Edward Sapir (18841939). Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. 1921.
and possible future ones rather than to present activity). In both the French and English instances the primary ideas of sex and time have become diluted by form-analogy and by extensions into the relational sphere, the concepts ostensibly indicated being now so vaguely delimited that it is rather the tyranny of usage than the need of their concrete expression that sways us in the selection of this or that form. If the thinning-out process continues long enough, we may eventually be left with a system of forms on our hands from which all the color of life has vanished and which merely persist by inertia, duplicating each others secondary, syntactic functions with endless prodigality. Hence, in part, the complex conjugational systems of so many languages, in which differences of form are attended by no assignable differences of function. There must have been a time, for instance, though it antedates our earliest documentary evidence, when the type of tense formation represented by drove or sank differed in meaning, in however slightly nuanced a degree, from the type (killed, worked) which has now become established in English as the prevailing preterit formation, very much as we recognize a valuable distinction at present between both these types and the perfect (has driven, has killed) but may have ceased to do so at some point in the future.10 Now form lives longer than its own conceptual content. Both are ceaselessly changing, but, on the whole, the form tends to linger on when the spirit has flown or changed its being. Irrational form, form for forms sakehowever we term this tendency to hold on to formal distinctions once they have come to beis
Note 10. This has largely happened in popular French and German, where the difference is stylistic rather than functional. The preterits are more literary or formal in tone than the perfects. [back]