Edward Sapir (18841939). Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. 1921.
element, on the ground that it makes no sense.6 What, then, is the objective criterion of the word? The speaker and hearer feel the word, let us grant, but how shall we justify their feeling? If function is not the ultimate criterion of the word, what is?
It is easier to ask the question than to answer it. The best that we can do is to say that the word is one of the smallest, completely satisfying bits of isolated meaning into which the sentence resolves itself. It cannot be cut into without a disturbance of meaning, one or the other or both of the severed parts remaining as a helpless waif on our hands. In practice this unpretentious criterion does better service than might be supposed. In such a sentence as It is unthinkable, it is simply impossible to group the elements into any other and smaller words than the three indicated. Think or thinkable might be isolated, but as neither un- nor -able nor is-un yields a measurable satisfaction, we are compelled to leave unthinkable as an integral whole, a miniature bit of art. Added to the feel of the word are frequently, but by no means invariably, certain external phonetic
Note 6. These oral experiences, which I have had time and again as a field student of American Indian languages, are very neatly confirmed by personal experiences of another sort. Twice I have taught intelligent young Indians to write their own languages according to the phonetic system which I employ. They were taught merely how to render accurately the sounds as such. Both had some difficulty in learning to break up a word into its constituent sounds, but none whatever in determining the words. This they both did with spontaneous and complete accuracy. In the hundreds of pages of manuscript Nootka text that I have obtained from one of these young Indians the words, whether abstract relational entities like English that and but or complex sentence-words like the Nootka example quoted above, are, practically without exception, isolated precisely as I or any other student would have isolated them. Such experiences with naïve speakers and recorders do more to convince one of the definitely plastic unity of the word than any amount of purely theoretical argument. [back]