managed to rise to the heights at which Chinese got stuck? Is it possible to imagine the development of human thought in languages lacking express distinctions between nouns and verbs?