Language - An Introduction to the Study of Speech
by Edward Sapir
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[Footnote 198: Provided, of course, Chinese is careful to provide itself with the necessary scientific vocabulary. Like any other language, it can do so without serious difficulty if the need arises.]

Nevertheless, human expression being what it is, the greatest—or shall we say the most satisfying—literary artists, the Shakespeares and Heines, are those who have known subconsciously to fit or trim the deeper intuition to the provincial accents of their daily speech. In them there is no effect of strain. Their personal "intuition" appears as a completed synthesis of the absolute art of intuition and the innate, specialized art of the linguistic medium. With Heine, for instance, one is under the illusion that the universe speaks German. The material "disappears."

Every language is itself a collective art of expression. There is concealed in it a particular set of esthetic factors—phonetic, rhythmic, symbolic, morphological—which it does not completely share with any other language. These factors may either merge their potencies with those of that unknown, absolute language to which I have referred—this is the method of Shakespeare and Heine—or they may weave a private, technical art fabric of their own, the innate art of the language intensified or sublimated. The latter type, the more technically "literary" art of Swinburne and of hosts of delicate "minor" poets, is too fragile for endurance. It is built out of spiritualized material, not out of spirit. The successes of the Swinburnes are as valuable for diagnostic purposes as the semi-failures of the Brownings. They show to what extent literary art may lean on the collective art of the language itself. The more extreme technical practitioners may so over-individualize this collective art as to make it almost unendurable. One is not always thankful to have one's flesh and blood frozen to ivory.

An artist must utilize the native esthetic resources of his speech. He may be thankful if the given palette of colors is rich, if the springboard is light. But he deserves no special credit for felicities that are the language's own. We must take for granted this language with all its qualities of flexibility or rigidity and see the artist's work in relation to it. A cathedral on the lowlands is higher than a stick on Mont Blanc. In other words, we must not commit the folly of admiring a French sonnet because the vowels are more sonorous than our own or of condemning Nietzsche's prose because it harbors in its texture combinations of consonants that would affright on English soil. To so judge literature would be tantamount to loving "Tristan und Isolde" because one is fond of the timbre of horns. There are certain things that one language can do supremely well which it would be almost vain for another to attempt. Generally there are compensations. The vocalism of English is an inherently drabber thing than the vowel scale of French, yet English compensates for this drawback by its greater rhythmical alertness. It is even doubtful if the innate sonority of a phonetic system counts for as much, as esthetic determinant, as the relations between the sounds, the total gamut of their similarities and contrasts. As long as the artist has the wherewithal to lay out his sequences and rhythms, it matters little what are the sensuous qualities of the elements of his material.

The phonetic groundwork of a language, however, is only one of the features that give its literature a certain direction. Far more important are its morphological peculiarities. It makes a great deal of difference for the development of style if the language can or cannot create compound words, if its structure is synthetic or analytic, if the words of its sentences have considerable freedom of position or are compelled to fall into a rigidly determined sequence. The major characteristics of style, in so far as style is a technical matter of the building and placing of words, are given by the language itself, quite as inescapably, indeed, as the general acoustic effect of verse is given by the sounds and natural accents of the language. These necessary fundamentals of style are hardly felt by the artist to constrain his individuality of expression. They rather point the way to those stylistic developments that most suit the natural bent of the language. It is not in the least likely that a truly great style can seriously oppose itself to the basic form patterns of the language. It not only incorporates them, it builds on them. The merit of such a style as W.H. Hudson's or George Moore's[199] is that it does with ease and economy what the language is always trying to do. Carlylese, though individual and vigorous, is yet not style; it is a Teutonic mannerism. Nor is the prose of Milton and his contemporaries strictly English; it is semi-Latin done into magnificent English words.

[Footnote 199: Aside from individual peculiarities of diction, the selection and evaluation of particular words as such.]

It is strange how long it has taken the European literatures to learn that style is not an absolute, a something that is to be imposed on the language from Greek or Latin models, but merely the language itself, running in its natural grooves, and with enough of an individual accent to allow the artist's personality to be felt as a presence, not as an acrobat. We understand more clearly now that what is effective and beautiful in one language is a vice in another. Latin and Eskimo, with their highly inflected forms, lend themselves to an elaborately periodic structure that would be boring in English. English allows, even demands, a looseness that would be insipid in Chinese. And Chinese, with its unmodified words and rigid sequences, has a compactness of phrase, a terse parallelism, and a silent suggestiveness that would be too tart, too mathematical, for the English genius. While we cannot assimilate the luxurious periods of Latin nor the pointilliste style of the Chinese classics, we can enter sympathetically into the spirit of these alien techniques.

I believe that any English poet of to-day would be thankful for the concision that a Chinese poetaster attains without effort. Here is an example:[200]

[Footnote 200: Not by any means a great poem, merely a bit of occasional verse written by a young Chinese friend of mine when he left Shanghai for Canada.]

Wu-river[201] stream mouth evening sun sink, North look Liao-Tung,[202] not see home. Steam whistle several noise, sky-earth boundless, Float float one reed out Middle-Kingdom.

[Footnote 201: The old name of the country about the mouth of the Yangtsze.]

[Footnote 202: A province of Manchuria.]

These twenty-eight syllables may be clumsily interpreted: "At the mouth of the Yangtsze River, as the sun is about to sink, I look north toward Liao-Tung but do not see my home. The steam-whistle shrills several times on the boundless expanse where meet sky and earth. The steamer, floating gently like a hollow reed, sails out of the Middle Kingdom."[203] But we must not envy Chinese its terseness unduly. Our more sprawling mode of expression is capable of its own beauties, and the more compact luxuriance of Latin style has its loveliness too. There are almost as many natural ideals of literary style as there are languages. Most of these are merely potential, awaiting the hand of artists who will never come. And yet in the recorded texts of primitive tradition and song there are many passages of unique vigor and beauty. The structure of the language often forces an assemblage of concepts that impresses us as a stylistic discovery. Single Algonkin words are like tiny imagist poems. We must be careful not to exaggerate a freshness of content that is at least half due to our freshness of approach, but the possibility is indicated none the less of utterly alien literary styles, each distinctive with its disclosure of the search of the human spirit for beautiful form.

[Footnote 203: I.e., China.]

Probably nothing better illustrates the formal dependence of literature on language than the prosodic aspect of poetry. Quantitative verse was entirely natural to the Greeks, not merely because poetry grew up in connection with the chant and the dance,[204] but because alternations of long and short syllables were keenly live facts in the daily economy of the language. The tonal accents, which were only secondarily stress phenomena, helped to give the syllable its quantitative individuality. When the Greek meters were carried over into Latin verse, there was comparatively little strain, for Latin too was characterized by an acute awareness of quantitative distinctions. However, the Latin accent was more markedly stressed than that of Greek. Probably, therefore, the purely quantitative meters modeled after the Greek were felt as a shade more artificial than in the language of their origin. The attempt to cast English verse into Latin and Greek molds has never been successful. The dynamic basis of English is not quantity,[205] but stress, the alternation of accented and unaccented syllables. This fact gives English verse an entirely different slant and has determined the development of its poetic forms, is still responsible for the evolution of new forms. Neither stress nor syllabic weight is a very keen psychologic factor in the dynamics of French. The syllable has great inherent sonority and does not fluctuate significantly as to quantity and stress. Quantitative or accentual metrics would be as artificial in French as stress metrics in classical Greek or quantitative or purely syllabic metrics in English. French prosody was compelled to develop on the basis of unit syllable-groups. Assonance, later rhyme, could not but prove a welcome, an all but necessary, means of articulating or sectioning the somewhat spineless flow of sonorous syllables. English was hospitable to the French suggestion of rhyme, but did not seriously need it in its rhythmic economy. Hence rhyme has always been strictly subordinated to stress as a somewhat decorative feature and has been frequently dispensed with. It is no psychologic accident that rhyme came later into English than in French and is leaving it sooner.[206] Chinese verse has developed along very much the same lines as French verse. The syllable is an even more integral and sonorous unit than in French, while quantity and stress are too uncertain to form the basis of a metric system. Syllable-groups—so and so many syllables per rhythmic unit—and rhyme are therefore two of the controlling factors in Chinese prosody. The third factor, the alternation of syllables with level tone and syllables with inflected (rising or falling) tone, is peculiar to Chinese.

[Footnote 204: Poetry everywhere is inseparable in its origins from the singing voice and the measure of the dance. Yet accentual and syllabic types of verse, rather than quantitative verse, seem to be the prevailing norms.]

[Footnote 205: Quantitative distinctions exist as an objective fact. They have not the same inner, psychological value that they had in Greek.]

[Footnote 206: Verhaeren was no slave to the Alexandrine, yet he remarked to Symons, a propos of the translation of Les Aubes, that while he approved of the use of rhymeless verse in the English version, he found it "meaningless" in French.]

To summarize, Latin and Greek verse depends on the principle of contrasting weights; English verse, on the principle of contrasting stresses; French verse, on the principles of number and echo; Chinese verse, on the principles of number, echo, and contrasting pitches. Each of these rhythmic systems proceeds from the unconscious dynamic habit of the language, falling from the lips of the folk. Study carefully the phonetic system of a language, above all its dynamic features, and you can tell what kind of a verse it has developed—or, if history has played pranks with its phychology, what kind of verse it should have developed and some day will.

Whatever be the sounds, accents, and forms of a language, however these lay hands on the shape of its literature, there is a subtle law of compensations that gives the artist space. If he is squeezed a bit here, he can swing a free arm there. And generally he has rope enough to hang himself with, if he must. It is not strange that this should be so. Language is itself the collective art of expression, a summary of thousands upon thousands of individual intuitions. The individual goes lost in the collective creation, but his personal expression has left some trace in a certain give and flexibility that are inherent in all collective works of the human spirit. The language is ready, or can be quickly made ready, to define the artist's individuality. If no literary artist appears, it is not essentially because the language is too weak an instrument, it is because the culture of the people is not favorable to the growth of such personality as seeks a truly individual verbal expression.


Note. Italicized entries are names of languages or groups of languages.


Abbreviation of stem, Accent, stress, as grammatical process, importance of, metrical value of "Accent," "Adam's apple," Adjective, Affixation, Affixing languages, African languages, pitch in, Agglutination, Agglutinative languages, Agglutinative-fusional, Agglutinative-isolating, Algonkin languages (N. Amer.), Alpine race, Analogical leveling, Analytic tendency, Angles, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Saxon: culture, race, Annamite (S.E. Asia), Apache (N. Amer.), Arabic, Armenian, Art, language as, transferability of, Articulation: ease of, types of, drift toward, Articulations: laryngeal, manner of consonantal, nasal, oral, place of consonantal, vocalic, Aryan. See Indo-European. Aspect, Association of concepts and speech elements, Associations fundamental to speech, Athabaskan languages (N. Amer.), Athabaskans, cultures of, Attic dialect, Attribution, Auditory cycle in language, Australian culture, Avestan,


Bach, Baltic race, Bantu languages (Africa), Bantus, Basque (Pyrenees), Bengali (India), Berber. See Hamitic. Bohemians, Bontoc Igorot (Philippines), Borrowing, morphological, Borrowing, word, phonetic adaptation in, resistances to, Breton, Bronchial tubes, Browning, Buddhism, influence of, Burmese, Bushman (S. Africa), Bushmen,


Cambodgian (S.E. Asia), Carlyle, Carrier (British Columbia), Case, See Attribution; Object; Personal relations; Subject. Case-system, history of, Caucasus, languages of, Celtic. See Celts. Celtic languages, Celts, Brythonic, "Cerebral" articulations, Chaucer, English of, Chimariko (N. California), Chinese: absence of affixes, analytic character, attribution, compounds, grammatical concepts illustrated, influence, "inner form,", pitch accent, radical words, relational use of material words, sounds, stress, structure, style, survivals, morphological, symbolism, verse, word duplication, word order, Chinook (N. Amer.), Chipewyan (N. Amer.), C. Indians, Chopin, Christianity, influence of, Chukchi, Classification: of concepts, rigid, of linguistic types, See Structure, linguistic. "Clicks," Composition, absence of, in certain languages, types of, word order as related to, Concepts, Concepts, grammatical: analysis of, in sentence, classification of, concrete, concrete relational, concreteness in, varying degree of, derivational, derivational, abstract, essential, grouping of, non-logical, lack of expression of certain, pure relational, radical, redistribution of, relational, thinning-out of significance of, types of, typical categories of, See Structure, linguistic. Concord, Concrete concepts. See Concepts. Conflict, Consonantal change, Consonants, combinations of, Cooerdinate sentences, Corean, Croce, Benedetto, Culture, language and, language as aspect of, language, race and, reflection of history of, in language, Culture areas,


Danish, Demonstrative ideas, Dental articulations, Derivational concepts. See Concepts. Determinative structure, Dialects: causes of, compromise between, distinctness of, drifts in, diverging, drifts in, parallel, splitting up of, unity of, Diffusion, morphological, Diphthongs, Drift, linguistic, components of, determinants of, in English, direction of, direction of, illustrated in English, examples of general, in English, parallelisms in, speed of, See Phonetic Law; Phonetic processes. Duplication of words, Dutch,


Elements of speech, Emotion, expression of: involuntary, linguistic, English: agentive suffix, analogical leveling, analytic tendency, animate and inanimate, aspect, attribution, case, history of, compounds, concepts, grammatical, in sentence, concepts, passage of concrete into derivational, consonantal change, culture of speakers of, desire, expression of, diminutive suffix, drift, duplication, word, esthetic qualities, feeling-tone, form, word, French influence on, function and form, fusing and juxtaposing, gender, Greek influence on, influence of, influence on, morphological, lack of deep, interrogative words, invariable words, tendency to, infixing, Latin influence on, loan-words, modality, number, order, word, parts of speech, patterning, formal, personal relations, phonetic drifts, history of, phonetic leveling, phonetic pattern, plurality, race of speakers of, reference, definiteness of, relational words, relations, genetic, rhythm, sentence, analysis of, sentence, dependence of word on, sound-imitative words, sounds, stress and pitch, structure, survivals, morphological, symbolism, syntactic adhesions, syntactic values, transfer of, tense, verb, syntactic relations of, verse, vocalic change, word and element, analysis of, English, Middle, English people, Eskimo, Eskimos, Ewe (Guinea coast, Africa), Expiratory sounds, "Explosives,"


Faucal position, Feeling-tones of words, Fijians, Finnish, Finns, Flemish, "Foot, feet" (English), history of, Form, cultural, feeling of language for, "inner," Form, linguistic: conservatism of, differences of, mechanical origin of, elaboration of, reasons for, function and, independence of, grammatical concepts embodied in, grammatical processes embodying, permanence of different aspects of, relative, twofold consideration of, See Structure, linguistic. Form-classes, See Gender. Formal units of speech, "Formlessness, inner," Fox (N. Amer.), French: analytical tendency, esthetic qualities, gender, influence, order, word, plurality, sounds, sounds as words, single, stress, structure, tense forms, verse, French, Norman, French people, Freud, Fricatives, Frisian, Ful (Soudan), Function, independence of form and, Functional units of speech, Fusion, Fusional languages, See Fusion. Fusional-agglutinative, Fusional-isolating, "Fuss, Fuesse" (German), history of,


Gaelic, Gender, German: French influence on, grammatical concepts in sentence, Latin influence on, phonetic drifts, history of, plurality, relations, sound-imitative words, sounds, tense forms, "umlaut," unanalyzable words, resistance to, German, High, German, Middle High, German, Old High, Germanic languages, Germanic, West, Germans, Gesture languages, Ginneken, Jac van, Glottal cords, action of, Glottal stop, Gothic, Grammar, Grammatical element, Grammatical concepts. See Concepts, grammatical. Grammatical processes: classified by, languages, particular, development by each language of, types of, variety of, use in one language of, Greek, dialectic history of, Greek, classical: affixing, compounds, concord, infixing, influence, pitch accent, plurality, reduplicated perfects, stress, structure, synthetic character, verse, Greek, modern,


Haida (British Columbia), Hamitic languages (N. Africa), Hausa (Soudan), Hebrew, Heine, Hesitation, History, linguistic, Hokan languages (N. Amer.), Hottentot (S. Africa), Hudson, W.H., Humming, Hupa (N. California), Hupa Indians,


Icelandic, Old, India, languages of, Indians, American, languages of, See also Algonkin; Athabaskan; Chimariko; Chinook; Eskimo; Fox; Haida; Hokan; Hupa; Iroquois; Karok; Kwakiutl; Nahuatl; Nass; Navaho; Nootka; Ojibwa; Paiute; Sahaptin; Salinan; Shasta; Siouan; Sioux; Takelma; Tlingit; Tsimshian; Washo; Yana; Yokuts; Yurok. Indo-Chinese languages, Indo-European, Indo-Iranian languages, Infixes, Inflection. See Inflective languages. Inflective languages, Influence: cultural, reflected in language, morphological, of alien language, phonetic, of alien language, Inspiratory sounds, Interjections, Irish, Irish, Iroquois (N. Amer.), Isolating languages, Italian, "Its," history of,


Japanese, Jutes, Juxtaposing. See Agglutination.


Karok (N. California), K. Indians, Khmer. See Cambodgian. Knowledge, source of, as grammatical category, Koine, Kwakiutl (British Columbia),


Labial trills, Language: associations in, associations underlying elements of, auditory cycle in, concepts expressed in, a cultural function, definition of, diversity of, elements of, emotion expressed in, feeling-tones in, grammatical concepts of, grammatical processes of, historical aspects of, imitations of sounds, not evolved from, influences on, exotic, interjections, not evolved from, literature and, modifications and transfers of typical form of, an "overlaid" function, psycho-physical basis of, race, culture and, simplification of experience in, sounds of, structure of, thought and, universality of, variability of, volition expressed in, Larynx, Lateral sounds, Latin: attribution, concord, infixing, influence of, objective -m, order of words, plurality, prefixes and suffixes, reduplicated perfects, relational concepts expressed, sentence-word, sound as word in, single, structure, style, suffixing character, syntactic nature of sentence, synthetic character, verse, word and element in, analysis of, Lettish, Leveling, phonetic, See Analogical leveling. Lips, action of, Literature: compensations in, formal, language and, levels in, linguistic, medium of, language as, science and, Literature, determinants of: linguistic, metrical, morphological, phonetic, Lithuanian, Localism, Localization of speech, Loucheux (N. Amer.), L. Indians, Lungs, Luther, German of,


Malay, M. race, Malayan, Malayo-Polynesian languages, Manchu, Manx, "Maus, Maeuse" (German), history of, Mediterranean race, Melanesian languages, Meter. See Verse. Milton, Mixed-relational languages, complex, simple, Modality, Mon-Khmer (S.E. Asia), Moore, George, Morphological features, diffusion of, Morphology. See Structure, linguistic. "Mouse, mice" (English), history of, Munda languages (E. India), Murmuring, Mutation, vocalic,


Nahuatl (Mexico), Nasal sounds, "Nasal twang," Nasalized stops, Nass (British Columbia), Nationality, Navaho (Arizona, New Mexico), N. Indians, Nietzsche, Nootka (Vancouver Id.), Nose, action of, Noun, Nouns, classification of, Number, See Plurality.


Object, See Personal relations. Ojibwa (N, Amer.), Onomatopoetic theory of origin of speech, Oral sounds, Order, word, composition as related to, fixed, English tendency, sentence molded by, significance of, fundamental, Organs of speech, action of,


Paiute (N. Amer.), Palate, action of soft, articulations of, Pali (India), Papuan languages, Papuans, Parts of speech, Pattern: formal, phonetic, Persian, Person, Personal relations, Phonetic adaptation, Phonetic diffusion, Phonetic law: basis of, direction of, examples of, influence of, on morphology, influence of morphology on, regularity of, significance of, spread of, slow, See Leveling, phonetic; Pattern, phonetic. Phonetic processes, form caused by, differences of, parallel drifts in, Pitch, grammatical use of, metrical use of, production of, significant differences in, Plains Indians, gesture language of, "Plattdeutsch," Plurality: classification of concept of, variable, a concrete relational category, a derivational or radical concept, expression of, multiple, See Number. Poles, Polynesian, Polynesians, Polysynthetic languages, Portuguese, Predicate, Prefixes, Prefixing languages, Preposition, Psycho-physical aspect of speech, Pure-relational languages, complex, simple,


Qualifying concepts. See Concepts, derivational. Quality: of speech sounds, of individual's voice, Quantity of speech sounds,


Race, language and, lack of correspondence between, language and, theoretical relation between, language as correlated with, English, language, culture and, correspondence between, language, culture and, independence of, Radical concepts. See Concepts. Radical element, Radical word, "Reading from the lips," Reduplication, Reference, definite and indefinite, Repetition of stem, See Reduplication. Repression of impulse, Rhyme, Rolled consonants, Romance languages, Root, Roumanian, Rounded vowels, Russian,


Sahaptin languages (N. Amer.), Salinan (S.W. California), Sanskrit (India), Sarcee Indians, Saxon: Low, Old, Upper, Saxons, Scandinavian, See Danish; Icelandic; Swedish. Scandinavians, Scotch, Scotch, Lowland, Semitic languages, Sentence, binding words into, methods of, stress in, influence of, word-order in, Sequence. See Order of words. Shakespeare: art of, English of, Shasta (N. California), Shilh (Morocco), Shilluk (Nile headwaters), Siamese, Singing, Siouan languages (N. Amer.), Sioux (Dakota), Slavic languages, Slavs, Somali (E. Africa), Soudanese languages, Sound-imitative words, Sounds of speech, adjustments involved in, muscular, adjustments involved in certain, inhibition of, basic importance of, classification of, combinations of, conditioned appearance of, dynamics of, illusory feelings in regard to, "inner" or "ideal" system of, place in phonetic pattern of, production of, values of, psychological, variability of, Spanish, Speech. See Language. Spirants, Splitting of sounds, Stem, Stock, linguistic, Stopped consonants (or stops), Stress. See Accent. Structure, linguistic, conservatism of, differences of, intuitional forms of, Structure, linguistic, types of: classification of, by character of concepts, by degree of fusion, by degree of synthesis, by formal processes, from threefold standpoint, into "formal" and "formless," classifying, difficulties in, examples of, mixed, reality of, validity of conceptual, historical test of, Style, Subject, See Personal relations. Subject of discourse, Suffixes, Suffixing, Suffixing languages, Survivals, morphological, Swedish, Swinburne, Swiss, French, Syllabifying, Symbolic languages, Symbolic processes, Symbolic-fusional, Symbolic-isolating, Symons, Syntactic adhesions, Syntactic relations: primary methods of expressing, transfer of values in, See Concepts, relational; Concord; Order, word; Personal relations; Sentence. Synthetic tendency,


Takelma (S.W. Oregon), Teeth, articulations of, Telegraph code, Temperament, Tense, Teutonic race. See Baltic race. Thinking, types of, Thought, relation of language to, Throat, articulations of, Tibetan, Time. See Tense. Tlingit (S. Alaska), T. Indians, Tongue, action of, Transfer, types of linguistic, Trills, Tsimshian (British Columbia), See Nass. Turkish, Types, linguistic, change of, See Structure, linguistic.


Ugro-Finnic, "Umlaut." See Mutation, vocalic. United States: culture in, race in, Ural-Altaic languages, Uvula,


Values: "hesitation," morphologic, phonetic, variability in, of components of drift, Variations, linguistic: dialect, historical, individual, Verb, syntactic relations expressed in, Verhaeren, Verse: accentual, linguistic determinants of, quantitative, syllabic, Vocalic change, See Mutation, vocalic. Voice, production of, Voiced sounds, Voiceless: laterals, nasals, sounds, trills, vowels, "Voicelessness," production of, Volition expressed in speech, Vowels,


Walking, a biological function, Washo (Nevada), Welsh, Westermann, D., Whisper, Whitman, "Whom," use and drift of, Word, definition of, syntactic origin of complex, "twilight" type of, types of, formal, Written language,


Yana (N. California), Yiddish, Yokuts (S. California), Yurok (N.W. California), Y. Indians,


Zaconic dialect of Greek,


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