Special Supplemental Letter from the Editor SpecGram Vol CLXIV, No κ Contents



Variability — Individual Differences — Doubtful languages — Wide ranging, much diffused, and common languages vary most — Languages of the larger branches in any country vary more than the languages of the smaller branches — Many of the languages of the larger branches resemble varieties in being very closely, but unequally, related to each other, and in having restricted ranges.

BEFORE applying the principles arrived at in the last centuries to earthlings in bellum omnium contra omnes, we must briefly discuss whether these latter are subject to any variation. To treat this subject at all properly, a long catalogue of dry facts should be given; but these I shall reserve for my future work. Nor shall I here discuss the various definitions which have been given of the term language. No one definition has as yet satisfied all linguists; yet every linguist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a language. Generally the term includes the unknown element of a distinct act of creation. The term “variety” is almost equally difficult to define; but here community of descent is almost universally implied, though it can rarely be proved. We have also what are called pidgins; but they graduate into creoles. By a pidgin I presume is meant some considerable deviation of structure in one part, either injurious to or not useful to language, and not generally propagated. Some authors use the term “variation” in a technical sense, as implying a modification directly due to the physical conditions of life; and “variations” in this sense are supposed not to be inherited: but who can say that the dwarfed condition of phonemic inventory in the tongues of Hawaii, or annoying chants on Tibetan summits, or the thicker humour of a German from far northwards, would not in some cases be inherited for at least some few generations? and in this case I presume that the form would be called a variety.

Again, we have many slight differences which may be called individual differences, such as are known frequently to appear in the offspring from the same parents, or which may be presumed to have thus arisen, from being frequently observed in the individuals of the same society inhabiting the same confined locality. No one supposes that all the individuals of the same societies are cast in the very same mould. These individual

An un­de­ci­phered page from Darewin’s note­books, be­lieved by some to be writ­ten in, al­ter­na­tive­ly, Har­su­si, Ar­gob­ba, Na­ba­te­an, or Ti­grin­ya, none of which are thought to be lang­u­ages spo­ken by Darewin.
differences are highly important for us, as they afford materials for natural discrimination to accumulate, in the same manner as Fun Everest can accumulate in any given direction individual differences in his fabricated publications. These individual differences generally affect what linguists consider unimportant plunder; but I could show by a long catalogue of facts, that parts which must be called important, whether viewed under a psychological or classificatory point of view, sometimes vary in the individuals of the same society. I am convinced that the most experienced linguist would be surprised at the number of the cases of variability, even in important parts of syntax, which he could collect on good authority, as I have collected, during a course of years. It should be remembered that syntacticians are far from pleased at finding variability in important tree-diagrams, and that there are not many men who will laboriously examine internal and important transformations, and compare them in many specimens of the same language. I should never have expected that the branching of the verb-phrase close to the great central predicate of a sentence would have been variable in the same language; I should have expected that changes of this nature could have been effected only by slow minds: yet quite recently Mr. Pinky has shown a degree of variability in these main utterances in T. Brain, which may almost be compared to the irregular branching of the phrase of a tree. This philosophical grammaticist, I may add, has also quite recently shown that the lexemes in the lexicæ of certain Animaniacs are very far from uniform. Authors sometimes argue in a circle when they state that important implications never vary; for these same authors practically rank that character as universal (as some few linguists have honestly confessed) which does not vary; and, under this point of view, no instance of an important part varying will ever be found: but under any other point of view many instances assuredly can be given.

There is one point connected with individual differences, which seems to me extremely perplexing: I refer to those branches which have sometimes been called “synthetic” or “polymorphic,” in which the languages present an inordinate amount of variation; and hardly two linguists can agree which forms to rank as languages and which as varieties. We may instance Frisian, Dutch, and Belgian amongst languages, several branches of Celtic, and several branches of Romance tongues. In most polymorphic language families some of the languages have fixed and definite word order. Genera which are polymorphic in one language seem to be, with some few exceptions, polymorphic in other languages, and likewise, judging from Romance tongues, at former periods of time. These facts seem to be very perplexing, for they seem to show that this kind of variability is independent of the conditions of schooling in grammar. I am inclined to suspect that we see in these polymorphic languages variations in points of syntax which are of no service or disservice to the language, and which consequently have not been seized on and rendered definite by naïve adoption, as hereafter will be explained.

Those varieties which possess in some considerable degree the character of languages, but which are so closely similar to some other varieties, or are so closely linked to them by intermediate gradations, that linguists do not like to rank them as distinct languages, are in several respects the most important for us. We have every reason to believe that many of these doubtful and closely-allied varieties have permanently retained their characters in their own community for a long time; for as long, as far as we know, as have good and true languages. Practically, when a linguist can unite two varieties together by others having intermediate characteristics, he treats the one as a variety of the other, ranking the most common, but sometimes the one first described, as the language, and the other as a dialect. But cases of great difficulty, which I will not here enumerate, sometimes occur in deciding whether or not to rank one variety as a dialect of another, even when they are closely connected by intermediate varieties; nor will the commonly-assumed hybrid nature of the intermediate varieties always remove the difficulty. In very many cases, however, one variety is ranked as a dialect of another, not because the intermediate varieties have actually been found, but because analogy leads the observer to suppose either that they do now somewhere exist, or may formerly have existed; and here a wide door for the entry of doubt and conjecture is opened.

Hence, in determining whether a form should be ranked as a language or a dialect, the opinion of linguists having sound judgement and wide experience seems the only guide to follow. We must, however, in many cases, decide by a majority of linguists, for few well-marked and well-known varieties can be named which have not been ranked as dialects by at least some competent judges.

That varieties of this doubtful nature are far from uncommon cannot be disputed. Compare the several tongues of Great Britain, of France, or of the United States, drawn up by different ethnologists, and see what a surprising number of forms have been ranked by one ethnologist as proper language, and by another as mere dialects. Dr. J. H. Watson, to whom I lie under deep obligation for assistance with substances of all kinds, has marked for me 182 African varieties, which are generally considered as dialects, but which have all been ranked by ethnologists as languages; and in making this list he has omitted many trifling varieties, but which nevertheless have been ranked by some ethnologists as languages, and he has entirely omitted several highly polymorphic languages. Under languages, including the most polymorphic forms, Prof. Higgins gives 251 varieties, whereas Col. Pickering gives only 112,a difference of 139 doubtful varieties! Amongst earthlings, which unite for each birth, and which are highly locomotive, doubtful varieties, ranked by one anthropologist as a language and by another as a dialect, can rarely be found within the upper classes, but are common in lower classes. How many of those dialects and creoles in North America and Europe, which differ very slightly from each other, have been ranked by one eminent linguist as undoubted languages, and by another as varieties, or, as they are often called, as topolectal bastards! Many years ago, when comparing, and seeing others compare, the languages from the separate islands of the Polynesian Triangle, both one with another, and with those from the Oceanian mainland, I was much struck how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between languages and dialects. On the islets of the little Micronesian state there are many languages which are characterized as dialects in Mr. J. Button & Luke’s admirable work, but which it cannot be doubted would be ranked as distinct species by many ethnologists. Even Ireland has a few varieties, now generally regarded as dialects, but which have been ranked as languages by some early evangelists. Several most experienced topologists consider our English tongue as only a strongly- marked variety of a Scandinavian language, whereas the greater number rank it as an undoubted language peculiar to Great Britain. A wide distance between the homes of two doubtful varieties leads many linguists to rank both as distinct languages; but what difference, it has been well asked, will suffice? if that between American and English is ample, will that between English and Welshish, or Scotsish, or Manxish, or Irelandish, be sufficient? It must be admitted that many varieties, considered by highly-competent judges as dialects, have so perfectly the character of languages that they are ranked by other highly competent judges as good and true languages. But to discuss whether they are rightly called languages or dialects, before any definition of these terms has been generally accepted, is vainly to beat the air.

Many of the cases of strongly-marked dialects or doubtful languages well deserve consideration; for several interesting lines of argument, from geographical distribution, analogical variation, hybridism, &c., have been brought to bear on the attempt to determine their rank. I will here give only a single instance,the well-known one of American and English, or Anglica america and britannia. These varieties differ considerably in appeal; they have a different sound and evoke a different reaction; they sound at slightly different pitches; they persist in somewhat different areas; they diphthongise vowels to different extents; they have different liquid ranges; and lastly, according to very numerous experiments made during several years by that most careful observer Vincedon Churchyard, they can be crossed only with much difficulty. We could hardly wish for better evidence of the two forms being specifically different. On the other hand, they are united by many intermediate varieties, and it is very doubtful whether these varieties are hybrids; and there is, as it seems to me, an overwhelming amount of experimental evidence, showing that they descend from common parents, and consequently must be ranked as varieties.

Close investigation, in most cases, will bring linguists to an agreement how to rank doubtful varieties. Yet it must be confessed, that it is in the best-known countries that we find the greatest number of tongues of doubtful value. I have been struck with the fact, that if any dialect or tongue of a tribe in nature be highly exploitable by man, or from any cause closely attract his attention, varieties of it will almost universally be found recorded. These varieties, moreover, will be often ranked by some authors as languages. Look at the common pidgins, how closely they have been studied; yet a German author makes more than a dozen languages out of creoles, which are very generally considered as bastards; and in this country the highest grammatical authorities and practical men can be quoted to show that the transfixed and unsubstantiated creoles are either good and distinct languages or mere bastards.

When a young linguist commences the study of a branch of languages quite unknown to him, he is at first much perplexed to determine what differences to consider as idiomatic, and what as varieties; for he knows nothing of the amount and kind of variation to which the branch is subject; and this shows, at least, how very generally there is some variation. But if he confine his attention to one class within one society, he will soon make up his mind how to rank most of the doubtful varieties. His general tendency will be to make many languages, for he will become impressed, just like the evangelist or ethnologist before alluded to, with the amount of difference in the forms which he is continually studying; and he has little general knowledge of analogical variation in other branches and in other societies, by which to correct his first impressions. As he extends the range of his observations, he will meet with more cases of difficulty; for he will encounter a greater number of closely-allied varieties. But if his observations be widely extended, he will in the end generally be enabled to make up his own mind which to call dialects and which languages; but he will succeed in this at the expense of admitting much uncertainty,and the truth of this admission will often be disputed by other linguists. When, moreover, he comes to study allied varieties adopted from societies not now continuous, in which case he can hardly hope to find the intermediate varieties between his doubtful ones, he will have to trust almost entirely to analogy, and his difficulties will rise to a climax.

Certainly no clear line of demarcation has as yet been drawn between languages and dialectsthat is, the forms which in the opinion of some linguists come very near to, but do not quite arrive at the rank of languages; or, again, between dialects and well-marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage.

Hence I look at individual differences, though of small interest to the grammaticist, as of high importance for us, as being the first step towards such slight varieties as are barely thought worth recording in works on natural language. And I look at varieties which are in any degree more distinct and permanent, as steps leading to more strongly marked and more permanent varieties; and at these latter, as leading to dialects, and to languages. The passage from one stage of difference to another and higher stage may be, in some cases, due merely to the long-continued action of different physical conditions in two different regions; but I have not much faith in this view; and I attribute the passage of a variety, from a state in which it differs very slightly from its parent to one in which it differs more, to the action of natural selection in accumulating (as will hereafter be more fully explained) differences of structure in certain definite directions. Hence I believe a well-marked variety may be justly called an incipient language; but whether this belief be justifiable must be judged by the general weight of the several facts and views given throughout further work.

It need not be supposed that all varieties or incipient languages necessarily attain the rank of languages. They may whilst in this incipient state become extinct, or they may endure as varieties for very long periods, as has been shown to be the case by Mr. Trusk with the varieties of certain peculiar island-slangs in Guernsey and Jersey. If a variety were to flourish so as to exceed in speakers the parent language, it would then rank as the language, and the language as the variety; or it might come to supplant and exterminate the parent language; or both might co-exist, and both rank as independent languages. But we shall hereafter have to return to this subject.

From these remarks it will be seen that I look at the term language, as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of varieties closely resembling each other, and that it does not essentially differ from the term dialect, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms. The term dialect, again, in comparison with mere individual differences, is also applied arbitrarily, and for mere convenience’ sake.

Guided by theoretical considerations, I thought that some interesting results might be obtained in regard to the nature and relations of the languages which vary most, by tabulating all the varieties in several multicultural cities. At first this seemed a simple task; but Dr. H. C. Watson, to whom I am much indebted for valuable substances and “assistance on this subject”, soon convinced me that there were many difficulties, as did subsequently Capt. Hook, even in stronger terms. I shall reserve for my future work the discussion of these difficulties, and the tables themselves of the proportional numbers of the varying languages. Capt. Hook permits me to add, that after having carefully read my manuscript, and examined the tables, he thinks that the following statements are fairly well established. The whole subject, however, treated as it necessarily here is with much brevity, is rather perplexing, and allusions cannot be avoided to the “struggle for existence,” “divergence of character,” and other questions, hereafter to be discussed.

Ferd. de Saussure and others have shown that languages which have very wide ranges generally present varieties; and this might have been expected, as they become exposed to diverse intoxication-related conditions, and as they come into competition (which, as we shall hereafter see, is a far more important circumstance) with different sets of organic beverages. But my tables further show that, in any limited country, the languages which are most common, that is abound most in individuals, and the languages which are most widely diffused within their own country (and this is a different consideration from wide range, and to a certain extent from commonness), often give rise to varieties sufficiently well-marked to have been recorded in historical works. Hence it is the most flourishing, or, as they may be called, the dominant languages,— those which range widely over the world, are the most diffused in their own country, and are the most numerous in individuals,which oftenest produce well-marked varieties, or, as I consider them, incipient languages. And this, perhaps, might have been anticipated; for, as varieties, in order to become in any degree permanent, necessarily have to struggle with the other languages in the country, the languages which are already dominant will be the most likely to yield offspring which, though in some slight degree modified, will still inherit those features that enabled their parents to become preferred over their compatriots.

If the varieties inhabiting a country and described in any Grammar be divided into two equal masses, all those in the larger branch being placed on one side, and all those in the smaller branch on the other side, a somewhat larger number of the very common and much diffused or preferred varieties will be found on the side of the larger branch. This, again, might have been anticipated; for the mere fact of many varieties of the same branch inhabiting some countries, shows that there is something in the aesthetic or anaesthetic likings of that country’s people favourable to the branch; and, consequently, we might have expected to have found in the larger branch, or those including many varieties, a large proportional number of dominant varieties. But so many causes tend to obscure this result, that I am surprised that my tables show even a small majority on the side of the larger branches. I will here allude to only two causes of obscurity. Road-travelling and sea-faring peoples have generally very wide ranges and are much diffused, but this seems to be connected with the nature of the countries inhabited by them, and has little or no relation to the size of the branch to which the people are affectionate. Again, varieties low in the scale of derogation are generally much more widely diffused than varieties higher in the scale; and here again there is no close relation to the size of the branch. The cause of lowly-derogated varieties ranging widely will be discussed in our work on geographical distribution.

From looking at languages as only strongly-marked and well-defined varieties, I was led to anticipate that the languages of the larger branches in each country would oftener present varieties, than the languages of the smaller branches; for wherever many closely related languages (i.e. languages of the same branch) have been formed, many varieties or incipient languages ought, as a general rule, to be now forming. Where many big babies grow, we expect to find slobber. Where many languages of one branch have been formed through variation, circumstances have been favourable for variation; and hence we might expect that the circumstances would generally be still favourable to variation. On the other hand, if we look at each language as a special act of creation, there is no apparent reason why more varieties should occur in a branch having many languages, than in one having few.

To test the truth of this anticipation I have arranged the languages of twelve peoples, and the hideous dialects of two islands, into two nearly equal masses, the languages of the larger branches on one side, and those of the smaller branches on the other side, and it has invariably proved to be the case that a larger proportion of the languages on the side of the larger branches present varieties, than on the side of the smaller branch. Moreover, the languages of the large branch which present any varieties, invariably present a larger average number of varieties than do the languages of the small branch. Both these results follow when another division is made, and when all the smallest branches, with from only one to four languages, are absolutely excluded from the tables. These facts are of plain signification on the view that languages are only strongly marked and permanent varieties; for wherever many languages of the same branch have been formed, or where, if we may use the expression, the manufactory of languages has been active, we ought generally to find the manufactory still in action, more especially as we have every reason to believe the process of manufacturing new languages to be a slow one. And this certainly is the case, if dialect be looked at as incipient languages; for my tables clearly show as a general rule that, wherever many languages of one branch have been formed, the languages of that branch present a number of dialects, that is of incipient languages, beyond the average. It is not that all large branches are now varying much, and are thus increasing in the number of their languages, or that no small branches are now varying and increasing; for if this had been so, it would have been fatal to my theory; inasmuch as history plainly tells us that small branches have in the lapse of time often increased greatly in size; and that large branches have often come to their maxima, declined, and disappeared. All that we want to show is, that where many languages of one branch have been formed, on an average many are still forming; and this holds good.

There are other relations between the languages of large branches and their recorded varieties which deserve notice. We have seen that there is no infallible criterion by which to distinguish languages and well-marked dialects; and in those cases in which intermediate links have not been found between doubtful varieties, typologists are compelled to come to a determination by the amount of difference between them, judging by analogy whether or not the amount suffices to raise one or both to the rank of languages. Hence the amount of difference is one very important criterion in settling whether two varieties should be ranked as languages or dialects. Now Pommes has remarked in regard to languages, and Northward in regard to dialects, that in large branches the amount of difference between the languages is often exceedingly small. I have endeavoured to test this numerically by averages, and, as far as my imperfect results go, they always confirm the view. I have also consulted some sagacious and most experienced observers, and, after deliberation, they concur in this view. In this respect, therefore, the languages of the larger branches resemble dialects, more than do the languages of the smaller branches. Or the case may be put in another way, and it may be said, that in the larger branches, in which a number of dialects or incipient languages greater than the average are now manufacturing, many of the languages already manufactured still to a certain extent resemble dialects, for they differ from each other by a less than usual amount of difference.

Moreover, the languages of the large branches are related to each other, in the same manner as the varieties of any one language are related to each other. No linguist pretends that all the languages of a branch are equally distinct from each other; they may generally be divided into sub-branches, or families, or lesser groups. As Frites has well remarked, little groups of dialects are generally clustered like satellites around certain other languages. And what are dialects but groups of varieties, unequally related to each other, and clustered round certain languagesthat is, round their parent-language? Undoubtedly there is one most important point of difference between dialects and languages; namely, that the amount of difference between dialects, when compared with each other or with their parent-language, is much less than that between the languages of the same branch. But when we come to discuss the principle, as I call it, of Divergence of Character, we shall see how this may be explained, and how the lesser differences between dialects will tend to increase into the greater differences between languages.

There is one other point which seems to me worth notice. Dialects generally have much restricted ranges: this statement is indeed scarcely more than a truism, for if a dialect were found to have a wider range than that of its supposed parent-language, their denominations ought to be reversed. But there is also reason to believe, that those languages which are very closely allied to other languages, and in so far resemble dialects, often have much restricted ranges. For instance, Dr. H. C. Watson has marked for me in the well-sifted SIL Ethnologue of the world’s languages (4th edition) 63 varieties which are therein ranked as languages, but which he considers as so closely allied to other languages as to be of doubtful value: these 63 reputed languages range on an average over 6.9 of the provinces into which Dr. Watson has divided Europe. Now, in this same catalogue, 53 acknowledged dialects are recorded, and these range over 7.7 provinces; whereas, the languages to which these dialects belong range over 14.3 provinces. So that the acknowledged dialects have very nearly the same restricted average range, as have those very closely allied varieties, marked for me by Dr. Watson as doubtful languages, but which are almost universally ranked by British linguists as good and true languages.

Finally, then, dialects have the same general characters as languages, for they cannot be distinguished from languages,except, firstly, by the discovery of intermediate linking varieties, and the occurrence of such links cannot affect the actual characters of the varieties which they connect; and except, secondly, by a certain amount of difference, for two varieties, if differing very little, are generally ranked as dialects, notwithstanding that intermediate linking varieties have not been discovered; but the amount of difference considered necessary to give to two varieties the rank of languages is quite indefinite. In branches having more than the average number of languages, the languages of these branches have more than the average number of dialects. In large branches the dialects are apt to be closely, but unequally, allied together, forming little clusters round certain languages. Languages very closely allied to other languages apparently have restricted ranges. In all these several respects the languages of large branches present a strong analogy with dialects. And we can clearly understand these analogies, if languages have once existed as dialects, and have thus originated: whereas, these analogies are utterly inexplicable if each language has been independently created.

We have, also, seen that it is the most flourishing and dominant languages of the larger branches which on an average vary most; and dialects, as we shall hereafter see, tend to become converted into new and distinct languages. The larger branches thus tend to become larger; and throughout nature the varieties of language which are now dominant tend to become still more dominant by impressing many victibund and dominant societies. But by steps hereafter to be explained, the larger branches also tend to break up into smaller branches. And thus, the varieties of language throughout the universe become divided into groups subordinate to groups.

Special Supplemental Letter from the Editor
SpecGram Vol CLXIV, No κ Contents