Richard L. W.

Clarke LITS2002 Notes 07C


WILHELM VON HUMBOLDT ON LANGUAGE: ON THE DIVERSITY OF HUMAN LANGUAGE CONSTRUCTION AND ITS INFLUENCE ON THE MENTAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE HUMAN SPECIES (1836) Humboldt, one of the founders of the field of Linguistics as we know it today, is one of the chief proponents of the Romantic view of language. According to the referential model of language which predominated from the time of Plato (see his dialogue Cratylus) up to at least the Neo-classicists in the eighteenth century, signs are like mirrors the meaning of which derives from the objects they represent. By contrast, in the nineteenth century, an expressivist model of language emerged according to which language, functioning less like a mirror than a lamp, serves as a medium of self-expression. The question arises: in what does this ‘self’ which is expressed in this way consist? Answer: through words, a human’s innermost thoughts and feelings, that which is peculiar to the individual, are outwardly expressed. These thoughts and feelings originate and emanate from within the individual. However, because the individual is inevitably part of a community of individuals, language is not an entirely solipsistic affair: it also expresses as such the collective beliefs of the community of which the individual is part as a result of which the point of view and, by extension, collective identity of this community also speaks, as it were, through the individual. (This is a view that is still very much with us even today here in the Caribbean, though recent research suggests that language may not work in this way at all.) There is, in short, a dialectical relationship between individual and community: the community necessarily impinges on the individual at the same time that without the individual, there would be no community to speak of. From this point of view, the form taken by specific languages are partly the product of particular socio-historical circumstances and partly of the identity peculiar to the community which speaks a given language. Humboldt argues that the study of language must in part proceed along a comparative and historical basis, that is, by acknowledging the differences in the language spoken by different cultures at any one time as well as changes in language from epoch to epoch. However, he contends that the “division of mankind into peoples and races, and the diversity of their languages and dialects, are indeed directly . . . connected with, and dependent upon, a third and higher phenomenon, the growth of man’s mental powers into ever new and often more elevated forms” (21). The “highest aim of all spiritual endeavour, the ultimate idea which world history must strive to bring forth” (21) is the “revelation of man’s mental powers, diverse in its degree and nature, over the course of millennia and throughout the world” (21). For “this uplifting or extension of inner being is the only thing that the individual . . . can regard as unshakeably his own, and from which, in a nation, great individualities unfailingly continue to develop” (21). The “comparative study of languages” (21) has no purpose if it does not serve to show that “language is connected with the shaping of the nation’s mental power” (21). However, “insight into the true essence of a nation, and into the internal connection of a single tongue . . . depends wholly on consideration of the overall individuality of mind” (21). For only through this, as nature has furnished it and circumstances have worked on it, is the character of the nation bonded together, on which alone depend the deeds, arrangements and thoughts which that nation produces, and in which lie the power and virtue that are again handed down to individuals. (21) Humboldt argues that language is the “organ of inner being . . . as it successively attains to inner knowledge and outward expression” (21). The “roots” (21) of this ‘inner being’ lie in the “national mentality” (21), however, as a result of which the “more aptly the latter reacts upon it, the more rich and regular its development” (21).

no such division in fact exists” (46). Clarke LITS2002 Notes 07C 2 Humboldt contends that language is inextricably linked to the “spiritual evolution of mankind” (24). Whatever the source of language. Man thereby discovers that around him there beings having the same inner needs” (41). Humboldt concludes that language is the “outer appearance of the spirit of a people” (46): the “language is the spirit and the spirit their language” (46). and . the “collective power of man” (44) “differs individually in degree” (44) due to the “preponderance either of external influence or of inner self-activity” (44). Defining “language as a world-view” (44). his life is tied to sociality. and calls for understanding through language so that common undertakings may be possible. Language is. it is also . but only in such fashion that each presupposed the understanding of all” (44). . with that of his nation. by the power of their particular nature. but follows from the infinite multiplicity of possible intellectual tendencies in a given individual. The “unity of nations and races . of the race to which the latter belongs. “every nation. However. we make more or less easy headway in explaining the structure of one from another” (44). This is why Humboldt concludes that although language is partly the “work of nations” (44). In the merely vegetative existence. is only possible through language which “must be directed to an external being that understands it. feeling. . but an involuntary emanation of the mind. can and must be regarded as a human individuality” (41). impart a new impulse to the human mind As a result. The articulate sound is torn from the breast. . (24) Language is a paradoxical affair. primarily upon historical events. quite apart from its external situation. though inexplicable in its nature. in that they can be produced solely in each individual. This is because just as “individuals. Humboldt points that although language is an “enduring thing” (49). . . and of the entire species. receiving impressions. It is “not merely passive. to the whole as to the individual” (43). and willing” (43). the individual’s need for assistance drives him to combine with others. to awaken in another individual an echo returning to the ear. Humboldt suggests that in different cultures and epochs. even in the loneliest seclusion of temperament” (41). . and modifies every external influence exerted upon it” (43). It possess an autonomy that visibly declares itself to us. Humboldt stresses that the individual man is always connected with a whole. How exactly they “actually conjoin with each other . largely a function of socio-historical circumstance. However. . is no production of activity. no work of nations. . themselves largely due to the nature of the places men live in and travel to” (41). Language is “related . He stresses that the “state of culture at any time is also recognizable in it” (24). accompanying the latter “at every stage of its local advance or retreat” (24). . . though we “may separate intellectuality and language. but a gift fallen to them by their inner destiny. “arising in autonomy solely from itself and divinely free” (24) at the same time as languages “are bound and dependent on the nations to which they belong” (24). From whatever aspect one may look at it. The “connection of the individual with his nation lies right at the centre from whence the total mental power determines all thinking. it also to some degree remains the “self-creations of individuals. Humboldt stresses that is also paradoxically arises from the depth of human nature which everywhere forbids us to recognise it as a true product and creation of peoples. depends . It “we pursue the sequence of languages comparatively.Richard L. W. from this point of view. remains inexplicably hidden from us” (46). as it were. (41) He argues that “mental cultivation. of man on the soil. They make use of it without knowing how they have fashioned it.

but an “activity (Energeia)” (49) a phenomenon always in process. This is why Humboldt contends that language is never a finished “product (Ergon)” (49) or a fait accompli. . and this meaning embodies the thought of a community. W. it is constantly subject to change. Thus all understanding is at the same time a nonunderstanding. that is. and to some extent passing without trace” (54). be it ever so small. like a ripple in water through the entire language. . . etc. “Quite regardless of communication between man and man. He was responsible in particular for what subsequently linguists would come to call the diachronic emphasis in the field. mummy-like preservation” (49) which does not do justice to the everchanging “living utterance” (49) that is language. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica summarises Humboldt’s model of language thus: he first clearly laid down that the character and structure of a language expresses the inner life and knowledge of its speakers. and that languages must differ from one another in the same way and to the same degree as those who use them. Representing oral uses of language in the form of writing may serve to preserve it but this is only a temporary and “incomplete. Humboldt’s views on language were extremely influential on the study of language in the nineteenth century and were largely responsible for the development of linguistics as a distinct field of study at this time. constantly caught up in the throes of change. it is only “in appearance” (56) that “language develops only socially” (56). He describes language as the “formative organ of thought” (54). It is the task of the morphology of speech to distinguish the various ways in which languages differ from each other as regards their inner form. one and inseparable from each other” (54).Richard L. or thought. and to classify and arrange them accordingly. is a phenomenon that is “entirely mental. never static but dynamic. The reason for this is that it is “only in the individual” (63) that “language receives its ultimate determinacy” (63): Nobody means by a word precisely and exactly what his neighbour does. the study of language as it develops and changes over time by focusing on the etymology of words and changes in syntactic structures. entirely internal. Sounds do not become words until a meaning has been put into them. it “becomes. Clarke LITS2002 Notes 07C 3 “transitory” (49). and the difference. causing languages to evolve over time. Humans inherit and make use of pre-existing linguistic systems which they in turn affect and change. externalised in speech and perceptible to the senses” (54). However. speech is a necessary condition for the thinking of the individual in solitary seclusion” (56). through sound. all occurrence in thought and feeling at the same time a divergence. he argues. in short. However. It is for this reason that “thought and language are . (63) Language is. “Intellectual activity” (54). vibrates. that is. What Humboldt terms the inner form of a language is just that mode of denoting the relations between the parts of a sentence which reflects the manner in which a particular body of men regards the world about them.