Language eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 278 pages of information about Language.
The universality and the diversity of speech lead to a significant inference.  We are forced to believe that language is an immensely ancient heritage of the human race, whether or not all forms of speech are the historical outgrowth of a single pristine form.  It is doubtful if any other cultural asset of man, be it the art of drilling for fire or of chipping stone, may lay claim to a greater age.  I am inclined to believe that it antedated even the lowliest developments of material culture, that these developments, in fact, were not strictly possible until language, the tool of significant expression, had itself taken shape.



We have more than once referred to the “elements of speech,” by which we understood, roughly speaking, what are ordinarily called “words.”  We must now look more closely at these elements and acquaint ourselves with the stuff of language.  The very simplest element of speech—­and by “speech” we shall hence-forth mean the auditory system of speech symbolism, the flow of spoken words—­is the individual sound, though, as we shall see later on, the sound is not itself a simple structure but the resultant of a series of independent, yet closely correlated, adjustments in the organs of speech.  And yet the individual sound is not, properly considered, an element of speech at all, for speech is a significant function and the sound as such has no significance.  It happens occasionally that the single sound is an independently significant element (such as French a “has” and a “to” or Latin i “go!"), but such cases are fortuitous coincidences between individual sound and significant word.  The coincidence is apt to be fortuitous not only in theory but in point of actual historic fact; thus, the instances cited are merely reduced forms of originally fuller phonetic groups—­Latin habet and ad and Indo-European ei respectively.  If language is a structure and if the significant elements of language are the bricks of the structure, then the sounds of speech can only be compared to the unformed and unburnt clay of which the bricks are fashioned.  In this chapter we shall have nothing further to do with sounds as sounds.

The true, significant elements of language are generally sequences of sounds that are either words, significant parts of words, or word groupings.  What distinguishes each of these elements is that it is the outward sign of a specific idea, whether of a single concept or image or of a number of such concepts or images definitely connected into a whole.  The single word may or may not be the simplest significant element we have to deal with.  The English words sing, sings, singing, singer each conveys a perfectly definite and intelligible idea, though the idea is disconnected and is therefore functionally of no practical value.  We recognize immediately that these words

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Language from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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