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The Genius of Language
GA 299

The Evolution of Language from an Organic Point of View

28 December 1919, Stuttgart

I would like to repeat what I told you yesterday: Please don't expect too much content from this very brief language study. I will make only a few remarks about the development of language in this improvised course. However, it is certainly worthwhile to stir up some thoughts on the subject, and perhaps from the way I present things, you will discover guidelines. I won't go into the usual facts, but I will try to show you a number of important ways to look at the life of language with a view to its organic evolving.

In my first lecture I referred to the development of our German language through “invasions” into its word-stock. We pointed to the significant one, which coincided with the streaming in of Christianity into northern cultures, and its consequences. Christianity did not simply bring in its own content; it brought this content in the form of word images. Considered outwardly, the folk religions of the northern and central European peoples were not at all similar to what came to them as a new religion; nor was it possible for them to grasp the content of Christianity with the words and sounds of northern and central Europe. Therefore, those who brought Christian concepts and Christian perceptions also brought their “word clothing.” We have cited a group of such words that were carried northward, we can say, on the wings of Christianity. In the same way, everything connected with schooling streamed northward, too, words like Schule ‘school' itself, Tafel ‘blackboard’, and so forth, with the exception of a few like Lesen, Buchstabe, Lehrer (see Lecture 1, pages 19-20). The former are of Latin origin, but have been integrated into the German language organization so thoroughly that no one today would recognize them as loan-words. I also described how later, beginning in the twelfth century, a new invasion arrived from the West, bringing in many language elements. After that came a Spanish wave and finally one from England, as late as the nineteenth century.

These examples will be elaborated on later, but they indicate that during the time Christianity and everything related to it were making their way northward, the genius of the language was still able to accept and transform it inwardly by means of the folk sensitivity in that region. I illustrated this unique fact not by a word pertaining to Christianity but by the connection of the word Schuster ‘shoemaker’, which seems so truly Germanic, with sutor: it is one and the same word (page 22-23). There was still so much speech-forming strength in the genius of the Germanic folk that it was possible to transform a word like sutor that belongs to the earliest invasion. The further we proceed from this to the next invasion, which was concerned with education, the more we find the sound of the word in German closer to the sound in Latin. And so it continued. Languages flowing in later found the German language spirit ever less capable of transforming whatever came toward it. Let us keep this in mind. It remains to be seen whether, in due time, such phrases as five o'clock tea will be changed; that is, whether the German language genius can develop over a relatively long span of time the power of more rapid transformation it possessed in early times. We will have to wait and see. At the moment, it is not important.

We must ask ourselves what significance it has for a people that its language-forming power is decreasing, at least temporarily; that in fact it no longer exists as it once was. You do find it more strongly today in dialects. For instance, we could search for the origin of a very strange word in the Austrian dialect: pakschierli or bakschierli. The Austrians sitting here certainly know it. You can quickly sense what pakschierli means: ‘a cunning little girl who bobs and curtseys when presented to strangers, a ‘charming little girl—that’s pakschierli—or a ‘funny little thing made of marzipan' that doesn't exactly make you laugh, but causes an inward state of being ready, if the impression you get grows a little, to burst out in a loud laugh. ‘A funny little thing made of marzipan'—that’s pakschierli Now what is this word? It is not really connected with the rest of the Austrian dialect, for it is none other than the German word possierlich ‘funny, cunning, cute’, a word that has been transformed.

In a way, then, this language-forming power can be studied in the dialects. It is also a good approach to the active, creative folk soul, and an understanding of the folk soul would contribute immeasurably toward an understanding of the cultural life of a country. It would lead back to what I referred to in The Spiritual Guidance of the Individual and Humanity,1Rudolf Steiner, The Spiritual Guidance of the Individual and Humanity (Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1992. which was ridiculed by such minds as the all-too well-known Professor Dessoir.2Max Dessoir (1867-1947). Author, Von Jenseits der Seele: Die Geisteswissenschaft in kritischer Betrachtung (Stuttgart, 1917). Spiritual science makes it possible to determine clearly what I described there: that the formation of consonant sounds in language is connected to an imitation of something externally perceptible. Consonants express for us what we have experienced inwardly of outside events. To put it more graphically: If you are setting in a fence post, you can feel this action inwardly by bearing down (aufstemmen, as ‘stem’ for skiers) on your foot. This is the perception of your own act of will. We no longer feel this inner act of will in the sound [št, pronounced sht] of aufstemmen, but in the early age of language development, you did feel in your acts of will an imitation of what was happening outside yourself. The consonant element has thus become the imitation of events outside the human being, while the vowel element expresses what is truly an inner feeling. ‘Ah!" is our astonishment, a standing back, in a sense. The relationship of the human being to the outer world is expressed in the vowels. It is necessary to go back a long way in time if one wants to penetrate to these things, but it is possible to do so; then one arrives at the insight that such theories as the “bow-wow” or “ding-dong” theories are horribly wrong. They are incorrect and superficial. An understanding of the human being, however, can lead us toward discovering inwardly how a speech sound is connected with whatever we want to reveal of soul and spirit. Let us consider this as a question to ask ourselves, in order to find answers during the course of this study. In order to look rightly at the many and varied links in the chain of language, I will try to find characteristic examples to help us reach what we are trying to understand.

Today I should like to take some examples to show how language proceeds slowly from the concrete to the abstract. If we really want to study actual facts, turning to dialect again will be helpful. Let me mention one small example:

When Austrian peasants get up in the morning, they will say something about their Nachtschlaf ‘night sleep’ but not at all as you are apt to speak about it. You think of it basically as something quite abstract, for you are educated people. Austrian peasants are close to nature. To them, all that surrounds them partakes of spirit and soul, and they have a strong awareness of it. Even for them this is dying out now, but in the seventies and eighties of the last century, it was still very much present for anyone who, like me, wished to observe it. Even though peasants may still perceive the elemental forces in everything around them, they will never express it in abstractions but always concretely. A peasant will say, ‘I have to wipe the night sleep (Nachtschlaf) out of my eyes To peasants the substance excreted from the eyes during the night that can be washed away, is the visible expression of sleep; they call it Nachtschlaf To understand language that was still quite alive a short time ago, there is this secret: a factual understanding is not at all hindered by finding spiritual elements linked up with it. Austrian peasants are in fact thinking of an elemental being, but they express this by describing its action, that it put an excretion into their eyes. Never would they take this word as the abstraction arrived at by an educated person. However, if peasants have gone to school a little while or have been exposed to the city, they have a way of addressing themselves to an invisible, concrete fact. They will still say, ‘T must wipe the night sleep out of my eyes,” but at the same time they will make a sort of gesture to imply that for them it is something really superficial and yet concrete.

We should be aware that such an observation leads us to realize that an abstract term always points back to something more concrete. Take the following example. In the Scandinavian countries you still find the word barn for ‘child’ [Scotland and northern England, bairn]; we no longer have it in German. What is its history? On one hand, it leads us back to the Gothic; we will find it in Ulfilas’s Bible translation,3Ulfilas or Wulfila (Little Wolf) 331-383. Bishop of the Goths. He is said to have invented the alphabet he used in order to translate the Bible. It is our only remnant of the Gothic language, which became extinct in 400 A.D. where we find the expression bairan, meaning ‘to bear’. If we know the law of consonant shift, discovered by Jakob Grimm,4Jakob Grimm (1785--1863), German philologist and creator of Grimm's law. Interested principally in the relationship between the various Germanic languages, he was one of the great founders of comparative philology. He wrote German Grammar, German Mythology and—with his brother Wilhelm—the famous collection of German folk and household tales. The Brothers Grimm also planned and inaugurated the great German dictionary. for the Germanic languages and for all those related to them [see lecture 3, page 41-42], we will go back from the Gothic bairan to pherō in Greek and fero in Latin, both meaning ‘to carry’ or ‘to bear’. A /b/ in Germanic appears in Greek and Latin as /f/ or /ph/. Bairan is simply a Germanic sound-shift from fero; the word widens out into a different direction. There exists the Old High German word beran, ‘to carry’ [beran is also the Anglo-Saxon forerunner of English ‘to bear’. The barrow of ‘wheelbarrow’ goes back to beran.]. Gradually the verbal aspect of the word receded; in modern German we no longer have the possibility of thinking back to the original, strongly felt, active meaning. Why is the child called barn in Scandinavia? Because it is being borne or carried before it comes into the world. A child is something that is carried: we look back at our origin. The only word left over from all this in modern German is gebären ‘to bear, give birth'.

But we do have something else—we have retained the suffix -bar. You will find that in fruchtbar ‘fertile’, kostbar ‘costly’, ‘precious’ and other words. What is kostbar?—that which carries a cost. What is fruchtbar?—that which bears fruit. It was expressed very graphically, not as an abstraction as it would be today, for the actual carrying, bearing was visualized.

You can imagine this quite vividly when you say something is becoming ruchbar ‘known’, ‘notorious’, not always in the most positive sense; literally, ‘smell bearing’. When a smell is being carried toward you, a matter is becoming ruchbar. For many words like this we should be able to find the clear, direct imagery that in ancient times characterized the language-forming genius.

I will write down for you a phrase from Ulfilas’s Bible translation:

jah witands Jêsus thôs mitônins izê qath

This means approximately, ‘And Jesus, knowing their thoughts, spoke thus.” [Note qath = Anglo-Saxon, cwaeth/ quoth.] The word mitonins means ‘thoughts’ and this takes us to miton, meaning roughly ‘to think’. In Old High German it grew into something different: mezzôn; related to this is the word mezzan which means messen ‘to measure’. Measuring, the outer visible act of measuring, experienced inwardly, simply becomes thinking. Thus an action carried out outside ourselves has provided the foundation for the word thinking ‘I am thinking’ actually means: ‘T am measuring something in my soul’. This in turn is related to the Latin word meditor and the Greek medomai, which have given us ‘meditate’.

Whenever we go back in time and observe the genius of language at work, we find this presence of imagery, but we must also try to observe it with inner understanding. You all know the term Hagesfolz ‘a confirmed bachelor’; you know its approximate meaning today. However, the connection of this word with what it meant formerly is very interesting. It goes back to the word Hagestalt, in which the word Stalt is embedded [modern German retained only the word Gestalt: ‘figure, form, stature’]. What is Stalt? It is a person who has been put, placed, or ‘stood’ somewhere. According to medieval custom, the oldest son inherited the farm; the younger son got only the hedged-in field, the Hag. The younger son, therefore, who only owned the Hag was placed or ‘stood’ in this fenced-in field, and was often not able to marry. The stalt is the owner. The ‘hedge’ owner is the Hagestalt. As awareness of the word stalt gradually disappeared, people turned stalt into stolz (proud). It has no connection with the modern word stolz (proud); there is simply a resemblance of sounds. But an awareness of this stalt ‘placed or stood’ can be found in other, older examples still in existence, for instance in the Oberufer Nativity Play.5A.C. Harwood, Christmas Plays from Oberufer (Bristol, England: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1993). One of the innkeepers says I als ein Wirt von meiner G'stalt, hab in mei’ Haus und Losament G'walt [I, an innkeeper of my stature—or an innkeeper placed here—take full charge in my house]. People think he means physical stature, but what he really means is ‘Placed in this respected house, stood here...." With the words that follow, “Take full charge,” he means that he attracts his guests. There is still the consciousness in G'stalt of what originally was in Hagestalt. We should follow with our whole inner being the development of words and sounds in this way, in order to ponder inwardly the unusual and delicate effects of the genius of language.

In the New Testament, describing how the disciples were astonished at Christ’s healing of the man sick of the palsy, Ulfilas uses a word in his translation related to silda-leik = selt-sam-leich ‘seldom-like’. Considering the way Ulfilas uses this word in the context of his Bible translation, we discover that he means here—for what has been accomplished by Christ—das Seltsamgestaltete ‘that which has been formed miraculously'. It is the bodily-physical element that arouses astonishment at this point. This is expressed more objectively in silda-leik. In the word leik we must sense: it is the gestalt, the form, but as an image. If the word gestalt were used in the earlier sense, it would be to express ‘being placed’. The form (Gestalt today), as it earlier was felt, described the image of a thing and was expressed by leik. We have this word in leichnam ‘corpse’. A corpse is the image of what was once there. It is a subtle expression when you sense what lies in this Leich, how the Leich is not a human being but the ‘likeness’ of one.

There are further examples I can bring you for the development of terms springing from visual imagery to express a quality of soul. We learn from Ulfilas that in the Gothic language ‘bride’ is brûths. This bruths in the Bible translation is closely related to ‘brood’ (Brut), so that when a marriage is entered upon, the brood is being provided. The “bride” is the one who ensures the ‘brood’. Well then, what is the Bräutigam (the ‘bridegroom’)? Something is added to the bride; this is in Gothic guma, in Old High German gomo [in Anglo-Saxon, guma), derived by consonant shift from the Latin word homo, ‘man’, ‘the man of the bride’, the man who for his part provides for the brood [the addition of /r/ in the English groom is due to confusion with, or substitution of groom, servant]. You see, we have to look at the unassuming syllables sometimes if we really wish to follow the genius of language in its active forming of language.

Now it is remarkable that in Ulfilas’s translation the Gothic sa dumba ‘der Dumpfe’, ‘the dull one’, appears, denoting the man unable to speak, the dumb man whom the Christ heals (Matthew 9:32). With this, I would like to remind you that Goethe has told us how in his youth he existed in a certain kind of Dumpfheit ‘dullness’. “Dullness” is a state of being unable to see clearly through one’s surroundings, to live in shadows, in fogginess; this hinders, for one thing, the capacity for speech, renders mute. Later this word became dumm, took the meaning of ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’, so that this dumb means nothing more than ‘not able to look about freely’ or ‘to live in dullness’ or ‘in a fog.” It is truly extraordinary, my dear friends, how many changes and transformations of a word can exist.6See also Rudolf Steiner, Spiritual Relations in the Human Organism, lecture 2 (Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1984). These changes and recastings show how the conscious and the unconscious are interwoven in the marvelous being called the genius of language that expresses itself through the totality of a folk, tribe, or people.

There is, for instance, the name of the Nordic god Fjögyn. This name appears in a clarifying light through Ulfilas’s use of the word fairguni as Gothic for ‘mountain’, in telling of Christ’s “going up into the mountain” with his disciples. Its meaning shifted a little but we still find the word in Old High German as forha, meaning ‘fir tree’ or ‘fir mountain’. Fjögyn is the elemental god or goddess who resides on the fir mountain. This in turn (and we can sense it in fairguni) is related to the Latin word quercus ‘oak tree’, which also names the tree.

I should like to point out how in earlier ages of languageforming there prevailed—though somewhat subconsciously—a connection between sound and meaning. Nowadays it is almost impossible for us with our abstract thinking to reach down to the speech sounds. We no longer have a feeling for the sound quality of words. People who know many languages are downright annoyed if they are expected to consider anything about speech sounds. Words in general have the most varied transitions of form and meaning, of course; translations following only the dictionary are artificial and pedantic. First of all, we should follow the genius of language, which really has something other in mind than what seems obvious at first glance.

In German we say Kopf ‘head’; in the Romance languages it is testa, tête. Why do we say Kopf? Simply because in German we have a sculptural language genius and we want to express the roundness of the head. Kopf is related to kugelig ‘spherical’, and whether we speak of Kohlkopf ‘cabbage head’ or human Kopf it has originated from the same language-molding process. Kopf expresses what is round. Testa, however, ‘head’ in Latin, denotes something in our inner being: testifying, ascertaining, determining. We always have to consider that things may be named from various points of view. One can still feel this—though it’s possible to miss the details—if we try to trace our way back to older forms from which the present word originated. Finally we arrive far back in time when the genius of language was able to sense the spiritual life within the sounds themselves.

Who can still sense that meinen ‘to mean’ and Gemeinde ‘community, parish’ belong together? Nowadays this is difficult to perceive. In Old High German Gemeinde is gimeinida. 1f you look at a further metamorphosis to mean as an English cognate [Anglo-Saxon, maenan, ‘to recite, to tell' and AngloSaxon, gemaene, ‘common, general’], it is evident that gemeinida expresses what is ‘meant’ or ‘arrived at’ by several people in common; it derives strength from the fact that several people are involved. And this act of receiving strength is expressed by adding such a prefix as gi- [related to Anglo-Saxon be-, in bedazzle, behold, and so forth. In modern German ge- is the prefix of most past participles.].

We have to reach back and try to find the element of feeling in the forming of speech. Today when we say taufen, an ancient German word, ‘to baptize’, we no longer have a feeling for what it really is. We get more of a picture when we go back to Old and Middle High German, where we find toufan, toufen, töufen and find this related to diups [who can resist finding a connection to dip, Anglo-Saxon, dyppan?], and in Ulfilass daupjan related to daupjands, the Baptist. We have in Old High German the close cognate tiof in Modern German tief ‘deep’'—so there we have the relationship taufen ... hineintiefen ... tauchen ‘dip in, dive in’. It is simply a dipping into the water.

These things should help us to look carefully at the language-forming genius. Observing changes of meaning is especially important. In the following example there is an interesting shift of meaning. ‘Bread” was in Gothic hlaifs Old High German leiba, Middle High German leip, Anglo-Saxon, hlaf modern German das Brot. Hlaifs/hlaf has not retained the meaning ‘bread’; it has changed into laib/loaf. It means now only the form in which bread is made; earlier it was the bread itself.

You can observe this change of meaning in the metamorphosis from Old English hlaford from the earlier hlafweard, ‘bread keeper or guard.” The hlaford was the person who wards or guards the bread, the one you had to ask if you wanted bread, who watched over the bread, had the right to plant the field, make the bread, give the bread to those who were not freemen. And by means of a gradual transformation—the /h/ is lost—the word lord developed; ‘lord’ is the old hlafweard.

The companion word is equally interesting. Whereas hlaifs becomes ‘loaf of bread’, another word appeared through metamorphosis: hlaefdige in Old English. The first part of the word is again ‘loaf of bread’; dige developed from an activity. If dough (Anglo-Saxon dag Modern German Teig is being kneaded, this activity is expressed in the word dige, digan, to knead dough. If you seek the person who carries out this activity, you will arrive at the wife of the lord. The lord was the bread-warden; his wife was the bread-kneader, bread-giver. The word ‘lady’ grew out of hlaefdjge. In a mysterious way, ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ are related to the loaf of bread and show their origin as ‘bread-warden’ and ‘bread-kneader’.

We must really try to grasp the difference between our modern abstract attitude toward language and one that was truly alive in earlier times. People felt then that speech-sounds carried in themselves the spirit qualities, the soul qualities, that human beings wanted to communicate.