Whether ultimately all languages are not dialects of one—whether millenniums back, in the impenetrable night of ages, there ever was a period when all the representatives of the entire human family (if such representatives there were) expressed themselves in the same forms of speech—is a question which will certainly never be settled, and which as certainly there is no shadow of linguistic evidence to prove.
Earliest, in all probability, to break off from the yet undivided race was the Kelto-Graeco-Italic family, which afterwards settled into the three important branches, Greeks, Latins, and Kelts. In course of time this family occupied almost all the rivers, coasts, and islands of southern and western Europe, and for us it is a most interesting and memorable division of the race, since it not only furnished the basis of our nationality, but also the chief elements of our political, social, and intellectual existence.
The Keltic family is a branch of the Aryan race in which we ought to feel the deepest and liveliest interest, because its direct descendants are united to us by the closest ties, and because no small portion of its blood is flowing in our veins. It was, we have some ground to believe, the first to wander, as it was the farthest in its wandering from the old home, and in consequence of this it was among the last to be recognised as a member of the family. Our own islands, where in very early days we find this Aryan settlement fishing in their osier coracles, and working the superficial veins of tin in Cornwall, furnished the Kelts with their securest refuge and their latest homes. From very early days they were truly "a nation scattered and peeled." Subjugated by Roman and Teuton, or fairly driven away by the victorious arms of these invaders from the immense territories which once they occupied, the purest relics of their language, and the lonely cromlechs and Druidic circles which still remain as the melancholy memorials of their religion are chiefly to be found in Ireland, Wales, the Highlands, and the little Island of Man. But it is doubtful whether these few material and linguistic records will long continue to be preserved. The Cornish language has perished. Manx will probably follow it in another generation. Bas-Breton and Gaelic are shrinking within very contracted limits; and who shall say how long Welsh and Irish will withstand the encroaching force of railroads and telegraphs ? But even if the languages of the Kelt should perish, the traces of their past power will long remain. " Mountains and rivers," says Sir Francis Palgrave, "still murmur the voice of nations long denationalised or extirpated." Though the glossaries of Gael and Cymry should utterly pass away, the names they gave to the grandest features of many a landscape will still live upon the map.
Of the Hellenic family I need say but little. It would be impossible, as you know, to exaggerate the part they have played in the world's history. There was no depth of philosophy which they did not sound, no height of poetry to which they did not soar. The whole region of human thought yet thrills with the electric shock of their genius; and of their art we may say, adopting the address of the poet to its mythic representative, "Weep for Daedalus, all that is fairest, All that is tuneful in air or wave, Shapes whose beauty is richest and rarest Deck with your sighs and songs his grave".
Never did the language of man attain a greater perfection of synthetic grace, forceful accuracy, and inflectional precision than among this marvellous people. "Greek," says Henry Nelson Coleridge, "the shrine of the genius of the old world; as universal as our race, as individual as ourselves; of infinite inflexibility, of indefatigable strength; with the complication and distinctness of nature herself, to which nothing was vulgar, from which nothing was excluded; speaking to the air like Italian, speaking to the mind like English; at once the variety and picturesqueness of Homer, the gloom and intensity of AEschylus; not compressed to the closet by Thucydides, not fathomed to the bottom by Plato, not sounding with all its thunders, nor lit up with all its ardours under the Promethean touch of Demosthenes himself".
The Italic family has hardly been of less importance to us, and to the human race, than the Hellenic. Many a century must still continue to elapse before the world ceases to feel the stern grasp of their once iron hand. The language of the Italic family cannot boast of the subtle grace, harmony, and finish of Greek, any more than its ancient literature can be placed in comparison with that of the Hellenes. Yet one may say the Latin language had articulations of iron. It is pre-eminently "the voice of Empire and of Law, of War and of the State,—the best language for the measured research of History, and the indignant declamation of moral satire; rigid in its constructions, parsimonious in its synonyms; yet majestic in its bareness, impressive in its conciseness; the true language of history, instinct with the spirit of nations, and not with the passions of individuals; breathing the maxims of the world, and not the tenets of the schools; one and uniform in its air and spirit, whether touched by the stern and haughty Sallust, by the open and discursive Livy, by the reserved and thoughtful Tacitus".
With Greek and Latin alone as the instruments of education, we possess, if only we knew how to use them rightly, not only the keys to the richest and mightiest literature of the ancient world, but also the best means for the proper comprehension of human language as an expression of the inmost nature of man's mind.
English, a language which has produced a literature equalled by few and surpassed by none, is of course the main glory of this branch of the Teutonic language. Modern German belongs to the high German branch, dating from Luther's translation of the Bible, which at once enriched and ennobled the language, and rendered it permanent in its present form. Certainly this Teutonic stem of the Aryan tree, bearing on two of its branches such "bright consummate flowers" as English on the one hand and German on the other, may challenge comparison with the noblest and most fruitful scions of the noblest and most fruitful stock. India may bring her Vedas and her Mahabharata, and Persia her Zend Avesta and Shah Nameh, and Greece her Homeric poems,—and Rome may more than supplement the whole mass of her narrow, haughty, and unoriginal literature by claiming the glory of the Divina Commedia, and the Lusiad, and the Poem of the Cid, but can any or all of them vaunt any superiority over the Teuton, who developed among his various descendants languages so lovely and noble, so strong and flexible, so subtle and wise, so intense and musical,—languages so rich with all treasures of Poetry, Science, Philosophy, Eloquence, and History, as the languages of the Eddas and the Niebelungen, and of our early ballads,—the languages of Kant and Goethe and Schiller, of Shakspeare, of Milton, and of Wordsworth,—the languages carried by commercial enterprise from Zembla to Tierra del Fuego,—the languages which the thought of Germany, and the majesty of England, and the ebullient energy of America have elevated into the ruling languages of the political and intellectual world ?
Even since this lecture was written, recent events have attracted the attention of the civilised world. We spoke but briefly of the great Slavonic race, because of its comparative unimportance when brought into contrast with the Hellenic, the Italic, or the Teutonic. Yet now the progress and development of that race have given rise to grave political questions, and have caused us a legitimate anxiety with respect to its future intentions. For in the case of this great Slavonic nation there has been, as it were, a regurgitation of the Aryan wave. Emigrating originally to the westward, they filled the immense regions which they had so long occupied, and are now flowing back again over the paths they traversed in their first departure. Persia has been long subjected to their influence: at this moment all Turkestan is practically theirs, Since Peter the Great, in 1772, took Derbent, on the Caspian, from Persia, they have been constantly pushing their encroachments farther and farther towards the East. So that, as you see, the two branches of out race who stayed longest in the mother country and wandered from it least far—the Persians and the Hindoos —have both been subjugated by returning families of their western brethren. We of the Teutonic race, travelling in our commercial energy over half the globe, came to India by sea, and have forced it to acknowledge our dominion: the Slavonic race, flowing back in what AEschylus calls a dry-land wave, have overflowed Persia by land, and reached the borders of Afghanistan. Soon these two younger brothers — the Slavonian and the Teuton—the former Lord of the Iranian, the latter of the Hindoo, will gaze at each other face to face from opposite heights of the great Himalayan range. Shall we meet as brothers or as enemies ? Shall our intercourse be the intercourse of mutual amity or of deadly warfare ? Let the knowledge of our past history decide us in favour of pacific and beneficent counsels. And so, contemplating this great tidal march of Aryan emigration as it encircles the globe, let us see that it be for the cleansing and the blessing of the world. Then it shall be with us as though the Angel of the Nations had waved his hand, and calling to him the powers which guard the progress and happiness of mankind, had addressed their leader in the words of our great poet:—
"Uzziel, half these draw off, and coast the South With strictest watch ; these others wheel the North, Our circuit meets full West".
language and languages, p. 319.