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Thought and Language

Three well-known writers, Professor Max Muller, Professor Mivart,
and Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace have lately maintained that though the
theory of descent with modification accounts for the development of
all vegetable life, and of all animals lower than man, yet that man
cannot--not at least in respect of the whole of his nature--be held
to have descended from any animal lower than himself, inasmuch as
none lower than man possesses even the germs of language. Reason,
it is contended--more especially by Professor Max Muller in his
"Science of Thought," to which I propose confining our attention
this evening--is so inseparably connected with language, that the
two are in point of fact identical; hence it is argued that, as the
lower animals have no germs of language, they can have no germs of
reason, and the inference is drawn that man cannot be conceived as
having derived his own reasoning powers and command of language
through descent from beings in which no germ of either can be found.
The relations therefore between thought and language, interesting in
themselves, acquire additional importance from the fact of their
having become the battle-ground between those who say that the
theory of descent breaks down with man, and those who maintain that
we are descended from some ape-like ancestor long since extinct.

The contention of those who refuse to admit man unreservedly into
the scheme of evolution is comparatively recent. The great
propounders of evolution, Buffon, Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck--not to
mention a score of others who wrote at the close of the last and
early part of this present century--had no qualms about admitting
man into their system. They have been followed in this respect by
the late Mr. Charles Darwin, and by the greatly more influential
part of our modern biologists, who hold that whatever loss of
dignity we may incur through being proved to be of humble origin, is
compensated by the credit we may claim for having advanced ourselves
to such a high pitch of civilisation; this bids us expect still
further progress, and glorifies our descendants more than it abases
our ancestors. But to whichever view we may incline on sentimental
grounds the fact remains that, while Charles Darwin declared
language to form no impassable barrier between man and the lower
animals, Professor Max Muller calls it the Rubicon which no brute
dare cross, and deduces hence the conclusion that man cannot have
descended from an unknown but certainly speechless ape.

It may perhaps be expected that I should begin a lecture on the
relations between thought and language with some definition of both
these things; but thought, as Sir William Grove said of motion, is a
phenomenon "so obvious to simple apprehension, that to define it
would make it more obscure." {17} Definitions are useful where
things are new to us, but they are superfluous about those that are
already familiar, and mischievous, so far as they are possible at
all, in respect of all those things that enter so profoundly and
intimately into our being that in them we must either live or bear
no life. To vivisect the more vital processes of thought is to
suspend, if not to destroy them; for thought can think about
everything more healthily and easily than about itself. It is like
its instrument the brain, which knows nothing of any injuries
inflicted upon itself. As regards what is new to us, a definition
will sometimes dilute a difficulty, and help us to swallow that
which might choke us undiluted; but to define when we have once well
swallowed is to unsettle, rather than settle, our digestion.
Definitions, again, are like steps cut in a steep slope of ice, or
shells thrown on to a greasy pavement; they give us foothold, and
enable us to advance, but when we are at our journey's end we want
them no longer. Again, they are useful as mental fluxes, and as
helping us to fuse new ideas with our older ones. They present us
with some tags and ends of ideas that we have already mastered, on
to which we can hitch our new ones; but to multiply them in respect
of such a matter as thought, is like scratching the bite of a gnat;
the more we scratch the more we want to scratch; the more we define
the more we shall have to go on defining the words we have used in
our definitions, and shall end by setting up a serious mental raw in
the place of a small uneasiness that was after all quite endurable.
We know too well what thought is, to be able to know that we know
it, and I am persuaded there is no one in this room but understands
what is meant by thought and thinking well enough for all the
purposes of this discussion. Whoever does not know this without
words will not learn it for all the words and definitions that are
laid before him. The more, indeed, he hears, the more confused he
will become. I shall, therefore, merely premise that I use the word
"thought" in the same sense as that in which it is generally used by
people who say that they think this or that. At any rate, it will
be enough if I take Professor Max Muller's own definition, and say
that its essence consists in a bringing together of mental images
and ideas with deductions therefrom, and with a corresponding power
of detaching them from one another. Hobbes, the Professor tells us,
maintained this long ago, when he said that all our thinking
consists of addition and subtraction--that is to say, in bringing
ideas together, and in detaching them from one another.

Turning from thought to language, we observe that the word is
derived from the French langue, or tongue. Strictly, therefore, it
means tonguage. This, however, takes account of but a very small
part of the ideas that underlie the word. It does, indeed, seize a
familiar and important detail of everyday speech, though it may be
doubted whether the tongue has more to do with speaking than lips,
teeth and throat have, but it makes no attempt at grasping and
expressing the essential characteristic of speech. Anything done
with the tongue, even though it involve no speaking at all, is
tonguage; eating oranges is as much tonguage as speech is. The
word, therefore, though it tells us in part how speech is effected,
reveals nothing of that ulterior meaning which is nevertheless
inseparable from any right use of the words either "speech" or
"language." It presents us with what is indeed a very frequent
adjunct of conversation, but the use of written characters, or the
finger-speech of deaf mutes, is enough to show that the word
"language" omits all reference to the most essential characteristics
of the idea, which in practice it nevertheless very sufficiently
presents to us. I hope presently to make it clear to you how and
why it should do so. The word is incomplete in the first place,
because it omits all reference to the ideas which words, speech or
language are intended to convey, and there can be no true word
without its actually or potentially conveying an idea. Secondly, it
makes no allusion to the person or persons to whom the ideas are to
be conveyed. Language is not language unless it not only expresses
fairly definite and coherent ideas, but unless it also conveys these
ideas to some other living intelligent being, either man or brute,
that can understand them. We may speak to a dog or horse, but not
to a stone. If we make pretence of doing so we are in reality only
talking to ourselves. The person or animal spoken to is half the
battle--a half, moreover, which is essential to there being any
battle at all. It takes two people to say a thing--a sayee as well
as a sayer. The one is as essential to any true saying as the
other. A. may have spoken, but if B. has not heard, there has been
nothing said, and he must speak again. True, the belief on A.'s
part that he had a bona fide sayee in B., saves his speech qua him,
but it has been barren and left no fertile issue. It has failed to
fulfil the conditions of true speech, which involve not only that A.
should speak, but also that B. should hear. True, again, we often
speak of loose, incoherent, indefinite language; but by doing so we
imply, and rightly, that we are calling that language which is not
true language at all. People, again, sometimes talk to themselves
without intending that any other person should hear them, but this
is not well done, and does harm to those who practise it. It is
abnormal, whereas our concern is with normal and essential
characteristics; we may, therefore, neglect both delirious
babblings, and the cases in which a person is regarding him or
herself, as it were, from outside, and treating himself as though he
were some one else.

Inquiring, then, what are the essentials, the presence of which
constitutes language, while their absence negatives it altogether,
we find that Professor Max Muller restricts them to the use of
grammatical articulate words that we can write or speak, and denies
that anything can be called language unless it can be written or
spoken in articulate words and sentences. He also denies that we
can think at all unless we do so in words; that is to say, in
sentences with verbs and nouns. Indeed he goes so far as to say
upon his title-page that there can be no reason--which I imagine
comes to much the same thing as thought--without language, and no
language without reason.

Against the assertion that there can be no true language without
reason I have nothing to say. But when the Professor says that
there can be no reason, or thought, without language, his opponents
contend, as it seems to me, with greater force, that thought, though
infinitely aided, extended and rendered definite through the
invention of words, nevertheless existed so fully as to deserve no
other name thousands, if not millions of years before words had
entered into it at all. Words, they say, are a comparatively recent
invention, for the fuller expression of something that was already
in existence.

Children, they urge, are often evidently thinking and reasoning,
though they can neither think nor speak in words. If you ask me to
define reason, I answer as before that this can no more be done than
thought, truth or motion can be defined. Who has answered the
question, "What is truth?" Man cannot see God and live. We cannot
go so far back upon ourselves as to undermine our own foundations;
if we try to do we topple over, and lose that very reason about
which we vainly try to reason. If we let the foundations be, we
know well enough that they are there, and we can build upon them in
all security. We cannot, then, define reason nor crib, cabin and
confine it within a thus-far-shalt-thou-go-and-no-further. Who can
define heat or cold, or night or day? Yet, so long as we hold fast
by current consent, our chances of error for want of better
definition are so small that no sensible person will consider them.
In like manner, if we hold by current consent or common sense, which
is the same thing, about reason, we shall not find the want of an
academic definition hinder us from a reasonable conclusion. What
nurse or mother will doubt that her infant child can reason within
the limits of its own experience, long before it can formulate its
reason in articulately worded thought? If the development of any
given animal is, as our opponents themselves admit, an epitome of
the history of its whole anterior development, surely the fact that
speech is an accomplishment acquired after birth so artificially
that children who have gone wild in the woods lose it if they have
ever learned it, points to the conclusion that man's ancestors only
learned to express themselves in articulate language at a
comparatively recent period. Granted that they learn to think and
reason continually the more and more fully for having done so, will
common sense permit us to suppose that they could neither think nor
reason at all till they could convey their ideas in words?

I will return later to the reason of the lower animals, but will now
deal with the question what it is that constitutes language in the
most comprehensive sense that can be properly attached to it. I
have said already that language to be language at all must not only
convey fairly definite coherent ideas, but must also convey them to
another living being. Whenever two living beings have conveyed and
received ideas, there has been language, whether looks or gestures
or words spoken or written have been the vehicle by means of which
the ideas have travelled. Some ideas crawl, some run, some fly; and
in this case words are the wings they fly with, but they are only
the wings of thought or of ideas, they are not the thought or ideas
themselves, nor yet, as Professor Max Muller would have it,
inseparably connected with them. Last summer I was at an inn in
Sicily, where there was a deaf and dumb waiter; he had been born so,
and could neither write nor read. What had he to do with words or
words with him? Are we to say, then, that this most active, amiable
and intelligent fellow could neither think nor reason? One day I
had had my dinner and had left the hotel. A friend came in, and the
waiter saw him look for me in the place I generally occupied. He
instantly came up to my friend, and moved his two forefingers in a
way that suggested two people going about together, this meant "your
friend"; he then moved his forefingers horizontally across his eyes,
this meant, "who wears divided spectacles"; he made two fierce marks
over the sockets of his eyes, this meant, "with the heavy eyebrows";
he pulled his chin, and then touched his white shirt, to say that my
beard was white. Having thus identified me as a friend of the
person he was speaking to, and as having a white beard, heavy
eyebrows, and wearing divided spectacles, he made a munching
movement with his jaws to say that I had had my dinner; and finally,
by making two fingers imitate walking on the table, he explained
that I had gone away. My friend, however, wanted to know how long I
had been gone, so he pulled out his watch and looked inquiringly.
The man at once slapped himself on the back, and held up the five
fingers of one hand, to say it was five minutes ago. All this was
done as rapidly as though it had been said in words; and my friend,
who knew the man well, understood without a moment's hesitation.
Are we to say that this man had no thought, nor reason, nor
language, merely because he had not a single word of any kind in his
head, which I am assured he had not; for, as I have said, he could
not speak with his fingers? Is it possible to deny that a dialogue-
-an intelligent conversation--had passed between the two men? And
if conversation, then surely it is technical and pedantic to deny
that all the essential elements of language were present. The signs
and tokens used by this poor fellow were as rude an instrument of
expression, in comparison with ordinary language, as going on one's
hands and knees is in comparison with walking, or as walking
compared with going by train; but it is as great an abuse of words
to limit the word "language" to mere words written or spoken, as it
would be to limit the idea of a locomotive to a railway engine.
This may indeed pass in ordinary conversation, where so much must be
suppressed if talk is to be got through at all, but it is
intolerable when we are inquiring about the relations between
thought and words. To do so is to let words become as it were the
masters of thought, on the ground that the fact of their being only
its servants and appendages is so obvious that it is generally
allowed to go without saying.

If all that Professor Max Muller means to say is, that no animal but
man commands an articulate language, with verbs and nouns, or is
ever likely to command one (and I question whether in reality he
means much more than this), no one will differ from him. No dog or
elephant has one word for bread, another for meat, and another for
water. Yet, when we watch a cat or dog dreaming, as they often
evidently do, can we doubt that the dream is accompanied by a mental
image of the thing that is dreamed of, much like what we experience
in dreams ourselves, and much doubtless like the mental images which
must have passed through the mind of my deaf and dumb waiter? If
they have mental images in sleep, can we doubt that waking, also,
they picture things before their mind's eyes, and see them much as
we do--too vaguely indeed to admit of our thinking that we actually
see the objects themselves, but definitely enough for us to be able
to recognise the idea or object of which we are thinking, and to
connect it with any other idea, object, or sign that we may think

Here we have touched on the second essential element of language.
We laid it down, that its essence lay in the communication of an
idea from one intelligent being to another; but no ideas can be
communicated at all except by the aid of conventions to which both
parties have agreed to attach an identical meaning. The agreement
may be very informal, and may pass so unconsciously from one
generation to another that its existence can only be recognised by
the aid of much introspection, but it will be always there. A
sayer, a sayee, and a convention, no matter what, agreed upon
between them as inseparably attached to the idea which it is
intended to convey--these comprise all the essentials of language.
Where these are present there is language; where any of them are
wanting there is no language. It is not necessary for the sayee to
be able to speak and become a sayer. If he comprehends the sayer--
that is to say, if he attaches the same meaning to a certain symbol
as the sayer does--if he is a party to the bargain whereby it is
agreed upon by both that any given symbol shall be attached
invariably to a certain idea, so that in virtue of the principle of
associated ideas the symbol shall never be present without
immediately carrying the idea along with it, then all the essentials
of language are complied with, and there has been true speech though
never a word was spoken.

The lower animals, therefore, many of them, possess a part of our
own language, though they cannot speak it, and hence do not possess
it so fully as we do. They cannot say "bread," "meat," or "water,"
but there are many that readily learn what ideas they ought to
attach to these symbols when they are presented to them. It is idle
to say that a cat does not know what the cat's-meat man means when
he says "meat." The cat knows just as well, neither better nor
worse than the cat's-meat man does, and a great deal better than I
myself understand much that is said by some very clever people at
Oxford or Cambridge. There is more true employment of language,
more bona fide currency of speech, between a sayer and a sayee who
understand each other, though neither of them can speak a word, than
between a sayer who can speak with the tongues of men and of angels
without being clear about his own meaning, and a sayee who can
himself utter the same words, but who is only in imperfect agreement
with the sayer as to the ideas which the words or symbols that he
utters are intended to convey. The nature of the symbols counts for
nothing; the gist of the matter is in the perfect harmony between
sayer and sayee as to the significance that is to be associated with

Professor Max Muller admits that we share with the lower animals
what he calls an emotional language, and continues that we may call
their interjections and imitations language if we like, as we speak
of the language of the eyes or the eloquence of mute nature, but he
warns us against mistaking metaphor for fact. It is indeed mere
metaphor to talk of the eloquence of mute nature, or the language of
winds and waves. There is no intercommunion of mind with mind by
means of a covenanted symbol; but it is only an apparent, not a
real, metaphor to say that two pairs of eyes have spoken when they
have signalled to one another something which they both understand.
A schoolboy at home for the holidays wants another plate of pudding,
and does not like to apply officially for more. He catches the
servant's eye and looks at the pudding; the servant understands,
takes his plate without a word, and gets him some. Is it metaphor
to say that the boy asked the servant to do this, or is it not
rather pedantry to insist on the letter of a bond and deny its
spirit, by denying that language passed, on the ground that the
symbols covenanted upon and assented to by both were uttered and
received by eyes and not by mouth and ears? When the lady drank to
the gentleman only with her eyes, and he pledged with his, was there
no conversation because there was neither noun nor verb? Eyes are
verbs, and glasses of wine are good nouns enough as between those
who understand one another. Whether the ideas underlying them are
expressed and conveyed by eyeage or by tonguage is a detail that
matters nothing.

But everything we say is metaphorical if we choose to be captious.
Scratch the simplest expressions, and you will find the metaphor.
Written words are handage, inkage and paperage; it is only by
metaphor, or substitution and transposition of ideas, that we can
call them language. They are indeed potential language, and the
symbols employed presuppose nouns, verbs, and the other parts of
speech; but for the most part it is in what we read between the
lines that the profounder meaning of any letter is conveyed. There
are words unwritten and untranslatable into any nouns that are
nevertheless felt as above, about and underneath the gross material
symbols that lie scrawled upon the paper; and the deeper the feeling
with which anything is written the more pregnant will it be of
meaning which can be conveyed securely enough, but which loses
rather than gains if it is squeezed into a sentence, and limited by
the parts of speech. The language is not in the words but in the
heart-to-heartness of the thing, which is helped by words, but is
nearer and farther than they. A correspondent wrote to me once,
many years ago, "If I could think to you without words you would
understand me better." But surely in this he was thinking to me,
and without words, and I did understand him better . . . So it is
not by the words that I am too presumptuously venturing to speak to-
night that your opinions will be formed or modified. They will be
formed or modified, if either, by something that you will feel, but
which I have not spoken, to the full as much as by anything that I
have actually uttered. You may say that this borders on mysticism.
Perhaps it does, but their really is some mysticism in nature.

To return, however, to terra firma. I believe I am right in saying
that the essence of language lies in the intentional conveyance of
ideas from one living being to another through the instrumentality
of arbitrary tokens or symbols agreed upon, and understood by both
as being associated with the particular ideas in question. The
nature of the symbol chosen is a matter of indifference; it may be
anything that appeals to human senses, and is not too hot or too
heavy; the essence of the matter lies in a mutual covenant that
whatever it is it shall stand invariably for the same thing, or
nearly so.

We shall see this more easily if we observe the differences between
written and spoken language. The written word "stone," and the
spoken word, are each of them symbols arrived at in the first
instance arbitrarily. They are neither of them more like the other
than they are to the idea of a stone which rises before our minds,
when we either see or hear the word, or than this idea again is like
the actual stone itself, but nevertheless the spoken symbol and the
written one each alike convey with certainty the combination of
ideas to which we have agreed to attach them.

The written symbol is formed with the hand, appeals to the eye,
leaves a material trace as long as paper and ink last, can travel as
far as paper and ink can travel, and can be imprinted on eye after
eye practically ad infinitum both as regards time and space.

The spoken symbol is formed by means of various organs in or about
the mouth, appeals to the ear, not the eye, perishes instantly
without material trace, and if it lives at all does so only in the
minds of those who heard it. The range of its action is no wider
than that within which a voice can be heard; and every time a fresh
impression is wanted the type must be set up anew.

The written symbol extends infinitely, as regards time and space,
the range within which one mind can communicate with another; it
gives the writer's mind a life limited by the duration of ink,
paper, and readers, as against that of his flesh and blood body. On
the other hand, it takes longer to learn the rules so as to be able
to apply them with ease and security, and even then they cannot be
applied so quickly and easily as those attaching to spoken symbols.
Moreover, the spoken symbol admits of a hundred quick and subtle
adjuncts by way of action, tone and expression, so that no one will
use written symbols unless either for the special advantages of
permanence and travelling power, or because he is incapacitated from
using spoken ones. This, however, is hardly to the point; the point
is that these two conventional combinations of symbols, that are as
unlike one another as the Hallelujah Chorus is to St. Paul's
Cathedral, are the one as much language as the other; and we
therefore inquire what this very patent fact reveals to us about the
more essential characteristics of language itself. What is the
common bond that unites these two classes of symbols that seem at
first sight to have nothing in common, and makes the one raise the
idea of language in our minds as readily as the other? The bond
lies in the fact that both are a set of conventional tokens or
symbols, agreed upon between the parties to whom they appeal as
being attached invariably to the same ideas, and because they are
being made as a means of communion between one mind and another,--
for a memorandum made for a person's own later use is nothing but a
communication from an earlier mind to a later and modified one; it
is therefore in reality a communication from one mind to another as
much as though it had been addressed to another person.

We see, therefore, that the nature of the outward and visible sign
to which the inward and spiritual idea of language is attached does
not matter. It may be the firing of a gun; it may be an old
semaphore telegraph; it may be the movements of a needle; a look, a
gesture, the breaking of a twig by an Indian to tell some one that
he has passed that way: a twig broken designedly with this end in
view is a letter addressed to whomsoever it may concern, as much as
though it had been written out in full on bark or paper. It does
not matter one straw what it is, provided it is agreed upon in
concert, and stuck to. Just as the lowest forms of life
nevertheless present us with all the essential characteristics of
livingness, and are as much alive in their own humble way as the
most highly developed organisms, so the rudest intentional and
effectual communication between two minds through the
instrumentality of a concerted symbol is as much language as the
most finished oratory of Mr. Gladstone. I demur therefore to the
assertion that the lower animals have no language, inasmuch as they
cannot themselves articulate a grammatical sentence. I do not
indeed pretend that when the cat calls upon the tiles it uses what
it consciously and introspectively recognises as language; it says
what it has to say without introspection, and in the ordinary course
of business, as one of the common forms of courtship. It no more
knows that it has been using language than M. Jourdain knew he had
been speaking prose, but M. Jourdain's knowing or not knowing was
neither here nor there.

Anything which can be made to hitch on invariably to a definite idea
that can carry some distance--say an inch at the least, and which
can be repeated at pleasure, can be pressed into the service of
language. Mrs. Bentley, wife of the famous Dr. Bentley of Trinity
College, Cambridge, used to send her snuff-box to the college
buttery when she wanted beer, instead of a written order. If the
snuff-box came the beer was sent, but if there was no snuff-box
there was no beer. Wherein did the snuff-box differ more from a
written order, than a written order differs from a spoken one? The
snuff-box was for the time being language. It sounds strange to say
that one might take a pinch of snuff out of a sentence, but if the
servant had helped him or herself to a pinch while carrying it to
the buttery this is what would have been done; for if a snuff-box
can say "Send me a quart of beer," so efficiently that the beer is
sent, it is impossible to say that it is not a bona fide sentence.
As for the recipient of the message, the butler did not probably
translate the snuff-box into articulate nouns and verbs; as soon as
he saw it he just went down into the cellar and drew the beer, and
if he thought at all, it was probably about something else. Yet he
must have been thinking without words, or he would have drawn too
much beer or too little, or have spilt it in the bringing it up, and
we may be sure that he did none of these things.

You will, of course, observe that if Mrs. Bentley had sent the
snuff-box to the buttery of St. John's College instead of Trinity,
it would not have been language, for there would have been no
covenant between sayer and sayee as to what the symbol should
represent, there would have been no previously established
association of ideas in the mind of the butler of St. John's between
beer and snuff-box; the connection was artificial, arbitrary, and by
no means one of those in respect of which an impromptu bargain might
be proposed by the very symbol itself, and assented to without
previous formality by the person to whom it was presented. More
briefly, the butler of St. John's would not have been able to
understand and read it aright. It would have been a dead letter to
him--a snuff-box and not a letter; whereas to the butler of Trinity
it was a letter and not a snuff-box.

You will also note that it was only at the moment when he was
looking at it and accepting it as a message that it flashed forth
from snuff-box-hood into the light and life of living utterance. As
soon as it had kindled the butler into sending a single quart of
beer, its force was spent until Mrs. Bentley threw her soul into it
again and charged it anew by wanting more beer, and sending it down

Again, take the ring which the Earl of Essex sent to Queen
Elizabeth, but which the queen did not receive. This was intended
as a sentence, but failed to become effectual language because the
sensible material symbol never reached those sentient organs which
it was intended to affect. A book, again, however full of excellent
words it may be, is not language when it is merely standing on a
bookshelf. It speaks to no one, unless when being actually read, or
quoted from by an act of memory. It is potential language as a
lucifer-match is potential fire, but it is no more language till it
is in contact with a recipient mind, than a match is fire till it is
struck, and is being consumed.

A piece of music, again, without any words at all, or a song with
words that have nothing in the world to do with the ideas which it
is nevertheless made to convey, is often very effectual language.
Much lying, and all irony depends on tampering with covenanted
symbols, and making those that are usually associated with one set
of ideas convey by a sleight of mind others of a different nature.
That is why irony is intolerably fatiguing unless very sparingly
used. Take the song which Blondel sang under the window of King
Richard's prison. There was not one syllable in it to say that
Blondel was there, and was going to help the king to get out of
prison. It was about some silly love affair, but it was a letter
all the same, and the king made language of what would otherwise
have been no language, by guessing the meaning, that is to say by
perceiving that he was expected to enter then and there into a new
covenant as to the meaning of the symbols that were presented to
him, understanding what this covenant was to be, and acquiescing in

On the other hand, no ingenuity can torture language into being a
fit word to use in connection with either sounds or any other
symbols that have not been intended to convey a meaning, or again in
connection with either sounds or symbols in respect of which there
has been no covenant between sayer and sayee. When we hear people
speaking a foreign language--we will say Welsh--we feel that though
they are no doubt using what is very good language as between
themselves, there is no language whatever as far as we are
concerned. We call it lingo, not language. The Chinese letters on
a tea-chest might as well not be there, for all that they say to us,
though the Chinese find them very much to the purpose. They are a
covenant to which we have been no parties--to which our intelligence
has affixed no signature.

We have already seen that it is in virtue of such an understood
covenant that symbols so unlike one another as the written word
"stone" and the spoken word alike at once raise the idea of a stone
in our minds. See how the same holds good as regards the different
languages that pass current in different nations. The letters p, i,
e, r, r, e convey the idea of a stone to a Frenchman as readily as
s, t, o, n, e do to ourselves. And why? because that is the
covenant that has been struck between those who speak and those who
are spoken to. Our "stone" conveys no idea to a Frenchman, nor his
"pierre" to us, unless we have done what is commonly called
acquiring one another's language. To acquire a foreign language is
only to learn and adhere to the covenants in respect of symbols
which the nation in question has adopted and adheres to.

Till we have done this we neither of us know the rules, so to speak,
of the game that the other is playing, and cannot, therefore, play
together; but the convention being once known and assented to, it
does not matter whether we raise the idea of a stone by the word
"lapis," or by "lithos," "pietra," "pierre," "stein," "stane" or
"stone"; we may choose what symbols written or spoken we choose, and
one set, unless they are of unwieldy length will do as well as
another, if we can get other people to choose the same and stick to
them; it is the accepting and sticking to them that matters, not the
symbols. The whole power of spoken language is vested in the
invariableness with which certain symbols are associated with
certain ideas. If we are strict in always connecting the same
symbols with the same ideas, we speak well, keep our meaning clear
to ourselves, and convey it readily and accurately to any one who is
also fairly strict. If, on the other hand, we use the same
combination of symbols for one thing one day and for another the
next, we abuse our symbols instead of using them, and those who
indulge in slovenly habits in this respect ere long lose the power
alike of thinking and of expressing themselves correctly. The
symbols, however, in the first instance, may be anything in the wide
world that we have a fancy for. They have no more to do with the
ideas they serve to convey than money has with the things that it
serves to buy.

The principle of association, as every one knows, involves that
whenever two things have been associated sufficiently together, the
suggestion of one of them to the mind shall immediately raise a
suggestion of the other. It is in virtue of this principle that
language, as we so call it, exists at all, for the essence of
language consists, as I have said perhaps already too often, in the
fixity with which certain ideas are invariably connected with
certain symbols. But this being so, it is hard to see how we can
deny that the lower animals possess the germs of a highly rude and
unspecialised, but still true language, unless we also deny that
they have any ideas at all; and this I gather is what Professor Max
Muller in a quiet way rather wishes to do. Thus he says, "It is
easy enough to show that animals communicate, but this is a fact
which has never been doubted. Dogs who growl and bark leave no
doubt in the minds of other dogs or cats, or even of man, of what
they mean, but growling and barking are not language, nor do they
even contain the elements of language." {18}

I observe the Professor says that animals communicate without saying
what it is that they communicate. I believe this to have been
because if he said that the lower animals communicate their ideas,
this would be to admit that they have ideas; if so, and if, as they
present every appearance of doing, they can remember, reflect upon,
modify these ideas according to modified surroundings, and
interchange them with one another, how is it possible to deny them
the germs of thought, language, and reason--not to say a good deal
more than the germs? It seems to me that not knowing what else to
say that animals communicated if it was not ideas, and not knowing
what mess he might not get into if he admitted that they had ideas
at all, he thought it safer to omit his accusative case altogether.

That growling and barking cannot be called a very highly specialised
language goes without saying; they are, however, so much diversified
in character, according to circumstances, that they place a
considerable number of symbols at an animal's command, and he
invariably attaches the same symbol to the same idea. A cat never
purrs when she is angry, nor spits when she is pleased. When she
rubs her head against any one affectionately it is her symbol for
saying that she is very fond of him, and she expects, and usually
finds that it will be understood. If she sees her mistress raise
her hand as though to pretend to strike her, she knows that it is
the symbol her mistress invariably attaches to the idea of sending
her away, and as such she accepts it. Granted that the symbols in
use among the lower animals are fewer and less highly differentiated
than in the case of any known human language, and therefore that
animal language is incomparably less subtle and less capable of
expressing delicate shades of meaning than our own, these
differences are nevertheless only those that exist between highly
developed and inchoate language; they do not involve those that
distinguish language from no language. They are the differences
between the undifferentiated protoplasm of the amoeba and our own
complex organisation; they are not the differences between life and
no life. In animal language as much as in human there is a mind
intentionally making use of a symbol accepted by another mind as
invariably attached to a certain idea, in order to produce that idea
in the mind which it is desired to affect--more briefly, there is a
sayer, a sayee, and a covenanted symbol designedly applied. Our own
speech is vertebrated and articulated by means of nouns, verbs, and
the rules of grammar. A dog's speech is invertebrate, but I do not
see how it is possible to deny that it possesses all the essential
elements of language.

I have said nothing about Professor R. L. Garner's researches into
the language of apes, because they have not yet been so far verified
and accepted as to make it safe to rely upon them; but when he lays
it down that all voluntary sounds are the products of thought, and
that, if they convey a meaning to another, they perform the
functions of human speech, he says what I believe will commend
itself to any unsophisticated mind. I could have wished, however,
that he had not limited himself to sounds, and should have preferred
his saying what I doubt not he would readily accept--I mean, that
all symbols or tokens of whatever kind, if voluntarily adopted as
such, are the products of thought, and perform the functions of
human speech; but I cannot too often remind you that nothing can be
considered as fulfilling the conditions of language, except a
voluntary application of a recognised token in order to convey a
more or less definite meaning, with the intention doubtless of thus
purchasing as it were some other desired meaning and consequent
sensation. It is astonishing how closely in this respect money and
words resemble one another. Money indeed may be considered as the
most universal and expressive of all languages. For gold and silver
coins are no more money when not in the actual process of being
voluntarily used in purchase, than words not so in use are language.
Pounds, shillings and pence are recognised covenanted tokens, the
outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual purchasing
power, but till in actual use they are only potential money, as the
symbols of language, whatever they may be, are only potential
language till they are passing between two minds. It is the power
and will to apply the symbols that alone gives life to money, and as
long as these are in abeyance the money is in abeyance also; the
coins may be safe in one's pocket, but they are as dead as a log
till they begin to burn in it, and so are our words till they begin
to burn within us.

The real question, however, as to the substantial underlying
identity between the language of the lower animals and our own,
turns upon that other question whether or no, in spite of an
immeasurable difference of degree, the thought and reason of man and
of the lower animals is essentially the same. No one will expect a
dog to master and express the varied ideas that are incessantly
arising in connection with human affairs. He is a pauper as against
a millionaire. To ask him to do so would be like giving a street-
boy sixpence and telling him to go and buy himself a founder's share
in the New River Company. He would not even know what was meant,
and even if he did it would take several millions of sixpences to
buy one. It is astonishing what a clever workman will do with very
modest tools, or again how far a thrifty housewife will make a very
small sum of money go, or again in like manner how many ideas an
intelligent brute can receive and convey with its very limited
vocabulary; but no one will pretend that a dog's intelligence can
ever reach the level of a man's. What we do maintain is that,
within its own limited range, it is of the same essential character
as our own, and that though a dog's ideas in respect of human
affairs are both vague and narrow, yet in respect of canine affairs
they are precise enough and extensive enough to deserve no other
name than thought or reason. We hold moreover that they communicate
their ideas in essentially the same manner as we do--that is to say,
by the instrumentality of a code of symbols attached to certain
states of mind and material objects, in the first instance
arbitrarily, but so persistently, that the presentation of the
symbol immediately carries with it the idea which it is intended to
convey. Animals can thus receive and impart ideas on all that most
concerns them. As my great namesake said some two hundred years
ago, they know "what's what, and that's as high as metaphysic wit
can fly." And they not only know what's what themselves, but can
impart to one another any new what's-whatness that they may have
acquired, for they are notoriously able to instruct and correct one

Against this Professor Max Muller contends that we can know nothing
of what goes on in the mind of any lower animal, inasmuch as we are
not lower animals ourselves. "We can imagine anything we like about
what passes in the mind of an animal," he writes, "we can know
absolutely nothing." {19} It is something to have it in evidence
that he conceives animals as having a mind at all, but it is not
easy to see how they can be supposed to have a mind, without being
able to acquire ideas, and having acquired, to read, mark, learn,
and inwardly digest them. Surely the mistake of requiring too much
evidence is hardly less great than that of being contented with too
little. We, too, are animals, and can no more refuse to infer
reason from certain visible actions in their case than we can in our
own. If Professor Max Muller's plea were allowed, we should have to
deny our right to infer confidently what passes in the mind of any
one not ourselves, inasmuch as we are not that person. We never,
indeed, can obtain irrefragable certainty about this or any other
matter, but we can be sure enough in many cases to warrant our
staking all that is most precious to us on the soundness of our
opinion. Moreover, if the Professor denies our right to infer that
animals reason, on the ground that we are not animals enough
ourselves to be able to form an opinion, with what right does he
infer so confidently himself that they do not reason? And how, if
they present every one of those appearances which we are accustomed
to connect with the communication of an idea from one mind to
another, can we deny that they have a language of their own, though
it is one which in most cases we can neither speak nor understand?
How can we say that a sentinel rook, when it sees a man with a gun
and warns the other rooks by a concerted note which they all show
that they understand by immediately taking flight, should not be
credited both with reason and the germs of language?

After all, a professor, whether of philology, psychology, biology,
or any other ology, is hardly the kind of person to whom we should
appeal on such an elementary question as that of animal intelligence
and language. We might as well ask a botanist to tell us whether
grass grows, or a meteorologist to tell us if it has left off
raining. If it is necessary to appeal to any one, I should prefer
the opinion of an intelligent gamekeeper to that of any professor,
however learned. The keepers, again, at the Zoological Gardens,
have exceptional opportunities for studying the minds of animals--
modified, indeed, by captivity, but still minds of animals. Grooms,
again, and dog-fanciers, are to the full as able to form an
intelligent opinion on the reason and language of animals as any
University Professor, and so are cats'-meat men. I have repeatedly
asked gamekeepers and keepers at the Zoological Gardens whether
animals could reason and converse with one another, and have always
found myself regarded somewhat contemptuously for having even asked
the question. I once said to a friend, in the hearing of a keeper
at the Zoological Gardens, that the penguin was very stupid. The
man was furious, and jumped upon me at once. "He's not stupid at
all," said he; "he's very intelligent."

Who has not seen a cat, when it wishes to go out, raise its fore
paws on to the handle of the door, or as near as it can get, and
look round, evidently asking some one to turn it for her? Is it
reasonable to deny that a reasoning process is going on in the cat's
mind, whereby she connects her wish with the steps necessary for its
fulfilment, and also with certain invariable symbols which she knows
her master or mistress will interpret? Once, in company with a
friend, I watched a cat playing with a house-fly in the window of a
ground-floor room. We were in the street, while the cat was inside.
When we came up to the window she gave us one searching look, and,
having satisfied herself that we had nothing for her, went on with
her game. She knew all about the glass in the window, and was sure
we could do nothing to molest her, so she treated us with absolute
contempt, never even looking at us again.

The game was this. She was to catch the fly and roll it round and
round under her paw along the window-sill, but so gently as not to
injure it nor prevent it from being able to fly again when she had
done rolling it. It was very early spring, and flies were scarce,
in fact there was not another in the whole window. She knew that if
she crippled this one, it would not be able to amuse her further,
and that she would not readily get another instead, and she liked
the feel of it under her paw. It was soft and living, and the
quivering of its wings tickled the ball of her foot in a manner that
she found particularly grateful; so she rolled it gently along the
whole length of the window-sill. It then became the fly's turn. He
was to get up and fly about in the window, so as to recover himself
a little; then she was to catch him again, and roll him softly all
along the window-sill, as she had done before.

It was plain that the cat knew the rules of her game perfectly well,
and enjoyed it keenly. It was equally plain that the fly could not
make head or tail of what it was all about. If it had been able to
do so it would have gone to play in the upper part of the window,
where the cat could not reach it. Perhaps it was always hoping to
get through the glass, and escape that way; anyhow, it kept pretty
much to the same pane, no matter how often it was rolled. At last,
however, the fly, for some reason or another, did not reappear on
the pane, and the cat began looking everywhere to find it. Her
annoyance when she failed to do so was extreme. It was not only
that she had lost her fly, but that she could not conceive how she
should have ever come to do so. Presently she noted a small knot in
the woodwork of the sill, and it flashed upon her that she had
accidentally killed the fly, and that this was its dead body. She
tried to move it gently with her paw, but it was no use, and for the
time she satisfied herself that the knot and the fly had nothing to
do with one another. Every now and then, however, she returned to
it as though it were the only thing she could think of, and she
would try it again. She seemed to say she was certain there had
been no knot there before--she must have seen it if there had been;
and yet, the fly could hardly have got jammed so firmly into the
wood. She was puzzled and irritated beyond measure, and kept
looking in the same place again and again, just as we do when we
have mislaid something. She was rapidly losing temper and dignity
when suddenly we saw the fly reappear from under the cat's stomach
and make for the window-pane, at the very moment when the cat
herself was exclaiming for the fiftieth time that she wondered where
that stupid fly ever could have got to. No man who has been hunting
twenty minutes for his spectacles could be more delighted when he
suddenly finds them on his own forehead. "So that's where you
were," we seemed to hear her say, as she proceeded to catch it, and
again began rolling it very softly without hurting it, under her
paw. My friend and I both noticed that the cat, in spite of her
perplexity, never so much as hinted that we were the culprits. The
question whether anything outside the window could do her good or
harm had long since been settled by her in the negative, and she was
not going to reopen it; she simply cut us dead, and though her
annoyance was so great that she was manifestly ready to lay the
blame on anybody or anything with or without reason, and though she
must have perfectly well known that we were watching the whole
affair with amusement, she never either asked us if we had happened
to see such a thing as a fly go down our way lately, or accused us
of having taken it from her--both of which ideas she would, I am
confident, have been very well able to convey to us if she had been
so minded.

Now what are thought and reason if the processes that were going
through this cat's mind were not both one and the other? It would
be childish to suppose that the cat thought in words of its own, or
in anything like words. Its thinking was probably conducted through
the instrumentality of a series of mental images. We so habitually
think in words ourselves that we find it difficult to realise
thought without words at all; our difficulty, however, in imagining
the particular manner in which the cat thinks has nothing to do with
the matter. We must answer the question whether she thinks or no,
not according to our own ease or difficulty in understanding the
particular manner of her thinking, but according as her action does
or does not appear to be of the same character as other action that
we commonly call thoughtful. To say that the cat is not
intelligent, merely on the ground that we cannot ourselves fathom
her intelligence--this, as I have elsewhere said, is to make
intelligence mean the power of being understood, rather than the
power of understanding. This nevertheless is what, for all our
boasted intelligence, we generally do. The more we can understand
an animal's ways, the more intelligent we call it, and the less we
can understand these, the more stupid do we declare it to be. As
for plants--whose punctuality and attention to all the details and
routine of their somewhat restricted lines of business is as obvious
as it is beyond all praise--we understand the working of their minds
so little that by common consent we declare them to have no
intelligence at all.

Before concluding I should wish to deal a little more fully with
Professor Max Muller's contention that there can be no reason
without language, and no language without reason. Surely when two
practised pugilists are fighting, parrying each other's blows, and
watching keenly for an unguarded point, they are thinking and
reasoning very subtly the whole time, without doing so in words.
The machination of their thoughts, as well as its expression, is
actual--I mean, effectuated and expressed by action and deed, not
words. They are unaware of any logical sequence of thought that
they could follow in words as passing through their minds at all.
They may perhaps think consciously in words now and again, but such
thought will be intermittent, and the main part of the fighting will
be done without any internal concomitance of articulated phrases.
Yet we cannot doubt that their action, however much we may
disapprove of it, is guided by intelligence and reason; nor should
we doubt that a reasoning process of the same character goes on in
the minds of two dogs or fighting-cocks when they are striving to
master their opponents.

Do we think in words, again, when we wind up our watches, put on our
clothes, or eat our breakfasts? If we do, it is generally about
something else. We do these things almost as much without the help
of words as we wink or yawn, or perform any of those other actions
that we call reflex, as it would almost seem because they are done
without reflection. They are not, however, the less reasonable
because wordless.

Even when we think we are thinking in words, we do so only in half
measure. A running accompaniment of words no doubt frequently
attends our thoughts; but, unless we are writing or speaking, this
accompaniment is of the vaguest and most fitful kind, as we often
find out when we try to write down or say what we are thinking
about, though we have a fairly definite notion of it, or fancy that
we have one, all the time. The thought is not steadily and
coherently governed by and moulded in words, nor does it steadily
govern them. Words and thought interact upon and help one another,
as any other mechanical appliances interact on and help the
invention that first hit upon them; but reason or thought, for the
most part, flies along over the heads of words, working its own
mysterious way in paths that are beyond our ken, though whether some
of our departmental personalities are as unconscious of what is
passing, as that central government is which we alone dub with the
name of "we" or "us," is a point on which I will not now touch.

I cannot think, then, that Professor Max Muller's contention that
thought and language are identical--and he has repeatedly affirmed
this--will ever be generally accepted. Thought is no more identical
with language than feeling is identical with the nervous system.
True, we can no more feel without a nervous system than we can
discern certain minute organisms without a microscope. Destroy the
nervous system, and we destroy feeling. Destroy the microscope, and
we can no longer see the animalcules; but our sight of the
animalcules is not the microscope, though it is effectuated by means
of the microscope, and our feeling is not the nervous system, though
the nervous system is the instrument that enables us to feel.

The nervous system is a device which living beings have gradually
perfected--I believe I may say quite truly--through the will and
power which they have derived from a fountain-head, the existence of
which we can infer, but which we can never apprehend. By the help
of this device, and in proportion as they have perfected it, living
beings feel ever with greater definiteness, and hence formulate
their feelings in thought with more and more precision. The higher
evolution of thought has reacted on the nervous system, and the
consequent higher evolution of the nervous system has again reacted
upon thought. These things are as power and desire, or supply and
demand, each one of which is continually outstripping, and being in
turn outstripped by the other; but, in spite of their close
connection and interaction, power is not desire, nor demand supply.
Language is a device evolved sometimes by leaps and bounds, and
sometimes exceedingly slowly, whereby we help ourselves alike to
greater ease, precision, and complexity of thought, and also to more
convenient interchange of thought among ourselves. Thought found
rude expression, which gradually among other forms assumed that of
words. These reacted upon thought, and thought again on them, but
thought is no more identical with words than words are with the
separate letters of which they are composed.

To sum up, then, and to conclude. I would ask you to see the
connection between words and ideas, as in the first instance
arbitrary. No doubt in some cases an imitation of the cry of some
bird or wild beast would suggest the name that should be attached to
it; occasionally the sound of an operation such as grinding may have
influenced the choice of the letters g, r, as the root of many words
that denote a grinding, grating, grasping, crushing, action; but I
understand that the number of words due to direct imitation is
comparatively few in number, and that they have been mainly coined
as the result of connections so far-fetched and fanciful as to
amount practically to no connection at all. Once chosen, however,
they were adhered to for a considerable time among the dwellers in
any given place, so as to become acknowledged as the vulgar tongue,
and raise readily in the mind of the inhabitants of that place the
ideas with which they had been artificially associated.

As regards our being able to think and reason without words, the
Duke of Argyll has put the matter as soundly as I have yet seen it
stated. "It seems to me," he wrote, "quite certain that we can and
do constantly think of things without thinking of any sound or word
as designating them. Language seems to me to be necessary for the
progress of thought, but not at all for the mere act of thinking.
It is a product of thought, an expression of it, a vehicle for the
communication of it, and an embodiment which is essential to its
growth and continuity; but it seems to me altogether erroneous to
regard it as an inseparable part of cogitation."

The following passages, again, are quoted from Sir William Hamilton
in Professor Max Muller's own book, with so much approval as to lead
one to suppose that the differences between himself and his
opponents are in reality less than he believes them to be:-

"Language," says Sir W. Hamilton, "is the attribution of signs to
our cognitions of things. But as a cognition must have already been
there before it could receive a sign, consequently that knowledge
which is denoted by the formation and application of a word must
have preceded the symbol that denotes it. A sign, however, is
necessary to give stability to our intellectual progress--to
establish each step in our advance as a new starting-point for our
advance to another beyond. A country may be overrun by an armed
host, but it is only conquered by the establishment of fortresses.
Words are the fortresses of thought. They enable us to realise our
dominion over what we have already overrun in thought; to make every
intellectual conquest the base of operations for others still

"This," says Professor Max Muller, "is a most happy illustration,"
and he proceeds to quote the following, also from Sir William
Hamilton, which he declares to be even happier still.

"You have all heard," says Sir William Hamilton, "of the process of
tunnelling through a sandbank. In this operation it is impossible
to succeed unless every foot, nay, almost every inch of our progress
be secured by an arch of masonry before we attempt the excavation of
another. Now language is to the mind precisely what the arch is to
the tunnel. The power of thinking and the power of excavation are
not dependent on the words in the one case or on the mason-work in
the other; but without these subsidiaries neither could be carried
on beyond its rudimentary commencement. Though, therefore, we allow
that every movement forward in language must be determined by an
antecedent movement forward in thought, still, unless thought be
accompanied at each point of its evolutions by a corresponding
evolution of language, its further development is arrested."

Man has evolved an articulate language, whereas the lower animals
seem to be without one. Man, therefore, has far outstripped them in
reasoning faculty as well as in power of expression. This, however,
does not bar the communications which the lower animals make to one
another from possessing all the essential characteristics of
language, and as a matter of fact, wherever we can follow them we
find such communications effectuated by the aid of arbitrary symbols
covenanted upon by the living beings that wish to communicate, and
persistently associated with certain corresponding feelings, states
of mind, or material objects. Human language is nothing more than
this in principle, however much further the principle has been
carried in our own case than in that of the lower animals.

This being admitted, we should infer that the thought or reason on
which the language of men and animals is alike founded differs as
between men and brutes in degree but not in kind. More than this
cannot be claimed on behalf of the lower animals, even by their most
enthusiastic admirer.

Samuel Butler

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