Another, much less obvious, means is a certain vitally importanttechnique that Herder develops for overcoming conceptual discrepanciesbetween the source language and the target language. That might seemsimply impossible (indeed, some more recent philosophers, such asDonald Davidson, have mistakenly assumed that it would be). But Herder, drawing onhis novel philosophy of language, finds a solution: Since meanings orconcepts are word-usages, in order to reproduce (or at least optimallyapproximate) in the target language a concept from the source languagethat the target language currently lacks, the translator should takethe closest corresponding word from the target language and“bend” its usage for the course of the translation in sucha way as to make it mimic the usage of the source word. This techniqueessentially requires that the source word be translated uniformlyacross its multiple occurrences in a work (and also that the singletarget word chosen not be used to translate any other source words).Such an approach is far from being common in translation practice, sofar indeed that it is rarely found in translations. However, Herderscrupulously uses it in his own translations, as does an importantsubsequent tradition that has followed him in adopting it (includingSchleiermacher, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber).
Humanly, the matter explains itself As improperly as difficult, rare ideas had to be expressed could the available and easy ideas be expressed frequently. The less familiar one was with nature, the more sides one could look at it from and hardly recognize it because of inexperience, the less one invented a priori but in accordance with sensuous circumstances, then the more synonyms! The more people invented, the more nomadic and separated they were when they invented, and yet for the most part invented only in a single circle for a single kind of things, then, when they afterwards came together, when their languages flowed into an ocean of vocabulary, the more synonyms! They could not be thrown away , all of them. For which should be thrown away? They were current with this tribe, with this family, with this poet. And so it became, as that Arab dictionary writer said when he had counted up 400 words for misery, the four hundredth misery to have to count up the words for misery. Such a language is rich because it is poor, because its inventors did not yet have enough of a plan to become poor. And that futile inventor of precisely the most imperfect language would be God?
The student of literature observes the utterances of certain persons (say, of a Shakspere) and concerns himself with the content and with the unusual features of form. The interest of the philologist is even broader, for he is concerned with the cultural significance and background of what he reads. The linguist, on the other hand, studies the language of all persons alike; the individual features in which the language of a great writer differs from the ordinary speech of his time and place, interest the linguist no more than do the individual features of any other person’s speech, and much less than do the features that are common to all speakers.
V. Finally, “since every grammar is only a philosophy about language and a method for language’s use, the more original the language, the less grammar there must be in it, and the oldest language is just the previously indicated vocabulary of nature!” I shall sketch a few amplifications.
Is it possible to disregard all these traces of the changing, language-creating mind, and to seek an origin in the clouds? What sort of proof does anyone have of a “single word which only God could have invented?” Does there exist in any, language even a single pure universal concept which came to man from heaven? Where is it even merely possible? “And what 100,000 grounds and analogies and proofs there are of the genesis of language in the human soul in accordance with the human senses and manners of seeing! What proofs there are of the progress of language with reason, and of its development out of reason, among all peoples, latitudes, and circumstances!” What ear is there that does not hear this universal voice of the nations?
The first two of these theses dramatically overturned the sort ofdualistic picture of the relation between language, on the one hand,and thought/meaning, on the other, that had predominated during theseventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They thereby essentially foundedthe philosophy of language as we still know it today.
The third thesis, quasi-empiricism, would be far less widely acceptedby philosophers of language today. However, it may well be correcttoo. Contrary to first appearances, it need not conflict with thesis(2), the equation of meanings with word-usages. And the most likelymodern ground for skepticism about it, namely, aFregean-Wittgensteinian anti-psychologism concerning meaning that ispopular today, may well itself be mistaken.
Students who are familiar with the history of cognitive psychology will at once see the connection of Humboldt’s view of language with Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of mind. Kant in his enormously influential (1781) had explained that the human mind is not merely a “blank slate” upon which the objective world makes its impressions, but an organ which actively organizes the world according to categories. Robert H. Robins in his explains how Humboldt applied this concept to language:
Man lives with objects [around him] mainly, or rather — as feeling and action depend on the ideas which he entertains about the objects — exclusively in the way in which language presents them to him. The very activity by which he spins language out from within himself eventually gets himself entwined in it, and every language draws a circle around the nation to which it belongs, and which one can only leave to the extent that at the same time one enters the circle of another.
In addition to making a fundamental contribution to the philosophy oflanguage, these three theses also underpin Herder’s theories ofinterpretation and translation (as we are about to see).
But because the human being related everything to himself, because everything seemed to speak with him, and really acted for or against him, because he consequently took sides with or against it, loved or hated it, and imagined everything to be human, all these traces of humanity impressed themselves into the first names as well! They too expressed love or hate, curse or blessing, softness or opposition, and especially there arose from this feeling in so many languages the articles! Here everything became human, personified into woman or man – everywhere gods; goddesses; acting, wicked or good, beings!; the roaring storm and the sweet zephyr; the clear spring and the mighty ocean – their whole mythology lies in the mines, the verbs and nouns, of the ancient languages, and the oldest vocabulary was as much a resounding pantheon, a meeting hall of both genders, as nature was to the senses of the first inventor. Here the language of those ancient savages is a study in the strayings of human imagination and passions , like their mythology. Each family of words is an overgrown bush around a sensuous main idea, around a holy, oak on which there are Still traces of the impression that the inventor had of this Dryad The feelings are woven together for him; what moves lives; what resounds speaks – and since it resounds for You or against you, it is friend or enemy; god or goddess; it acts from passions, like You!
A human, sensuous creature is what I love when I reflect on this manner of thought: I see everywhere the weak and timid sensitive person who must love or hate, trust or fear, and would like to spread these sensations from his own breast over all beings. I see everywhere the weak and yet mighty creature which needs the whole universe and entangles everything into war or peace with itself, which depends on everything and yet rules over everything. – The poetry and the gender-creation of language are hence humanity’s interest, and the genitals of speech, so to speak, the means of its reproduction. But now, if a higher genius brought language down out of the stars, how is this?, Did this genius out of the stars become entangled on our earth under the moon in such passions of love and weakness, of hate and fear, that he wove everything into liking and hate, that he marked all words with fear and joy, that he, finally, constructed everything on the basis of gender pairings? Did he see and feel as a human being sees, so that the nouns had to pair off into genders and articles for him, so that he put the verbs together in the active and the passive, accorded them so many legitimate and illegitimate children – in short, so that he constructed the whole language on the basis of the feeling of human weaknesses? Did he see and feel in this way?