The Origin of Speech and Language
This lecture is the first lecture in the series The Human Being in Body, Soul, and Spirit.
2 August 1922, Dornach
Introduction by Marie Steiner
The lectures for workers could also rightly be called dialogs, for upon Rudolf Steiner's insistence their content was always determined by the workers themselves. They could choose the topics; Rudolf Steiner encouraged them to raise questions, to express their opinions and objections. Far-reaching, momentous issues as well as matters closer to home were discussed. There was a particularly great interest in questions of therapy and hygiene; this proved how much such problems were a part of the workers' daily concerns. Nature with its mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms was also touched upon, and this then led outward again, to the cosmos, the origin of all life. Finally, the workers asked for an introduction to spiritual science and for the basic knowledge required for an understanding of the mystery of Christianity.
This communal spiritual work grew out of a course originally held by Dr. Roman Boos after hours on the construction site for those interested in such questions. Later, other members of the Anthroposophical Society continued these courses. Then the workers asked Rudolf Steiner whether he himself could attend to them and quench their thirst for knowledge. They also asked to be allowed to use an hour of their work time for this when they would still be fresh and receptive. Thus, the hour after the midmorning break was set aside for the lectures. Several employees of the site office also at-tended as well as two or three of Dr. Steiner's closest colleagues.
Practical matters were also discussed in these lectures, for example, beekeeping. The notes of the lectures on bees were published after Rudolf Steiner's death by the Agricultural Section at the Goetheanum as a brochure for its members.
Now more and more people expressed the desire to read the lectures for workers. However, these lectures had been intended for a particular audience; Rudolf Steiner spoke extemporaneously, in a special situation, guided by the mood and circumstances of the listening workers — definitely not with a view to publication. The tone and style of these lectures have a certain freshness and directness one would not want to miss.
Changing the style would rob them of their special atmosphere that grew out of the encounter between what lived in the souls of the questioners and what lived in the soul of the answerer. A pedantic rearrangement of the sentences would take away the unique “flavor” of these lectures. Therefore, we have tried to leave them unchanged as far as possible; these lectures may not conform to literary standards, but they have immediacy and life.
Good morning, gentlemen. Today we will add to what we have heard on previous occasions so that we will be better able to understand the full dignity of the human being.
I have explained roughly how nutrition and breathing work in human beings. We also talked about how closely connected nutrition is with our life and that it is essentially a process of taking in substances that are then lifeless in our intestines. These substances are then re-enlivened by the lymph vessels, and in the process they are transmitted into the blood. There this living nourishment encounters the oxygen of the air. We take in air. The blood changes. This process occurs in the chest, and it is this process that gives us our feelings.
Thus, life actually originates between the processes in the intestines and those in the blood. In turn, in the blood processes, that is, between the activities of the blood and the air, our feelings come about. Now we have to deal with the human mind as well and try to understand how it developed.
You see, understanding the external aspect of the mind has become possible only in the last sixty years. Last year, in 1921, we could have celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of this possibility. We did not, because in our time people are not very interested in celebrating purely scientific anniversaries. The discovery made in 1861 we could have celebrated sixty years later, was an important scientific discovery. It is only in the last fifty or sixty years that this matter can really be talked about. I remember it because it is just as old as I am. The discovery I am speaking of is the following.
I told you the other day how we can observe human beings. We do not need to experiment; all we need to do is pay attention to how nature experiments with people whenever they have any kind of illness. If we know how to look at what happens to the physical body when a person becomes ill in any way, we discover that nature herself arranged such an experiment for us and that we can gain insights from it.
Well, in 1861, when Broca dissected brains of deceased people who had speech impairments, he discovered that they had had an injury in the third convolution on the left side of the brain.
You know, don't you, that when we remove the top of the skull, we can see the brain? This brain has convolutions. We call one of them the temple convolution because it is located near the temple. Well now, in every person suffering from speech impediments or. muteness, there is some damage in this left convolution of the brain. This injury happens when someone has a so-called brain stroke. What happens in that case? The blood, which normally flows only through the vessels, is forced out through their walls and enters the tissue surrounding the vessels, where it should not be. Such a hemorrhage produces the stroke, the paralysis. In other words, whenever blood flows into the wrong place, into this convolution of the brain, it ultimately disables this temple convolution completely and prevents the person from speaking.
This is an interesting connection: Human beings can speak because they have a healthy left convolution of the brain. We must now understand what it means when a person has a healthy left convolution of the brain. But in order to grasp this, we need to look at something else first.
When we examine this same area of the brain in small children who have passed away, we find that this portion constitutes a fairly uniform, mushlike substance, especially at the time before the child has learned to speak. As the infant gradually learns to speak, more and more small whorls develop here. They continue to form in an artful way. In other words, the left cerebral convolutions in the child who has learned to speak or in a fully grown adult are artfully structured.
Clearly, this means that something happened to the brain while the child learned to speak. And we should not think about this any differently than we think in ordinary life. You see, if I move a table from there to here, nobody would say the table moved itself this way. It would be just as wrong for me to say that the brain has formed these convolutions by itself. Instead, I must think about what has actually taken place and what caused it. In other words, I must ask why the left temple convolution developed this way.
You see, when children learn to speak, they move their body. In particular, they move their speech organs. Before that, when they could not yet talk, they were merely fidgety, cried, and so forth. As long as the child is only able to cry, its left convolution of the brain is still a “mush,” as I described it. The more the child learns not merely to cry but also to turn this crying into individual sounds, the more this convolution receives definite shape. As long as the infant simply cries, there is only brain mush in this area. When the child begins to utter sounds, this uniform mush is transformed into the artfully structured left portion of the brain we can see in healthy adults.
Now, gentlemen, the matter stands like this: When children cry, the sounds they utter are mainly vowels such as A (as in “father”) or E (as in “gate”). When they merely cry like this, they do not need a developed left cerebral convolution; the children utter these sounds out of themselves, without having anything artful developed in the brain. If we pay some attention, we will discover that children initially make A sounds; later on they add those of U (as in “shoe”) and I (“bee”). Gradually, as you know, they also learn to utter consonants. First they form the sound A; then they add M or W and say MA or WA. In other words, out of their crying children gradually manage to form words by adding consonants to the vowels.
And how do they form these consonants? All you need to do is to pay attention to how you pronounce, for example, an M. You'll see that you must move your lips. When you were a child, you had to learn this through imitation. If you say L, you must move your tongue. Thus, you must always move some organs. From mere fidgeting the child must progress to regular movements, carried out by the speech organs in imitation. The more the child moves beyond the vowels formed in mere crying and utters consonants such as L, M; N, R, the more the left cerebral convolution is structured in an artful way.
Now we could ask how children initially learn to speak. They learn to speak only through imitation. They learn to speak, to move their lips, by imitating out of their feelings the way other people move their lips. All of this is imitation. This means that children take in, see, perceive what happens around them. And this perceiving, this mental activity, forms the brain. Just as a carver shapes a piece of wood or a sculptor works on marble and bronze, so the child's movements “sculpt” the brain. The organs the child moves carry their movements right into the brain.
If I want to pronounce L, I have to use my tongue. The tongue is connected with the brain through nerves and through other organs. This L penetrates into my left cerebral convolution and produces a structure there. In other words, the L produces forms in which one section joins the next, resembling the intestines. The M produces spherical convolutions. So you see, these sounds work on the brain.
The movements of the organs the child activates through observation are at work here in the brain. It is very interesting that since it became known that a brain stroke damages the left cerebral convolution, thus destroying the ability to speak, it became possible to know that the formation of vowels and consonants by the child continuously works on this convolution. This in turn is based on the fact that the eyes and other sense organs perceive what takes place in the world around us.
And what happens in the world around us? Well, you see, whenever we speak we are also breathing. We breathe continuously. And in this process, every breath first enters the human body, moves up the spinal column and enters the brain. This means that even while the child is crying — though as yet unable to pronounce consonants — this breath moves up and enters the brain.
What is actually entering the brain in this process? Well, blood, of course. As I explained to you in the last few days, blood flows everywhere. Through our breathing, blood is constantly being pushed into the brain. This activity begins the very moment we are born and even before, except then it occurs in a different manner. Anyhow, when we are born, we begin to breathe. This intake of air begins, which then pushes blood into the brain.
Thus we can say that as long as the baby's breathing merely pushes blood into the brain, it can only cry. Children begin to speak when not only blood is forced into the brain, but when they also perceive something through their eyes or any other organ, especially the ears. In other words, whenever they see another person move, children inwardly repeat this movement. At this moment not only the bloodstream goes up to the head, but another stream goes there as well, for instance, from the ears — the stream of the nerves.
In the left cerebral convolution, like everywhere else in the human body, blood vessels and nerve fibers meet. The latter are affected by what we observe and perceive. The child's movements in uttering consonants reach the left convolution, that of speech, via the nerves. This area is structured by the combined effect of the breathing, which is carried there by the blood, and of whatever activity comes in through the ears and the eyes. In other words, blood and nerves together structure this brain mush beautifully. Thus we see that, at least in this particular region (and it will later be found to be the same way in others), our brain is actually structured through the combined activity of perception (via the nerves) and of the constant intake of breath, which pushes the blood into the brain.
At this point, we need to understand also that this is how the child learns to speak, that is, by developing the left cerebral convolution. But, gentlemen, when you dissect a corpse, you will find that the right convolution of the brain, though symmetrically placed, shows relatively little structuring. On the one hand, we have the left convolution, which is beautifully formed, as I said before. On the other, we have the right one, which throughout life usually remains the way it was in the young child, that is, unstructured. I could say, if we had only the right convolution, we would only be able to cry. It is only because we so artfully structure the left convolution that we are able to speak.
You see, it is only when a person is left-handed and habitually tends to do most of his work with the left hand that, strangely enough, he will not lose his capacity for speech even when his left side is affected by a stroke. Dissection will reveal that in the case of this left-handed person, the right convolution of the brain was structured in the same way as the left convolution of right-handed people normally is. Movements of arms and hands, then, have a strong bearing on the formation of the brain.
Why is that so? You see, this comes about because when a person is used to doing a lot of things with his right hand, he does not merely do them with this hand, but he also gets into the habit of breathing a bit more strongly on the right side, of exerting more of an effort there. He also gets into the habit of hearing more clearly on the right side, and so forth. All of this merely points to the fact that the person in the habit of using his right hand develops the tendency to be more active on that side than on the left.
When a person is right-handed, the left convolution of the brain is structured; when he is left-handed, the right convolution is structured. What is the reason for this? Well, gentlemen, when you look at the right arm and hand and the head and the left cerebral convolution and then examine where the nerves are, you will find that there are nerves everywhere in the human body. If you did not have nerves everywhere, you could not feel warm or cold. These sensations have to do with the nerves. You have nerves everywhere in your body.
They go up the spine and reach right into the brain. But the remarkable thing is that the nerves coming from the right hand lead into the left portion of the brain, and the ones in the other hand are connected with the right side of the brain. This is because the nerves cross. Yes, the nerves cross in the brain. For instance, if I do a gymnastics exercise or a eurythmic movement with my right hand or the right arm, I sense the activity through this nerve, but I become aware of it in the left half of the brain because the nerves cross.
Let us now imagine that a child prefers to do everything with the right hand. Then the child will also breathe a bit more strongly on the right side and will also hear and see a bit better on that side. The person will make greater efforts on that side and through his movements develop something that reaches into the left side of the brain. Now you only need to imagine that we have the habit of making certain gestures while speaking, such as Ah! (corresponding gesture); or if we reject something: Eh! These gestures are perceived by our nerves. Now, the movements we make with the right hand while speaking are experienced by the left side of the brain.
By the same token, those of us who are right-handed have the tendency of pronouncing vowels and consonants more strongly with the right half of the larynx. Again these activities are taken in more vividly with the left side of the brain. This is why the brain, originally more like mush, is now a lot more structured. In contrast, we use the left side of our body much less, and that is why the right half of the brain is less developed and remains mush. However, when someone is left-handed, the opposite process takes place.
These facts lead to important conclusions for education. Just think, when you have left-handed children (you will have a few of them), you must tell yourself that whereas all the others have a very artfully developed left convolution of the brain, in the left-handed children the right convolution is structured. When I teach writing, I use my right hand. In this activity, the right-handed children will merely reinforce what they have begun to develop in their left brain convolution when they began learning to speak. However, if I now force the left-handed children to write with their right hand, I will destroy the development that learning to speak has produced in their right cerebral convolution. Yes, this development will be destroyed.
Since left-handed children are not supposed to write with their left hand, my task is now to gradually direct everything previously carried out by the left hand to the right one. This way they will initially learn to do simple things with the right hand and get into writing much more slowly than the other children. But it does not matter if they learn to write a bit later. If I simply were to make left-handed children write as fast as the right-handed ones, I would make them less intelligent because I would ruin the development that has taken place in the right side of the brain. Therefore, I must make sure to treat left-handed children differently from right-handed ones when I teach them to write. This approach will not make them less intelligent in later life, but more so, because I gradually transform their left-handedness into right-handedness, instead of merely getting their entire brain confused through making them write with the right hand immediately. If you want to affect the entire human being through writing and force this change to the right hand, pedagogically speaking, you would achieve the very opposite of what you are striving for.
Nowadays we find a widespread tendency of teaching people to do everything with both hands. This is how we really get their brains mixed up. This tendency of making people do the same thing both with the right and the left hand merely proves how little we know. Mind you, we can strive for such an ideal, but before we could realize it, we would have to change something. Gentlemen, we would first have to change the entire human being! We would slowly have to shift activities from the left side to the right and then gradually reduce them on the right. What would happen then? You see, what would happen is that, below the surface, the left cerebral convolution would be more artfully formed; but on the outside, it would remain mush. The same would happen to the right convolution. Instead of distributing two activities between the left and the right sides, we would develop each convolution into an outer and an inner half.
The inner portion would be more suitable for speech; the outer one would exist merely in order to add the vowels and consonants in crying. However, speech is a combination of what happens in crying and in articulating. This remains the same throughout life.
You see, we cannot just tinker with human beings and their development. In education, even in the lower grades, we need an understanding of the entire human being. For with everything we do we change the human being. The really criminal thing is that nowadays people monkey around considering only superficial things and ignore the inner effects of what they do.
Actually, very few people have both sides of the brain fully developed. Usually the right convolution contains more blood vessels, whereas the left one has fewer and instead is more permeated with nerves. This holds true for the human brain generally; the right side carries more blood, and the left is more used for perceiving.
Once we realize that the brain is shaped under external influences, we can appreciate how important these influences from the outside are. We see that they are tremendously significant once we understand that they affect everything that takes place in the brain. Also, out of the understanding of what occurs in the brain when we speak, we can get an idea of how the human brain works.
You see, when we examine it further, we discover that there are always more blood vessels on the outside wall of the brain than inside it. Thus we can say that the exterior part of the brain contains more blood and the interior more nerves.
Let us now consider a child learning to speak in the ordinary way, a right-handed child. How is the brain of such a child being formed? First of all, the brain of a young child is surrounded by a layer or coat, so to speak, of blood vessels. Then nerve tracts begin to form. Because of this, gentlemen, because of these nerve tracts in there, the inner brain substance appears whitish when you take it out and look at it. However, when you take out the brain matter surrounding it, it looks reddish-grey because it contains so many blood vessels.
Now what happens in this region when the child learns to speak and consequently the left cerebral convolution is structured accordingly? What takes place, you see, is that the nerve bundles, as it were, gradually extend more toward the inside and less in the area where the blood system expands. In other words, in children who develop normally the inner part of the brain shifts more to the left and the remaining portion follows. The brain thus moves to the left side, where it turns ever more whitish. It shifts that way. All of human development is based on such artful details.
Now let us talk some more about speech. You see, there are languages that have many consonants and others that contain many vowels such as A, E, I and so forth. In some languages people squeeze out the sounds, like S, W, so that one barely hears the vowels. What lies behind all this?
We know that languages differ in different regions of the earth. What does it mean when someone lives in a certain area where people focus more on the consonants? It means that he or she experiences the outer world more, for the consonants are formed in the experience of the surroundings. Therefore, in people living more in the physical world the white portion of the brain shifts more to the left. In people experiencing life more inwardly, people living in a region where things are experienced more inwardly, the white brain matter does not move quite so far to the left. These people will tend to utter melodious vowels. This varies with the regions of the earth.
Let us now assume the following, gentlemen: Let's imagine the earth and people standing at various points on the earth. And one person, let us say, is given a language rich in vowels and another one a language rich in consonants. What must have happened in their respective regions? A lot may have happened, quite a lot, but I want to focus on one thing that may have taken place. Imagine that we have high mountains and a level area, a plain. Picture then steep mountains on one side and a plain on the other. Now, wherever there are flat regions, we perceive that the language people speak there is richer in vowels. Wherever there are steep mountains, the local language tends to be richer in consonants.
But you see, this matter is not so simple after all, because we must ask how the mountains and the plains came about. This is the way it is: We have the earth, and the sun shines upon it. At one time our entire earth was unformed mush. The mountains first had to be pulled out of this mush. All right then, the earth was basically mush and the mountains were pulled up out of this mush.
Well, gentlemen, what was it that pulled the mountains up? The cosmic forces that work out there did. We can say that there are certain forces of a cosmic nature that pulled up these mountains. In some places the forces were strong and developed mountains; in other places there were weaker forces coming in out of the universe that did not produce mountains. In this latter area the earth crust was not pulled up so strongly in primeval times. And the people born on those parts of the earth crust less affected by these cosmic forces use more vowels. Persons born in areas more strongly influenced by the cosmic forces use more consonants. We see now that the differences between languages are connected with the forces of the entire universe.
Now how can we support such a claim? Well, gentlemen, what we have claimed here must be considered in the same way we look at clocks to check the time. We look at the clock to see if we must start working or if it is time to leave. But we never say, “Now this is too much! This awful minute hand is a terrible fellow who whips me on to work.” We wouldn't dream of saying that. All the clock does is tell us when we have to go to work, and so we cannot blame it for having to work, can we? In this case, the clock is completely innocent.
Similarly, we can look up to the sun and say that when we stand here at a certain moment, the sun is between us and the constellation of Aries. That is the direction where these strong cosmic forces work from. It is not Aries itself, of course. This constellation merely indicates the direction where the strong forces come from. If a person is standing in a different place at that same time, he or she is affected as follows: When the sun has moved to that place, it is in Virgo, let us say. The forces coming from this direction are weaker. Instead of going through the entire process now, I can therefore say that when someone is born in an area where at a certain time, let's say at his birth, the sun is in Aries, that person will tend to use more consonants. However, when someone is born with the sun in Virgo, he will tend to use more vowels.
You see, I can read the entire zodiac like a clock from which I can see what happens on earth. But I must always keep in mind that it is not the constellations that cause these events; they are only indicators. From this you can see that the zodiac can tell us a lot, even about the reasons why the languages on earth differ.
Now, let us look at the earth and imagine that we put a chair out there into space and look back at the earth. Of course, this is only possible in our imagination and not in reality. When we look from our chair in space at the various languages on earth, as in a sort of language map, then we get a certain picture. When we then turn the chair around and look out into the universe, we get a picture of the stars. And the two pictures match.
If we study the Southern Hemisphere and the languages there and then turn the chair around and examine the southern firmament, our experience is entirely different from the one we would have if we did the same thing in the Northern Hemisphere. This means that we could draw a map of the starry skies above us, and from our study of the connection between the stars and language we would then be able to tell which language is spoken under a particular constellation.
You see now that as soon as we begin to observe human spiritual life, for example, the formation of our minds through speech, we must look up to the stars in order to understand anything. The earth alone does not give us an answer; you can think about why languages are different as long as you like, but based on the earth alone you won't find an explanation.
If you want to know what takes place in your stomach, you must examine the earth, the soil below. If a region grows mainly cabbages, you will understand that people there must constantly re-enliven in their metabolism the heads of cabbage pulled out of the soil. In other words, if you want to know what people in a certain area eat, you must examine the soil. If you are interested in how people breathe in a particular region, you have to study the atmosphere. And if you want to know what happens inside the skull, in this brain of ours, you must look at the position of the stars. You always have to see the human being as an integrated part of the entire universe.
You see now that it is indeed mere superstition to say, “Whenever the sun is in Aries, such and such takes place.” This kind of statement is not worth anything. However, if you understand the full context, the matter ceases to be superstition and becomes science instead. And that will lead us from understanding the transformation of substances to an understanding of what is really happening and its connection to the vast universe out there.