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The Genius of Language
GA 299

Language and the Sense for Reality or Its Lack

2 January 1920, Stuttgart

On the basis of what I have given you in these lectures and in order to reaffirm it strongly, I want to start out today with this remark: It is notably in philology that the consequences of a materialistic approach are the saddest, but perhaps also the most obvious. We can say that materialistic methods probably do more harm, for instance, in physics, because there it is less obvious—but it is most saddening in connection with language. Just here this could have been most easily avoided; just here it would have been possible to see how spirit and soul are actually at work in the language-forming genius. Now with this insight, our task will be to approach the earlier periods of language-forming by observing first of all what happens in later times. It is easier to survey the more recent happenings; you can follow language changes by noting how they shine through the accompanying changes in the feelings and perceptions of the folk soul. The language of the German people around the time of the Minnesingers—historians call it the age of chivalry—lies relatively far back but not so far that one can't trace literary matters easily enough to clarify this or that shift of meaning. By that time you don' find as many uncomplimentary phrases and epithets as in Homer, whose heroes applied names to each other that we would call insulting. Today we would hardly call each other ‘goat stomachs’ or ‘donkeys’. In those ancient times, however, a donkey was held in such esteem that a hero could be called a donkey. Animals then, it is evident from the Homeric epics, were by no means the object of such nuances of feeling as they are today.

We can come to some understanding of these things if we look for characteristic examples from a time close to ours. In the Middle Ages we find the figure of speech: Sie klebten wie ein Pech an ihrer Feinde Scharen ‘“They stuck like pitch to the ranks of the enemy’. It sounds laughable today to say of a person who perseveres bravely in battle, ‘He sticks like pitch’, but this expression was definitely used in the age of the Minnesingers.

In Wolfram von Eschenbach1Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170–1220), German epic poet and knight. Most famous work: Parzival. you will find a characteristic figure of speech, showing us first of all what was considered important at the time: description through vivid images, and secondly, various nuances of feeling for things or processes that would today seem rather contemptuous. When von Eschenbach describes in a serious manner a duchess coming toward a gentleman, he says, Her appearance penetrated his eye and entered his heart, wie eine Nieswurz durch die Nase ‘like a sneezewort through the nose’. This is a vivid metaphor, for the scent of sneezewort penetrates one’s nose in a very lively way, one could even say ruchbar ‘smellable’ (see lecture 2, page 30), but we would certainly not use the phrase today. It shows how the world of feeling has changed, and this change in the world of feeling must be studied in order to get at the science of language in a nonmaterialistic way.

A more recent poet,2Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862) in “Des Sangers Fluch.” as you know, was still able to say of a dignified woman, Sie blickte wie ein Vollmond drein ‘Her glance was like the full moon'’. But this figure of speech, quite usual in the Middle Ages, would be inexcusable today. If you were prompted by a similar emotion to exclaim in this way to a lady, it would hardly be polite. In the Middle Ages, however, the loveliness and gentleness of the moon were transcendent in the hearts of the people. It was from this point of view that the association came about of the full moon with the beloved qualities of a lady’s glance and countenance.

Gottfried von Strassburg speaks in his Tristan3Tristan and Isolde, ca. AD. 1210. quite seriously about geleimte Liebe ‘glued love’ as something that had come apart and then found its way together again. He spoke too about klebenbleiben ‘staying glued down' of wounded men on the battlefield. This would sound insulting today. When people in the Middle Ages described the kaiserlichen Beine ‘imperial legs’ of a person in order to express his stateliness, or die kaiserliche Magd Maria ‘the imperial maid Mary’, it points up essential aspects of change within the world of feeling.

In bringing you these examples, I want you to become observant as to how these subtle changes of feeling show up in obscure areas. For instance, one could speak in those early ages of krankem Schilfrohr ‘sick reeds’. What are sick reeds? Krank, ‘sick’, is here only a descriptive adjective for an exceedingly long, thin reed, and it is not at all far back in time when krank had no other meaning than ‘slim’. In those days when you called a person krank, you would have meant that he was ‘tall and slim’, certainly not that he was ‘ill’, in the present sense of the word. Had you wished to express sick, you would have used the term süchtig, von einer Sucht befallen, in modern usage, ‘chronically ill' or ‘addicted’. To be krank was to be ‘thin'—just think what has happened to this word! Gradually the feeling developed that it is ‘not quite human'’ to be ‘thin’. The notion has been adopted that a normal human being should be a little more substantial. With this detour came about the linking of the sound-connection Arank with the meaning ‘sick’ and the idea of a not-quite normal organism. We see how a word with one distinct shade of meaning can take on a clearly different one.

Not very long ago an innkeeper could do a good business by advertising elenden ‘miserable’ wine. He could trumpet forth in his village: “In my inn you get elenden wine!” It is exactly the same word that means ‘miserable’ today. Now, however, only in a dialect will you still find an echo of the old shade of meaning, where certain villages lying far out toward the border of the land are called the Elend villages. Even in my time in Styria in southern Austria, someone saying Der Mann ist aus dem Elend (the man is from the Elend) meant that he came from a village on the border. Certain villages have kept the name Elend up to the present day. This term has actually moved in from farther away, for elender wine meant ausländischer wine ‘foreign’, ‘outlandish’; Elend is the Ausland ‘foreign country’. So the innkeeper would have done good business, at least up to 1914, by advertising, say, French wines as elender wine. We see a shift of meaning similar to the one in Krank.

The poet Geiler von Kaisersberg4Geiler von Kaisersberg (1445-1510), famous preacher. speaks most peculiarly of a hübschen ‘pretty’ God. We couldn't say this today, but if you look it up in his works, you will find it more understandable. He meant with this a ‘benevolent’ God. Hübsch at that time carried the same shade of feeling as ‘kind’. [An English example: when James II (1633-1701) first saw St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, he called it amusing, awful, and artificial. He meant that it was ‘pleasing to look at’; ‘meriting awe’; and ‘full of skilful artifice’.] You will still find occasionally today surviving figures of speech, such as the phrase ein ungehobelter Mensch ‘an uncouth person’, literally ‘unplaned’ surface not smoothed with a Hobel, a carpenter’s plane. You will understand this word on meeting it in Martin Luther’s writing, that people are gehobelt ‘planed smooth’ by the prophets, that is, they are being put to rights, put in order, straightened up by the prophets. We find there the visual imagery of the act of planing with the ‘making straight’ in a moral sense.

After these examples from so far back in time, we can look at something closer to us. Lessing5Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), critic and dramatist. The quotation is from his play Emilia Galotti, Act 1, Scene 4. who lived more recently, wanted to describe the many things for which we rightfully develop great sympathy but which nevertheless cannot be called beautiful or be thought of as objects of art. By the way he phrased this, it can easily be misunderstood today: “Much of the Anzüglichsten, (‘offensive, suggestive, lewd’ in today's meaning) cannot be an object of art.” [Modern German uses another form of the verb anziehen, ‘to draw or pull’: anziehend = ‘attractive’.] Lessing means that many things of the most attractive nature cannot rightfully be called objects of art; in this word we have a real change on how the word is felt. We use the term nowadays for something essentially different.

It is interesting to trace the complicated way such shifts of meaning take place. Consider how the word krank, meaning ‘slim’ at an earlier time, might also be applied to a reed. A reed is krank when it is slim, less useful than a short, thick one. This shade of meaning gradually changed then to its present sense of ‘sick’, though somewhat modified once again. Adelung,6Johann Christoph Adelung, (1732-1806), German philologist and grammarian. Court librarian at Dresden. living halfway between that time and ours, speaks about gekränkte ships that need repair [gekränkte, the past participle of the verb kränken, introduces still another shade of meaning. Today it is used to mean ‘hurt’, in the sense of hurt feelings.] It strikes us as a little comic or at least it characterizes the speaker as a joker when someone talks about a ‘hurt clock’, but in those years the sense of the word was perfectly clear, with its changed meaning, when applied to inorganic objects. Krank originally referred to the shape or form; the present meaning ‘sick’ crept in only gradually. While the earlier meaning ‘sim’ was cast aside altogether and the totally new one took over, we are still reminded of the original meaning by the term ‘hurt ships’. The immediate sensing of the emotional, perceptive quality within words disappeared more and more.

Even Goethe still had a clear feeling about words; he found feelings in words that nowadays leave us cold, for in many respects he went back to the power of the language-forming genius. The word bitter ‘bitter’, for instance, has become for us a purely subjective tasting experience; usually we don't connect it in our feeling with what in earlier times was clearly visualized as beissen ‘to bite’, from which it originates. The relationship is there: whatever tastes bitter really ‘bites us’. Goethe still felt this and writes about “the bitter scissors of the Fates"7In his poem “Harzreise im Winter ”(Winter Journey in the Harz).—they are the biting scissors of the Fates! People nowadays are such abstract creatures that they think this is “mere poetic license.” But it is not poetic license at all; it arose directly out of inner experience. True, Goethe did not yet live in a time when ninety-nine percent of poetic writing is superfluous. We should keep in mind while reading his work how within language he felt a much greater aliveness, a more inward life, than we are able to feel today as products of modern education. You can sense this, too, from Goethe’s words, Ein Ecce Homo gefiel mir wegen seiner erbarmlichen Darstellung, ‘An Ecce Homo painting pleased me particularly because of its miserable portrayal’. No one today seems to feel that there is anything more in Goethe’s phrase than the meaning of a poor sort of representation. But Goethe wants to suggest that our deepest pity is aroused through this particular portrayal. We would say, “Ein Ecce Homo gefiel mir wegen seiner Erbarmen heransfordernden Darstellung” ‘An Ecce Homo painting pleased me particularly because the portrayal aroused compassion’. Goethe was still able to put it ‘... because of its miserable portrayal’.

Not so very long ago it was possible to say of a person who liked to speak with children or poor people on the street, who was not snobbish or conceited, for whom one wished to show one’s approval, “Du bist ein niederträchtiger Mensch!” Present meaning: ‘You are a low-thinking person, low-minded, vile'. This was possible until the middle of the eighteenth century. Ein niederträchtiger Mensch was until that time an ‘affable, amiable’ person. He was being praised, given the highest praise from a certain point of view. Again, I do not believe that many people can still derive the right meaning from reading in eighteenth century literature about an ungefährliche Zahl a ‘harmless number’; ungefähr now means ‘approximate’ not ‘undangerous’. We would say today: ‘a number that is approximately correct’. An ungefährliche number was simply an ‘approximate’ one.

Further, what would modern minds connect with the common eighteenth century expression, unartige Pflaumen ‘naughty plums’. Un = ‘not’; Art = ‘type, sort, variety'. Unartige plums are those that do not show the specially typical marks of their kind, because they are an unusual variation.

Only when we acquire a feeling for the fact that such changes take place will we understand other changes that are not so obvious. For instance, our word schwierjg ‘difficult—you know the shade of feeling with which it is spoken. It was formerly used only with the conscious intention of expressing full of Schwären, full of Geschwüre ‘swellings, abscesses’. Therefore if you found something schwierig you wished to express the feeling that this would ‘result in abscesses’. A very pictorial, vigorous expression to connect with our word schwierig.

Such things fall totally outside our modern nuances of feeling; they prove how wrong it is to judge language in a pedantic way without recognizing the reality of language metamorphosis, something also evident in dialects. Today, when offering a guest a meal with many courses, you might tell him not to eat too much of this or that because other dishes are coming for which he should save some appetite; you might say, “Please don' eat too much—there’s a good dessert coming.” But in one region of the German-speaking lands, it is possible to put it, “Iss von dieser Speise nicht zuviel, es gibt noch etwas hintenauf’ ‘Don't eat too much of this; there’s still something coming in the rear’. [Etwas hintenauf in modern German carries the connotation that a ‘spanking is in the offing’.]

In another dialect it is possible to say, “Oh, these are good children; die schlachten sich” ‘they slaughter each other’. This meant that they take after their good parents, are cast in the same mold [vom gleichen Schlag sein). 1t is exactly this kind of example that points up the living interchange between inner sensitivity and the external image in our feeling for language.

Sometimes this shows up in extremely important matters. For instance, you will find a statement of Goethe, made in his later years, characterizing his work on Faust. It has played a most significant role with the Faust commentators. In Goethe’s last letter [March 17, 1832] addressed to Wilhelm von Humboldt, he characterized his work on Faust as remarkable wenn seit über 60 Jahren die Konzeption des “Faust” bei ihm jugendlich von vorne herein klar, die ganze Reihenfolge hin weniger ausführlich vorlag (... when for more than sixty years the conception of Faust has been clear to me from the beginning, first as a young person; the whole sequence, however, less fully developed). Many Faust commentators concluded from this that Goethe already as a young man had a plan for the complete Faust that he had conceived clearly from the beginning (von vorn herein) and that the later work was merely a kind of working out the details. And much that is unnecessary and untrue in their characterization of his work on Faust has originated from this interpretation of the passage, for only since Fresenius8August Fresenius (b. 1850). See Rudolf Steiner, The Course of My Life (Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1951), pp. 221-223 . published his findings about the significance for Goethe of the phrase von vorne herein ‘in from the front’, that is, ‘at the outset’ has it been possible to understand Goethe’s words. All this had special meaning for me because I worked with Fresenius.9From 1890 to 1897 in the Goethe-Schiller Archives in Weimar as editor of Goethe’s Scientific Writings. When he had found something of importance, it often took decades before he did anything about it. Therefore I pressed him to publish this, for what he had to say was extremely important. You can put together all the passages of Goethe using the phrase von vorne herein and you will find that he never uses it in any but a spatial sense. If he said he had read a book von vorne herein, he meant that he had read only the beginning pages. It can be clearly shown that he had in his youth a clear conception of the first scenes of Faust Here then simply a correct understanding of word usage explains Goethe’s work; from this phrase you can see that what he could visualize spatially has for us become abstract. Von vorne herein he always used visually, spatially. Much of Goethe’s charm and attraction for us is founded on his going back to the original qualities of the language-creating genius. You can start out from Goethe’s language and from there search your way into Goethe’s soul, instead of proceeding only materialistically as modern investigators do, and you will find there important criteria for freeing philology from rationalistic materialism. It is good to look for help from such sources also.

In many ways there no longer exists such language that expresses a combination of shades of feeling and sound. We can still find this sometimes in dialects, which also have it in themselves to bring the visual to expression. For instance, you will find here and there in dialect—more often than in educated speech—the phrase unter den Arm greifen ‘to help someone’; literally ‘to reach under his arm’. This simply means to come to the aid of a person who needs help. Why? Because a young person in offering a hand to someone elderly, who can't get about so easily any more, reaches under the other’s arm to give support. This active image was transferred then to any helpful act. Exactly as it was with the expression (Lecture 2) “to wipe the night-sleep out of our eyes,” so it is with the act of giving help, a single specific procedure chosen to express visually a more abstract generality. Sometimes the genius of language was no longer able to retain the visual element; then also from time to time imagery was retained in one instance, cast off in the other.

There still exists today the word lauschen ‘listen with inner attentiveness’ for a certain kind of listening. The Austrian dialect also has a word related to lauschen: losen. We not only say in Austria when we want to make a person listen, Hör einmal ‘listen’, but also Los amol! ‘harken!’. Losen is a weaker but still active listening. Educated colloquial German has retained lauschen. Losen is a cognate with the feeling of a somewhat weak activity, even with a certain sneakiness, pointing to a secret kind of listening. In a sense losen has taken on the meaning of forbidden listening. For instance, when a person puts his ear to the keyhole or listens in when two are discussing something not meant for his hearing, then the word losen is used ‘harken'.

Only after becoming sensitive to the feeling element in such sound sequences can one proceed to develop a sense for the basic sounds, the vowels and consonants. In the Austrian dialect there is a word Ahnl for grandmother. Do you perhaps know the word Ahnl? A more general term is Ahnfrau (der Ahn, die Ahne, male and female grandparents/progenitors). In Ahnl you have Ahne combined with an /l/. If you want to understand what is happening there in the realm of speech, you must swing up to a heightened feeling of /l/ as a consonant. Feel the /l/ in the suffix -lich (‘-ly’, as in friendly See lecture 2 and lecture 4), in which I have explained that it originated from leik. It is somehow related to the feeling that something is moving about, that this moving about has to be imitated in the language. An Ahnl is a person who is clearly old but who makes the impression of being lively and mobile; you hardly notice the wrinkles in her face! You see the character of /l/ as it is used here.

Take the word schwinden ‘dwindle, fade: to go away, to make a thing go away so that it can't be seen any more. Now figure that I don't really want to make it go away, but I want to cheat a little in seeming to make it go away. I want to effect something that is not a true, honest disappearance—but I would also feel a moving around, an /l/ as in the Ahnl—and there is the word schwindeln ‘to swindle’. The /I/ makes the difference. You can feel exactly the subtly nuanced value of /I/ by going from schwinden to schwindeln. [Parallels in English would be tramp-trample, side-sidle, tread-treadle.]

If you dwell on these thoughts, eurythmy10See Rudolf Steiner, Eurythmy as Visible Speech, GA 279, lecture 4 (New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1931). will become completely natural. You will feel that eurythmy springs from our ancient, original relationship to the sound elements of words, which without the sound elements only movement can bring to expression. If you can feel such a thing, then you will be able to sense precisely how, for instance, in the vowel /u/ (ooh) there is an element of moving close together, snuggling close together. Look at how you do the /u/ in eurythmy [Arms and hands are brought close and parallel to each other, as in the written letter]. You have the moving together, the closeness of the gesture, so that you can say, in the word Mutter ‘mother—someone you usually come close to—it would be impossible to have an /a/ (ah) or /e/ (ay) as the strong vowel in the word. [The /o/ of ‘mother’ is a gesture of affection.] You can't imagine saying Metter or Matter. Mater shows that the language in which it occurs, Latin, was already a weakened one; the original word was Mutter.

I have shown you, with all this, the path of the genius of language, a path on which a barrier was erected, I have said, between the sound element of a word and its meaning. They were originally closely united with each other in subjective human perception. They have separated. The sound-content descends into the subconscious; the mental picture ascends into our consciousness [see lecture 4, page 59, 60]. Much has been cast off that can be perceived just there where human beings originally lived closely connected with the things and activities around them. When we go back to earlier times in language development, we find the altogether remarkable fact that the original forms of language take us completely out into factual reality, that there exists on the primitive levels of language formation a fine sense for actual facts, and that the people who live at this level live closely connected with things and with everything that goes on with things. The moment this living connection is broken, the sense for reality becomes hazy and people live in an unreality that expresses itself in abstract language.

In the original Indo-European language there were three genders, as in Latin. We still have three genders in German. You can feel three different qualities expressed as masculine, feminine, and neuter. In French there are only two genders left, in English only one. This shows us that the English language has divested itself with a grand gesture, one could say, of the sense for reality, that it now merely hovers over things but no longer lives in actualities. On that early step of human development when the gender of words was being formed, there still existed a primitive clairvoyance; a living, spiritual quality was perceived within things. Der Sonne ‘sun’, masculine and die Mond ‘moon’, feminine which later were reversed to die Sonne and der Mond [in modern German sun is feminine, moon is masculine] could never have come about in the older IndoEuropean languages had the elemental beings living in the sun and moon not been experienced as brothers and sisters. In antiquity the sun was felt to be the brother, the moon the sister. Today in German it has been turned around. The day was perceived as the son and the night as the daughter of the giant Norwi. This definitely originates from primitive clairvoyant vision. The feeling for the earth at that time was very different from the geologists' perception of it today, when they would actually have good reason to use the neuter gender and speak of das Erde [the correct form in modern German is die Erde feminine]. People nowadays no longer sense that the earth in fact is Gaia, for whom the masculine god is Uranos. People still had a perception of this in the areas where the Germanic language was originally formed.

In any case there were shades of feeling arising out of the close connection with the world outside and these were the source for determining gender, for deciding characteristic gender. The elephant (der Elefant) was considered strong, the mouse (die Maus) weak. Since a man was perceived as strong and a woman weak, the elephant was given the masculine gender, the mouse the feminine. The trees of the forest are usually feminine because for the original perception, they were the dwelling places of female divinities. Of immense importance because it points to a deep aspect of the language genius is the fact that alongside the masculine and feminine genders there exists a neuter gender. We say der Mann ‘the man', die Frau ‘the woman', das Kind ‘the child’. The child’s gender or sex [the German language uses the same word Geschlecht for both] is not yet articulated, has not yet reached complete definition, is in the process of becoming. When the neuter gender arose, it came up out of a certain mood in the folk-genius, a feeling that anything given a neuter gender would only later become what it was to be. Gold does not yet have the special characteristic it will have someday. It is still young in the cosmos; it is not yet what it is destined to be. Hence it is not der Gold or die Gold but das Gold.

On the other hand we can look at what comes about when the visualizing power that could characterize gender disappears. We say today die Mitgift (dowry, literally ‘with-gift’), which shows a clear connection to an earlier word die Gift. We also say today der Abscheu (‘aversion’, literally ‘away-shyness’) which is clear evidence of an earlier word der Scheu. Both these deductions are correct. Der Scheu and die Gift have gone through a subtle change in connotation. Die Gift in early times simply meant ‘the non-committal act of giving’. But because of what some people have given and what was, also in Faust’s opinion, harmful to others, the word has changed its meaning and has been applied to gifts that are objectionable, losing the connection with the original gender characteristic. The result is das Gift ‘poison’, neuter gender. When a person once was called scheu, he was considered as having strong feelings, as being firm in himself. When the word became weak, it became die Scheu ‘shyness’, feminine.

That our language has become more abstract, that it has released itself from its interweaving with outer reality, can best be understood from the fact that the ancient Indo-European languages had eight cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, ablative, locative, and instrumental [German has retained the first four. English has one case form for nouns, except for possessives—usually adding /s/—and two forms you, your or three forms they, them, their for pronouns]. This means that not only was the position of a thing expressed as it is done today with the first four cases, but people were also able to follow other relationships with their feelings. For instance, to do a thing at a certain time, we can express as diesen Tag ‘on this day’, accusative, or dieses Tages ‘of this day’, genitive. No longer do we experience the active helpfulness of the day, of the time of day, or of a special day in particular. No longer do we have the experience that whatever is done on the second of January, 1920, for instance, could not be accomplished later, that time is a helpful element, that time is involved in something that helps us. There existed a sense for all this in earlier ages when the instrumental case was used, hiu tagu. We would have to say something like durch diesen Tag ‘through this day’, vermittelst dieses Tages ‘by means of this day’. Hiu tagu has become the word heute ‘today’; the old instrumental case is buried in the word, just as hiu jaru has become heuer ‘this year’. But German has retained only four cases and cast off the others. You will understand from this how continuously language becomes more and more abstract, and how the capacity for abstract thought with its definite lack of a sense for reality has been taking the place of an earlier connection with the real world. This is what language reveals.