Skip to main content

Full text of "The Loom Of Language"

See other formats

Ii6                The Loom of Language
modern Icelandic., winch docs not differ from Old Norse more than Bible
English differs fiom Chaucer's This genitive flexion of the noun has
almost completely disappeared m spoken Dutch and m many German
dialects. When we still use it m English, we add it only to names of
living things, to some calendncal terms (e g day^\ and to some astro-
nomical (c g sun's) It is never obligatory, because we can always
replace it by putting of in front of the noun The French, Italian, and
Spanish noun has completely lost case-flexion, and the fact that French-
men, Itahans, and Spaniards can do without it raises the same kind of
question which disappearance of other flexions prompts us to ask, Is it
an advantage to be able to say my father's m preference to the more
roundabout of my father1*
In the number flexion -$ of the noun there is a common element of
meaning, viz more than one This is charactenstic of all plural deriva-
tives, whatever the root represents Though the English genitive often
indicates possession, as m father* <> pants, it is stretching the meaning of
the word to say that the same is obviously true of uncle's death, man's
duty, father's bankruptcy, or the day's work In the older Teutonic
languages, the genitive was also prescribed for use after certain direc-
tives, of which thcie are fourteen m Icelandic. A few idiomatic sur-
vivals of tins exist in modem Scandinavian languages, e g in Nor-
wegian, til fots (onfcot)y til sengs (to bed)) Ul tops (to the top) German has
many adverbial gemuvcs, c g redits (to the right), links (to the left),
nachts (at night) The use of the genitive flexion then depends on the
context of the word to winch it sticks There was no common thread of
clear-cut meaning which governed its use when it was still obligatoty in
Teutonic dialects. It is a trick of language dictated by custom, for
reasons buried in a long-forgotten past.
The same verdict applies with equal justice to the distinction between
the nominative and objective (or oblique) case-forms of the pronoun. We
are none the worse because it and you each have one form corresponding
to such pairs as he-hint) they-them* The grammar book rules for the use
of these two pronoun cases in English, or Dutch or Scandinavian
languages axe; (a) we have to use the nominative (/, wey hey etc*) when
the pronoun is the subject of the verb, (6) we have to use the oblique
case when the pronoun is not the subject of a verb, The subject is the
word which answers the question we make when we put who or what hi
front of the verb. Thus this sentence is the subject of this sentence ts short*
because it answers the question what is short? This and nothing more i$
the grammarian's subject. The subject of the grammarian is not neces-