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A Reader in Nineteenth Century
Historical Indo-European Linguistics

Winfred P. Lehmann


CHAPTER SIX

WILHELM VON HUMBOLDT

ON THE STRUCTURAL VARIETY OF HUMAN LANGUAGE
AND ITS INFLUENCE ON THE INTELLECTUAL
DEVELOPMENT OF MANKIND

From Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen
Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwickelung
des Menschengeschlechts
(Berlin: F. Dümmler, 1836), Chapter 19
Editor's Introduction
An excerpt from Humboldt's highly influential monograph can do little more than indicate the far-ranging manner in which he presented his views about language. The whole is tightly organized and should be read as a unit for accurate understanding of Humboldt's position. This selection illustrates some of Humboldt's concerns, among them questions which are still occupying linguists.
One is, how should we deal with language in change. A subsequent answer was to abstract the system from speech --language from parole--and make it the essential concern of linguists. By this view linguistic analysis could arrive at items and their arrangements; linguistic forms are arranged for selection and order. After the items and their arrangements are described, the historical linguist might compare two selected stages of a language and deal with the changes between them. Humboldt's view of language as an organism in constant change does not permit such a simple answer. He would have looked with favor on the attempts to introduce linguistic methodology which does not first require reduction of language to a state--which can manage processes in a descriptive presentation.
A second concern exemplified in the excerpt is the problem that Sapir dealt with under drift. Here too Humboldt is not dogmatic. He does not hypostatize; he would probably have objected to the notion of therapeutic sound change. He simply suggests that a principle can be noted; he discusses its functioning in language and leaves it up to others to make use of this guideline in their efforts to understand language.
The excerpt also illustrates Humboldt's well-known concern with typology. Like that of the Schlegel brothers, this was to be overwhelmed by the concentration on genealogical classification. The types were not exact enough to arouse enthusiasm. In discussing them, Humboldt does not propose that they are to be rated against one another, but rather against their adequacy in meeting the varied demands of the human intellect. Nor does he relate any type to historical progress or to stages of culture. The aim was simply to understand language.
Other ideas are discussed more fully in other widely cited sections of the monograph such as the eighth on form [in which Humboldt asserts that language is not a finished product (ergon) but rather an activity (energeia)] and the eleventh on the inner form of language. These have been cited especially in connection with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Humboldt held that the structure of a language reflects the culture of its speaker and that the differences between languages parallel those between speakers, but he did not specify the parallels nor did he insist that it was the language which brings about the differences. These views on the close relation between language and other components of culture appeal especially to linguists such as Weisgerber and his associates, who object to a purely mechanistic approach to language.
Humboldt's primary publications dealt with language, but he was interested in the humanities in general. A close friend of Schiller and an early commentator on Goethe, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) belonged to the leading intellectual groups of his day. Though he studied political science, he devoted himself to his interests in literature and esthetics until 1801 when he entered service with the Prussian state; repelled subsequently by its reactionary policies, he returned to his private pursuits in 1819. He was proclaimed for his knowledge of languages, among them Basque, which he made known among linguists. Although he did not travel as widely as his younger brother, Alexander (1769-1859), his control over languages extended beyond those of Europe, as illustrated in the references of the excerpt. Like the ancient Kawi language of Java, to the grammar of which the monograph is an introduction, languages were of primary interest to Humboldt for his chief concern, the relation of language and culture.

19. On the Primary Differences between Languages in Accordance with the Purity of Their Principle of Formation

Since language, as I have already mentioned frequently above, always possesses only an ideal existence in the heads and spirits of men, never a material one -- even when engraved on stone or bronze -- and since the force of the languages which are no longer spoken depends largely on the strength of our own capability to revivify them, to the extent in which we can still perceive them, in the same way there can never be a moment of true standstill in language, just as little as in the ceaselessly flaming thought of men. By nature it is a continuous process of development under the influence of the actual intellectual force of the speaker. Two periods which must be definitely distinguished arise of course in this process: the one in which the sound-creating force of the language is still in growth and living activity; the other in which an apparent standstill takes place after complete formation of at least the external form of language and then a visible decline of that creative, sensual force follows. But even from the period of decline new principles of life and new successful reformations of language can develop, which I will touch on in greater detail below.

In the course of development of language generally, two mutually limiting causes work together: the principle which originally determines the direction, and the influence of the material which has already been produced, whose power always stands in reverse relation to the force of the principle which is asserting itself. There can be no doubt of the presence of such a principle in each language. Just as a people, or a human capable of thought in general, adopts elements of a language, in the same way it must combine them into a unity, quite instinctively and without a clear realization of the process; for without this operation thinking by means of language in the individual and mutual understanding would be impossible. One would have to make this very assumption if one could rise to an initial creation of a language. This unity however can only be that of an exclusively prevailing principle. If this principle approximates the generally language-forming principle in man to such an extent that this permits its necessary individualization, and if it penetrates the language in full and unweakened power, then it will run through all stages of the course of its development to such an extent that in place of a diminishing power a new power will arise again and again which is suitable for the continuing course. For it is characteristic of every intellectual development that its power does not actually die but simply changes in its functions or replaces one of its organs with another. If however something which is not based on the necessity of the form of the language is already mixed with the initial principle, or if the principle does not truly penetrate the sound, or if something which is also wrongly formed joins a not purely organic material and leads to greater deviation, then a strange power becomes opposed to the natural course of development, and the language cannot gain new strength through the pursuit of its course, as should be the case for every proper development of intellectual forces. Here too, as in the designation of the manifold associations of thought, language needs freedom; and one can regard it as a secure sign of the purest and most successful linguistic structure if in it the formation of words and constructions undergoes no other limitations than are necessary to combine regularity with freedom, that is, to assure for freedom its own existence through limitation. For the course of development of intellectual capability generally stands in natural harmony with the correct course of development of language. For since the need of thinking wakens language in man, in the same way that which flows purely from its conception also by necessity advances the successful advance of thinking. If however a nation equipped with such a language would sink into intellectual inertia and weakness for other reasons, it would be able to work itself out of this state more simply through its language. Conversely the intellectual capability must find in itself the lever for its development, if it is equipped with a language deviating from that correct and natural course of development. Then the means created by this capability will have an effect on the language, not to be sure a creative one, because its creations can only be the product of its own life-force, but constructing in it, lending its forms meaning, and permitting a use which it had not placed in them and to which it would not have led.

We can then determine a difference in the countless variety of current and lost languages which is of decisive importance for the continuing education of mankind, namely that between languages which have developed powerfully and consistently from a pure principle in lawful freedom and those which cannot boast of this advantage. The first are the successful fruits of the linguistic instinct which flourishes among mankind in manifold exertions. The latter have a deviant form in which two things combine: lack of strength of the feeling for language, which always exists in pure form among man originally; and a one-sided malformation which arises from the situation that to a form of sound which does not by necessity flow from the language others are combined, attracted by this malformation.

The above investigations provide a guide-line to study this in actual languages and to present it in simple form, however much one thinks he sees a bewildering mass of detail in them initially. For we have attempted to show what is important in the highest principles and in this way to establish points to which linguistic analysis can be raised. However much this path may still be clarified and smoothed, one comprehends the possibility of finding in each language the form from which the character of its structure flows; one can also see in the material sketched above the measure of its advantages and its deficiencies.

If I have succeeded in depicting the inflectional method in its total perfection, in showing how it alone provides the true, inner firmness for the word with regard to the intellect and the ear, and at the same time distinguishing securely the parts of the sentence in accordance with the necessary intertwining of thoughts, then there is no question that it exclusively preserves in itself the pure principle of linguistic structure. Since it takes each element of speech in its twofold value, in its objective meaning and its subjective relationship to the thought and language, and designates this double relationship in its proportional weight through forms of sound designed for the purpose, it increases the most original essence of speech, articulation and symbolization, to its highest grades. Accordingly the question can only be, in which languages this method is preserved most consistently, completely and freely. No real language may have reached the pinnacle. But above we saw a difference of grade between Sanskrit and the Semitic languages: in the latter, inflection in its truest and most unmistakable form and connected with the finest symbolization, yet not carried through all parts of the language and limited through more or less accidental laws--the bisyllabic word form--the vowels used exclusively for designation of inflection--the hesitation about compounding; in the first, inflection preserved against every suspicion of agglutination through the firmness of the word unity, carried through all parts of the language and prevailing in it in the highest freedom.

Compared with the process of incorporation and loose attachment without a true word unity, the method of inflection seems to be a principle of genius, proceeding from the true intuition of the language. For while such languages are anxiously concerned with uniting the individual entity into a sentence, or with representing the sentence immediately unified, the method of inflection indicates directly the components in accordance with a particular thought construction, and by its nature cannot separate the relationship of a component to the thought in speech. A weakness of the languageforming instinct at times does not permit the method of inflection to go over to the sound, as in Chinese, and at other times not to prevail freely and alone, as in the languages which individually follow the process of incorporation. The effect of the pure principle can however be checked also through one-sided malformation, when an individual form of construction, as for example the specification of the verb by means of modifying prefixes in Malay, becomes prevalent to the neglect of all others.

However different the deviations from the purest principle may be, every language can still be characterized for the extent to which the lack of designations for relationship is visible in it, and the attempt to add them and raise them to inflections, and the expedient of characterizing as a word what speech ought to present as a sentence. From the mixture of these principles will proceed the essence of such a language, but as a rule an even more individual form will develop from the application of them. For where the full energy of the guiding force does not preserve the proper equilibrium, there a part of the language readily attains a disproportionate development with unfairness to others. From this and other circumstances individual excellences can also arise in languages in which one cannot otherwise recognize the character of being excellently suited organs of thought. No one can deny that Chinese of the old style carries an impressive dignity through the fact that only weighty concepts join one another directly, and in this way it attains a simple greatness by seeming to escape to pure thought through speech in discarding all unnecessary secondary relationships. The real Malay is not unjustly praised because of its ease and the great simplicity of its constructions. The Semitic languages preserve an admirable art of fine distinctions of meaning through many vowel gradations. Basque possesses in its word formation and in its constructions a special strength which proceeds from brevity and boldness of expression. Delaware and other American languages combine into a single word a number of concepts, for the expression of which we would need many. But all of these examples only prove that the human intellect, however unbalanced the course it may take, can always produce something great and productive of fruitfulness and enthusiasm. These individual points do not decide the preeminence of languages to one another. The true preeminence of a language is simply to develop from a principle and in a freedom which make it possible for it to maintain all the intellectual capabilities of man in vigorous activity, to serve them as a satisfactory organ, and to stimulate them constantly through the sensuous fullness and intellectual regularity which it preserves. Everything of benefit to the spirit which can develop from language exists in this formal characteristic. It is the bed in which the spirit of language can propagate its waves, in the secure confidence that the sources which they lead him to will never be exhausted. For he actually glides on it as on an indeterminable depth from which he can draw more and more, when more has already flowed to him from it. Accordingly this formal measure can be applied to languages only if one tries to bring them under a general comparison.