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'Primitiveness' in Language

'Primitive' is a word that is often used ill-advisedly in discussions of language. Many people think that 'primitive' is indeed a term to be applied to languages, though only to some languages, and not usually to the language they themselves speak. They might agree in calling 'primitive' those uses of language that concern greetings, grumbles and commands, but they would probably insist that these were especially common in the so-called 'primitive languages'. These are misconceptions that we must quickly clear from our minds.

So far as we can tell, all human languages are equally complete and perfect as instruments of communication: that is, every language appears to be as well equipped as any other to say the things its speakers want to say. It may or may not be appropriate to talk about primitive peoples or cultures, but that is another matter. Certainly, not all groups of people are equally competent in nuclear physics or psychology or the cultivation of rice or the engraving of Benares brass. But this is not the fault of their language. The Eskimos can speak about snow with a great deal more precision and subtlety than we can in English, but this is not because the Eskimo language (one of those sometimes miscalled 'primitive') is inherently more precise and subtle than English. This example does not bring to light a defect in English, a show of unexpected 'primitiveness'. The position is simply and obviously that the Eskimos and the English live in different environments. The English language would be just as rich in terms for different kinds of snow, presumably, if the environments in which English was habitually used made such distinction important.

Similarly, we have no reason to doubt that the Eskimo language could be as precise and subtle on the subject of motor manufacture or cricket if these topics formed part of the Eskimos' life. For obvious historical reasons, Englishmen in the nineteenth century could not talk about motorcars with the minute discrimination which is possible today: cars were not a part of their culture. But they had a host of terms for horse-drawn vehicles which send us, puzzled, to a historical dictionary when we are reading Scott or Dickens. How many of us could distinguish between a chaise, a landau, a victoria, a brougham, a coupe, a gig, a diligence, a whisky, a calash, a tilbury, a carriole, a phaeton, and a clarence ?

The discussion of 'primitiveness', incidentally, provides us with a good reason for sharply and absolutely distinguishing human language from animal communication, because there is no sign of any intermediate stage between the two. Whether we examine the earliest records of any language, or the present-day language of some small tribe in a far-away place, we come no nearer to finding a stage of human language more resembling animal communication and more 'primitive' than our own. In general, as has been said, any language is as good as any other to express what its speakers want to say. An East African finds Swahili as convenient, natural and complete as an East Londoner finds English. In general the Yorkshire Dalesman's dialect is neither more nor less primitive or ill-fitted to its speaker's wants than Cockney is for the Londoner's. We must always beware the temptation to adopt a naive parochialism which makes us feel that someone else's language is less pleasant or less effective an instrument than our own.

This is not to say that an individual necessarily sounds as pleasant or as effective as he might be, when using his language, but we must not confuse a language with an individual's ability to use it. Nor are we saying that one language has no deficiencies as compared with another. The English words 'home' and 'gentleman' have no exact counterparts in French, for example. These are tiny details in which English may well be thought to have the advantage over French, but a large-scale comparison would not lead to the conclusion that English was the superior language, since it would reveal other details in which the converse was true. Some years ago it came as something of a shock to us that we had no exact word for translating the name that General de Gaulle had given to his party - Rassemblement du Peuple Francais. The B.B.C. for some time used the word 'rally', and although this scarcely answers the purpose it is a rather better translation of 'rassemblement' than either of the alternatives offered by one well-known French-English dictionary, 'muster' and 'mob'.

The more we consider the question, then, the less reasonable does it seem to call any language 'inferior', let alone 'primitive'.

The Sanskrit of the Rig-Veda four thousand years ago was as perfect an instrument for what its users wanted to say as its modern descendant, Hindi, or as English.

(From The Use of English, by Randolph Quirk )