§ 4. Natural Signs. — Many writers appear to assume that all language worthy of the name must consist of conventional signs. Such a view creates altogether unnecessary difficulties. The essential function of language as a means of conceptual analysis and synthesis may be fulfilled by a system of natural signs such as uninstructed deafmutes employ and largely devise for themselves. A natural sign bears in its own nature a resemblance to the thing signified, to the mode of using or producing it, or at least to some action, state, or adjunct characteristic of it. Merely demonstrative gestures which stand alone and not as part of a context, expressed or understood, are not to be counted as part of the language of natural signs. It is true that they are signs and that they are natural. But they are not language in the only sense which is relevant; for they are not means of conceptual analysis and synthesis. They consist in acts drawing attention to an object actually present or to be found in a certain direction. But if the object thus indicated is pointed to not for its own sake, but merely as a sign of some absent object which it happens to resemble or with which it has some kind of natural connexion, the gesture is a true expression of ideas and therefore belongs to language in the strict sense. Demonstrative signs also become part of language when they belong to a context. Thus if a man imitates an action and then points to another man, the act of pointing is a sign of gesturelanguage. For it does not merely draw attention to the man as he presents himself at the moment; on the contrary the presence of the man at the moment is only used as a means of representing something else; it is used as a means of representing the man as performing an action which at the moment he is not performing. Similarly, the direct expression of emotion cannot be regarded as language. But it is otherwise when the expression of a special emotion is imitated, so as to convey the idea of the emotion. Thus if A noticing B preparing to act in a certain way points to C and frowns, this is true language. For A's act is not a direct expression of his own emotion, but only a way of conveying to B his idea that C will be angry if B does not alter his conduct. So, too, the imitation of a characteristic sound made by some animal or thing is not in itself language; it only becomes so when the mimicry is meant to convey the idea of the thing or animal which makes the sound.
Earlier writers on the origin of language have been much perplexed by the difficulty of explaining how a convention as to the meaning of words could be established between the different members of a community who were not already in possession of a means of communicating their ideas. This difficulty has been frequently used as an argument for referring the origin of language to a divine revelation. But it disappears if we suppose the natural expression of ideas to be prior to the use of arbitrary signs.
Positive evidence for the primitive nature of natural signs may be drawn from the case of deafmutes and savages. A deafmute called Kruse, a highly educated man and a distinguished teacher, has left on record an account of the spontaneous origin of natural language in the minds of those who cannot command conventional signs. He says: "What strikes" the deafmute "most, or what makes a distinction to him between one thing and another, — such distinctive signs of objects are at once signs by which he knows these objects, and knows them again; they become tokens of things. And while he elaborates the signs he has found for single objects, that is, while he describes their forms for himself in the air, or imitates them in thought with hands, fingers, and gestures, he develops for himself suitable signs to represent ideas, which serve him as a means of fixing ideas of different kinds in his mind and recalling them to his memory. And thus he makes himself a language, the socalled gesturelanguage; and with the few scanty and imperfect signs, a way for thought is already broken, and with his thought as it now opens out, the language cultivates and forms itself further and further."*
* Quoted by Tylor, Early History of Mankind.
According to Schmalz, the more intelligent deafmutes form natural signs spontaneously, if they are not altogether neglected by their fellowmen. At first they point to the objects in which they are interested, in order to indicate their wishes. If the objects are not in sight they fetch them or conduct others to them. The deafmute points to a dish or a jug and so indicates his desire for what the dish or jug contains. "If he wants bread he brings the whole loaf, together with a knife, and he hands both to the person who is to cut a slice for him." There is not much to distinguish such signs from the demonstrative gestures an intelligent monkey may employ. But cases occur in which devices of the kind described are inadequate. "The deafmute, it may be, wants a drink of water ; he sees neither water nor drinkingglass in the room, so that he cannot point to the one or fetch the other. He takes some one by the hand in order to lead him to the place where the water is. The person to whom the appeal is made refuses to move. The deafmute is perplexed and embarrassed. Finally he adopts the device of pointing to his mouth." This is something more than a practical expedient. It is the expression of an idea. But the sign is ambiguous. The person addressed may, through a real or pretended misunderstanding, give the deafmute something to eat instead of something to drink. He is thus driven to define his meaning by a combination of gestures — a context of natural signs. He directs his hand towards his mouth again, but now he curves it as if it held a glass, at the same time imitating the act of drinking. "At last he makes himself understood," and "from this time forward, he learns to describe absent objects, and he forms for himself a language of natural signs, at once betokening and producing a distinctively human power of thought."*
* Ueber die Taubstummen, pp. 267 seq. Col. Mallery in the Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institute, vol. i., p. 276.
In a certain degree what has been said of deafmutes applies also to ordinary children. "A child's gestures are intelligent long before it has any extensive command of intelligent speech, although very early and persistent attempts are made to instruct it in the use of words, and no such attempts are made to instruct them in the use of gestures." "Missionaries, explorers, and shipwrecked mariners acquire the language of savage races through the medium of natural signs. They point to objects and make gesticulations, at the same time observing what articulate sounds are associated with these motions by the persons addressed."* Whenever a person is at a loss to express himself by means of words he naturally has recourse to gestures if the subjectmatter admits of it. "Without having ever before seen or made one of the signs used by Indians or deafmutes, he will soon not only catch the meaning of their's but produce his own, which they will likewise comprehend." The primitive character of gesturelanguage is indicated by its widespread use among savages. This is partly due to the inadequacy of the signs of their conventional language, and partly to the diversities of speech which make the spoken words of neighbouring tribes unintelligible to each other. Travellers have reported the existence of tribes whose oral language is inadequate even for ordinary intercourse. Their evidence has been called in doubt, but apparently without sufficient reason. It is well established that the Bubis of the island of Fernando Po cannot understand each other in the dark. Miss Kingsley in her Travels in West Africa tells us that among the Fans it is common to propose to go to the fire in order to see what people are saying. But the second reason we have assigned is probably the more important. The fullest development of natural signs is found among the North American Indians, where the diversities of conventional languages within a limited area are very numerous.
The free and copious use of imitative gestures is al most universal all over North America, and it is also very widely spread in South America. It must not be supposed that the same signs are everywhere in common use. This is far from being the case. There is no common code. A common code is only possible by convention. It must be fixed by usage. But the vast distance which separates different tribes does not permit of this arbitrary uniformity arising from habit. An imitative gesture delineates the most striking outlines of an object or the most characteristic features of an action. But different individuals and different bodies of people do not always agree in the selection of these outlines and features. A deer for instance may be designated "by various modes of expressing fleetness, by his gait when not in rapid motion, by the shape of his horns, and sometimes by combinations of several of these characteristics."*
* Col. Mallery, op. cit.
Besides this, when a sign has become fixed by usage it may become modified and abbreviated in various ways, as conventional understanding takes the place of selfinterpreting pantomime. It might therefore be expected that Indians using one dialect of natural signs would not understand other Indians, using a diverse dialect. It would appear still less probable that an Indian should on the first encounter understand a deafmute or vice versa. But in fact it is found that in spite of the diversity of signs mutual understanding is possible between all who have any expertness in the use of imitative gestures. However special signs may vary, the formative principle remains the same, and this formative principle adapts itself in the most flexible way to varying conditions. A man may understand at once a gesture which he has never seen before. If any one of the more conventional signs is not comprehended, an Indian skilled in the art of imitative suggestion tries new ways of conveying his meaning. It is often sufficient to reproduce in full pantomimic detail a gesture which had first been given in an abbreviated form. If this expedient fail, it is always easy to try other modes of representation. In one way or another experts in signlanguage manage to interchange ideas in the form of long dialogues and narrative without any prior convention. Of course it is assumed that there is a basis for mutual understanding in community of interest and experience.