Edward Sapir > Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech > Subject Index > Page 149
Edward Sapir (1884–1939).  Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.  1921.

Page 149
languages here developed has this great advantage, that it can be refined or simplified according to the needs of a particular discussion. The degree of synthesis may be entirely ignored; “fusion” and “symbolism” may often be combined with advantage under the head of “fusion”; even the difference between agglutination and fusion may, if desired, be set aside as either too difficult to draw or as irrelevant to the issue. Languages, after all, are exceedingly complex historical structures. It is of less importance to put each language in a neat pigeon-hole than to have evolved a flexible method which enables us to place it, from two or three independent standpoints, relatively to another language. All this is not to deny that certain linguistic types are more stable and frequently represented than others that are just as possible from a theoretical standpoint. But we are too ill-informed as yet of the structural spirit of great numbers of languages to have the right to frame a classification that is other than flexible and experimental.
  The reader will gain a somewhat livelier idea of the possibilities of linguistic morphology by glancing down the subjoined analytical table of selected types. The columns II, III, IV refer to the groups of concepts so numbered in the preceding chapter. The letters a, b, c, d refer respectively to the processes of isolation (position in the sentence), agglutination, fusion, and symbolism. Where more than one technique is employed, they are put in the order of their importance. 22
Note 22.  In defining the type to which a language belongs one must be careful not to be misled by structural features which are mere survivals of an older stage, which have no productive life and do not enter into the unconscious patterning of the language. All languages are littered with such petrified bodies. The English -ster of spinster and Webster is an old agentive suffix, but, as far as the feeling of the present English-speaking generation is concerned, it cannot be said to really exist at all; spinster and Webster have been completely disconnected from the etymological group of spin and of weave (web). Similarly, there are hosts of related words in Chinese which differ in the initial consonant, the vowel, the tone, or in the presence or absence of a final consonant. Even where the Chinaman feels the etymological relationship, as in certain cases he can hardly help doing, he can assign no particular function to the phonetic variation as such. Hence it forms no live feature of the language-mechanism and must be ignored in defining the general form of the language. The caution is all the more necessary, as it is precisely the foreigner, who approaches a new language with a certain prying inquisitiveness, that is most apt to see life in vestigial features which the native is either completely unaware of or feels merely as dead form. [back]

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