Ancient History & Civilisation

The Mental Elements of Civilization


Language—Its animal background—Its human origins—Its development—Its results—Education—Initiation—Writing—Poetry

IN the beginning was the word, for with it man became man. Without those strange noises called common nouns, thought was limited to individual objects or experiences sensorily—for the most part visually—remembered or conceived; presumably it could not think of classes as distinct from individual things, nor of qualities as distinct from objects, nor of objects as distinct from their qualities. Without words as class names one might think of this man, or that man, or that man; one could not think of Man, for the eye sees not Man but only men, not classes but particular things. The beginning of humanity came when some freak or crank, half animal and half man, squatted in a cave or in a tree, cracking his brain to invent the first common noun, the first sound-sign that would signify a group of like objects: house that would mean all houses, man that would mean all men, light that would mean every light that ever shone on land or sea. From that moment the mental development of the race opened upon a new and endless road. For words are to thought what tools are to work; the product depends largely on the growth of the tools.1

Since all origins are guesses, and de fontibus non disputandum, the imagination has free play in picturing the beginnings of speech. Perhaps the first form of language—which may be defined as communication through signs—was the love-call of one animal to another. In this sense the jungle, the woods and the prairie are alive with speech. Cries of warning or of terror, the call of the mother to the brood, the cluck and cackle of euphoric or reproductive ecstasy, the parliament of chatter from tree to tree, indicate the busy preparations made by the animal kingdom for the august speech of man. A wild girl found living among the animals in a forest near Châlons, France, had no other speech than hideous screeches and howls. These living noises of the woods seem meaningless to our provincial ear; we are like the philosophical poodle Riquet, who says of M. Bergeret: “Everything uttered by my voice means something; but from my master’s mouth comes much nonsense.” Whitman and Craig discovered a strange correlation between the actions and the exclamations of pigeons; Dupont learned to distinguish twelve specific sounds used by fowl and doves, fifteen by dogs, and twenty-two by horned cattle; Garner found that the apes carried on their endless gossip with at least twenty different sounds, plus a repertory of gestures; and from these modest vocabularies a few steps bring us to the three hundred words that suffice some unpretentious men.2

Gesture seems primary, speech secondary, in the earlier transmission of thought; and when speech fails, gesture comes again to the fore. Among the North American Indians, who had countless dialects, married couples were often derived from different tribes, and maintained communication and accord by gestures rather than speech; one couple known to Lewis Morgan used silent signs for three years. Gesture was so prominent in some Indian languages that the Arapahos, like some modern peoples, could hardly converse in the dark.3 Perhaps the first human words were interjections, expressions of emotion as among animals; then demonstrative words accompanying gestures of direction; and imitative sounds that came in time to be the names of the objects or actions that they simulated. Even after indefinite millenniums of linguistic changes and complications every language still contains hundreds of imitative words—roar, rush, murmur, tremor, giggle, groan, hiss, heave, hum, cackle, etc.* The Tecuna tribe, of ancient Brazil, had a perfect verb for sneeze: haitschu.5 Out of such beginnings, perhaps, came the root-words of every language. Renan reduced all Hebrew words to five hundred roots, and Skeat nearly all European words to some four hundred stems.

The languages of nature peoples are not necessarily primitive in any sense of simplicity; many of them are simple in vocabulary and structure, but some of them are as complex and wordy as our own, and more highly organized than Chinese.7 Nearly all primitive tongues, however, limit themselves to the sensual and particular, and are uniformly poor in general or abstract terms. So the Australian natives had a name for a dog’s tail, and another name for a cow’s tail; but they had no name for tail in general.8 The Tasmanians had separate names for specific trees, but no general name for tree; the Choctaw Indians had names for the black oak, the white oak and the red oak, but no name for oak, much less for tree. Doubtless many generations passed before the proper noun ended in the common noun. In many tribes there are no separate words for the color as distinct from the colored object; no words for such abstractions as tone, sex, species, space, spirit, instinct, reason, quantity, hope, fear, matter, consciousness, etc.9 Such abstract terms seem to grow in a reciprocal relation of cause and effect with the development of thought; they become the tools of subtlety and the symbols of civilization.

Bearing so many gifts to men, words seemed to them a divine boon and a sacred thing; they became the matter of magic formulas, most reverenced when most meaningless; and they still survive as sacred in mysteries where, e.g., the Word becomes Flesh. They made not only for clearer thinking, but for better social organization; they cemented the generations mentally, by providing a better medium for education and the transmission of knowledge and the arts; they created a new organ of communication, by which one doctrine or belief could mold a people into homogeneous unity. They opened new roads for the transport and traffic of ideas, and immensely accelerated the tempo, and enlarged the range and content, of life. Has any other invention ever equaled, in power and glory, the common noun?

Next to the enlargement of thought the greatest of these gifts of speech was education. Civilization is an accumulation, a treasure-house of arts and wisdom, manners and morals, from which the individual, in his development, draws nourishment for his mental life; without that periodical reacquisition of the racial heritage by each generation, civilization would die a sudden death. It owes its life to education.

Education had few frills among primitive peoples; to them, as to the animals, education was chiefly the transmission of skills and the training of character; it was a wholesome relation of apprentice to master in the ways of life. This direct and practical tutelage encouraged a rapid growth in the primitive child. In the Omaha tribes the boy of ten had already learned nearly all the arts of his father, and was ready for life; among the Aleuts the boy of ten often set up his own establishment, and sometimes took a wife; in Nigeria children of six or eight would leave the parental house, build a hut, and provide for themselves by hunting and fishing.10 Usually this educational process came to an end with the beginning of sexual life; the precocious maturity was followed by an early stagnation. The boy, under such conditions, was adult at twelve and old at twenty-five.11 This does not mean that the “savage” had the mind of a child; it only means that he had neither the needs nor the opportunities of the modern child; he did not enjoy that long and protected adolescence which allows a more nearly complete transmission of the cultural heritage, and a greater variety and flexibility of adaptive reactions to an artificial and unstable environment.

The environment of the natural man was comparatively permanent; it called not for mental agility but for courage and character. The primitive father put his trust in character, as modern education has put its trust in intellect; he was concerned to make not scholars but men. Hence the initiation rites which, among nature peoples, ordinarily marked the arrival of the youth at maturity and membership in the tribe, were designed to test courage rather than knowledge; their function was to prepare the young for the hardships of war and the responsibilities of marriage, while at the same time they indulged the old in the delights of inflicting pain. Some of these initiation tests are “too terrible and too revolting to be seen or told.”12 Among the Kaffirs (to take a mild example) the boys who were candidates for maturity were given arduous work by day, and were prevented from sleeping by night, until they dropped from exhaustion; and to make the matter more certain they were scourged “frequently and mercilessly until blood spurted from them.” A considerable proportion of the boys died as a result; but this seems to have been looked upon philosophically by the elders, perhaps as an auxiliary anticipation of natural selection.13 Usually these initiation ceremonies marked the end of adolescence and the preparation for marriage; and the bride insisted that the bridegroom should prove his capacity for suffering. In many tribes of the Congo the initiation rite centered about circumcision; if the youth winced or cried aloud his relatives were thrashed, and his promised bride, who had watched the ceremony carefully, rejected him scornfully, on the ground that she did not want a girl for her husband.14

Little or no use was made of writing in primitive education. Nothing surprises the natural man so much as the ability of Europeans to communicate with one another, over great distances, by making black scratches upon a piece of paper.15 Many tribes have learned to write by imitating their civilized exploiters; but some, as in northern Africa, have remained letterless despite five thousand years of intermittent contact with literate nations. Simple tribes living for the most part in comparative isolation, and knowing the happiness of having no history, felt little need for writing. Their memories were all the stronger for having no written aids; they learned and retained, and passed on to their children by recitation, whatever seemed necessary in the way of historical record and cultural transmission. It was probably by committing such oral traditions and folk-lore to writing that literature began. Doubtless the invention of writing was met with a long and holy opposition, as something calculated to undermine morals and the race. An Egyptian legend relates that when the god Thoth revealed his discovery of the art of writing to King Thamos, the good King denounced it as an enemy of civilization. “Children and young people,” protested the monarch, “who had hitherto been forced to apply themselves diligently to learn and retain whatever was taught them, would cease to apply themselves, and would neglect to exercise their memories.”16

Of course we can only guess at the origins of this wonderful toy. Perhaps, as we shall see, it was a by-product of pottery, and began as identifying “trade-marks” on vessels of clay. Probably a system of written signs was made necessary by the increase of trade among the tribes, and its first forms were rough and conventional pictures of commercial objects and accounts. As trade connected tribes of diverse languages, some mutually intelligible mode of record and communication became desirable. Presumably the numerals were among the earliest written symbols, usually taking the form of parallel marks representing the fingers; we still call them fingers when we speak of them as digits. Such words as five, the German fünf and the Greek pente go back to a root meaning hand;17 so the Roman numerals indicated fingers, “V” represented an expanded hand, and “X” was merely two “V’s” connected at their points. Writing was in its beginnings—as it still is in China and Japan—a form of drawing, an art. As men used gestures when they could not use words, so they used pictures to transmit their thoughts across time and space; every word and every letter known to us was once a picture, even as trade-marks and the signs of the zodiac are to this day. The primeval Chinese pictures that preceded writing were called ku-wan—literally, “gesture-pictures.” Totem poles were pictograph writing; they were, as Mason suggests, tribal autographs. Some tribes used notched sticks to help the memory or to convey a message; others, like the Algonquin Indians, not only notched the sticks but painted figures upon them, making them into miniature totem poles; or perhaps these poles were notched sticks on a grandiose scale. The Peruvian Indians kept complex records, both of numbers and ideas, by knots and loops made in diversely colored cords; perhaps some light is shed upon the origins of the South American Indians by the fact that a similar custom existed among the natives of the Eastern Archipelago and Polynesia. Lao-tse, calling upon the Chinese to return to the simple life, proposed that they should go back to their primeval use of knotted cords.18

More highly developed forms of writing appear sporadically among nature men. Hieroglyphics have been found on Easter Island, in the South Seas; and on one of the Caroline Islands a script has been discovered which consists of fifty-one syllabic signs, picturing figures and ideas.19Tradition tells how the priests and chiefs of Easter Island tried to keep to themselves all knowledge of writing, and how the people assembled annually to hear the tablets read; writing was obviously, in its earlier stages, a mysterious and holy thing, a hieroglyph or sacred carving. We cannot be sure that these Polynesian scripts were not derived from some of the historic civilizations. In general, writing is a sign of civilization, the least uncertain of the precarious distinctions between civilized and primitive men.

Literature is at first words rather than letters, despite its name; it arises as clerical chants or magic charms, recited usually by the priests, and transmitted orally from memory to memory. Carmina, as the Romans named poetry, meant both verses and charms; ode, among the Greeks, meant originally a magic spell; so did the English rune and lay, and the German Lied. Rhythm and meter, suggested, perhaps, by the rhythms of nature and bodily life, were apparently developed by magicians or shamans to preserve, transmit, and enhance the “magic incantations of their verse.”20The Greeks attributed the first hexameters to the Delphic priests, who were believed to have invented the meter for use in oracles.21 Gradually, out of these sacerdotal origins, the poet, the orator and the historian were differentiated and secularized: the orator as the official lauder of the king or solicitor of the deity; the historian as the recorder of the royal deeds; the poet as the singer of originally sacred chants, the formulator and preserver of heroic legends, and the musician who put his tales to music for the instruction of populace and kings. So the Fijians, the Tahitians and the New Caledonians had official orators and narrators to make addresses on occasions of ceremony, and to incite the warriors of the tribe by recounting the deeds of their forefathers and exalting the unequaled glories of the nation’s past: how little do some recent historians differ from these! The Somali had professional poets who went from village to village singing songs, like medieval minnesingers and troubadours. Only exceptionally were these poems of love; usually they dealt with physical heroism, or battle, or the relations of parents and children. Here, from the Easter Island tablets, is the lament of a father separated from his daughter by the fortunes of war:

The sail of my daughter,

Never broken by the force of foreign clans;

The sail of my daughter,

Unbroken by the conspiracy of Honiti!

Ever victorious in all her fights,

She could not be enticed to drink poisoned waters

In the obsidian glass.

Can my sorrow ever be appeased

While we are divided by the mighty seas?

O my daughter, O my daughter!

It is a vast and watery road

Over which I look toward the horizon,

My daughter, O my daughter!22

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