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Darwin Correspondence Project

To F. W. Farrar   2 November [1865]1

Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.

Nov. 2.

Dear Sir

As I have never studied the science of language it may perhaps be presumptuous, but I cannot resist the pleasure of telling you what interest & pleasure I have derived from hearing read aloud your volume.—2

I formerly read Max Müller & thought his theory (if it deserves to be called so) both obscure & weak;3 & now after hearing what you say, I feel sure that this is the case & that your cause will ultimately triumph.4

My indirect interest in your book has been increased from Mr Hensleigh Wedgwood, whom you often quote, being my brother in law.5

No one could dissent from my views on the modification 〈o〉f species with more courtesy 〈t〉han you do.6 But from the 〈te〉nor of your mind I feel an entire & comfortable conviction (& which cannot possibly be disturbed) that if your studies led you to attend much to general questions in Natural History, you wd come to the same conclusions that I have done.

Have you ever read Huxley’s little book of Six Lectures7   I wd gladly send you a copy if you think you would read it.

Considering what Geology teaches us, the argument fo〈r〉 the supposed immutability of specific Types seems to me much the same as if, in a nation whic〈h〉 had no old writings, some wise ol〈d〉 savage was to say that his language had never changed; but my metaphor is too long to fill up.

Pray believe me dear Sir yours very sincerely obliged | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from F. W. Farrar, 6 November 1865.
Farrar had sent CD a copy of Chapters on language (Farrar 1865; see letter to F. W. Farrar, 11 October [1865] and n. 2).
Friedrich Max Müller had published two volumes on the science of language, based on his lectures at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (Max Müller 1861 and 1864). Max Müller argued that all human languages descended from a common set of ‘phonetic types’ or ‘roots’, which originated in the faculty of giving ‘articulate expression to the rational conceptions’ of the mind (see Max Müller 1861, pp. 342, 369–72). CD read the first volume of Max Müller’s lectures in 1862; he expressed dissatisfaction with Max Müller’s account of the origin of language, and thought the work contained ‘covert sneers’ at himself (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to J. D. Hooker, 4 November [1862], and letter to Asa Gray, 6 November [1862] and n. 5). On Max Müller’s theory of language, see Schrempp 1983, Knoll 1986, and Radick 2000. His debate with Farrar is discussed in Alter 1999, pp. 79–96. His broader project of comparative philology and its bearing on debates over human origins and racial theory are discussed in Stocking 1987.
Farrar argued that human language originated in the imitation of natural sounds, such as animal noises, and instinctual interjections, such as ‘ah’ (Farrar 1865, pp. 88–103, 109–18). Max Müller had dismissed such views, calling them the ‘bow-wow’ and ‘pooh-pooh’ theories of language (Max Müller 1861, pp. 344–56; but see also Max Müller 1864, pp. 88–92). In Descent 1: 56, CD cited Farrar 1865 and other works in opposition to Max Müller, concluding: ‘I cannot doubt that language owes its origin to the imitation and modification, aided by signs and gestures, of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man’s own instinctive cries.’
In his Dictionary of English etymology, Hensleigh Wedgwood defended the view that the original roots of language derived from the imitation of natural sounds (H. Wedgwood 1859–65, 1: iii–xviii). Farrar cited many examples from Wedgwood’s Dictionary that supported the imitative theory of language against Max Müller’s criticisms (see, for example, Farrar 1865, p. 132). For CD’s favourable assessment of Wedgwood’s Dictionary, see Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Charles Lyell, 10 January [1860], and letter to J. M. Rodwell, 5 November [1860]. See also Correspondence vol. 6, letter from Hensleigh Wedgwood, [before 29 September 1857], and Correspondence vol. 8, letter from Hensleigh Wedgwood, [January? 1860]. In a letter to H. E. Darwin, [17 March 1865] (DAR 219.9: 25), Emma Darwin wrote: ‘This mg. [CD] enjoyed a talk with Uncle H[ensleigh] upon Max Müller for one thing who H. says is all wrong & has partly converted Papa to that opinion.’
Farrar’s book contained a brief allusion to CD’s theory of transmutation (Farrar 1865, p. 51), described as the possibility that: myriads of centuries ago, there may have been a near genetic connection between the highest of the animals and the lowest of the human race … It is not yet proved that there was; we believe that there was not; but, nevertheless, the hypothesis is neither irreverent nor absurd.
CD refers to the single-volume edition of Thomas Henry Huxley’s ‘On our knowledge of the causes of the phenomena of organic nature’, a course of lectures to working men delivered at the Museum of Practical Geology in 1862 (T. H. Huxley 1863b; see L. Huxley ed. 1900, 1: 206). CD’s annotated copy of the separately published lectures (T. H. Huxley 1862) is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 425). CD had repeatedly praised the lectures (see, for example, Correspondence vol. 11, letter to T. H. Huxley, 10 [January 1863]).


Alter, Stephen G. 1999. Darwinism and the linguistic image: language, race, and natural theology in the nineteenth century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Farrar, Frederic William. 1865. Chapters on language. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Knoll, Elizabeth. 1986. The sciences of language and the evolution of mind: Max Müller’s quarrel with Darwinism. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 22: 3–22.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

Max Müller, Friedrich. 1861. Lectures on the science of language delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in April, May, and June, 1861. London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts.

Max Müller, Friedrich. 1864. Lectures on the science of language. 2d series. London: Longmans.

Radick, Gregory. 2000. Morgan’s canon, Garner’s phonograph, and the evolutionary origins of language and reason. British Journal for the History of Science 33: 3–23.

Schrempp, Gregory. 1983. The re-education of Friedrich Max Müller: intellectual appropriation and epistemological antinomy in mid-Victorian evolutionary thought. Man n.s. 18: 90–110.

Stocking, George W., Jr. 1987. Victorian anthropology. New York: The Free Press. London: Collier Macmillan.


Has enjoyed FWF’s volume [Chapters on language]. Had found Max Müller’s theory obscure and weak.

Believes FWF would come to agree with him on species if he studied general questions in natural history. To argue for immutability of species on the basis of geology resembles a wise savage in a nation with no books saying his language has never changed.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Frederic William Farrar
Sent from
Source of text
University of Virginia Library, Special Collections (3314 1: 80)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4929,” accessed on 25 February 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 13