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The Genius of Language
GA 299

The Inner Path of the Genius of Language

3 January 1920, Stuttgart

I have shown you a few characteristic examples of language development and believe that now you should be able to visualize the inner journeying of the language-forming genius. If you hope to find your way through the phenomena of language and its evolution, you will have to understand the guidelines such phenomena reveal. Of course, I have been able to show you only a few things; today I will point out only one important guideline, summarizing these basic thoughts. I hope we will be able very soon to continue this study.1While it never came to another course on language, there is much material given by Rudolf Steiner from 1920 to 1924 in the Conferences with the Teachers of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart (4 Vols). See also page 131. Certainly the main thing you will have understood is how the human beings in a primitive stage of language development were receptive, inwardly alive, to the consonance of sound and object. Whether this object is an inner feeling, an external event, an external thing, or an external fact doesn't matter. Whenever it is essential to form sounds that will express inner feelings or perceptions about whatever is outside us, then the sounds will be of vowel quality in the broadest sense. Vowel character in language denotes everything formed inwardly, everything that is being felt inwardly and that presses itself into the sound out of what we are experiencing in our feeling and will. Hence we will find in all the vowels and vowel forms the feelings and will-impulses that are called forth in us by the outer world and in a way are thrust into our larynx. In everything to do with consonants we will find gestures modeled on what we perceive in the outer world.

Let us suppose we would like to speak about an angle. First, we have an image of a certain angle in mind. To describe the sides of the angle with our hand, we would do this [Rudolf Steiner makes a gesture]. What we do like this with our hand, we actually do with our organs of speech in forming certain consonants. Language is in this respect only the audible expression of gestures that are not being made externally with the limbs but with much finer parts of the human organism, our beneficent air-organism. If you think about these inner laws, you will gradually develop the insight that language imitates either the outer world directly or imitates what we experience in the outer world through our feelings and sense perceptions.

Let us imagine ourselves facing two possibilities: We could do either one thing or the other. Instinctively we begin to turn over in our thoughts whether we should do this or that. If we are still more or less an “imitating animal,” as of course everyone is on a primitive level of language development, relationship to the outer world still transmits itself into an external gesture; we do this [gesture to the right and to the left]. We have to decide between our right side and our left side. That is, we are expressing the phenomenon that internally we are split in two, because two different, external facts are confronting us. We split ourselves into two parts in order to determine toward which side the stronger weight in our thinking tends. So we do this [repeats the gesture]. We separate, we decide, and also divide. But of course, if we are to come to a favorable decision we have to go back to the past as far as possible. Hence we not only divide ourselves (teilen, ‘to divide’) but we divide ourselves far back to the beginning (ur-teilen); we make an archetypal, original division. [See Lecture 4, page 52,53.] The word Urteil ‘judgment’ should definitely be understood as a gesture transformed inwardly into sound. All consonant-forming is gestureforming that has simply been transformed into speech sounds.

When we search for the basis of this metamorphosis, we can trace it throughout the whole course of language development. At first human beings lived more fully outside themselves in their surroundings. Only gradually did they become inward beings. To begin with, they lived in the outer world, closely connected to the things around them, especially in the very ancient times when an original, primitive clairvoyance still existed. At this time human beings thought very little about themselves nor did they have any definite ideas about themselves. They knew, however, that there were all sorts of ghosts, all kinds of elemental spirits, which they perceived in what we now call external objects. Even in himself a person still saw an elemental being. “You,” he said to himself, “have come through your father and mother into this world.” He objectified himself. We find that on the first level of language-formation the language-forming genius, to begin with, brings about mainly consonant sounds. The primitive languages on the whole must have had consonantal character, because the primitive peoples were still without inwardness. Primitive peoples today, at least the ones who have remained at this original level, have rich consonant formations in their language; the consonant sounds show clearly the imitation of external events: for instance, Schnalzer [‘tongue-clickers’, both words good examples of an accumulation of consonants. Laurens van der Post, in The Lost World of the Kalahari, has described the Bushman’s language: “the sound of natural relish that the word ghwai Xkhwe makes on his lips is a joy to hear, and the click of the complex consonants flashes on his tongue as he utters them like a sparkle of sun on a burst of flower from our somber mountain gorse.”]. Certain African tribes are able to use the human organs of speech to produce sounds like the sharp snapping of a whip. “Tongue clicking' disappears when human beings begin to express more of their inner feelings through sound structure. Consonant formations must be considered the first step. Then the second step will be the vowel formations, but the inwardness found in vowel formations is actually a stage of transition. Finally signs of aging in the genius of language appear: the vowel-forming power recedes and the consonant-forming power comes to the fore again.

Our human language journey involving the development of language proceeds essentially from outward to inward and then from inward to outward. We can observe this procedure directly in the sound-structure; it is the intrinsic essential fact throughout the whole forming of language. It is the intrinsic, essential fact to such a degree that we encounter it in every aspect of language. That first step of language development we meet everywhere: human beings, still selfless, unaware of themselves, create language. We are continually impelled to bring a word designating one thing towards another word in an external manner [as in early English: sea-horse, meaning ‘ship’]. On this level, human beings are altogether very lively in themselves. Later, when they become more inward and spiritual, a bit of this primitive liveliness is lost to them. They become more enclosed, more rigid, more abstract, and no longer have the strength to pour into the word itself what they see externally; instead, they add onto it [that is, using combining forms: prefixes and suffixes].

To study such phenomena, we should find the following characteristic examples exceedingly interesting. There is, for instance, in Old High German the verb salbom, in modern German ich salbe ‘I am anointing’; cognate, salve). You can take this through first, second, and third person:

salbom, ‘I anoint’ salbomes, ‘we anoint’
salbos, ‘you anoint’ salbot, ‘you anoint’ (pl)
salbot, ‘he’ or ‘she anoints’ salbont, ‘they anoint’

In these six words conjugating the verb ‘to anoint’, you always have salbo as the verb proper, denoting the activity. What is added creates the designated person of the word, for I the m, for you in the singular the s for he or she the t for we the mes, for you in the plural the t for they the nt. The fact that these suffixal forms are still contained within the verb is understandable in the following sense: The contrasts of ‘I you, he we, you, they appear at this primitive step because human beings looked at them very much from the outside. They added the person-sounds directly to the sounds that express activity. They were still inwardly lively enough to connect the person-sounds in a living way with the verbal form for the action. We should consider this two-foldness: first, the early attention directed toward the outer world, and second, the addition of the main word itself to the inward, lively, transformative force. This I, you, he, she, it was not originally felt to be an organic part of the verb or to be something of inwardness. You can observe this in the related Sanskrit language where the person-designation is simply stuck onto the most important word; it is to be found as an independent designation for ‘I, you, he, she, it. The m in Old High German is simply the metamorphosis of mi ‘I' of Sanskrit; the s the metamorphosis of si ‘you’, singular, of Sanskrit; t the ti ‘he, she, it’; mes the masi ‘we’; t, the transformed tasi (‘you', plural); nt is the suffix -anti ‘they’, spoken somewhat hastily. You can still observe in Sanskrit that it is not at all a question of conjugating the central part of the main verb and then perceiving the change of form as a designation of person. No, at that time human beings were inwardly so alive that with their perception of the outer world, they were able to organize the grammar of personal pronouns into a sound-sequence expressing the main idea. That is an important difference. You might easily believe that at this primitive level there would be mainly an inward modulating of words. No, there is not. An inner aliveness in the people lets them connect the two components of a word together. This is a consonantal activity, not a vowel-forming one.

When later a language like Latin reaches the next level, with the perception that the personal pronouns should be within the inner organism of the sound sequence, the language has arrived at a level corresponding to a greater inwardness of that particular language genius. Toward inwardness it has worked its way from outwardness where it has simply attached to the end of a word what it perceived as an external element: salbom, ‘I anoint’, salbos, ‘you anoint’. Just as on a primitive level people don't say Karl Meyer but the Meyer-Karl [peasant dialect], so it is with such verbs; whatever makes them specific is added at the end. Here, too, the specific pronoun is put at the end of the word.

Repositioning the pronoun from the end of the word to the beginning and making it an independent word was the path to the greatest inwardness, the kind of inwardness that perceives how spiritually abstract our inner nature really is. Now the person is separated off and placed ahead of the verb. You can learn something important from this procedure if you go back to the primitive constructions of the language-forming genius that does not really know anything about an I or a you separated from external things, and that still presses into the word whatever has to be said about I or you. Later, the genius finds the pronouns within the word itself—Latin is a language at this level—and plucks them out, comes to a mirror image of itself, comes to ego consciousness, and then puts the I and the you up ahead of the verb. This growing sense of egoism, this arrival at self-visualization is reflected quite clearly in language development. One can say that becoming aware of oneself at a certain unconscious level has been achieved as the result of the ancient Apollonian precept “know thou thyself”; this was followed everywhere in the languages of the western world by taking the personal pronouns out of the verb forms. These forms could still express human inwardness; they had not yet separated themselves completely away from it. You really will not be able to study languages unless you do what I suggested yesterday: consider them as the expression of human soul development.

You see, from language that is still alive it is quite possible to trace the ‘remnants” of the vowel-forming and consonant-forming powers. There is a quality in the verbs, the words of action, that gives them a vowel-forming character and makes the vowel in them the main element. With a little reflection you will realize that the verbs in which the vowel element—expressing inner sensitivity—is more important than the consonants are those that describe an activity we can connect ourselves with inwardly and wholeheartedly.

Now observe that there is a difference between the state of your soul right now and how it was a little while ago. You are sitting here and you have been sitting quite a while. Whatever is expressed by this sitting is something you have connected yourself with; it is connected quite inwardly with you. You have come to sit here by setting yourself down. With the setting yourself down you are connected much less inwardly; it is more external. You can't continue to ‘set’ yourself down for any length of time because you cant connect yourself so closely with the act of dropping onto a chair, but you can sit for half an hour and even longer, because it is possible to connect yourself inwardly with sitting. It is really the case that you should experience the sound-sequence for sitting as vowel-articulated, and the one for setting as more external, more consonantal. If you are sensitive to vowel articulation, you will have the power—through the language-forming genius—to be creative with vowels; you will do this by adapting the word in various ways: sit, sat, sat [the German sitzen, sass, gesessen has one additional vowel change]. With the consonantal activity, expressed in setting, you keep the emphasis on the consonants instead of forming a vowel change to satting or something similar [the German setzen, setzte, gesetzt, ‘to set’, has no vowel change]. You are depicting something external with this by saying set. If you want to express the fact that this took place some time ago, you will say set-did (setzen tat). [The English verb to set is irregular and does not follow the German rule. We have substituted the verb to place in this discussion.] You will say place-did. You do place yourself, you did place yourself; in metamorphosis this becomes placed, for the -ed is the transformed did.

People who still today have kept something of this language-forming strength in themselves will emphasize consonants just as happened in earlier times. If they belong to a more primitive level of culture, they have an unusual capacity to imitate outer life and activity with their consonantal sound-structures, using as few vowels as possible. You can hear something of this joining together of sound and outer action in the words of a somewhat simple peasant who had considered it an honor to have his son study at the university. He was asked what his son was doing at the university. For the time being, the son was using his inheritance not so much for steeping himself in the abstract and mental side of academic life but rather for giving himself over to more external aspects. And so the father, when asked what his son was doing, said, “Strolling around he does, loafing around he does, beer guzzling he does, whooping it up he does, but doing something he doesn't do (aber fun tut er nichts!).”

A strong feeling of inwardness streams into the language-forming verb. In the sound structures that have retained their character, especially their conceptual character, you will always come to feel that the vowel change in verbal conjugations (an ablaut, as ‘come, came’) expresses something we are more inwardly connected with. On the other hand, we will not be able to develop the ablaut with verbs for which we have an inner mental image but with which we cannot connect ourselves inwardly, verbs that do not become something we feel but remain something merely observed. When you say, I sing, I sang, you have the ablaut. It is quite different when you say, I singe, ‘I burn something’. The word singe has its sound structure because fire sings. I singe = I am making something ‘sing’. If you are singing, you are connecting yourself inwardly with what you want to express through the sound-sequence. If you singe, you are not connecting yourself with it inwardly; you are looking at it by looking at yourself from outside—hence there is no vowel change: I singe, I singed [the corresponding words in German are singen, ‘sing’, and sengen, ‘singe’]. Whenever we fail to notice such things today it is because the words have changed so strongly that nothing of the kind is evident. We have to go back then to earlier forms of the sound structure. It is extremely important for us to follow these three steps: the connection of our life first with the outer world, then with growing inwardness, and finally the next step of inwardness where a human being explains his or her own inner world with words such as the personal pronouns. You will come to understand language formation much more easily for yourself if you follow this process. It seems that language is a flowing together of the thought element and the will element in the human being; it appears that on its first primitive level wherever the speech sound is still strongly connected with the mental image, it is even difficult to distinguish the thought element from the will element. Today our speaking, particularly in Modern German, is already bound to our will to an extraordinary degree. In German we speak with our will and learn to use our will as a matter of course when we learn to speak. We also accompany our speech with the ideas and images we have become used to bringing together with expressions of will.

It is totally different in English. For someone who is impartial and can observe such things, it is an entirely different human activity to speak German than it is to speak English, though low German dialects have remained closer to English. In speaking English it is much more the case that thinking goes into the speaking, that is, into the development of the sounds. In German, thinking does not take place in the unfolding of the sounds but proceeds as a parallel phenomenon to the sound development. In general, the western languages have preserved themselves much more from this instinctive bringing together of sound and mental image than have the Central European languages. Therefore, the western European languages have taken on such a rigid structure. In them hardly anything can be formulated without someone saying, “You can' say it like that, you have to change it around.” This doesn't happen in German, where it’s possible to say it in almost any way. You can put the subject anywhere, at the beginning or at the end, for the thought goes somewhat separately from the sound-structure, parallel with it, further removed than in the Western languages. Only by turning back to the earlier stages of our German language development do we arrive at an increasingly strict connection between mental image and sound. Therefore the quality still present in the western languages is an atavistic throwback that can be studied by means of the earlier steps in German and in our dialects.

If you feel your way vividly into language from this point of view, you will be led at the same time into the essential nature of the folk souls. Suppose you are looking at an object in front of you. As primitive people we have formed a sound sequence for this object out of consonant and vowel elements. So we say Wagen [‘wagon', ‘car’; Anglo-Saxon, wain] for something that can be put in motion. If we have in front of us the same object in the plural, that is, a number of such objects, we form the plural by saying die Wägen, by forming the ‘Umlaut’. It is true, die Wagen is also correct, but it belongs to literary language and was not really formed within the organism of the language. [The difference of pronunciation in English would be parallel to the vowels of far and vague.]

Why do we form the umlaut? It was for the singular object that we put the sounds together, and in doing so our consciousness was sparked, lit up, enlivened; at that moment we were awake and attentive. When we formed the plural, we had less overview and therefore had the need to express it in a more nebulous way. We dimmed the pure /a:/ sound [as in ‘ah’] to a murky /e:/ (as in care). The original sound sequence is always formed by consciously observing the actual facts or sensations. Whatever attracts less attention or cannot be closely observed reveals itself as dulled.2See Rudolf Steiner, Eurythmy as Visible Speech, GA 279, lecture 7 (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1984). The important thing here is to see how something changes within the human being. The dialect of many German areas does not say der Wagen but der Wogn. Since the normal attention to sound sequence brought about an answering /o/, the dimming in the plural is expressed by die Woagen. You can follow this in many examples.3Old English had many ways of forming noun plurals. The most common was the addition of -an, but -as (later -es -9 gained ground and finally carried the day. However, we still have oxen, children, kine, brethren. The mutation plural (changing the vowel) we find in geese, feet, mice, lice, men, and women. None of these are changes to a dipthong, as in German.

One more thing I should like to call to your attention. As you know, lively mental images were the source of the consonantal forming of language in earlier times, and much of what was felt in the soul of ancient peoples flowed into this language forming; it can still be studied in what has been retained in primitive minds and feelings today. These perceptions, filled with an immense vitality at that time, were not only alive to the outer world through the senses but were also completely bound up with a kind of primitive clairvoyance. Otherwise there would not be all our sturdy, image-filled words that are happily still in existence. Here is an example: A person still living within the sphere of atavistic clairvoyance—no matter how weak—and possessing the ancient kind of perception was certainly able to perceive that the physical body of an ordinary human being contained something we call today the etheric body. Such a primitive person perceived the head [this and the following were illustrated on the blackboard] and, projecting beyond it, a second, etheric head. He felt that the head was the expression of thinking. Thus we can say that primitive human beings with their original clairvoyance named the human being from the standpoint of thinking—with a word very much related to ours—by the word Manas, for Mensch ‘human being, Man, person’. Mensch is the same as manas, of course, this is the human being we usually come across. But that early, atavistically clairvoyant person knew that it’s also possible to encounter other, somewhat different, people—here I'm joking about something one ought not to make too trivial—who do not have the supersensible ‘person’ closely connected to the physical person so snugly and prosaically. In cases where the supersensible does not quite fit into the rest of the human being, people felt: the etheric body is verrückt [‘shifted’, literally ‘moved off its place’, a word that means today ‘deranged’, ‘insane’, ‘crazy’]. This was then transferred to the whole person: Der Mensch ist verrückt ‘that person is shifted’, i.e., ‘crazy’. A purely external fact is described, the displacing of the etheric body. Just this sort of picturemaking, going back to the time when pictures of the spiritual world could still be observed, is exceedingly interesting. If people would only recognize this, if learned philologists were not so sound asleep, proceeding as they do quite superficially on their materialistic tracks! If they would enter instead into the inward soul element that finds its expression in external language-forming, philology would turn of itself into a science of the soul and then into spiritual science. For this reason it is a shame that philology has become so materialistic; young people actually have no opportunity to observe the effects of soul and spirit on the forming of language.

I believe that in some way now what I've wanted to give you in the way of guidelines and examples can be useful to those of you who are teachers at the Waldorf School. Take them into your mind and soul; they will serve as a stimulus to observe the many elements of language that you can make use of in your teaching. If you have taken into yourself the spirit of looking at things in this way, it will definitely benefit your classes; speech will always be the connecting link between you and your students. It would be of enormous help to try on your own to bring back into words some of the original strength of feeling and image-making in language. Through this you will train yourself to a more lively perception than one otherwise is able to develop. Actually we modern people walk around much like living corpses, largely because our language has plunged so drastically out of our hearts and has fallen down somewhere below. It has become an unconscious element of will. We can no longer feel how our soul qualities are alive within the spoken /e/ and /u/ and /a/ and /m/. We no longer train ourselves to imbue the words that sound alike with the very same inward feelings. We are abstract not only in our understanding, in our thinking, but abstract also in our speaking. For a person who really has a lively feeling for language, much of what we speak today sounds like a record on a record-player, but the record had already been produced in ancient times. We must try to make a connection with our language again. However, for this a kind of self-education will be necessary, so that we learn to listen inwardly.

Let us listen to the word rauh ‘rough’ and feel the sound combination inwardly. If we say on perceiving this figure [a four-sided figure is drawn on the board], “That is a Raute ‘rhomboid’,” then we can sense roughin such a way that we feel roughness in the perception of the corners. We can still make the effort today, when looking at such a figure, to experience the corners as related to rough, and the /t/ of Raute we will feel as tut ‘does. Whatever does rough is the Raufe. [We can approach this from many sides in English: even—evening; try triangle; hole-hold; flow-flower, etc.] Developing such imponderables would be an element of strength in teaching, if we tried not to allow sound-structure and mental image to diverge. I beg you to consider just what kind of a subtle background can we possibly sense when we talk to a child about this geometrical figure and say only, “This is a rhomboid”? We ourselves dont feel anything if we simply say, “This is a rhomboid.” How strong a foundation we could establish for the attentiveness of the students that we need in our class if we will re-educate ourselves through an understanding of the sounds of speech, and then feel the need to educate our children in the same direction!

You can gain ideas for your self-education from just this view of language I have been talking about. But I've also wanted to show you something of method, my dear friends. My aim has been to guide you toward important ideas by means of characteristic, concrete examples. I believe that a truly modern university professor would probably expound in three volumes what I have developed in this short time. He would of course try for completeness, but it would be less possible for him to develop the guidelines to stimulate our thinking, our mental pictures, and our perceptions. If you proceed in the elementary school as we have proceeded in this language course, you will evolve a good basic method of your own. You will try at every point to look for thoroughly characteristic examples for what you are going to present to your students, and you will be able to combine what you see and feel in these characteristic examples with the perception of their spiritual quality.

There is truly no better method of pushing children into materialism than by giving them abstract instruction. A spiritual way of teaching is through concrete examples, but you must not forget to allow qualities of soul and spirit to reveal themselves in these very concrete examples. Therefore I believe that what I have given you in this course can be a practical, methodological extension of the course I gave before the Waldorf School began.4See Rudolf Steiner, The Study of Man (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1975); Practical Advice to Teachers (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1976); Discussions with Teachers (Bristol, England: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1992). And 1 believe that you can accomplish a great deal by pondering, “How should I organize my class teaching, translating all this into what is right for children—for it is possible to adapt it in every subject—so that it follows this process of drawing in a spiritual quality by means of concrete examples?” If you do this, you will not easily run the risk almost all teaching does of not getting finished with the load of subject matter. It is only when subject matter is shredded into atoms and systematized that you don't get finished with it, because it is so tempting to take up the single, atomized parts that are uncharacteristic and pile them up, trying to show what is characteristic. Of course, there are uncharacteristic examples in all the school subjects; using these means that a great deal has to be strung together. If you make the effort, however, to choose characteristic examples and develop what is spiritual through your examples, you will achieve a certain necessary economy in your teaching.

I would be happy, my dear friends—and let it be said in all friendship, especially to those who are teachers here at the Waldorf School—I would be happy if two things have been noted in these improvised talks: First, the stimulus toward educating yourselves in a kind of brotherly-sisterly alliance with the language genius; on the other hand, that the method of teaching is influenced to some extent by what I have just pointed out to you.

It is to be hoped that when I come back, possibly very soon, we will continue this exploration into language.