Essays on Life, Art and Science

Author: Samuel Butler

Thought and Language {16}

Three well-known writers, Professor Max Muller, Professor Mivart, and Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace have lately maintained that though the theory of descent with modification accounts for the development of all vegetable life, and of all animals lower than man, yet that man cannot—not at least in respect of the whole of his nature—be held to have descended from any animal lower than himself, inasmuch as none lower than man possesses even the germs of language. Reason, it is contended—more especially by Professor Max Muller in his "Science of Thought," to which I propose confining our attention this evening—is so inseparably connected with language, that the two are in point of fact identical; hence it is argued that, as the lower animals have no germs of language, they can have no germs of reason, and the inference is drawn that man cannot be conceived as having derived his own reasoning powers and command of language through descent from beings in which no germ of either can be found. The relations therefore between thought and language, interesting in themselves, acquire additional importance from the fact of their having become the battle-ground between those who say that the theory of descent breaks down with man, and those who maintain that we are descended from some ape-like ancestor long since extinct.

The contention of those who refuse to admit man unreservedly into the scheme of evolution is comparatively recent. The great propounders of evolution, Buffon, Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck—not to mention a score of others who wrote at the close of the last and early part of this present century—had no qualms about admitting man into their system. They have been followed in this respect by the late Mr. Charles Darwin, and by the greatly more influential part of our modern biologists, who hold that whatever loss of dignity we may incur through being proved to be of humble origin, is compensated by the credit we may claim for having advanced ourselves to such a high pitch of civilisation; this bids us expect still further progress, and glorifies our descendants more than it abases our ancestors. But to whichever view we may incline on sentimental grounds the fact remains that, while Charles Darwin declared language to form no impassable barrier between man and the lower animals, Professor Max Muller calls it the Rubicon which no brute dare cross, and deduces hence the conclusion that man cannot have descended from an unknown but certainly speechless ape.

It may perhaps be expected that I should begin a lecture on the relations between thought and language with some definition of both these things; but thought, as Sir William Grove said of motion, is a phenomenon "so obvious to simple apprehension, that to define it would make it more obscure." {17} Definitions are useful where things are new to us, but they are superfluous about those that are already familiar, and mischievous, so far as they are possible at all, in respect of all those things that enter so profoundly and intimately into our being that in them we must either live or bear no life. To vivisect the more vital processes of thought is to suspend, if not to destroy them; for thought can think about everything more healthily and easily than about itself. It is like its instrument the brain, which knows nothing of any injuries inflicted upon itself. As regards what is new to us, a definition will sometimes dilute a difficulty, and help us to swallow that which might choke us undiluted; but to define when we have once well swallowed is to unsettle, rather than settle, our digestion. Definitions, again, are like steps cut in a steep slope of ice, or shells thrown on to a greasy pavement; they give us foothold, and enable us to advance, but when we are at our journey’s end we want them no longer. Again, they are useful as mental fluxes, and as helping us to fuse new ideas with our older ones. They present us with some tags and ends of ideas that we have already mastered, on to which we can hitch our new ones; but to multiply them in respect of such a matter as thought, is like scratching the bite of a gnat; the more we scratch the more we want to scratch; the more we define the more we shall have to go on defining the words we have used in our definitions, and shall end by setting up a serious mental raw in the place of a small uneasiness that was after all quite endurable. We know too well what thought is, to be able to know that we know it, and I am persuaded there is no one in this room but understands what is meant by thought and thinking well enough for all the purposes of this discussion. Whoever does not know this without words will not learn it for all the words and definitions that are laid before him. The more, indeed, he hears, the more confused he will become. I shall, therefore, merely premise that I use the word "thought" in the same sense as that in which it is generally used by people who say that they think this or that. At any rate, it will be enough if I take Professor Max Muller’s own definition, and say that its essence consists in a bringing together of mental images and ideas with deductions therefrom, and with a corresponding power of detaching them from one another. Hobbes, the Professor tells us, maintained this long ago, when he said that all our thinking consists of addition and subtraction—that is to say, in bringing ideas together, and in detaching them from one another.

Turning from thought to language, we observe that the word is derived from the French langue, or tongue. Strictly, therefore, it means tonguage. This, however, takes account of but a very small part of the ideas that underlie the word. It does, indeed, seize a familiar and important detail of everyday speech, though it may be doubted whether the tongue has more to do with speaking than lips, teeth and throat have, but it makes no attempt at grasping and expressing the essential characteristic of speech. Anything done with the tongue, even though it involve no speaking at all, is tonguage; eating oranges is as much tonguage as speech is. The word, therefore, though it tells us in part how speech is effected, reveals nothing of that ulterior meaning which is nevertheless inseparable from any right use of the words either "speech" or "language." It presents us with what is indeed a very frequent adjunct of conversation, but the use of written characters, or the finger-speech of deaf mutes, is enough to show that the word "language" omits all reference to the most essential characteristics of the idea, which in practice it nevertheless very sufficiently presents to us. I hope presently to make it clear to you how and why it should do so. The word is incomplete in the first place, because it omits all reference to the ideas which words, speech or language are intended to convey, and there can be no true word without its actually or potentially conveying an idea. Secondly, it makes no allusion to the person or persons to whom the ideas are to be conveyed. Language is not language unless it not only expresses fairly definite and coherent ideas, but unless it also conveys these ideas to some other living intelligent being, either man or brute, that can understand them. We may speak to a dog or horse, but not to a stone. If we make pretence of doing so we are in reality only talking to ourselves. The person or animal spoken to is half the battle—a half, moreover, which is essential to there being any battle at all. It takes two people to say a thing—a sayee as well as a sayer. The one is as essential to any true saying as the other. A. may have spoken, but if B. has not heard, there has been nothing said, and he must speak again. True, the belief on A.’s part that he had a bona fide sayee in B., saves his speech qua him, but it has been barren and left no fertile issue. It has failed to fulfil the conditions of true speech, which involve not only that A. should speak, but also that B. should hear. True, again, we often speak of loose, incoherent, indefinite language; but by doing so we imply, and rightly, that we are calling that language which is not true language at all. People, again, sometimes talk to themselves without intending that any other person should hear them, but this is not well done, and does harm to those who practise it. It is abnormal, whereas our concern is with normal and essential characteristics; we may, therefore, neglect both delirious babblings, and the cases in which a person is regarding him or herself, as it were, from outside, and treating himself as though he were some one else.

Inquiring, then, what are the essentials, the presence of which constitutes language, while their absence negatives it altogether, we find that Professor Max Muller restricts them to the use of grammatical articulate words that we can write or speak, and denies that anything can be called language unless it can be written or spoken in articulate words and sentences. He also denies that we can think at all unless we do so in words; that is to say, in sentences with verbs and nouns. Indeed he goes so far as to say upon his title-page that there can be no reason—which I imagine comes to much the same thing as thought—without language, and no language without reason.

Against the assertion that there can be no true language without reason I have nothing to say. But when the Professor says that there can be no reason, or thought, without language, his opponents contend, as it seems to me, with greater force, that thought, though infinitely aided, extended and rendered definite through the invention of words, nevertheless existed so fully as to deserve no other name thousands, if not millions of years before words had entered into it at all. Words, they say, are a comparatively recent invention, for the fuller expression of something that was already in existence.

Children, they urge, are often evidently thinking and reasoning, though they can neither think nor speak in words. If you ask me to define reason, I answer as before that this can no more be done than thought, truth or motion can be defined. Who has answered the question, "What is truth?" Man cannot see God and live. We cannot go so far back upon ourselves as to undermine our own foundations; if we try to do we topple over, and lose that very reason about which we vainly try to reason. If we let the foundations be, we know well enough that they are there, and we can build upon them in all security. We cannot, then, define reason nor crib, cabin and confine it within a thus-far-shalt-thou-go-and-no-further. Who can define heat or cold, or night or day? Yet, so long as we hold fast by current consent, our chances of error for want of better definition are so small that no sensible person will consider them. In like manner, if we hold by current consent or common sense, which is the same thing, about reason, we shall not find the want of an academic definition hinder us from a reasonable conclusion. What nurse or mother will doubt that her infant child can reason within the limits of its own experience, long before it can formulate its reason in articulately worded thought? If the development of any given animal is, as our opponents themselves admit, an epitome of the history of its whole anterior development, surely the fact that speech is an accomplishment acquired after birth so artificially that children who have gone wild in the woods lose it if they have ever learned it, points to the conclusion that man’s ancestors only learned to express themselves in articulate language at a comparatively recent period. Granted that they learn to think and reason continually the more and more fully for having done so, will common sense permit us to suppose that they could neither think nor reason at all till they could convey their ideas in words?

I will return later to the reason of the lower animals, but will now deal with the question what it is that constitutes language in the most comprehensive sense that can be properly attached to it. I have said already that language to be language at all must not only convey fairly definite coherent ideas, but must also convey them to another living being. Whenever two living beings have conveyed and received ideas, there has been language, whether looks or gestures or words spoken or written have been the vehicle by means of which the ideas have travelled. Some ideas crawl, some run, some fly; and in this case words are the wings they fly with, but they are only the wings of thought or of ideas, they are not the thought or ideas themselves, nor yet, as Professor Max Muller would have it, inseparably connected with them. Last summer I was at an inn in Sicily, where there was a deaf and dumb waiter; he had been born so, and could neither write nor read. What had he to do with words or words with him? Are we to say, then, that this most active, amiable and intelligent fellow could neither think nor reason? One day I had had my dinner and had left the hotel. A friend came in, and the waiter saw him look for me in the place I generally occupied. He instantly came up to my friend, and moved his two forefingers in a way that suggested two people going about together, this meant "your friend"; he then moved his forefingers horizontally across his eyes, this meant, "who wears divided spectacles"; he made two fierce marks over the sockets of his eyes, this meant, "with the heavy eyebrows"; he pulled his chin, and then touched his white shirt, to say that my beard was white. Having thus identified me as a friend of the person he was speaking to, and as having a white beard, heavy eyebrows, and wearing divided spectacles, he made a munching movement with his jaws to say that I had had my dinner; and finally, by making two fingers imitate walking on the table, he explained that I had gone away. My friend, however, wanted to know how long I had been gone, so he pulled out his watch and looked inquiringly. The man at once slapped himself on the back, and held up the five fingers of one hand, to say it was five minutes ago. All this was done as rapidly as though it had been said in words; and my friend, who knew the man well, understood without a moment’s hesitation. Are we to say that this man had no thought, nor reason, nor language, merely because he had not a single word of any kind in his head, which I am assured he had not; for, as I have said, he could not speak with his fingers? Is it possible to deny that a dialogue- -an intelligent conversation—had passed between the two men? And if conversation, then surely it is technical and pedantic to deny that all the essential elements of language were present. The signs and tokens used by this poor fellow were as rude an instrument of expression, in comparison with ordinary language, as going on one’s hands and knees is in comparison with walking, or as walking compared with going by train; but it is as great an abuse of words to limit the word "language" to mere words written or spoken, as it would be to limit the idea of a locomotive to a railway engine. This may indeed pass in ordinary conversation, where so much must be suppressed if talk is to be got through at all, but it is intolerable when we are inquiring about the relations between thought and words. To do so is to let words become as it were the masters of thought, on the ground that the fact of their being only its servants and appendages is so obvious that it is generally allowed to go without saying.

If all that Professor Max Muller means to say is, that no animal but man commands an articulate language, with verbs and nouns, or is ever likely to command one (and I question whether in reality he means much more than this), no one will differ from him. No dog or elephant has one word for bread, another for meat, and another for water. Yet, when we watch a cat or dog dreaming, as they often evidently do, can we doubt that the dream is accompanied by a mental image of the thing that is dreamed of, much like what we experience in dreams ourselves, and much doubtless like the mental images which must have passed through the mind of my deaf and dumb waiter? If they have mental images in sleep, can we doubt that waking, also, they picture things before their mind’s eyes, and see them much as we do—too vaguely indeed to admit of our thinking that we actually see the objects themselves, but definitely enough for us to be able to recognise the idea or object of which we are thinking, and to connect it with any other idea, object, or sign that we may think appropriate?

Here we have touched on the second essential element of language. We laid it down, that its essence lay in the communication of an idea from one intelligent being to another; but no ideas can be communicated at all except by the aid of conventions to which both parties have agreed to attach an identical meaning. The agreement may be very informal, and may pass so unconsciously from one generation to another that its existence can only be recognised by the aid of much introspection, but it will be always there. A sayer, a sayee, and a convention, no matter what, agreed upon between them as inseparably attached to the idea which it is intended to convey—these comprise all the essentials of language. Where these are present there is language; where any of them are wanting there is no language. It is not necessary for the sayee to be able to speak and become a sayer. If he comprehends the sayer— that is to say, if he attaches the same meaning to a certain symbol as the sayer does—if he is a party to the bargain whereby it is agreed upon by both that any given symbol shall be attached invariably to a certain idea, so that in virtue of the principle of associated ideas the symbol shall never be present without immediately carrying the idea along with it, then all the essentials of language are complied with, and there has been true speech though never a word was spoken.

The lower animals, therefore, many of them, possess a part of our own language, though they cannot speak it, and hence do not possess it so fully as we do. They cannot say "bread," "meat," or "water," but there are many that readily learn what ideas they ought to attach to these symbols when they are presented to them. It is idle to say that a cat does not know what the cat’s-meat man means when he says "meat." The cat knows just as well, neither better nor worse than the cat’s-meat man does, and a great deal better than I myself understand much that is said by some very clever people at Oxford or Cambridge. There is more true employment of language, more bona fide currency of speech, between a sayer and a sayee who understand each other, though neither of them can speak a word, than between a sayer who can speak with the tongues of men and of angels without being clear about his own meaning, and a sayee who can himself utter the same words, but who is only in imperfect agreement with the sayer as to the ideas which the words or symbols that he utters are intended to convey. The nature of the symbols counts for nothing; the gist of the matter is in the perfect harmony between sayer and sayee as to the significance that is to be associated with them.

Professor Max Muller admits that we share with the lower animals what he calls an emotional language, and continues that we may call their interjections and imitations language if we like, as we speak of the language of the eyes or the eloquence of mute nature, but he warns us against mistaking metaphor for fact. It is indeed mere metaphor to talk of the eloquence of mute nature, or the language of winds and waves. There is no intercommunion of mind with mind by means of a covenanted symbol; but it is only an apparent, not a real, metaphor to say that two pairs of eyes have spoken when they have signalled to one another something which they both understand. A schoolboy at home for the holidays wants another plate of pudding, and does not like to apply officially for more. He catches the servant’s eye and looks at the pudding; the servant understands, takes his plate without a word, and gets him some. Is it metaphor to say that the boy asked the servant to do this, or is it not rather pedantry to insist on the letter of a bond and deny its spirit, by denying that language passed, on the ground that the symbols covenanted upon and assented to by both were uttered and received by eyes and not by mouth and ears? When the lady drank to the gentleman only with her eyes, and he pledged with his, was there no conversation because there was neither noun nor verb? Eyes are verbs, and glasses of wine are good nouns enough as between those who understand one another. Whether the ideas underlying them are expressed and conveyed by eyeage or by tonguage is a detail that matters nothing.

But everything we say is metaphorical if we choose to be captious. Scratch the simplest expressions, and you will find the metaphor. Written words are handage, inkage and paperage; it is only by metaphor, or substitution and transposition of ideas, that we can call them language. They are indeed potential language, and the symbols employed presuppose nouns, verbs, and the other parts of speech; but for the most part it is in what we read between the lines that the profounder meaning of any letter is conveyed. There are words unwritten and untranslatable into any nouns that are nevertheless felt as above, about and underneath the gross material symbols that lie scrawled upon the paper; and the deeper the feeling with which anything is written the more pregnant will it be of meaning which can be conveyed securely enough, but which loses rather than gains if it is squeezed into a sentence, and limited by the parts of speech. The language is not in the words but in the heart-to-heartness of the thing, which is helped by words, but is nearer and farther than they. A correspondent wrote to me once, many years ago, "If I could think to you without words you would understand me better." But surely in this he was thinking to me, and without words, and I did understand him better . . . So it is not by the words that I am too presumptuously venturing to speak tonight that your opinions will be formed or modified. They will be formed or modified, if either, by something that you will feel, but which I have not spoken, to the full as much as by anything that I have actually uttered. You may say that this borders on mysticism. Perhaps it does, but their really is some mysticism in nature.

To return, however, to terra firma. I believe I am right in saying that the essence of language lies in the intentional conveyance of ideas from one living being to another through the instrumentality of arbitrary tokens or symbols agreed upon, and understood by both as being associated with the particular ideas in question. The nature of the symbol chosen is a matter of indifference; it may be anything that appeals to human senses, and is not too hot or too heavy; the essence of the matter lies in a mutual covenant that whatever it is it shall stand invariably for the same thing, or nearly so.

We shall see this more easily if we observe the differences between written and spoken language. The written word "stone," and the spoken word, are each of them symbols arrived at in the first instance arbitrarily. They are neither of them more like the other than they are to the idea of a stone which rises before our minds, when we either see or hear the word, or than this idea again is like the actual stone itself, but nevertheless the spoken symbol and the written one each alike convey with certainty the combination of ideas to which we have agreed to attach them.

The written symbol is formed with the hand, appeals to the eye, leaves a material trace as long as paper and ink last, can travel as far as paper and ink can travel, and can be imprinted on eye after eye practically ad infinitum both as regards time and space.

The spoken symbol is formed by means of various organs in or about the mouth, appeals to the ear, not the eye, perishes instantly without material trace, and if it lives at all does so only in the minds of those who heard it. The range of its action is no wider than that within which a voice can be heard; and every time a fresh impression is wanted the type must be set up anew.

The written symbol extends infinitely, as regards time and space, the range within which one mind can communicate with another; it gives the writer’s mind a life limited by the duration of ink, paper, and readers, as against that of his flesh and blood body. On the other hand, it takes longer to learn the rules so as to be able to apply them with ease and security, and even then they cannot be applied so quickly and easily as those attaching to spoken symbols. Moreover, the spoken symbol admits of a hundred quick and subtle adjuncts by way of action, tone and expression, so that no one will use written symbols unless either for the special advantages of permanence and travelling power, or because he is incapacitated from using spoken ones. This, however, is hardly to the point; the point is that these two conventional combinations of symbols, that are as unlike one another as the Hallelujah Chorus is to St. Paul’s Cathedral, are the one as much language as the other; and we therefore inquire what this very patent fact reveals to us about the more essential characteristics of language itself. What is the common bond that unites these two classes of symbols that seem at first sight to have nothing in common, and makes the one raise the idea of language in our minds as readily as the other? The bond lies in the fact that both are a set of conventional tokens or symbols, agreed upon between the parties to whom they appeal as being attached invariably to the same ideas, and because they are being made as a means of communion between one mind and another,— for a memorandum made for a person’s own later use is nothing but a communication from an earlier mind to a later and modified one; it is therefore in reality a communication from one mind to another as much as though it had been addressed to another person.

We see, therefore, that the nature of the outward and visible sign to which the inward and spiritual idea of language is attached does not matter. It may be the firing of a gun; it may be an old semaphore telegraph; it may be the movements of a needle; a look, a gesture, the breaking of a twig by an Indian to tell some one that he has passed that way: a twig broken designedly with this end in view is a letter addressed to whomsoever it may concern, as much as though it had been written out in full on bark or paper. It does not matter one straw what it is, provided it is agreed upon in concert, and stuck to. Just as the lowest forms of life nevertheless present us with all the essential characteristics of livingness, and are as much alive in their own humble way as the most highly developed organisms, so the rudest intentional and effectual communication between two minds through the instrumentality of a concerted symbol is as much language as the most finished oratory of Mr. Gladstone. I demur therefore to the assertion that the lower animals have no language, inasmuch as they cannot themselves articulate a grammatical sentence. I do not indeed pretend that when the cat calls upon the tiles it uses what it consciously and introspectively recognises as language; it says what it has to say without introspection, and in the ordinary course of business, as one of the common forms of courtship. It no more knows that it has been using language than M. Jourdain knew he had been speaking prose, but M. Jourdain’s knowing or not knowing was neither here nor there.

Anything which can be made to hitch on invariably to a definite idea that can carry some distance—say an inch at the least, and which can be repeated at pleasure, can be pressed into the service of language. Mrs. Bentley, wife of the famous Dr. Bentley of Trinity College, Cambridge, used to send her snuff-box to the college buttery when she wanted beer, instead of a written order. If the snuff-box came the beer was sent, but if there was no snuff-box there was no beer. Wherein did the snuff-box differ more from a written order, than a written order differs from a spoken one? The snuff-box was for the time being language. It sounds strange to say that one might take a pinch of snuff out of a sentence, but if the servant had helped him or herself to a pinch while carrying it to the buttery this is what would have been done; for if a snuff-box can say "Send me a quart of beer," so efficiently that the beer is sent, it is impossible to say that it is not a bona fide sentence. As for the recipient of the message, the butler did not probably translate the snuff-box into articulate nouns and verbs; as soon as he saw it he just went down into the cellar and drew the beer, and if he thought at all, it was probably about something else. Yet he must have been thinking without words, or he would have drawn too much beer or too little, or have spilt it in the bringing it up, and we may be sure that he did none of these things.

You will, of course, observe that if Mrs. Bentley had sent the snuff-box to the buttery of St. John’s College instead of Trinity, it would not have been language, for there would have been no covenant between sayer and sayee as to what the symbol should represent, there would have been no previously established association of ideas in the mind of the butler of St. John’s between beer and snuff-box; the connection was artificial, arbitrary, and by no means one of those in respect of which an impromptu bargain might be proposed by the very symbol itself, and assented to without previous formality by the person to whom it was presented. More briefly, the butler of St. John’s would not have been able to understand and read it aright. It would have been a dead letter to him—a snuff-box and not a letter; whereas to the butler of Trinity it was a letter and not a snuff-box.

You will also note that it was only at the moment when he was looking at it and accepting it as a message that it flashed forth from snuff-box-hood into the light and life of living utterance. As soon as it had kindled the butler into sending a single quart of beer, its force was spent until Mrs. Bentley threw her soul into it again and charged it anew by wanting more beer, and sending it down accordingly.

Again, take the ring which the Earl of Essex sent to Queen Elizabeth, but which the queen did not receive. This was intended as a sentence, but failed to become effectual language because the sensible material symbol never reached those sentient organs which it was intended to affect. A book, again, however full of excellent words it may be, is not language when it is merely standing on a bookshelf. It speaks to no one, unless when being actually read, or quoted from by an act of memory. It is potential language as a lucifer-match is potential fire, but it is no more language till it is in contact with a recipient mind, than a match is fire till it is struck, and is being consumed.

A piece of music, again, without any words at all, or a song with words that have nothing in the world to do with the ideas which it is nevertheless made to convey, is often very effectual language. Much lying, and all irony depends on tampering with covenanted symbols, and making those that are usually associated with one set of ideas convey by a sleight of mind others of a different nature. That is why irony is intolerably fatiguing unless very sparingly used. Take the song which Blondel sang under the window of King Richard’s prison. There was not one syllable in it to say that Blondel was there, and was going to help the king to get out of prison. It was about some silly love affair, but it was a letter all the same, and the king made language of what would otherwise have been no language, by guessing the meaning, that is to say by perceiving that he was expected to enter then and there into a new covenant as to the meaning of the symbols that were presented to him, understanding what this covenant was to be, and acquiescing in it.

On the other hand, no ingenuity can torture language into being a fit word to use in connection with either sounds or any other symbols that have not been intended to convey a meaning, or again in connection with either sounds or symbols in respect of which there has been no covenant between sayer and sayee. When we hear people speaking a foreign language—we will say Welsh—we feel that though they are no doubt using what is very good language as between themselves, there is no language whatever as far as we are concerned. We call it lingo, not language. The Chinese letters on a tea-chest might as well not be there, for all that they say to us, though the Chinese find them very much to the purpose. They are a covenant to which we have been no parties—to which our intelligence has affixed no signature.

We have already seen that it is in virtue of such an understood covenant that symbols so unlike one another as the written word "stone" and the spoken word alike at once raise the idea of a stone in our minds. See how the same holds good as regards the different languages that pass current in different nations. The letters p, i, e, r, r, e convey the idea of a stone to a Frenchman as readily as s, t, o, n, e do to ourselves. And why? because that is the covenant that has been struck between those who speak and those who are spoken to. Our "stone" conveys no idea to a Frenchman, nor his "pierre" to us, unless we have done what is commonly called acquiring one another’s language. To acquire a foreign language is only to learn and adhere to the covenants in respect of symbols which the nation in question has adopted and adheres to.

Till we have done this we neither of us know the rules, so to speak, of the game that the other is playing, and cannot, therefore, play together; but the convention being once known and assented to, it does not matter whether we raise the idea of a stone by the word "lapis," or by "lithos," "pietra," "pierre," "stein," "stane" or "stone"; we may choose what symbols written or spoken we choose, and one set, unless they are of unwieldy length will do as well as another, if we can get other people to choose the same and stick to them; it is the accepting and sticking to them that matters, not the symbols. The whole power of spoken language is vested in the invariableness with which certain symbols are associated with certain ideas. If we are strict in always connecting the same symbols with the same ideas, we speak well, keep our meaning clear to ourselves, and convey it readily and accurately to any one who is also fairly strict. If, on the other hand, we use the same combination of symbols for one thing one day and for another the next, we abuse our symbols instead of using them, and those who indulge in slovenly habits in this respect ere long lose the power alike of thinking and of expressing themselves correctly. The symbols, however, in the first instance, may be anything in the wide world that we have a fancy for. They have no more to do with the ideas they serve to convey than money has with the things that it serves to buy.

The principle of association, as every one knows, involves that whenever two things have been associated sufficiently together, the suggestion of one of them to the mind shall immediately raise a suggestion of the other. It is in virtue of this principle that language, as we so call it, exists at all, for the essence of language consists, as I have said perhaps already too often, in the fixity with which certain ideas are invariably connected with certain symbols. But this being so, it is hard to see how we can deny that the lower animals possess the germs of a highly rude and unspecialised, but still true language, unless we also deny that they have any ideas at all; and this I gather is what Professor Max Muller in a quiet way rather wishes to do. Thus he says, "It is easy enough to show that animals communicate, but this is a fact which has never been doubted. Dogs who growl and bark leave no doubt in the minds of other dogs or cats, or even of man, of what they mean, but growling and barking are not language, nor do they even contain the elements of language." {18}

I observe the Professor says that animals communicate without saying what it is that they communicate. I believe this to have been because if he said that the lower animals communicate their ideas, this would be to admit that they have ideas; if so, and if, as they present every appearance of doing, they can remember, reflect upon, modify these ideas according to modified surroundings, and interchange them with one another, how is it possible to deny them the germs of thought, language, and reason—not to say a good deal more than the germs? It seems to me that not knowing what else to say that animals communicated if it was not ideas, and not knowing what mess he might not get into if he admitted that they had ideas at all, he thought it safer to omit his accusative case altogether.

That growling and barking cannot be called a very highly specialised language goes without saying; they are, however, so much diversified in character, according to circumstances, that they place a considerable number of symbols at an animal’s command, and he invariably attaches the same symbol to the same idea. A cat never purrs when she is angry, nor spits when she is pleased. When she rubs her head against any one affectionately it is her symbol for saying that she is very fond of him, and she expects, and usually finds that it will be understood. If she sees her mistress raise her hand as though to pretend to strike her, she knows that it is the symbol her mistress invariably attaches to the idea of sending her away, and as such she accepts it. Granted that the symbols in use among the lower animals are fewer and less highly differentiated than in the case of any known human language, and therefore that animal language is incomparably less subtle and less capable of expressing delicate shades of meaning than our own, these differences are nevertheless only those that exist between highly developed and inchoate language; they do not involve those that distinguish language from no language. They are the differences between the undifferentiated protoplasm of the amoeba and our own complex organisation; they are not the differences between life and no life. In animal language as much as in human there is a mind intentionally making use of a symbol accepted by another mind as invariably attached to a certain idea, in order to produce that idea in the mind which it is desired to affect—more briefly, there is a sayer, a sayee, and a covenanted symbol designedly applied. Our own speech is vertebrated and articulated by means of nouns, verbs, and the rules of grammar. A dog’s speech is invertebrate, but I do not see how it is possible to deny that it possesses all the essential elements of language.

I have said nothing about Professor R. L. Garner’s researches into the language of apes, because they have not yet been so far verified and accepted as to make it safe to rely upon them; but when he lays it down that all voluntary sounds are the products of thought, and that, if they convey a meaning to another, they perform the functions of human speech, he says what I believe will commend itself to any unsophisticated mind. I could have wished, however, that he had not limited himself to sounds, and should have preferred his saying what I doubt not he would readily accept—I mean, that all symbols or tokens of whatever kind, if voluntarily adopted as such, are the products of thought, and perform the functions of human speech; but I cannot too often remind you that nothing can be considered as fulfilling the conditions of language, except a voluntary application of a recognised token in order to convey a more or less definite meaning, with the intention doubtless of thus purchasing as it were some other desired meaning and consequent sensation. It is astonishing how closely in this respect money and words resemble one another. Money indeed may be considered as the most universal and expressive of all languages. For gold and silver coins are no more money when not in the actual process of being voluntarily used in purchase, than words not so in use are language. Pounds, shillings and pence are recognised covenanted tokens, the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual purchasing power, but till in actual use they are only potential money, as the symbols of language, whatever they may be, are only potential language till they are passing between two minds. It is the power and will to apply the symbols that alone gives life to money, and as long as these are in abeyance the money is in abeyance also; the coins may be safe in one’s pocket, but they are as dead as a log till they begin to burn in it, and so are our words till they begin to burn within us.

The real question, however, as to the substantial underlying identity between the language of the lower animals and our own, turns upon that other question whether or no, in spite of an immeasurable difference of degree, the thought and reason of man and of the lower animals is essentially the same. No one will expect a dog to master and express the varied ideas that are incessantly arising in connection with human affairs. He is a pauper as against a millionaire. To ask him to do so would be like giving a streetboy sixpence and telling him to go and buy himself a founder’s share in the New River Company. He would not even know what was meant, and even if he did it would take several millions of sixpences to buy one. It is astonishing what a clever workman will do with very modest tools, or again how far a thrifty housewife will make a very small sum of money go, or again in like manner how many ideas an intelligent brute can receive and convey with its very limited vocabulary; but no one will pretend that a dog’s intelligence can ever reach the level of a man’s. What we do maintain is that, within its own limited range, it is of the same essential character as our own, and that though a dog’s ideas in respect of human affairs are both vague and narrow, yet in respect of canine affairs they are precise enough and extensive enough to deserve no other name than thought or reason. We hold moreover that they communicate their ideas in essentially the same manner as we do—that is to say, by the instrumentality of a code of symbols attached to certain states of mind and material objects, in the first instance arbitrarily, but so persistently, that the presentation of the symbol immediately carries with it the idea which it is intended to convey. Animals can thus receive and impart ideas on all that most concerns them. As my great namesake said some two hundred years ago, they know "what’s what, and that’s as high as metaphysic wit can fly." And they not only know what’s what themselves, but can impart to one another any new what’s-whatness that they may have acquired, for they are notoriously able to instruct and correct one another.

Against this Professor Max Muller contends that we can know nothing of what goes on in the mind of any lower animal, inasmuch as we are not lower animals ourselves. "We can imagine anything we like about what passes in the mind of an animal," he writes, "we can know absolutely nothing." {19} It is something to have it in evidence that he conceives animals as having a mind at all, but it is not easy to see how they can be supposed to have a mind, without being able to acquire ideas, and having acquired, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. Surely the mistake of requiring too much evidence is hardly less great than that of being contented with too little. We, too, are animals, and can no more refuse to infer reason from certain visible actions in their case than we can in our own. If Professor Max Muller’s plea were allowed, we should have to deny our right to infer confidently what passes in the mind of any one not ourselves, inasmuch as we are not that person. We never, indeed, can obtain irrefragable certainty about this or any other matter, but we can be sure enough in many cases to warrant our staking all that is most precious to us on the soundness of our opinion. Moreover, if the Professor denies our right to infer that animals reason, on the ground that we are not animals enough ourselves to be able to form an opinion, with what right does he infer so confidently himself that they do not reason? And how, if they present every one of those appearances which we are accustomed to connect with the communication of an idea from one mind to another, can we deny that they have a language of their own, though it is one which in most cases we can neither speak nor understand? How can we say that a sentinel rook, when it sees a man with a gun and warns the other rooks by a concerted note which they all show that they understand by immediately taking flight, should not be credited both with reason and the germs of language?

After all, a professor, whether of philology, psychology, biology, or any other ology, is hardly the kind of person to whom we should appeal on such an elementary question as that of animal intelligence and language. We might as well ask a botanist to tell us whether grass grows, or a meteorologist to tell us if it has left off raining. If it is necessary to appeal to any one, I should prefer the opinion of an intelligent gamekeeper to that of any professor, however learned. The keepers, again, at the Zoological Gardens, have exceptional opportunities for studying the minds of animals— modified, indeed, by captivity, but still minds of animals. Grooms, again, and dog-fanciers, are to the full as able to form an intelligent opinion on the reason and language of animals as any University Professor, and so are cats’-meat men. I have repeatedly asked gamekeepers and keepers at the Zoological Gardens whether animals could reason and converse with one another, and have always found myself regarded somewhat contemptuously for having even asked the question. I once said to a friend, in the hearing of a keeper at the Zoological Gardens, that the penguin was very stupid. The man was furious, and jumped upon me at once. "He’s not stupid at all," said he; "he’s very intelligent."

Who has not seen a cat, when it wishes to go out, raise its fore paws on to the handle of the door, or as near as it can get, and look round, evidently asking some one to turn it for her? Is it reasonable to deny that a reasoning process is going on in the cat’s mind, whereby she connects her wish with the steps necessary for its fulfilment, and also with certain invariable symbols which she knows her master or mistress will interpret? Once, in company with a friend, I watched a cat playing with a house-fly in the window of a ground-floor room. We were in the street, while the cat was inside. When we came up to the window she gave us one searching look, and, having satisfied herself that we had nothing for her, went on with her game. She knew all about the glass in the window, and was sure we could do nothing to molest her, so she treated us with absolute contempt, never even looking at us again.

The game was this. She was to catch the fly and roll it round and round under her paw along the window-sill, but so gently as not to injure it nor prevent it from being able to fly again when she had done rolling it. It was very early spring, and flies were scarce, in fact there was not another in the whole window. She knew that if she crippled this one, it would not be able to amuse her further, and that she would not readily get another instead, and she liked the feel of it under her paw. It was soft and living, and the quivering of its wings tickled the ball of her foot in a manner that she found particularly grateful; so she rolled it gently along the whole length of the window-sill. It then became the fly’s turn. He was to get up and fly about in the window, so as to recover himself a little; then she was to catch him again, and roll him softly all along the window-sill, as she had done before.

It was plain that the cat knew the rules of her game perfectly well, and enjoyed it keenly. It was equally plain that the fly could not make head or tail of what it was all about. If it had been able to do so it would have gone to play in the upper part of the window, where the cat could not reach it. Perhaps it was always hoping to get through the glass, and escape that way; anyhow, it kept pretty much to the same pane, no matter how often it was rolled. At last, however, the fly, for some reason or another, did not reappear on the pane, and the cat began looking everywhere to find it. Her annoyance when she failed to do so was extreme. It was not only that she had lost her fly, but that she could not conceive how she should have ever come to do so. Presently she noted a small knot in the woodwork of the sill, and it flashed upon her that she had accidentally killed the fly, and that this was its dead body. She tried to move it gently with her paw, but it was no use, and for the time she satisfied herself that the knot and the fly had nothing to do with one another. Every now and then, however, she returned to it as though it were the only thing she could think of, and she would try it again. She seemed to say she was certain there had been no knot there before—she must have seen it if there had been; and yet, the fly could hardly have got jammed so firmly into the wood. She was puzzled and irritated beyond measure, and kept looking in the same place again and again, just as we do when we have mislaid something. She was rapidly losing temper and dignity when suddenly we saw the fly reappear from under the cat’s stomach and make for the window-pane, at the very moment when the cat herself was exclaiming for the fiftieth time that she wondered where that stupid fly ever could have got to. No man who has been hunting twenty minutes for his spectacles could be more delighted when he suddenly finds them on his own forehead. "So that’s where you were," we seemed to hear her say, as she proceeded to catch it, and again began rolling it very softly without hurting it, under her paw. My friend and I both noticed that the cat, in spite of her perplexity, never so much as hinted that we were the culprits. The question whether anything outside the window could do her good or harm had long since been settled by her in the negative, and she was not going to reopen it; she simply cut us dead, and though her annoyance was so great that she was manifestly ready to lay the blame on anybody or anything with or without reason, and though she must have perfectly well known that we were watching the whole affair with amusement, she never either asked us if we had happened to see such a thing as a fly go down our way lately, or accused us of having taken it from her—both of which ideas she would, I am confident, have been very well able to convey to us if she had been so minded.

Now what are thought and reason if the processes that were going through this cat’s mind were not both one and the other? It would be childish to suppose that the cat thought in words of its own, or in anything like words. Its thinking was probably conducted through the instrumentality of a series of mental images. We so habitually think in words ourselves that we find it difficult to realise thought without words at all; our difficulty, however, in imagining the particular manner in which the cat thinks has nothing to do with the matter. We must answer the question whether she thinks or no, not according to our own ease or difficulty in understanding the particular manner of her thinking, but according as her action does or does not appear to be of the same character as other action that we commonly call thoughtful. To say that the cat is not intelligent, merely on the ground that we cannot ourselves fathom her intelligence—this, as I have elsewhere said, is to make intelligence mean the power of being understood, rather than the power of understanding. This nevertheless is what, for all our boasted intelligence, we generally do. The more we can understand an animal’s ways, the more intelligent we call it, and the less we can understand these, the more stupid do we declare it to be. As for plants—whose punctuality and attention to all the details and routine of their somewhat restricted lines of business is as obvious as it is beyond all praise—we understand the working of their minds so little that by common consent we declare them to have no intelligence at all.

Before concluding I should wish to deal a little more fully with Professor Max Muller’s contention that there can be no reason without language, and no language without reason. Surely when two practised pugilists are fighting, parrying each other’s blows, and watching keenly for an unguarded point, they are thinking and reasoning very subtly the whole time, without doing so in words. The machination of their thoughts, as well as its expression, is actual—I mean, effectuated and expressed by action and deed, not words. They are unaware of any logical sequence of thought that they could follow in words as passing through their minds at all. They may perhaps think consciously in words now and again, but such thought will be intermittent, and the main part of the fighting will be done without any internal concomitance of articulated phrases. Yet we cannot doubt that their action, however much we may disapprove of it, is guided by intelligence and reason; nor should we doubt that a reasoning process of the same character goes on in the minds of two dogs or fighting-cocks when they are striving to master their opponents.

Do we think in words, again, when we wind up our watches, put on our clothes, or eat our breakfasts? If we do, it is generally about something else. We do these things almost as much without the help of words as we wink or yawn, or perform any of those other actions that we call reflex, as it would almost seem because they are done without reflection. They are not, however, the less reasonable because wordless.

Even when we think we are thinking in words, we do so only in half measure. A running accompaniment of words no doubt frequently attends our thoughts; but, unless we are writing or speaking, this accompaniment is of the vaguest and most fitful kind, as we often find out when we try to write down or say what we are thinking about, though we have a fairly definite notion of it, or fancy that we have one, all the time. The thought is not steadily and coherently governed by and moulded in words, nor does it steadily govern them. Words and thought interact upon and help one another, as any other mechanical appliances interact on and help the invention that first hit upon them; but reason or thought, for the most part, flies along over the heads of words, working its own mysterious way in paths that are beyond our ken, though whether some of our departmental personalities are as unconscious of what is passing, as that central government is which we alone dub with the name of "we" or "us," is a point on which I will not now touch.

I cannot think, then, that Professor Max Muller’s contention that thought and language are identical—and he has repeatedly affirmed this—will ever be generally accepted. Thought is no more identical with language than feeling is identical with the nervous system. True, we can no more feel without a nervous system than we can discern certain minute organisms without a microscope. Destroy the nervous system, and we destroy feeling. Destroy the microscope, and we can no longer see the animalcules; but our sight of the animalcules is not the microscope, though it is effectuated by means of the microscope, and our feeling is not the nervous system, though the nervous system is the instrument that enables us to feel.

The nervous system is a device which living beings have gradually perfected—I believe I may say quite truly—through the will and power which they have derived from a fountain-head, the existence of which we can infer, but which we can never apprehend. By the help of this device, and in proportion as they have perfected it, living beings feel ever with greater definiteness, and hence formulate their feelings in thought with more and more precision. The higher evolution of thought has reacted on the nervous system, and the consequent higher evolution of the nervous system has again reacted upon thought. These things are as power and desire, or supply and demand, each one of which is continually outstripping, and being in turn outstripped by the other; but, in spite of their close connection and interaction, power is not desire, nor demand supply. Language is a device evolved sometimes by leaps and bounds, and sometimes exceedingly slowly, whereby we help ourselves alike to greater ease, precision, and complexity of thought, and also to more convenient interchange of thought among ourselves. Thought found rude expression, which gradually among other forms assumed that of words. These reacted upon thought, and thought again on them, but thought is no more identical with words than words are with the separate letters of which they are composed.

To sum up, then, and to conclude. I would ask you to see the connection between words and ideas, as in the first instance arbitrary. No doubt in some cases an imitation of the cry of some bird or wild beast would suggest the name that should be attached to it; occasionally the sound of an operation such as grinding may have influenced the choice of the letters g, r, as the root of many words that denote a grinding, grating, grasping, crushing, action; but I understand that the number of words due to direct imitation is comparatively few in number, and that they have been mainly coined as the result of connections so far-fetched and fanciful as to amount practically to no connection at all. Once chosen, however, they were adhered to for a considerable time among the dwellers in any given place, so as to become acknowledged as the vulgar tongue, and raise readily in the mind of the inhabitants of that place the ideas with which they had been artificially associated.

As regards our being able to think and reason without words, the Duke of Argyll has put the matter as soundly as I have yet seen it stated. "It seems to me," he wrote, "quite certain that we can and do constantly think of things without thinking of any sound or word as designating them. Language seems to me to be necessary for the progress of thought, but not at all for the mere act of thinking. It is a product of thought, an expression of it, a vehicle for the communication of it, and an embodiment which is essential to its growth and continuity; but it seems to me altogether erroneous to regard it as an inseparable part of cogitation."

The following passages, again, are quoted from Sir William Hamilton in Professor Max Muller’s own book, with so much approval as to lead one to suppose that the differences between himself and his opponents are in reality less than he believes them to be:-

"Language," says Sir W. Hamilton, "is the attribution of signs to our cognitions of things. But as a cognition must have already been there before it could receive a sign, consequently that knowledge which is denoted by the formation and application of a word must have preceded the symbol that denotes it. A sign, however, is necessary to give stability to our intellectual progress—to establish each step in our advance as a new starting-point for our advance to another beyond. A country may be overrun by an armed host, but it is only conquered by the establishment of fortresses. Words are the fortresses of thought. They enable us to realise our dominion over what we have already overrun in thought; to make every intellectual conquest the base of operations for others still beyond."

"This," says Professor Max Muller, "is a most happy illustration," and he proceeds to quote the following, also from Sir William Hamilton, which he declares to be even happier still.

"You have all heard," says Sir William Hamilton, "of the process of tunnelling through a sandbank. In this operation it is impossible to succeed unless every foot, nay, almost every inch of our progress be secured by an arch of masonry before we attempt the excavation of another. Now language is to the mind precisely what the arch is to the tunnel. The power of thinking and the power of excavation are not dependent on the words in the one case or on the mason-work in the other; but without these subsidiaries neither could be carried on beyond its rudimentary commencement. Though, therefore, we allow that every movement forward in language must be determined by an antecedent movement forward in thought, still, unless thought be accompanied at each point of its evolutions by a corresponding evolution of language, its further development is arrested."

Man has evolved an articulate language, whereas the lower animals seem to be without one. Man, therefore, has far outstripped them in reasoning faculty as well as in power of expression. This, however, does not bar the communications which the lower animals make to one another from possessing all the essential characteristics of language, and as a matter of fact, wherever we can follow them we find such communications effectuated by the aid of arbitrary symbols covenanted upon by the living beings that wish to communicate, and persistently associated with certain corresponding feelings, states of mind, or material objects. Human language is nothing more than this in principle, however much further the principle has been carried in our own case than in that of the lower animals.

This being admitted, we should infer that the thought or reason on which the language of men and animals is alike founded differs as between men and brutes in degree but not in kind. More than this cannot be claimed on behalf of the lower animals, even by their most enthusiastic admirer.


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Chicago: Samuel Butler, "Thought and Language {16}," Essays on Life, Art and Science, trans. Evans, Sebastian in Essays on Life, Art and Science Original Sources, accessed May 31, 2023,

MLA: Butler, Samuel. "Thought and Language {16}." Essays on Life, Art and Science, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in Essays on Life, Art and Science, Original Sources. 31 May. 2023.

Harvard: Butler, S, 'Thought and Language {16}' in Essays on Life, Art and Science, trans. . cited in , Essays on Life, Art and Science. Original Sources, retrieved 31 May 2023, from