To men fresh from the ordinary grammar-school training, no language would seem really respectable that had not four or five distinct cases and three genders, or that had less than five tenses and as many moods in its verbs. Accordingly, such poor languages as had either lost much of their original richness in grammatical forms (e.g. French, English, or Danish), or had never had any, so far as one knew (e.g. Chinese), were naturally looked upon with something of the pity bestowed on relatives in reduced circumstances, or the contempt felt for foreign paupers. . . . [A] language possesses an inestimable charm if its phonetic system remains unimpaired and its etymologies are transparent; but pliancy of the material of language and flexibility to express ideas is really no less an advantage; everything depends on the point of view: the student of architecture has one point of view, the people who are to live in the house another.
I may here anticipate the results of the following investigation and say that in all those instances in which we are able to examine the history of any language for a sufficient length of time, we find that languages have a progressive tendency. But if languages progress towards greater perfection, it is not in a bee-line, nor are all the changes we witness to be considered steps in the right direction. The only thing I maintain is that the sum total of these changes, when we compare a remote period with the present time, shows a surplus of progressive over retrogressive or indifferent changes, so that the structure of modern languages is nearer perfection than that of ancient languages, if we take them as wholes instead of picking out at random some one or other more or less significant detail. And of course it must not be imagined that progress has been achieved through deliberate acts of men conscious that they were improving their mother-tongue. On the contrary, many a step in advance has at first been a slip or even a blunder, and, as in other fields of human activity, good results have only been won after a good deal of bungling and 'muddling along.' My attitude towards this question is the same as that of Leslie Stephen, who writes in a letter (Life 454): "I have a perhaps unreasonable amount of belief, not in a millennium, but in the world on the whole blundering rather forwards than backwards."
Schleicher on one occasion used the fine simile: "Our words, as contrasted with Gothic words, are like a statue that has been rolling for a long time in the bed of a river till its beautiful limbs have been worn off, so that now scarcely anything remains but a polished stone cylinder with faint indications of what it once was" (D 34). Let us turn the tables by asking: Suppose, however, that it would be quite out of the question to place the statue on a pedestal to be admired; what if, on the one hand, it was not ornamental enough as a work of art, and if, on the other hand, human well-being was at stake if it was not serviceable in a rolling-mill: which would then be the better--a rugged and unwieldy statue, making difficulties at every rotation, or an even, smooth, easygoing and well-oiled roller?