Ill- Tempered and Queer
SENSE AND NONSENSE,
FROM VICTORIAN TO MODERN
Darwin's impact on children's literature went beyond imaginary animals or fantasies of growth or fears of regression. Linguists throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries found in the ideas of descent and development a set of images for understanding language change. Biologists, too, saw in the study of the history of language an analogy for species adaptation and extinction. The study of language and the study of life went on side by side for half a century or so. Trees of biota mirrored trees of tongues. “Pedigrees” of mammals matched those of the Indo-European languages. The great evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel spoke for many of his contemporaries when he announced, in books written in the 1870s and 1880s, that historical philology “anticipated” the methods of paleontology. Language and species worked in parallel.1
If part of the influence of evolution was imagining strange creatures, then another was imagining strange languages. Weird ancient tongues and writing systems were being unearthed throughout the nineteenth century. Hieroglyphics had been deciphered by Champollion in 1828; Babylonian cuneiform was being understood by the 1840s; Hittite was legible by the 1910s. There were Mayan glyphs, Mediterranean syllabaries, and Indie pictograms (all of which would not be fully understood until the mid-twentieth century).2 If there was sense to be made of the animal kingdom, there was sense to be made of language, and if some creatures seemed to be nonsensical aggregations of body parts—whether the real platypus or the fanciful hybrids of Edward Lear—some languages could be nonsensical as well.