Edward Sapir (18841939). Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. 1921.
to linguistic science. What lies beyond the demonstrable must be left to the philosopher or the romancer.
We must return to the conception of drift in language. If the historical changes that take place in a language, if the vast accumulation of minute modifications which in time results in the complete remodeling of the language, are not in essence identical with the individual variations that we note on every hand about us, if these variations are born only to die without a trace, while the equally minute, or even minuter, changes that make up the drift are forever imprinted on the history of the language, are we not imputing to this history a certain mystical quality? Are we not giving language a power to change of its own accord over and above the involuntary tendency of individuals to vary the norm? And if this drift of language is not merely the familiar set of individual variations seen in vertical perspective, that is historically, instead of horizontally, that is in daily experience, what is it? Language exists only in so far as it is actually usedspoken and heard, written and read. What significant changes take place in it must exist, to begin with, as individual variations. This is perfectly true, and yet it by no means follows that the general drift of language can be understood8 from an exhaustive descriptive study of these variations alone. They themselves are random phenomena,9 like the waves of the sea, moving backward and forward in purposeless flux. The linguistic drift has direction. In other words, only those individual variations embody it or carry it which move in a certain direction, just as only certain wave movements in the bay outline the tide. The drift
Note 8. Or rather apprehended, for we do not, in sober fact, entirely understand it as yet. [back]
Note 9. Not ultimately random, of course, only relatively so. [back]