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The Genius of Language
GA 299

The Transforming Powers of Language in Relation to Spiritual Life

29 December 1919, Stuttgart

The experiences of life often lead to apparent contradictions. However, it is just when we carefully examine the contradictions that we discover deep and intrinsic relationships. If you ponder somewhat carefully what I explained in my first talk and restated in the second, and you compare this with my examples yesterday of the inner connections between European languages, you will find such a contradiction. Look at the two series of facts that were characterized. We find in modern German many linguistic “immigrants.” We can feel how many words accompanied Christianity from the South and were added to the original treasure house of the Germanic languages. These words came to us together with Christian concepts and Christian perceptions; they belong today very much to our language. I spoke, too, of other immigrant words as significant because they belong to the widened range of our language possibilities, those that came in from the western Romance languages in the twelfth century. At that time the genius of the German language still possessed the power of adaptation; it transformed in its own way what was received from Western Europe, not only as to sound but also as to meaning. Few people suspect, I said before, that the German word fein (fine) is really of French origin: fin, and that it entered our language only after the twelfth century.

I mentioned Spanish elements coming in at a later time, when German no longer had the same strength of transformation—and how this strength was totally at an end when English words entered the German language during the last part of the eighteenth but particularly during the nineteenth century. Thus we see words being continually taken over in Central Europe, from the Latin or from the Greek through Latin, or from the western Romance languages. Because of all this, we can say that our present vocabulary has absorbed foreign elements but also that our language in its very origin is related to the languages that gave it seemingly foreign components in later times.

We can easily establish the fact—not in the widest sense but through characteristic examples—that languages over far-flung areas of the earth have a common origin. Take naus for instance, the Sanskrit word for ‘ship’. In Greek it is also naus, in Latin navis. In areas of Celtic coloring you will find nau. In Old Norse and the older Scandinavian tongues you have nor: [In English there is nautical, nautilus, navy, navigate, and so forth]. It is unimportant that this word root has been thrown overboard [German has Schiff noun, and schiffen, verb, as English ship, noun and verb]. Despite this, we can observe that there exists a relationship encompassing an exceedingly large area across Europe and Asia.

Take the ancient East Indian word aritras. We find the word later as eretmón in Greek and then, with some consonants dropped, as remus in Latin. We find it in Celtic areas as rame and in Old High German as ruodar. We still have this word; it is our Ruder tudder’, ‘oar’. In this way one can name many, many words that exist in adaptations, in metamorphoses, across wide language sectors; the Gothic, the Norse, the Friesian, Low German, and High German—also in the Baltic tongues, the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Prussian. We can also find such words in the Slavic languages, in Armenian, Iranian, Indian, Greek, Latin, and Celtic. All across the regions where these languages were spoken, we discover that a primeval relationship exists; we can easily imagine that at a very ancient time the primordial origins of language-forming were similar right across these territories and only later became differentiated.

I did say at the beginning that the two series of facts contradict each other, but it is just by observing such contradictions that we can penetrate more deeply into certain areas of life. The appearance of such phenomena leads to our discovering that human evolution through the course of history has not at all taken place in a continuously even way, but rather in a kind of wave movement. How could you possibly imagine this whole process, expressed in two seemingly contradictory bodies of fact, without supposing that some relationship existed between the populations of these far-flung territories? We can imagine that these peoples kept themselves shut off at certain times, so that they developed their own unique language idioms, and that periods of isolation alternated with periods of influencing or being influenced by another folk. This is a somewhat rough and ready characterization, but only by looking at such rising and falling movements can we explain certain facts. Looking at the development of language in both directions, as I have just indicated, it is possible to gain deeper insights also into the essential nature of folk development.

Consider how certain elements of language develop—and this we will do now for the German language—when a country closes itself off from outside influences and at other times takes in foreign components that contribute their part to the spirit-soul elements expressed through language. We can already guess that these two alternating movements evoke quite different reactions in the spirit and soul life of the peoples.

On one hand it is most significant that a primordial and striking relationship exists between important words in Latin and in the older forms of the Central European languages—for instance, Latin verus ‘true’, German wahr ‘true’, Old High German wâr [in German /w/ is pronounced /v/. We have in English verity, very, from Old French veras]. If you take such obvious things as Latin, velle = wollen ‘will’ or even Latin, taceo ‘I am silent’ and the Gothic thahan [English tacit, taciturn, you realize that in ancient times there prevailed related, similar-sounding language elements over vast areas of Europe—and this could be proven also for Asia.

On the other hand, it is really remarkable that the inhabitants of Central Europe from whom the present German population originated, accepted foreign elements into their languages relatively early, even earlier than I have described it. There was a time when Europe was much more strongly pervaded by the Celtic element than in later historic times, but the Celts were subsequently crowded into the western areas of Europe; then the Germanic tribes moved into Central Europe, quite certainly coming from northern areas. The Germans accepted foreign word elements from the Celts, who were then their western neighbors, much as they later accepted them from the Romans coming from the South. This shows that the inhabitants of Central Europe, after their separate, more closed-off development, later accepted foreign language elements from the neighbors on their outer boundaries, whose languages had been originally closely related to their own.

We have a few words in German that are no longer considered very elegant, for instance Schindmähre ‘a dead horse’. Mähre ‘mare’, is a word rarely used in German today but it gave us the word Marstall ‘royal stables’. Mähre is of Celtic origin, used after the Celts had been pushed toward the West. [While English mare is in common usage, nightmare has a different origin: AngloSaxon mearh, ‘horse’; mere, ‘female horse’; Anglo-Saxon mara, ‘goblin, incubus'.] There seems to have been no metamorphosis of the word, either in Central Europe or the West; apparently the Germans took over the word later from the Celts. In fact, a whole series of such words was taken over, for some of which the power of adaptation could be found. For instance, the name—which is really only partly a name—Vercingetorix contains the word rix. Rix, originally Celtic, was taken up by the Celts to mean ‘the ruler,” the person of power (Gothic reiks Latin rex). It has become the German word reich (Anglo-Saxon, rice, ‘powerful’, ‘rich’), ‘to become powerful through riches’. And thus we find adaptations not only from Latin but also from the Celtic at the time when the Central European genius of language still possessed the inner strength of transformation.

If the external development of language could be traced back far enough—of course, it cant be—we would ultimately arrive at that primeval language-forming power of ancient times when language came about through what I described yesterday as a relationship to consonants and vowels, a relationship of sound and meaning. Languages start out with a primitive structure. What then brings about the differences in them? Variety is due, for instance, to whether a tribe lives in a mountainous area or perhaps on the plain. The larynx and its related organs wish to sound forth differently according to whether people live high up in the mountains or in a low-lying area, and so on, even though at the very beginning of speech, what emerges from the nature of the human being forms itself in the same way.

There exists a remarkable phenomenon in the growth and development of language, which we can look at through examples from the Indo-European languages. Take the word zwei (two), Latin duo. In the older forms of German [also AngloSaxon], we have the word twa or ‘two’. Duo points to the oldest step of a series of metamorphoses in the course of which duo changes to twa and finally to zwei It is too complicated to take the vowels into account. Considering only the consonants, we find that the direction of change runs like this: /d/ becomes /t/ and /t/ becomes /z/, exactly in this sequence:

Sound shift

We note that as the word moves from one area to another, a transformation of the sound takes place. The corresponding step to German /z/ is in other languages a step to /th/.

This is by no means off-base theorizing. To describe the process in detail we should have to collect many examples, yet this sequence corresponds to Grimm’s Law in the metamorphosis of language.1Jakob Grimm in his book on Germanic grammar codified this consonant shift so that it is known as Grimm’s Law. See lecture 2, pp. 29-30.Take, for instance, the Greek word thyra, ‘door’. If we take it as an early step, arrested at the first stage, we must expect the next step to use a /d/, and sure enough, we find it in English: door: The final change would arrive clockwise at /t/, and there it is: modern German Tür, ‘door’.

Therefore we can find, if we look, the oldest “language-geological stratum,” where the metamorphosing word stands on any one of these steps. The next change will stand on the following step, and then on the final step as modern German.

If the step expressed in Latin or Greek contains /t/, English (which has remained behind) will have the /th/, and modern German (which has progressed beyond English) will have a /d/ [cf. Latin tu, Anglo-Saxon thu ‘thou’, German du ‘you'].

When modern German has /z/ (corresponding to English /th/ the previous step would have been /t/, and the original GrecoLatin word would have had a /d/. This can be discovered.

We would then expect, following a word with a /t/ in Gothic, to find as the second step a /z/. Take the word Zimmer ‘room’, for the relationship of modern German to the next lower, earlier step in the Gothic or in Old Saxon, both of which stand on the same level: Zimmer has come from timbar. From /z/ we have to think back to /t/. This is merely the principle; you yourselves can find all this in the dictionary.2See also Rudolf Steiner, The Realm of Language and Arnold Wadler, One Language.

Sound shift

There are many other lively language metamorphoses; as a parallel to the just-mentioned sequence, there is also this one: if an earlier word has a /b/, this becomes on the next step a /p/, followed on the third step by /f/, /ph/, or /pf/ [Latin labi ‘slip’, Anglo-Saxon, hleapan ‘leap’, German laufen ‘run’].

In the same way the connection /g/—/k/—/h/ or /ch/ exists. You will find corresponding examples [cf. Latin ego, Anglo-Saxon ic, Dutch ik German ich]. We can sum up as follows: Greek and Latin have retained language elements at an early stage of metamorphosis. Whatever then became Gothic advanced to a later stage and this second stage still exists today, for instance in Dutch and in English. A last shift of consonants took place finally around the sixth century A.D., when language advanced one stage further to the level of modern German. We can assume that the first stage will probably be found spread far into Europe, in time perhaps only up to about 1500 B.C. Then we find the second stage reigning over vast areas, with the exception of the southern lands where the oldest stage still remained. And finally there crystallizes in the sixth century A.D. the modern German stage. While English and Dutch remain back in the earlier second stage, modern German crystallizes out.

I urge you now to take into account the following: The relationship that people have to their surroundings is expressed by the consonants forming their speech, completely out of a feeling for the word-sound character. And this can only happen once—that is, only once in such a way that word and outer surroundings are in complete attunement. Centuries ago, if the forerunners of the Central European languages used, let’s say, a /z/ on the first step to form certain words, they had the feeling that the consonant character must be in harmony with the outside phenomena. They formed the /z/ according to the outer world.

The next stage of change can no longer be brought about according to the outside world. The word now exists; the next stages are being formed internally, within human beings themselves and no longer in harmony with their surroundings. The reshaping is in a way the independent achievement of the folk soul. Speech is first formed in attunement with the outer world, but then the following stages would be experienced only inwardly. An attuning to the external does not take place again.

Therefore we can say that Greek and Latin have remained at a stage where in many respects a sensitive attunement of the language-forming element to the outer surroundings has been brought to expression. The next stage, forming Gothic, Old High German, Old English, and so forth, has proceeded beyond this immediate correspondence and has undergone a change to the element of soul. These languages have therefore a far more soul-filled character. We see that the first change that occurs gives language an inner soul coloring. Everything that enters our sensing of language on reaching this second stage gives inwardness to our speech and language. Slowly and gradually this has come about since 1500 B.Cc. This kind of inwardness is characteristic of certain ancient epochs. Carried over into later ages, however, it changed into a simpler, more primitive quality. Where it still exists today, in Dutch and English, it has passed over into a more elemental feeling for words and sounds.

Around the sixth century A.D. modern German reached the third stage.3“Starting most probably in the southernmost reaches of the German-speaking lands, some time in the fifth century, a series of sound changes gradually resulted in restructuring the phonetic systems of all the southern and many of the midland dialects, resulting in High German”—John T. Waterman, A History of the German Language (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966). Now the distancing from the original close attunement to the outside proceeds still further. Through a strong inward process the form of modern German proceeds out of its earlier stage. It had reached the second stage of its development and moved into the realm of soul; the third stage takes the language a good distance away from ordinary life. Hence the peculiar, often remote, abstract element in the German language today, something that presses down on the German soul and that many other people in the rest of Europe cannot understand at all. Where the High German element has been wielded to a special degree, by Goethe and Hegel for instance, it really can't be translated into English or into the Romance languages. What comes out are merely pseudo-translations. People have to make the attempt, of course, since it is better to reproduce things somehow or other rather than not at all. Works that belong permanently to this German organism are penetrated by a strong quality of spirit, not merely a quality of soul. And spirit cannot be taken over easily into other languages, for they simply have no expressions for it.

The ascent of a language to the second step, then, is not only the ensouling of the language, but also the ensouling of the folk-group’s inwardness through the language. The ascent to the third step that you can study especially in modern German [and especially in written German], is more a distancing from life, so that by means of its words such abstract heights can be reached as were reached, for instance, by Hegel, or also, in certain cases, by Goethe and Schiller. That is very much dependent on this reaching-the-third-step. Here German becomes an example. The language-forming, the language-development frees itself from attuning to the external world. It becomes an internal, independent process. Through this the human-individual soul element progresses which, in a sense, develops independently of nature.

Thus the Central European language structure passed through stages where from a beginning step of instinctive, animal-like attuning to the outer world, it acquired soul qualities and then became spiritual. Other languages, such as Greek and Latin, developed differently in their other circumstances. As we study these two ancient languages primarily from the standpoint of word formation, we have to conclude that their word and sound structures are very much attuned to their surroundings. But the peoples who spoke these languages did not stop with this primitive attunement to the world around them. Through a variety of foreign influences, from Egypt and from Asia, whose effects were different from those in Europe, Greek and Latin became the mere outer garment for an alien culture introduced to them from outside, essentially a mystery culture. The mysteries of Africa and Asia were carried over to the Greeks and to a certain degree to the Romans; there was enough power in them to clothe the Asian mysteries and the Egyptian mysteries with the Greek and Latin languages. They became the outer garments of a spiritual content flowing into them drop by drop. This was a process that the languages of central and northern Europe did not participate in. Instead, theirs was the course of development I have already described: On the first step they did not simply take in the spiritual as the Greeks had done but first formed the second stage; they were about to reach the third stage when Christianity with its new vocabulary entered as a foreign, spiritual element. Evidently, too, the second stage had been reached when the Celtic element made its way in, as I described earlier. With this we see that the spiritual influence made its entrance only after an inner transforming of the Germanic languages had taken place. In Greek and Latin there was no transforming of this kind but rather an influx of spirituality into the first stage.

To determine the character of a single people, we have to study concrete situations or events, in order to discover the changes in its language and its relationship to spiritual life. Thus we find in modern German a language that, on reaching its third stage, removed itself a good distance from ordinary life. Yet there are in German so many words that entered it through those various channels: Christianity from the South, scholasticism from the South, French and Spanish influences from the West. All these influences came later, flowing together now in modern German from many different sources.

Whatever has been accepted as a foreign element from another language cannot cause in us as sensitive a response as a word, a sound combination, that has been formed out of our own folk-cultural relationship to nature or to the world around us. What do we feel when we utter the word Quelle ‘spring’, ‘source’, ‘fountain’; ‘cognate, well? We can sense that this word is so attuned to the being of what it describes, we can hardly imagine calling it anything else if with all our sensitivity we were asked to name it. The word expresses everything we feel about a Quelle. This was the way speech sounds and words were originally formed: consonants and vowels conformed totally to the surrounding world. [English speakers can feel the same certainty about spring. Anglo-Saxon springan. Arnold Wadler has pointed out the particularly lively quality of all spr- words, such as sprout, sprig, sprite, spray, sprinkle, surprise, even sport—and of course spirit.] But now listen to such words as Essenz ‘essence’ or Kategorie ‘category’ or Rhetorik ‘rhetoric’. Can you feel equally the relationship to what the word meant at its beginning? No! As members of a folk-group we have taken in a particular word-sound, but we have to make an effort to reach the concept carried on the wings of those sounds. We are not at all able to repeat that inner experience of harmony between word-sound and concept or feeling. Deep wisdom lies in the fact that a people accepted from other peoples such words in either their ascending or descending development, words it has not formed from the beginning, words in which the sound is experienced but not its relationship to what is meant. For the more a people accepts such words, the more it needs to call upon very special qualities in its own soul life in order to come to terms with such words at all. Just think: In our expletives and exclamations we are still able today to experience this attuning of the language-forming power to what is happening in our surroundings. Pfui! ‘pooh! ugh!’, Tratsch! ‘stupid nonsense!’, Tralle walle! [probably an Austrian dialect term. English examples: ‘Ow!’, ‘Damn!’, ‘Hah!’, ‘Drat it!']. How close we come to what we want to express with such words! And what a difference you find when you're in school and take up a subject—it needn't even be logic or philosophy—but simply a modern science course. You will immediately be confronted with words that arouse soul forces quite different from those that let you sense, for instance, the feeling you get from Moo! that echoes in a “word” the forming of sounds you hear from a cow. When you say the word Moo, the experience of the cow is still resounding in you.

When you hear a word in a foreign language, a very different kind of inner activity is demanded than when you merely hear from the sound of the word what you are supposed to hear. You have to use your power of abstraction, the pure power of conceptualizing. You have to learn to visualize an idea. Hence a people that has so strongly taken up foreign language elements, as have the Central Europeans, will have educated in itself—by accepting these foreign elements—its capacity for thinking in ideas.

Two things come together in Central Europe when we look at modern German: on the one hand the singular inwardness, actually an inner estrangement from life, that results from moving into the third stage of language development; on the other hand, everything connected with the continuous takingin of foreign elements. Because these two factors have come together, the most powerful ability to form ideas has developed in the German language; there is the possibility to rise up to completely clear concepts and to move about freely within them. Through these two streams of language development, a prodigious education came about for Central Europe, the education of INNER WORDLESS THINKING, where we truly can proceed to a thinking without words. This was brought about in abundant measure by means of the phenomena just described.

These are the things that have evolved; we will not understand the nature of modern German at all if we don't take them into account. We should observe carefully the sound-metamorphoses and word-metamorphoses that occur through the appropriation of foreign words at the various stages of development.

This is what I wanted to present to you today, in order to characterize the Central European languages.