Language eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 226 pages of information about Language.

VII

LANGUAGE AS A HISTORICAL PRODUCT:  DRIFT

Every one knows that language is variable.  Two individuals of the same generation and locality, speaking precisely the same dialect and moving in the same social circles, are never absolutely at one in their speech habits.  A minute investigation of the speech of each individual would reveal countless differences of detail—­in choice of words, in sentence structure, in the relative frequency with which particular forms or combinations of words are used, in the pronunciation of particular vowels and consonants and of combinations of vowels and consonants, in all those features, such as speed, stress, and tone, that give life to spoken language.  In a sense they speak slightly divergent dialects of the same language rather than identically the same language.

There is an important difference, however, between individual and dialectic variations.  If we take two closely related dialects, say English as spoken by the “middle classes” of London and English as spoken by the average New Yorker, we observe that, however much the individual speakers in each city differ from each other, the body of Londoners forms a compact, relatively unified group in contrast to the body of New Yorkers.  The individual variations are swamped in or absorbed by certain major agreements—­say of pronunciation and vocabulary—­which stand out very strongly when the language of the group as a whole is contrasted with that of the other group.  This means that there is something like an ideal linguistic entity dominating the speech habits of the members of each group, that the sense of almost unlimited freedom which each individual feels in the use of his language is held in leash by a tacitly directing norm.  One individual plays on the norm in a way peculiar to himself, the next individual is nearer the dead average in that particular respect in which the first speaker most characteristically departs from it but in turn diverges from the average in a way peculiar to himself, and so on.  What keeps the individual’s variations from rising to dialectic importance is not merely the fact that they are in any event of small moment—­there are well-marked dialectic variations that are of no greater magnitude than individual variations within a dialect—­it is chiefly that they are silently “corrected” or canceled by the consensus of usage.  If all the speakers of a given dialect were arranged in order in accordance with the degree of their conformity to average usage, there is little doubt that they would constitute a very finely intergrading series clustered about a well-defined center or norm.  The differences between any two neighboring speakers of the series[122] would be negligible for any but the most microscopic linguistic research.  The differences between the outer-most members of the series are sure to be considerable, in all likelihood considerable enough to measure up to a true dialectic variation.  What prevents us from saying that these untypical individuals speak distinct dialects is that their peculiarities, as a unified whole, are not referable to another norm than the norm of their own series.

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Language from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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