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Full text of "The Loom Of Language"

CHAPTER   II

THE STORY OF THE ALPHABET

LANGUAGE implies more than learning to signal like a firefly or to talk
like a parrot It means more than the unique combination which we
call human speech. It also includes how man can communicate across
continents and down the ages through the impersonal and permanent
record which we call writing One difference between speech and
wntmg is important to anyone who is trying to learn a foreign language,
especially if it is closely related to a language already familiar
The spoken language of a speech community is continually changing
Where uniformity exists, local dialects crop up In less than a thousand
years what was a local dialect may become the official speech of a
nation which cannot communicate with its neighbours without the
help of interpreter or translator Writing does not respond quickly
to this process It may not respond at all The written word is more
conservative than speech. It perpetuates similarities which are no
longer recognizable when people speak, and where two languages have
split apart in comparatively recent times, it is often easy to guess the
meaning of written words in one of them, if we know the meaning of
corresponding words in the other. Indeed we can go far beyond guess-
work, if we know something about the history of sound correspondence
(Chapter V>p 185) To make the best of our knowledge we should also
know something about the evolution of writing itself
The reader will meet illustrations of this again and again in subse-
quent chaptcis (especially Chapter VI), and will be able to make good
use of rules given in them while wandering about the corridors of the
immature language museum of Part IV, One example must suffice
for the present. The German word for water is Wa$ser9 which looks
hke its English equivalent on paper As uttered, it does not The Ger-
man letter W stands now for our sound v9 as the German V in Voter
(father) stands for our/sound. The reason for this is that the pro-
nunciation of the sound represented by W in older German dialects
(including Old English) has changed since what is now called German
became a written language Before German became a written language
another change of pronunciation was taking place in the region of
southern and middle Germany Spelling incorporated this change of