ENGLISH FICTION AND THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE, 1850-1914 by Will Abberley, Reviewed by Nicholas Ruddick
 

ENGLISH FICTION AND THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE, 1850-1914
By Will Abberley
(Cambridge, 2015) vii + 234 pp.
Reviewed by Nicholas Ruddick on 2017-02-04.

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The Darwinian Revolution generated multifarious speculations about humanity's place in time and space. It also gave rise to a pair of fictional subgenres where such ideas could be imaginatively tested before a popular readership. One of these was at first called scientific romance, but as romance took on a narrower meaning in popular culture, scientific romance was rather awkwardly renamed science fiction. Its task was to imagine how present tendencies in human existence might play themselves out in the limitless future of the evolutionists, and its first master was H.G. Wells. The other fictional subgenre spawned by the Darwinian Revolution was prehistoric romance, now rebranded as prehistoric fiction. Its function was to dramatize the course of hominization: to show how one unremarkable species of African hominid became today's globalized super-ape Homo sapiens sapiens. The first masters of prehistoric fiction were the Belgian brothers known as J.-H. Rosny, though several nineteenth-century anglophone authors, including H.G. Wells, tried their hands at it.

For many Victorian evolutionists, human language self-evidently ranked among the chief of the adaptations that enabled us to reach the top of the food chain and dominate the terrestrial biosphere. In Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863), for instance, T. H. Huxley incautiously noted that Man "alone possesses the marvelous endowment of intelligible and rational speech" (104). He thereby inadvertently encouraged those who believed that only a touch of the divine finger could have been responsible for such a gift. Darwin was more circumspect. While recognizing the importance of language in humanity's ascent, he always aimed to reveal our common ground with the animal kingdom and found human language an equivocal phenomenon. He found the urge to speak more innate than, say, the urge to brew or bake. Yet all infants needed to be taught a language, and would quickly acquire whatever language they were taught, regardless of their background.

Victorian philologists drew close and often dubious analogies between biological and linguistic evolution. While the linguistic record seemed fuller than the fossil record, the time scales were in reality totally incommensurable, since the former held just a few thousand years of written texts. Languages apparently speciated and went extinct as a result of divergence, e.g., Latin devolved into the modern Romance tongues, and this raised many tantalizing questions. By working back, couldn't one reconstruct the Ursprache, that putative transitional language that emerged between animal cries and modern speech? Did language have a polygenetic origin that confirmed the discrete ethnologies that nineteenth-century scientific racists were eager to identify? For those with faith in inevitable progress, weren't certain modern languages (especially English) more likely to prevail in the future because they exhibited the ever-increasing heterogeneity and complexity mandated by Herbert Spencer's so-called law of evolution? By contrast, for the nostalgia-fuelled decadents of the fin de siècle, weren't all modern languages degenerate descendants of the authentic poetry of a lost Golden Age?

Evolutionism thus excited a perfervid interest in the origin and destiny of language, and Will Abberley makes a valiant and largely successful attempt to cover all the bases. Besides examining both prehistoric and scientific fiction of the later nineteenth century, he also grapples with the harder question raised by Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots (1983): how did evolutionary ideas influence mainstream (i.e., realistic) Victorian fiction? Moreover, by examining historical fiction set among peoples who spoke languages related to modern English, he shows how anglophone writers speculated on the origin and destiny of the English language.

In his introduction, which considers how Victorian philologists construed the evolution of language, Abberley identifies a split between vitalists, who saw the true meaning of words as "an organic essence derived from a primordial epoch of creation," and progressivists, who saw language "as something forged by humans as they gained control over chaotic nature" (6). Without dismissing the conservative/reactionary view or over-praising the advanced/progressive one, he lauds the novelists Samuel Butler, Thomas Hardy, and H.G. Wells (not surprisingly, all three were steeped in evolutionary thought) for recognizing that language was "a site of dialogue between natural instincts and social convention rather than purely one or the other" (7). Noting that both vitalism and progressivism reified language in their different ways, he argues that the relation between human language and our biology is still under investigation and any conclusions drawn should remain provisional.

Abberley's first chapter deals with the speculative future of language as envisioned in science fiction. A central text is Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), which represents the language of the Vril-ya supermen as efficient because it returns words to primordial meanings. Apropos utopian fictions, Abberley also points out that Wells's Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898) and his Selenites in The First Man in the Moon (1901) communicate by telepathy, which promises to perfect the meeting of minds. But telepathy does not make them empathetic to other species such as ourselves--quite the contrary. Also, Wells's later utopian writings envision a language controlled by the authority of the World State, which necessarily curbs individual liberty of expression.

Abberley's second chapter treats fiction representing speculative primitive languages, often conceived as "unconscious and undifferentiated from the body" (58)--in other words, as inversions of the precise, efficient, and objective language that progressives hoped to achieve. For examples of such fiction, Abberley explores H. Rider Haggard's imperial romances, Grant Allen's The Great Taboo (1890) (the first work of fiction to acknowledge J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough [1890]), and prehistoric fiction such as Wells's "A Story of the Stone Age" (1897) and Jack London's Before Adam (1907). According to Abberley, however, London abandoned progressivism for vitalism, for he came to believe that modern civilization diluted masculinity and "natural, Indo-European values and identity" (90).

In the third chapter, which deals with historical romance, Abberley highlights fiction that contrasts the supposed deadness and artificiality of modern languages (English in particular) with "nostalgic visions of past purity and vigour" (91). Probing fiction such as Charles Kingsley's Hereward the Wake (1865) and R.M. Ballantyne's Viking novels Erling the Bold (1869) and Norsemen in the West (1872), Abberley argues that "racialized philology framed word meanings as instinctively felt rather than socially acquired" by members of the favoured "race" (100). But the mongrel heritage of English, he notes, hardly lends itself to coherent visions of imagined purity, past or future. While they knew that English was more closely related to German than, say, to Danish, Victorian philologists tended to favor the "Nordic" (Scandinavian) elements in English. That was because German imperial ambitions were generally distrusted during the Victorian era, as reflected in such admonitory fictions as George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (1871) and Saki's When William Came (1913).

Some of Abberley's best insights surface in his fourth chapter, which puts nature into dialogue with culture. Here Abberley explains the power of ancestral voices in Butler's The Way of All Flesh (1903), the babbling instinct in Wells's early fiction, and most interestingly of all, the way that words both convey and obscure sexual desire in Hardy's fiction. Hardy is said to have understood the "authenticity in instinctive signs" (142) that words often conceal. So while Pierston and Avice are having a mundane conversation in The Well-Beloved (1897), "Nature," the narrator tells us, "was working her plans for the next generation under the cloak of a dialogue on linen" (qtd. 143).

Abberley's short conclusion expands his focus into more recent times. While covering a huge amount of territory, he notes, correctly in my view, that the study of language evolution remains a speculative science whose development requires the assistance of prehistoric fiction. The Neanderthals reanimated by William Golding and Björn Kurtén, for instance, help us understand why the linguistic road that leads to ourselves might have been more adaptive than that taken by our extinct cousins. Moreover, Abberley observes, the vitalist-progressivist debate persisted into the twentieth century. On one hand, George Orwell's plea for clarity of expression in "Politics and the English Language" (1946) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) echoes Herbert Spencer's progressivist views on ideal verbal efficiency. On the other hand, William Morris's vitalist dream of a back-to-the-future organic language in News from Nowhere (1890) was revived by J.R.R. Tolkien in his The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-55).

Though generally well-organized and readable, this book presents some problems. The first is that its subject is too big for a concise study. To sharpen its focus, Abberley might have concentrated on readings from the two speculative genres that have always emphasized linguistic evolution, namely science fiction and prehistoric fiction. Alternatively, he might have made his topic more manageable by dealing only with relevant work by a few major writers (Hardy, Wells, London), thus leaving more room for historical, sociopolitical, and biographical elements within the rapidly changing post-Darwinian scientific context. In such a frame, Wells's abandonment of his early experiments with creative idiolect might be viewed more positively as a fully justified adaptation to exigent new circumstances. Such a study is not, of course, the one that Abberley chose to write, though it probably needs to be written.

Given Abberley's evident interest in popular-fictional subgenres, I wonder also why he did not more fully address the significant body of genre criticism that already exists on these texts. For example, though Wells is the author most often cited here, no serious scholar of science fiction would cite as a primary source the first U.S. edition of The Time Machine, published by Henry Holt in 1895. This edition not only used an already superseded text (one that preceded the New Review serialization) but even misspelled the author's name on the book cover! And though much of what Abberley says about prehistoric fiction is unexceptionable, I fear that he sometimes unwittingly reinvents the wheel on this topic.

Finally, some of Abberley's key terms seem imprecise. Progressivism, which he identifies with Spencer's view of evolution, has sociopolitical rather than biological overtones. Since Spencer himself used the term progressionist in an evolutionary context as early as 1859, progressionism would have been preferable as the noun for Spencer's view. Also, while Abberley's language vitalism is a useful coinage, it is also a euphemistic phrase for an aspect of what is now called creationism. In that light, Abberley might well have considered how certain Victorians' belief in the lost organicism of language probably sprang from the residual influence of scriptural motifs and episodes--for example, the divine Logos, the naming of animals by Adam, and the Tower of Babel.

But these last are minor quibbles. Overall, this is a work of admirably wide-ranging scholarship that should generate further interest in a fascinating subject and will certainly serve as a useful foundation for more specialized work in the future.

Nicholas Ruddick is Professor of English at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.


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