Edward Sapir (18841939). Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. 1921.
sounds is greatly in excess of those actually in use. Indeed, an experienced phonetician should have no difficulty in inventing sounds that are unknown to objective investigation. One reason why we find it difficult to believe that the range of possible speech sounds is indefinitely large is our habit of conceiving the sound as a simple, unanalyzable impression instead of as the resultant of a number of distinct muscular adjustments that take place simultaneously. A slight change in any one of these adjustments gives us a new sound which is akin to the old one, because of the continuance of the other adjustments, but which is acoustically distinct from it, so sensitive has the human ear become to the nuanced play of the vocal mechanism. Another reason for our lack of phonetic imagination is the fact that, while our ear is delicately responsive to the sounds of speech, the muscles of our speech organs have early in life become exclusively accustomed to the particular adjustments and systems of adjustment that are required to produce the traditional sounds of the language. All or nearly all other adjustments have become permanently inhibited, whether through inexperience or through gradual elimination. Of course the power to produce these inhibited adjustments is not entirely lost, but the extreme difficulty we experience in learning the new sounds of foreign languages is sufficient evidence of the strange rigidity that has set in for most people in the voluntary control of the speech organs. The point may be brought home by contrasting the comparative lack of freedom of voluntary speech movements with the all but perfect freedom of voluntary gesture.1 Our rigidity in
Note 1. Observe the voluntary. When we shout or grunt or otherwise allow our voices to take care of themselves, as we are likely to do when alone in the country on a fine spring day, we are no longer fixing vocal adjustments by voluntary control. Under these circumstances we are almost certain to hit on speech sounds that we could never learn to control in actual speech. [back]