Wilhelm Bleek and The Origin of Language

Review of Representing Bushmen: South Africa and the Origin of Language, by Shane Moran. (Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009).

 Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History(Winter 2010). Full text here.

“We move upon a giddy height when we attempt to know the direction of the world’s development” – so runs the opening line of an 1868 monograph by the Prussian-born philologist Wilhelm Bleek, Über den Ursprung der Sprache (On the Origin of Language).  With a preface by the fervent Darwinist Ernst Haeckel (Bleek’s cousin), it was just one of a flood of nineteenth-century exercises in comparative philology which attempted to map evolutionary theory onto the study of language, and to divine linguistic origins as a master-key to human history: “the living and speaking witness of the whole history of our race”, as Friedrich Max Müller put it in 1862, “an unbroken chain of speech” carrying one back beyond cuneiform and hieroglyphics to “the first utterances of the human mind.” But Bleek’s unusual career would take him from the universities of Bonn and Berlin to southern Africa and from such rarefied (and now obsolete) theorising to a much more practical encounter with a specific language community... (Continue reading.)