The Nature and Origin of Language
by Rev. Stephen D. Cole
The doctrines unfolded in the Writings make all things new. There is a new light shining on all aspects of our life and thought. One area in which this can be seen is in the realm of language. The teachings now revealed allow us to think about and use language in a way that has never before been possible. Our speech and writing can be touched by this; our feeling for poetry, our ideas about translation, can arise from this fresh approach. Before the newness of the doctrine of the Writings can be seen, though, the old ideas about language must be known. From a survey of these it can be learned what are the questions or controversies for which the Writings now provide solutions. Let us turn briefly to history, then, and note some representative positions.
The Mythologies of the Ancients
Without going into the details of all the myths and ancient tales that have a bearing on language, two general features should be observed. The first is that language was believed to be a gift from God and the second is that language was seen to have been involved in the actual process of creation and that therefore there would be some mystical connection between word and object, some intrinsic fitness of a particular word for its corresponding object. One specific example of this will suffice. Among the oldest theological formulations of ancient Egypt is the Memphite Theology. This theology describes the conception and creation of the universe by the heart and tongue of the god Ptah:
Such theology is not entirely unfamiliar today. For in the Old Testament we find the speech of God creating: "And God said, Let there be . . . and there was. . . ." We also find the naming of animals as part of the creation story. In the New Testament the doctrine of the creative Word is found in the first chapter of John. Teachings like these are found throughout the ancient traditions. This, however, provides only the basis or background for the subsequent discussion of language. It is not until the beginning of philosophy that real exploration of the questions and problems involved with language first begin to appear.
Even at the beginning of Greek philosophy the seeds of a fundamental controversy are seen. The question raised was: Do words have their relation to those things which they represent by nature or merely by convention? This is a sophistication of a question implied by the mythological approaches. For if language had a divine origin, the relation between word and object must be natural, whereas, if language is an artificial human convention the relation must be arbitrary.
Plato devoted a dialogue, the Cratylus, to the discussion of these two positions as they had developed up to his time. The two participants in the dialogue, other than Socrates, are Hermogenes and Cratylus, representatives of the nature and convention schools of thought respectively. Socrates first deals with Hermogenes, showing that the belief that language is arbitrary convention can be identified with the view of Protagoras that man is the measure of all things. This leads to complete subjectivity and destroys all meaning in language. Socrates, however, cannot accept the argument of Cratylus without question either. How could a divinely created system, he asks, have the imperfections that are so evident in language?  Thus there are points discussed which question the correctness of either position. The underlying theory, the theory of Plato himself, is that there is some measure of inherent resemblance of an object in a word, especially in the elements of which the word is composed, but that in language as it exists this is to a certain extent lost.
Plato's belief in the natural connection of word and object was countered by Aristotle's espousal of the convention theory of word origin. While Aristotle has left no comprehensive study of the origin of language, it is clear from his writings on the use of language that he assumed that words have their meanings from a completely arbitrary source. And indeed, he explicitly denies natural meaning in words.
After the Greeks there was a long lull in the discussion of the nature and origin of language. This was partly because of a feeling that the Greeks had said all there was to be said and partly because of the Judeo-Christian tradition concerning the account of language in Genesis. For many years it was felt that the bringing of the animals to be named in the creation story  assigned a divine origin to language and that the story of the tower of Babel  accounted for the diversity of language. It was not until relatively recent times that this was openly questioned.
Modern Philosophy I
Descartes was one of the early figures in the modern discussion of language. Language was not a chief concern in his philosophy but it was important in the formation of his conception of human reason. He considered language to be one of the two principle distinctions between man and animal:
The use of language to define the essence of man as different from that of animals seems a concern unrelated to the nature vs. convention argument. The connection of the belief, that words are naturally related to the objects they represent with the belief that language is a faculty natural in man will become more obvious, however, as we turn again to the other side of the question.
John Locke is well known for his contention that the mind of man is at birth a "tabula rasa," a blank slate, which ruled out the possibility of innate ideas. The consequence of this idea for language study is that language must then be a thing acquired entirely after birth. This would mean that language, if a distinction between man and animal at all, would be one that developed some time after birth. It would also tend to support Aristotle's view, in that the idea of a natural language suggests something innate in man, while a conventional language would necessarily be learned after birth. Locke's views also involve the relation of thought and reason:
Locke is here differing from rationalists such as Descartes by arguing that although the existence of some ideas of reason before the formal languages we now know, may be admitted, he nevertheless insists that some specifics, some names from which these ideas, the generals, could be formed must have existed first.
Leibnitz, the rationalist, replies directly to this point in his critique of Locke. Of Locke's discussion of the relation of general ideas to particular Leibnitz says:
The position here indicated is that man could not speak, or even think about a specific object without already having a general category it could be assigned to. To suggest that something general must precede acquisition of the specifics of language again implies that there is an innate or natural element involved in language. Leibnitz shows more explicit sympathy for these views in the following: "I truly think that languages are the best mirrors of the human mind, and that an exact analysis of the signification of words would show us better than anything else the workings of the understanding."
Leibnitz believed that one way in which this signification might be sought was by seeking the common ancestor of modern languages. He thus sets out as one of the pioneers in comparative philology. After comparing a number of languages he says:
This primitive root language was believed by Leibnitz to have preceded any known language and he therefore called it proto-speech. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that Leibnitz's search for the universal and natural language was one of the original sources leading to Swedenborg's pursuit of the Universal Mathesis in his philosophical works.
Another proponent of the opinion that language is conventional was Rousseau. His view includes a curious twist of an element in Descartes' position. Language distinguishes man from animal not because it is innate and natural but rather the very fact of its conventional nature makes it distinguishing:
By making the distinction consist only in this, however, and not in man having a natural language discreetly different from that of animals, he has weakened the distinction considerably. For one can easily come to believe that that it is possible to pass from one side to the other, that animal could become man simply by learning the use of conventional symbols. This is just the view that later develops, as will be seen. Rousseau's treatment is marked with inconsistencies. At one point he assents to the old divine origin theory  while elsewhere he seems to make the early development of language little more than an animal's response to its environment. Rousseau, in fact, does not really seem interested in the philosophy of language; he is pursuing practical questions. Richard Albert Wilson, writing on the origin of language, comments on Rousseau:
"Rousseau's essay on the Origin of Languages, about 1750, might be taken as the historical landmark which stands between the old and the new points of view."
And in opening his next chapter Wilson states:
One fascinating point about this analysis of the history of the study of language is the date selected for the landmark. The twenty-two years mentioned are almost exactly the twenty-two years in which the Writings were written. And there is no question that Herder was familiar with the Writings, as Swedenborg's descriptions of the other world are referred to in the essay.
Modern Philosophy II
In his essay Herder first refutes the old divine origin theories. With a line of reasoning very much like that of Plato, he points out the imperfections of language and asks how a divine creation could have such defects. More lively is his refutation of the animal origins of language having some currency at that time. He attacks Abbe Condillac's thought experiment which was to conceive of the isolation of two children and contemplate how they would originate their own language. Herder sees no validity in this at all. He then turns his attention to Rousseau's views:
Herder finishes off those holding to an animal, or as it is here called, human origin, in this fashion:
This also describes very well the position of many at the present day who also believe rather than prove the animal origin of language.
Herder's own approach to the origin of language represents, as Wilson suggests, an entirely new approach to the problem. Some of the seeds of Herder's ideas can be found in the works of Johann Georg Hamann and some, it may be suspected, arose from Herder's contact with the Writings. The reason that Herder may be singled out, though, is that he was the first to set forth this new view of language in a clear philosophical argument aimed at the question of the origin of language. Herder's position begins where that of Descartes leaves off: language, with reason, a distinctively human faculty. Descartes simply identified language as such a distinguishing mark. He did not explain how it came to be so, nor did he explore the implication of this identification. Herder diligently examines the difference between man and animal, with far more acuity than Rousseau, in an attempt to see how language fits into this difference.
Herder begins by observing that all animals are furnished with instincts, while man is born with no instinct at all. Animals are each given their special abilities suited to their special place in nature. Man is not specially suited to any place in nature - this itself, says Herder, constitutes man's special gift. For in being given instincts for no specific sphere, man is given the freedom to act in any sphere. Herder will not agree with the idea of many, that man's gift is simply to have something in addition to animal nature. Man is not just an animal with one further
power, there is a difference in his entire disposition. Of this Herder says:
Freedom, reason, reflection and other such powers pervades all man's being, animals have nothing of these. Along with these things must be the ability to use language. For in animals, Herder argues, there are things that image or mimic language. Animals possess such things in according to the latitude of their sphere of activity. When the sphere of narrow instinct serves all the animal's needs, there is no necessity of language. As the sphere broadens instinct serves less completely and the need of something like language grows. Man, however, is distinctly different. He has no instinct at all and therefore is the only being endowed with true language, animals having no more than simple sounds to express their feeling. True language is fundamental in man, or as Herder says: "Language is as essential to man as his human nature." 
Herder's ideas about language have been passed on and reworked even into the present century. One of the links in this transmission was Wilhelm von Humboldt in the nineteenth century. One quotation from Humboldt will serve to show his place in the discussion:
The basic principle here, the identity of language and human nature, is an echo of Herder. Humboldt, however, elaborates one of the implications of this. Forty years before Darwin set forth his theory of evolution, Humboldt suggested that it would be natural to suppose that language in man had a gradual evolutionary development, natural but totally wrong.
Darwin's Origin of Species was a carefully reasoned presentation of the theory of evolution by natural selection. It was based on Darwin's many years of observation of the biological world. This work revolutionized the thought of biologists. Emboldened by the success of this treatment of animal evolution Darwin several years later made a fuller exploration of the application of this theory to the development of man. This more speculative work Darwin called The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. In it Darwin treats language as he treats other characteristics acquired through natural selection:
Darwin, of course, was a biologist not a linguist, a psychologist, or a philosopher. His naive conjectures in this field, ignoring 2000 years of discussion of the nature of language and its implications, are therefore understandable. What is remarkable, however, is that the naive conjectures of this biologist have been the foundation of much of the discussion of language in the hundred years since his time. The objecting voices of a few linguists could not prevail against the scientific tide then coming in. Also contributing to the wide-spread acceptance of the naive evolutionary theory of language is the fact that the students of language could find no completely satisfactory explanation of the origin of language themselves. It always seemed to resolve into paradoxes. As Susanne K. Langer has put it: the problem of origin of language is so baffling that it is no longer considered respectable. In 1866 The Linguistic Society of Paris was founded. Included in its bylaws was the prohibition that no communication on the origin of language would be accepted. Speculation concerning the origin of language is now said to be unscientific. Instead of leaving the question open, however, many simply ignore the philosophical problems and believe the evolutionary approach. This is where the discussion of the origin of language now stands. A little more may be said, though, about recent views on the nature of language.
There has been considerable discussion this century of linguistic relativity, the idea that the language one speaks closely correlates the way in which one thinks and views the world. Many believe that this means that language determines thought. The chief formulation of the theory is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Edward Sapir's position is fairly clear. He stated, for instance:
"It is, indeed, in the highest degree likely that language is an instrument originally put to uses lower than the conceptual plane and that thought arises as a refined interpretation of its content."  Sapir is following the evolutionary view of language origin and making language the cause of thought. Whorf's understanding of the meaning of linguistic relativity is not so clear however.
He suggests that it is "a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated." This is quite in harmony with what was quoted from Sapir. Whorf also makes such statements as the following: "Actually, thinking is most mysterious, and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is thrown by the study of language." This recalls the statements of Leibnitz, who reached his conclusions from a belief in the universal language. It is therefore interesting to note that Whorf, author of the linguistic relativity hypothesis, also sought the universal language, and in conjunction with that search looked to the language of the Bible. Further, he speaks of the inward kinship of nature and language and universal elements present in all languages. Whorf, although he believed in a new principle of relativity, felt that language and the study of language were a road to higher truth, not bonds that enslave man to his environment.
Conclusion to the Historical Part
In summing up this historical survey, we can derive benefit by turning our attention to the analysis of Wilbur Marshall Urban. He looks at the history of thought in terms of high and low evaluations of language:
This high evaluation of language is the underlying assumption of all periods of rationalism and is uniformly accompanied by some belief in the reality of universals, since the very naming of anything immediately universalizes it in some sense and to some degree. As opposed to this high evaluation, with its trust in the word, there is the low evaluation which appears in all critical periods of culture. Skepticism is always ultimately skepticism of the word.... Skepticism of the word is the underlying assumption of all periods of empiricism and is again accompanied by some form of nominalism - by disbelief in the reality of the universal, the reality of the universal being at once the condition of valid naming and of communication of meaning. The inseparability of the word and the thing is, then, in one form or another, the postulate of all positive culture epoch and the loosing of the word from the thing the beginning of skepticism and relativism 
This concise summary identifies the two poles that have existed in all the issues we have thus far considered, those issues being:
It can be seen that those positions on the left above represent high evaluation of language, trust in language; whereas those on the right side represent low evaluations of language, skepticism of language.
These are characteristic samples from the history of thought. What, now, do the Writings tell us about language? Do they suggest a high or a low evaluation of language?
The Doctrines on Language
From the Writings we learn that the mythic traditions about language must be based on wisdom from the ancient churches. For the Writings tell us that the creative Word is the Divine truth proceeding from the Lord.43 And of this we are told:
The Word has a real, creative connection with the thing created. On the Divine level, at least, there is identity of Speech and the creative. From the Lord, who alone is Speech, and the Word, goes forth all the life of man's affection, thought, and speech.
In the spiritual world speech is found on several distinct planes. Of these planes of speech the Writings tell us:
The planes of speech are progressively more interior and perfect as they approach the Lord who is the origin and life of all speech. It is also said, somewhat paradoxically, that these are planes of greater or lesser universality. Universality, one might object, cannot be a matter of more or less; something is either universal or it is not. Universal is not used here in an absolute sense. It refers rather to the degree to which there are certain things shared on a given plane of the spiritual world. All in one heaven share some fundamentals of thought and because the speech in that world is the speech of ideas, all in one heaven can therefore understand the speech of one another. This is not to say, however, that the speech of one spirit will therefore be identical to that of another.
Spirits, in fact, can even be distinguished according to their speech. For we are told, "I have been enabled ... from their speech to perceive their quality, for from their speech, in like manner as from their sphere, it is plainly manifest of what genius and of what natural disposition they are."  Thus for speech in the other world the Writings establish' both a principle of universality and also an allowance for some variability within the universal. This seems more along the lines of what would be called in worldly languages "dialectal differences" (mutually intelligible forms of one language) rather than a difference as great as that between separate languages. The extent of variation, however, diminishes as one regards progressively higher heavens. In the Lord exists the true universal and perfect language. Such language can be attained by a man only to the degree that his thought is lifted up toward the Lord.
Having noted the universality of spiritual speech, a discussion of its perfectly natural character follows logically. On this subject there is certainly relevant material in the Writings:
It is explained not only that the spiritual language is a natural one but also how it is natural. Such natural language is produced by the spontaneous correspondence of the organs of the body with the thoughts and affections to be expressed. Being spontaneous, this language does not have to be learned but rather is innate with every one. Indeed, since it is innate it is possessed by everyone in the world as well, although it. lies hidden, only to become manifest in the other world.
Much has now been said about the spiritual language. But what bearing does this have on language in the world? On the one hand the Writings tell us, "The speech of spirits is a universal speech, and from it are sprung, and, as it were, born all the languages," while on the other hand they say, "All in the spiritual world have a spiritual language which has nothing in common with any language in the natural world." These two statements do not directly contradict one another but it does require some investigation of the subject to see just how they can both be true.
In one place the Writings, after saying that the angelic language has nothing in common with human languages, go on to teach that the first. language of men on our earth coincided with angelic language because those men had it from heaven. The language of the most ancients was then, also a perfectly natural language. We are told too that the Hebrew language agrees in some respects. This is interesting both because it places Hebrew close to the original universal language and in so doing makes it clear that Hebrew itself was not that original language. This first language on earth was not at all like language at this day. It was a speech associated with the tacit breathing of that time. It. made use of facial expression especially that of the eyes and lips. It was not a speech of words, not articulate.
When the Most Ancient Church fell and finally came to an end, language changed. With the rise of the Ancient Church a new sort of speech arose, owing to the fact that man's will and understanding had now been separated. This meant that international respiration had thus ceased and communication with heaven had been cut off. Articulate speech now began, a very different kind of speech than that which had been learned directly from heaven. Nevertheless, this language must have originated from the first language. The fact that Hebrew, a language of the new sort, coincides in some respects with the most ancient language makes it clear that there must have been some connection. Originally, it would seem, the language of the Ancient Church was simply that of the Most Ancient Church made external.
In time the Ancient Church also fell. This is described in the story of the tower of Babel. And as this story is among those historicals of the Word intermediate between made-up and true, perhaps there is some literal truth to the confusion of tongues. For it would only be logical for an increasing difficulty in understanding the speech of other men to develop as their doctrinal positions diverged further and further apart. At any rate is seems clear that the differing tongues of mankind must have arisen from some early separation of men as to ways of thought or forms of mind.
This brief history of the development of language suggests one way in which it is true that all languages derive their origin from the speech of spirits. For that language, as it existed with the most ancients, was the parent language of all languages in the world today. On the other hand, these modern languages have become in course of time so different as to have virtually nothing in common with the speech of spirits. This is how these statements from the Writings might be viewed relative to the history of mankind, they also may be viewed as applying to the individual, however.
As has been seen above, spiritual speech is the language of ideas. Spirits are in what the Writings call the primitives of words. And, in fact, man is in these too, as to his spirit, although he is not aware of them while he lives on earth. The speech of spirits is the cause, the immediate origin of everything said in the speech of this world. Without ideas there could be no earthly language. Nevertheless, the language of the spiritual world is ineffable. Although by correspondence that language brings forth earthly language, it can never itself fall into the words of earthly speech.
This short survey of some teaching bearing on language may provide some insight into the philosophical questions raised.
The Writings and Philosophy
Returning to the matter of whether language was the gift of God or rather simply developed out of animal sounds, it is now possible to say that both sides in that controversy are wrong insofar as they suggest that language came from outside of man. Language was given and is given by the Lord interiorly through the degrees in man's mind. Speech arises from the Lord and is accommodated successively downward through the heavens and finally comes into the world. This is certainly not an outgrowth of the cries of animals, but neither is it simply an external gift from God to man.
Language, as it exists from the Lord by correspondence, is also perfectly natural. Man's original language had not the slightest element of human convention. This first language, however, has now been modified and separated into thousands of different strands, all by man's artifice. The stamp of human conventions cannot now be denied. What can be denied is that any meaning has ever been imparted to language by the agreement of men. The meaning itself is communication, and there is no communication apart from correspondence. Even when meanings are arbitrarily assigned to words, such words must originally be defined by words with a non-arbitrary meaning. Almost all words have a lengthy etymology at their backs, a history of meaning stretching back toward the original language.
From the Writings we have also learned that the universal language, the language of ideas, is innate at birth. The words of worldly language, however, are learned after birth. These could not e learned, though, if the primitives of these words had not already been present at birth.
Finally the Writings show us the true nature of the universal language. It was historically the origin of all languages. And even today it is the spiritual cause of all earthly language. The universal language is not one that men will artificially reconstruct. It is rather the language all men come into as their thought ascends into heaven and toward the Lord.
The Writings contain the truths that will solve the dilemmas of the philosophy of language. Generally the answers that they suggest involve turning the attention to the spiritual world as the world of cause. The phenomena of language are inexplicable in terms of this world alone. They can only properly be viewed from an understanding of the language of the spiritual world, the universal and natural language.
Belief in a universal language brings with it a high evaluation of language. It implies a system of values in language, it removes language from the realm of the subjective. Grammar and vocabulary can have an intrinsic rightness or wrongness in that they can more closely or more distantly image the universal language. Belief in a universal language is a belief in the existence of absolute standards in language. The applications of this to the use of language are manifold.
1. James B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 5.
2. Genesis 2 : 19
3. Plato, The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), Cratylus, 386.
4. Cratylus, 438.
5. Cratylus, 434-435
6. The Works of Aristotle. Translated into English under the editorship of J. A. Smith and W. D. Ross (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1928), Vol. I: De Interpretatione, 16a.
7. Ibid., 17a.
8. Genesis 2: 19.
9. Genesis 11: 1-9
10 Rene Descartes Discourse on Method, translated by John Veitch in The Rationalists (Garden City, New York: Dolphin Books, 1960), Part V, p. 81.
11. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Dover, 1959), Book II, Chapter XXII, p. 382.
12. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, New Essays Concerning Human Understanding, translated by A. G. Langley (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1916), p. 288.
13. Ibid., p. 368.
14. Ibid., p. 298
15 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages, translated by John H. Moran in On the Origin of Language (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966), p. 10.
16. Ibid., p. 36.
17 Richard Albert Wilson, The Miraculous Birth of Language (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), p. 64.
18. Ibid., p. 67.
19 Johann Gottfried Herder, Essay on the Origin of Language, translated by Alexander Gode in On the Origin of Language, p. 157.
20. Ibid., :pp. 92-96.
21. Ibid., pp. 99-101.
22. Ibid., pp. 101-103.
23. Ibid., p. 102.
24. Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), Vol. I: Language, p. 151 f.
25. Herder, op. cit., pp. 108-109.
26. Ibid., p. 109 f.
27. Ibid., pp. 103-107.
28. Ibid., p. 88.
29. Ibid., p. 108.
30. Wilhem von Humbolt, Humanist Without Portfolio: An Anthology of the writings of Wilhem von Humbolt translated by Marianne Cowan (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963), p. 239 f.
31. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (Akron, Ohio: The Werner Company, 1874), p. 90.
32. Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (New York: The New American Library, 1951), p. 99.
33. Alexander Gode, On the Origin of Language, p. vi.
34. Mario Pei, The Story of Language (New York: The New American Library, 1965), p. 30.
35. Edward Sapir, Language (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921), p. 1
36. Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf edited by John B. Carroll (Cambridge Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1956), p. 214.
37. Ibid., p. 252.
38. Ibid., p. 12.
39. Ibid., p. 249.
40. Ibid., p. 258.
41. Ibid., p. 248.
42. Wilbur Marsh Urban, Language and Reality (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1939), p. 23 f.
43. AC 6115: 4.
44. AC 5272: 2.
45. AC 1642; SD 2134-2141.
46. AC 1641-1642.
47. AC 1640
48. SD 4865-4866.
49 HH 236.
50. SD 5589.
51. SD 2138; Cf AC 1637.
52 CL 326: 4; AR 29: 2; TCR 19: 2.
53. HH 237.
54. SD 5595.
55. HH 237.
56. AC 607.
57. AC 1118.
58. AC 607-608, 1120.
59. AC 1140.
60. AC 1322.
-New Church Life 1977;97:386-400