Language eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 226 pages of information about Language.
into a fixed mold water or plaster or molten gold.  If it can be shown that culture has an innate form, a series of contours, quite apart from subject-matter of any description whatsoever, we have a something in culture that may serve as a term of comparison with and possibly a means of relating it to language.  But until such purely formal patterns of culture are discovered and laid bare, we shall do well to hold the drifts of language and of culture to be non-comparable and unrelated processes.  From this it follows that all attempts to connect particular types of linguistic morphology with certain correlated stages of cultural development are vain.  Rightly understood, such correlations are rubbish.  The merest coup d’oeil verifies our theoretical argument on this point.  Both simple and complex types of language of an indefinite number of varieties may be found spoken at any desired level of cultural advance.  When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.

It goes without saying that the mere content of language is intimately related to culture.  A society that has no knowledge of theosophy need have no name for it; aborigines that had never seen or heard of a horse were compelled to invent or borrow a word for the animal when they made his acquaintance.  In the sense that the vocabulary of a language more or less faithfully reflects the culture whose purposes it serves it is perfectly true that the history of language and the history of culture move along parallel lines.  But this superficial and extraneous kind of parallelism is of no real interest to the linguist except in so far as the growth or borrowing of new words incidentally throws light on the formal trends of the language.  The linguistic student should never make the mistake of identifying a language with its dictionary.

If both this and the preceding chapter have been largely negative in their contentions, I believe that they have been healthily so.  There is perhaps no better way to learn the essential nature of speech than to realize what it is not and what it does not do.  Its superficial connections with other historic processes are so close that it needs to be shaken free of them if we are to see it in its own right.  Everything that we have so far seen to be true of language points to the fact that it is the most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has evolved—­nothing short of a finished form of expression for all communicable experience.  This form may be endlessly varied by the individual without thereby losing its distinctive contours; and it is constantly reshaping itself as is all art.  Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.

XI

LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE

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Project Gutenberg
Language from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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