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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Genius of Language
GA 299

Language from an Historical Standpoint

26 December 1919, Stuttgart

Some of our friends have asked me to speak about language while I am here in Stuttgart. At such short notice and with our limited time, this will have to be rather sketchy, certainly more so than with our scientific course. And you will have to have even more forbearance than you did for my remarks on “light,” because what I say about language will simply be improvised. All I can do is to give you a few useful suggestions for your teaching here in the Waldorf School and also for teaching in general.

Perhaps we can find what we're after by first looking at some elements of language from an historical standpoint. Whatever I can bring together somewhat loosely today will be an introduction to further discussion during the rest of the time.

We can see especially in German how the development of a people’s language expresses also the development of its soul life. We must keep clearly in mind, however, that the relationship of individuals to their own language varies from century to century. The further we go back in the history of a people, the more life we find in everything pertaining to language, within the forces of the human soul as well as in the pliant forces of the human body. I have often been aware of this; you will find as you go through my books a quite conscious attempt to use terms of Germanic derivation, even in philosophical matters.1In German, we find two words for many things, as in English: will and testament, send and transmit, etc., one Germanic (Anglo-Saxon), the other Greco-Latin. In academic writing, the latter is usually preferred. This is frowned upon by many of my detractors, who condemn exactly what has been done very consciously with languages in my books. It is extremely difficult nowadays to find in German the inner, living forces able to continue forming the language. It is particularly difficult to find semantic correspondences by picking up some little-used word or extending the forms of a common one, as for instance I tried to do with the word kraften [The German noun Kraft ‘force, strength’ has only its corresponding adjective kraftig ‘strong, robust’. Rudolf Steiner invented the corresponding verb kraften ‘to work actively, forcefully’ and the verbal noun das Kraften ‘actively working force or strength’.] I tried with this to put action into what is usually expressed more passively. Other words I have also attempted, but—only one century since Goethe—it is already difficult to coin the far-reaching new words that will express precisely what we are trying to incorporate into our age as a new kind of thinking. We can hardly remember that the word Bildung ‘education, training, formation’ goes back no further than the time of Goethe (1749–1832). Before that, there existed no educated (gebildete) people in Germany. That is, we did not speak of someone as ein gebildeter Mensch ‘a person of culture, well-educated’. Even in the second half of the eighteenth century the German language had still kept a strong, sculptural vitality, so that it was possible to form such words as Bildung or even Weltanschauung ‘world view’, a term that also appeared after Goethe’s time. One is indeed very fortunate to live in a language milieu that permits such new formations. This good fortune is evident when one’s books are translated into French, English, and other languages and one hears about the difficulties. Translators are working by the sweat of their brow as best they can, but always, when a person finishes something, another finds it horrible and no one else finds it any good. When you go into the matter more closely, it's clear that many things in my books simply can't be said in the same way in another language. I tell people: In German everything and anything is right; you can put the subject first or in the middle or at the end of the sentence—it will be more or less correct. The pedantic, dogmatic rule that something absolutely can't be said in a certain way does not yet exist in German as it does in the western languages. Imagine what we have come to when we're limited to stereotyped expressions! People cannot yet think as individuals but only in a sort of group spirit about the things they want to communicate to others. That is pre-eminently the case with the people of the western civilizations: They think in stereotyped phrases.

Actually, the German language in particular shows that what I would like to call the GENIUS OF LANGUAGE has gradually become rigid, and that German in our time is also approaching the state where we can't escape the stereotyped phrases. This was not so in Goethe’s time and even less so in earlier ages. It is part of the picture of the whole language development in Central Europe.

Not so long ago this Central Europe, stretching far to the East, was still inhabited by a primitive people with great spiritual gifts but with a relatively simple outward culture, one that evolved substantially from trade and the economic life. Then roundabout, by way of the East Germanic tribes at first, much of the spiritual culture of Greece was absorbed. Through this, a great many Greek words entered the Germanic languages of Central Europe that later became modern German. During the centuries when Christianity spread from the South to the North, its concepts, ideas, and images brought along an enormous quantity of vocabulary, because the Germanic tribes had no available expressions in their own languages for such things.

The word segnen ‘to bless’, for instance, is one of the words that came with Christianity. The specific concept of “blessing” did not exist in northern Germanic heathendom. There were indeed magic charms and they contained a magic power, but this was not of the same nature as a blessing. Segnen, the verb from the noun Segen, was taken into the language under the influence of Christianity; the word brought northward was signum, a ‘sign’. Do observe what the genius of language still possessed at that time: language-forming strength! Nowadays we are no longer able to reconstruct and rework an adopted word in such a way that signum could become Segen, a blessing. We would treat the adopted word as an unchanged import, because the force and vitality that once transformed and created from the innermost depths simply do not well up any more.

Many words we take as completely German are in fact intruders; they appeared with Christianity. Look at the word predigen ‘preach’. It is none other than the Latin praedicare, which also means ‘to preach’. It was still possible to reconstruct this word from inside out. We never had a genuinely German word for this Christian activity of preaching. You see, if we want to get to know the actual force in German that transforms the language, we must first pour it through a sieve to sift out everything that entered our Central European culture from other cultural streams. In many of our words you will hardly notice it. You speak about the Christmas festival, feeling a strong attachment to it. Weihnacht ‘Holy Night, Christmas’ is a genuine German word, but Fest festival’ is Roman, a Latin word that long ago became a German word. Fest goes back to the time when, along with Christianity, the most foreign elements found their way into the language, but at the same time were so transformed that we do not have at all the feeling today that they are imports. Who in the world remembers now that verdammen ‘condemn, damn’ is a Latin word that has become good German? We have to sift a great deal if we want to get to what is really the German language proper.

Many things came in with Christianity; others have entered because out of Christianity the whole system of education developed. The subject matter for educating was taken over in exactly the form it had in the South in the Greco-Latin culture. And there were no Germanic words for what had to be communicated. Along with the concepts, the vocabulary had to be imported. This happened first in the “Latin school” (high school), then it moved down into the lower school, and so today the basis of our education, the Schule ‘school’, itself is an imported word. Schule is no more a German word than scholasticism. Klasse ‘class’ is obviously a foreign word. Wherever you look: Tafel ‘blackboard’; cognate, table from tabula, schreiben ‘to write’; cognate, scribe are imports. Everything pertaining to school entered our language from outside; it came—with education itself—with Latin or the Romance languages from the South.

All this is one stratum that we have to sift off if we want to study the character of the German language proper. Almost all the specifically foreign words must be lifted off, because they do not express what comes out of the German folk soul but have been poured over its real being, forming a kind of varnish on its surface. We have to look for what lies underneath the surface. For instance, if we look beneath the varnish for things pertaining to education; we find relatively little, but that much is distinctive: Lehrer ‘teacher’, for one, a genuinely original German word, as is the word Buchstabe ‘letter of the alphabet'—Buch ‘book’ is derived from it. It takes us back to the staves or sticks thrown down in ancient times to form the letters or runes that made up the runic words. They were beechwood sticks (Buche = ‘beech’). From this then came the zusammenlesen ‘gathering together’, from which comes lesen ‘to pick up’, as well as ‘to read’ and then the Leser ‘reader’, which became Lehrer ‘teacher’. These are ancient Germanic formulations, but you see that they have a totally different character, leading us back everywhere to the soul life of that time in Central Europe. The old heathen ways and the Christian ways collided, and with them the two elements of language, the northern and the southern. You can imagine what a strong power of interpenetration must have existed within the German language during the first millennium after the Mystery of Golgotha, that it could accept Christianity as strongly as it did and be at the same time able to accept the words that expressed the most essential mysteries of Christianity.

With this import, however, only one layer has been described, leading us back into the very early times connected with the great Germanic migrations, when the first Romance language stratum worked its way into the German language. Later the Romance languages were again to exert their influence. We can observe a second stratum originating from the Romance languages through various occurrences but this time coming from the West. Beginning in the twelfth century and continuing into the eighteenth, French words were taken over continually, French words for which there existed concepts and feelings, but by means of which the concepts and feelings were also modified. I have jotted down a number of these words but cannot claim any sort of completeness, for these lectures are being improvised from memory. I have tried to take words that seem truly German: for instance, the word fein ‘fine’. You won't find this word before the twelfth century; it came by way of fin from the French. Here you can see how the language-forming power in the thirteenth century was still strong enough to transform a word so well that it is felt today to be a genuine German word. Even a word like Kumpan ‘fellow, companion’, which has become very popular, is only an adaptation of compagnon, and a word we often hear nowadays, Partei ‘political party’ also immigrated at that time, as well as Tanz ‘dance’. All these words have been in the German language only since the second invasion of the twelfth century, which I would like to call French: Schach ‘chess’, Matt ‘checkmate’, Karte ‘card’, Ass ‘ace’, kaputt ‘broken’, and so forth. It is quite remarkable how many words came into Germany from the West, from France, during the twelfth and through the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, all of them contributing to the language an element of lightness, of easiness, where the German had a more ponderous quality. Before this time what had been spoken in German areas had a fuller, more rounded character. In it one couldn't very well have expressed playfulness. It would have been quite easy to say, Du bist ein kühner Held “You are a bold hero'—the German language could have managed that—but not, Du bist ein feiner Kerl 'You're a fine fellow’. That could not have been said earlier, for one needed the word fein. Other things would have been just as impossible without the invasion of the French elements.

From Italy, remarkably little reached the more northern areas until, at the time of the Renaissance, some words relating to music came; that was all. However, a third kind of invasion, though not so pervasive, came later by way of a detour through southern Germany and Austria, bringing such words as bizarr ‘odd, eccentric’, lila ‘purple’, [obviously related to lilac] which had not existed earlier in German, Neger ‘negro’, Tomate ‘tomato’, all imported from Spain. Now the introduction of foreign elements enters a new phase; it is obvious that the genius of language is no longer as flexible as it had been. These later words are much more similar to their originals. And finally, when the Germans reached the stage of admitting English words, things had become most unfavorable; this was actually not until the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Words came into the language that related mostly to outer affairs, but they remained practically the same as in English. The German language genius had by then lost its capacity to adapt and completely absorb into itself something new.

I have tried to point out how in early times the ability to accept and transform language was extraordinarily strong, especially within the Germanic languages and early German. Take, for instance, (and I want to emphasize this in particular) a word that is so German that even a person very sensitive to dialects can really not doubt its authenticity: Riegelwand for Fachwerkwand ‘half-timbered wall’. Riegel ... truly German, as the tongue tastes and pronounces it! And yet this word was not part of the German language until the time when Latin-Italian trained architects used the kind of materials that could construct the Riegelwände. Who is aware today that this word Riegel, so typically German, is nothing other than Regel, regula Latin: ‘rule’. We would not be capable of such changes in our present language. We also think Keller ‘cellar’ is an original German word, but no! It is nothing but an adapted loan-word from the Latin cellarium. I can give you another totally German-looking word to show you how difficult it would have been if people had begun to weed out and eliminate all the foreign words, as certain movements some time ago wanted to do. If that had happened, Riegel would have fallen by the wayside, Keller would have fallen—but do you know what other word would have had to go? Schuster ‘shoemaker’! As a matter of fact, Schuster came into the German language because people from the South taught the Germans to sew their foot-coverings instead of tying them together. The Latin sutor (cf. English: suture) refers to the sewing of footwear and has been assimilated into Schuster; an all-out foreign word.

You can see from this that we really have to sift vigorously to arrive at words of true German origin. We can not just accept what is floating nowadays on the surface of language, for this follows totally different laws. When we want to go back to the true speech-creating forces out of the genius of language, we must first of all sift off what is extraneous. The forming of language takes its course in a peculiar sort of way. You can see this very well by observing how things can still be introduced into a language—I would like to call it, through a certain kind of tyranny, from the bottom up—even when the language-forming genius no longer possesses its full strength. Not so many years ago, for instance, the following took place in Central Europe. Close to Raab there is a small town called Kocsi [now Kocs in Hungary]. I believe it was in the sixteenth century that an inventive fellow in this small place near Raab got the idea of building practical wagons that became very popular for people to drive and ride in. They made the little town well known. And just as Frankfurt sausages are known as ‘frankfurters’, these wagons were called kocsi. Just think how much carrying force was alive in this word, which grew into Kutsche ‘coach’; it traveled to France and even reached the proud English! Yet this word is not especially old; it has moved in relatively recent times with a certain dynamic power in all directions from the wagonmaker in Kocs.

So let us understand this clearly: When we deal with a language already formed, we must remove many outer layers in order to reach the kernel proper. If we do reach this innermost part, we have to say: This kernel shows us without a doubt that it could develop with inner, language-forming strength only at the time when thoughts were much deeper and more substantive than they are, for instance, in German culture today. For this to happen, thoughts must be much more inherent in the whole human being. At the present time we can no longer feel that the force we perceive in our thoughts is also present in our words.

Sometimes we feel this force when we go back to the dialects that are to be found at a deeper, earlier stage of the language. At present, to express quickness we say Blitz ‘lightning’. In certain southern German dialects the word is still Himmlizer. When you say that, you have the whole Blitzform ‘shape of the lightning’ in it: [Himmel is ‘heaven’;—lizer reminds one of licht, ‘light’]. In this word there is a visualization of what takes on form in nature. In short, dialects still reach back to word-forms within which there is an echo of the happenings outside us in nature. This is always the case in the inmost kernel of a language, where the conceptual or ideational element is much closer to the element of sound. Through the history of the German language in particular we can observe how in earlier times, before language became abstract, it was still a matter of course that the meaning of words was imbedded in their sound. I would like to call it a penetration of sense into sound. A sensitive person can still feel it in such words as Tag 'day’; Anglo-Saxon, daeg, a truly original, ancient German word—can feel it in the /t/ and /a:/ (/ah/) sounds, especially through the help of eurythmy. Words that came later were formed out of abstract ideas. Look at the rather modern given name Leberecht ‘liveright’. Parents endow a child with such a name in order to guide him or her with certainty along a virtuous path in life. There’s also Traugott ‘trust-God’. When such words came about, a certain language-forming element still existed but it was abstract, did not arise from a genuine inner source.

I wanted to say all this today as a preparation, so that we can proceed toward more concrete concepts and examples of language.