James Burnet, Lord Monboddo

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THE MEMORY OF MONBODDO (from 'Songs and verses: social and scientific' By Lord Neaves, 1868.[1]
'Tis strange how men and things revive
Though laid beneath the sod, O !
I sometimes think I see alive
Our good old friend Monboddo !
His views, when forth at first they came,
Appeared a little odd, O !
But now we've notions much the same ;
We're back to old Monboddo.
The rise of Man he loved to trace
Up to the very pod, O !
And in Baboons our parent race
Was found by old Monboddo.
Their A B C he made them speak,
And learn their Qui, qiue, quod, O !
Till Hebrew, Latin, Welsh, and Greek
They knew as well's Monboddo.
The thought that Men had once had tails
Caused many a grin full broad, O !
And why in us that feature fails,
Was asked of old Monboddo.
He showed that sitting on the rump,
While at our work we plod, O !
Would wear th' appendage to the stump
As close as in Monboddo.
Alas ! the good lord little knew,
As this strange ground he trod, O !
That others would his path pursue,
And never name Monboddo !
Such folks should have their tails restored,
And thereon feel the rod, O !
For having thus the fame ignored
That's due to old Monboddo.
Though Darwin now proclaim the law,
And spread 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.
The Scotchman who would grudge his praise,
Must be a senseless clod, O !
A Monument then let us raise,
To honour old Monboddo.
Let some great artist sketch the plan,
While Rogers * gives the nod, O !
A Monkey changing to a Man !
In memory of Monboddo.

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799), Scottish judge and anthropologist, was a leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century. He is best remembered as a founder of comparative historical linguistics. Born in 1714 at Monboddo in Kincardineshire, he studied at Marischal College Aberdeen, and, after passing law examinations in Edinburgh, he was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1737, and was made a Lord of Session in 1767 with the honorary title 'Lord Monboddo'. [2]

Burnett married Elizabeth Farquharson, who bore him two daughters and a son. His youngest daughter Elizabeth became an Edinburgh celebrity, known for her beauty and amiability, but she died of consumption at the age of 25. Robert Burns wrote his Elegy on the late Miss Burnet of Monboddo in tribute.

On human origins

Monboddo was particularly known for his writings on human origins. In his Ancient Metaphysics, he conceived man as gradually elevating himself from an animal condition, in which his mind is immersed in matter, to a state in which mind acts independently of body. In The Origin and Progress of Language (1773), he argued that man belonged to the same species as the orang-outang - then a generic term for all types of monkeys. He traced the gradual elevation of man to the social state, which he conceived as a natural process determined by "the necessities of human life." He looked on language, as being something that was not "natural" to man, in the sense of being necessary to his self-preservation, but a consequence of his social state. [3][4][5]

His views on the origin of society and language and the faculties by which man is distinguished from other animals have many points of contact with Darwinism and neo-Kantianism. His idea of studying man as one of the animals, and of collecting facts about primitive tribes to cast light on the problems of civilization, bring him into contact with the one, and his intimate knowledge of Greek philosophy with the other.

Burnett was widely thought to be eccentric - he is said to have believed that babies are born with tails and that midwives cut them off at birth. He often asserted that he followed practices of the ancient Greeks to keep in good physical condition. Thus, when he came out of court one day in a downpour, he calmly placed his wig in his sedan chair and walked home. Habitually he rode on horseback between Edinburgh and London instead of journeying by carriage. Another time after a decision went against him regarding the value of a horse, he refused to sit with the other judges and sat below the bench with the court clerks. When Burnett was visiting the King's Court in London in 1787, part of the ceiling of the courtroom started to collapse. People rushed out of the building, but Burnett who, at the age of 71, was partially deaf and shortsighted, was the only one not to move. When he was later asked for a reason, he stated that he thought it "an annual ceremony, with which, as an alien, he had nothing to do".[6]

In the attic of his house in St John Street, Monboddo held 'learned suppers'. to which he invited the cream of the intelligentsia; the table was strewn with roses, after the practice of Horace at his home in the Sabine hills and the wine flasks were garlanded, after the manner of Anacreon at the Court of Polycrates of Samo. [7]

His studied abstinence from "the rhetorical and poetical style fashionable among writers of the present day" - on such subjects as he handled confirmed the idea of his contemporaries that he was only an eccentric concocter of supremely absurd paradoxes. He died on the 26th of May 1799.

Boswell's Life of Johnson gives an account of Samuel Johnson's visit to Burnett at Monboddo, and is full of references to the natural contemporary view of a man who thought that the human race could be descended from monkeys.

Historical linguistics

In The Origin and Progress of Language Monboddo analysed the structure of primitive and modern languages that argues that mankind had evolved language skills in response to his changing environment and altering social structures. His work in language evolution departed radically from then existing theories. This analysis was remarkable, since Burnett was partially deaf. He was intrigued with the systematics he discovered in codifying primitive languages. He was the first to see that primitive languages create unnecessarily long words for simple concepts. He reasoned that, in early languages, clarity was particularly important, so that redundancy was built in and seemingly unnecessary syllables added. He concluded that this form of language evolved as a method of survival when clear communication might be important for avoiding danger. He thus showed that he was aware of the advantages to peoples with superior language skills. This quasi-evolutionary idea, though common today, was then unusual. Burnett himself was deeply religious and often digressed to credit God as the divine 'first mover', as argued by Aristotle.

Monboddo studied the languages of many peoples colonised by Europeans, including those of the Carib, Eskimo, Huron, Algonquin, and Tahitian peoples. He noted the preponderance of polysyllabic words - some of his predecessors had dismissed primitive language as a series of monosyllabic grunts. He also observed that, in Huron (or Wyandot), the words for very similar objects are markedly different. This led him to propose that primitive peoples needed to communicate reliably about fewer subjects than in modern civilizations, leading to the polysyllabic and redundant nature of many words. He was also apparently the first to establish that primitive languages are generally vowel rich; whereas languages such as German and English are vowel starved. In part, this arises from the greater vocabulary of modern languages and the decreased need for the polysyllabic content.

Monboddo also traced the evolution of modern European languages and gave particular 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 formulated 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.


  1. Songs and verses: social and scientific By Lord Neaves, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh (1868)
  2. Lord Monboddo] 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica
  3. Lord Monboddo: Of the origin and progress of language 1774
  4. Land SK (1976) Lord Monboddo and the Theory of Syntax in the Late Eighteenth Century Journal of the History of Ideas 37:423-40
  5. Rocher R (1980) Lord Monboddo, Sanskrit and Comparative Linguistics Journal of the American Oriental Society
  6. In Ramsay's Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character (Project Gutenberg)
  7. Burnett, James, Lord Monboddo (1714-99) The Burns Encyclopaedia