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Full text of "The Loom Of Language"

Syntax—The Traffic Rules of Language   153

use can with safety, the best rule of thumb is to remember that the
foreign equivalent for can-could always corresponds to our is (or was}
able to, but does not correspond to our can-could before have

Root words, the order in which we anange them, tone and gesture
are the indispensable tools of daily speech Next to correct choice of
words, their order is therefore the most important part of grammar
Comparison of the statement that men eat fish with fish eat men suffi-
ciently illustrates the importance of word-order as a vehicle of meaning
in our own language Arm-chair grammarians sometimes write as if a
rigid pattern of word order is a comparatively late and soplusticated
device It is easy to support this view with spurious evidence Much of
the literature which furnishes case material for our knowledge of the
earlier stages of the history of a language is poetry or rhetoric, and
such belongs to a period when the gap between the written and the
spoken word was much wider than it now is We all know the obscuri-
ties into which poets plunge us by transgressing customary conventions
of word order in conformity to the dictates of metre, alliteration, rhyme,
or cadence Theie is no reason to believe that they were ever less prone
to violate the speech pattern of everyday life, and it is difficult to see
how human beings could co-operate in daily work, if they took advan-
tage of the licence which poets claim In short, we may reasonably
suppose that the importance of word-order in modern languages is as
old as speech itself The suggestion made on p 134 applies especially to
the next few pages devoted to this topic It will be wise to shm it lightly
on first reading, and to return to it later for relevant information as
occasion arises
Rules of word-order are like traffic regulations The only thing
rational about them is the rational necessity for uniform behaviour as a
safeguard against congestion To discuss word-order intelligibly we
need some fixed points with reference to which we can speak of consti-
tuent words or phrases as before or after. Verb and subject (p 117) give
us such fixed points which are generally easy to recognize in any state-
ment other than newspaper headlines Two others (p, 118) are respec-
tively called the direct object and the indirect object These terms do not
describe any definite relation of a thing or person to the process implied
in the meaning of a verb We recognize them by converting a statement
into a question, or vice versa