Monday, January 7, 2019

A puzzler

Kleanthes sent me this little note yesterday:

George Walkden posted this brainteaser on Facebook recently:
“We do not want to know languages, we want to know language; what language is, how it can form a vehicle or an organ of thought; we want to know its origin, its nature, its laws”. Who wrote this, and when? (No Googling!)  

…Interestingly, the same author also wrote some ten years after the previous quote that because "between the language of animals and the language of man there is *no* natural bridge", "to account for human language such as we possess would require a faculty of which no trace has ever been discovered in lower animals”.  

I don't facebook. So in case others who read FoL don't either or did not chance to see the puzzle, you can try your luck here. Answer in footnote 1.[1]

The author turns out to be a fascinating person (and no I did not know who he was till Klea sent me the query) very much in the tradition of von Humboldt. Indeed, his remarks are apposite to this day. I have started reading some of his work (they are available online). They are well worth the time. 

Thx to Klea for sending me this puzzler and the other material.

[1]Max Muller. The first is from his lectures in 1861. They are available on line and well worth looking at. The second is from a public lecture that he gave on Darwin and Evolang.  It is reported in NatureDec 26 1872:145. Thx to Klea for sending me this info.


  1. That's what you get from bumping into Linguistics from Philosophy (the not knowing who Max Mueller was bit)! :) I think William Dwight Whitney has similar lines too (coming from the same tradition as Max).

    1. Yes, as you and Mr Kambi indicate, there is a downside to coming to linguistics from philosophy. The good news is that I now have all these gems to read fresh.

  2. In case you haven't already come across here is a book "A History of Psycholinguistics - the PreChomskyan era" by W J Levelt that gives more details of the contributions of the famous Indologist and Sanskritist Max Muller to linguistics. For example see page 34 for this quote - "However, Müller was not in total agreement with Darwin. He refused to accept that the progenitors of human beings were animals. 82 “By no effort of the understanding, by no stretch of the imagination, can I explain to myself how language could have grown out of anything which animals possess, even if we granted them millions of years for that purpose” (p. 163). “Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it” (p. 177)."

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  5. Could someone provide the full context (¶) in which Muller said that "Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare cross it."
    Thank you.