In reading Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, I came across a reference to James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, a name I had seen before but never (as far as I recall) investigated. Now I looked him up, and was astonished by the breadth of activity revealed by that Wikipedia article:

In The Origin and Progress of Language, originally published in six volumes from 1774 to 1792, Burnett analysed the structure of languages and argued that humans had evolved language skills in response to changing environments and social structures. Burnett was the first to note that some languages create lengthy words for rather simple concepts. […] Monboddo studied languages of peoples colonised by Europeans, including those of the Carib, Eskimo, Huron, Algonquian, Peruvian (Quechua?) and Tahitian peoples. He saw the preponderance of polysyllabic words, whereas some of his predecessors had dismissed these languages as a series of monosyllabic grunts. […]

Monboddo also popularized Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn’s 17th-century theory of a “Skythian” proto-language, traced the evolution of modern European languages and gave particularly great effort to understanding the ancient Greek language, in which he was proficient. He argued that Greek is the most perfect language ever established because of its complex structure and tonality, rendering it capable of expressing a wide gamut of nuances. Monboddo was the first to formulate what is now known as the single-origin hypothesis, the theory that all human origin was from a single region of the earth; he reached this conclusion by reasoning from linguistic evolution (Jones, 1789). This theory is evidence of his thinking on the topic of the evolution of Man. […]

Monboddo is considered by some scholars as a precursive thinker in the theory of evolution. […] Charles Neaves, one of Monboddo’s successors on the high court of Scotland, believed that proper credit was not given to Monboddo in evolutionary theory development. Neaves wrote in verse:

Though Darwin now proclaims the law
And spreads it far abroad, O!
The man that first the secret saw
Was honest old Monboddo.
The architect precedence takes
Of him that bears the hod, O!
So up and at them, Land of Cakes,
We’ll vindicate Monboddo.

It’s very odd that he’s not mentioned in either of my two textbooks on the history of linguistics, The discovery of language by Holger Pedersen and Classics in linguistics by Donald E. Hayden; some of his ideas were silly in retrospect, but that’s true of all those early guys. At any rate, what interests me here is that word Monboddo; it’s an honorary title “based on the name of his father’s estate and family seat, Monboddo House,” but that article on the house provides no etymology for the odd name. Furthermore, it mentions “Burnett of Leys”; there is no Wikipedia article for Leys in this sense (though there is a disambiguation page), but I was able to determine from other sources that it’s pronounced /liːz/ and is from the word lea ‘meadow.’ At any rate, any information on Monboddo will be most welcome.


  1. Adam Watson suggests suggests Monadh Bodaich on page 166 here (I hope). Also, here are the entries for monadh and bodach in the Wiktionary.

    (Short comment because I am on the road.)

  2. Thanks very much for that — not only is there a possible etymology, but it’s nice to know the correct/original pronunciation (I had been saying it the way the ditty has it).

  3. He reasoned that in early languages there was an imperative for clarity so redundancy was built in and seemingly unnecessary syllables added. He concluded that this form of language evolved when clear communication might be the determinant of avoiding danger.

    Curiously, I don’t see this argument in the book. Only that sounds made by animals are usually long, and that initially languages could not have many (or any) consonants.

    He saw the preponderance of polysyllabic words, whereas some of his predecessors had dismissed these languages as a series of monosyllabic grunts.

    Er. I’m not sure if they refer to some actual tradition or just trying to say something good about the man. He indeed made such generalisation: barbarous languages have long words. I assume “predecessors” are also people who generalised over barbarous languages, but, unlike him, never consulted dictionaries, or, unlike him (he does not consider Chinese “barbarous’), picked languages with short words as the prototype? But that does not explain “dismissed… grunts” which is quite surprising given that 18th century was full of travellers who spoke exotic languages.

  4. “Again, people now generally say, Advértisement in place of Advertísement, as they formerly pronounced; by which two long syllables are sunk in the pronunciation.”

    “I must observe, that the poverty of our language is so great, that we often employ the same word to express both a verb, and a substantive or adjective. Now, according to the common use of the language in my younger days, the verb was distinguished from the noun by the accent being put upon the last syllable of the verb, and the first syllable of the noun. …”

    “Such being the case, I would have those consider, who maintain that man has been always the same in all ages of the world, how they are to reconcile their system with the universal degeneracy that we observe in the languages of all nations, whose antient language we know.”

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    I would have suspected a toponymic with first element = Irish móin or muine, maybe because these are quite common in placenames and because many baronial etc. apellations are taken from the name of the fiefdom.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Neaves wrote in verse:

    To the tune of Yankee Doodle, no doubt. 🙂

    More seriously, of course Darwin didn’t discover evolution as such; several other people did it, independently from each other, before him. What he discovered (and Wallace independently caught up with before they published their joint paper in 1858) was natural selection – evolution by a mechanism instead of by a mysterious and/or metaphysical force. And then he added sexual selection, another understandable mechanism.

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