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182                The Loom of Language
to the oldest records available At that point we have to replace the
Juridical by the comparative method, and to tiy to obtain by inference
what history has failed to rescue We aie m much the same position as
the biologist, wLo can trace the record of vcitebiate evolution from
bony remains m the rocks, till he reaches the point when vertebrates
had not acquired a hard skeleton. Beyond this, anything we can know
or plausibly surmise about their origin must be based upon a com-
parison between the characteristic features, of the vertebrate body and
the characteristic features of bodily orgaru/ation among the various
clashes of invertebrates,
Biologists who classify animals from an evolutionary point of view
make the assumption that characteristics common to allóor to nearly
allómembers of a group are also chaiactenstic of then common
ancestor Similar reasoning is implicit m the comparative method of
studying languages; and those who study the evolution of languages
enjoy an advantage which the evolutionary biologist does not share. No
large-scale changes in the diversity of animal life on our planet have
occurred during the period of the written record,, but distinct languages
have come into being during comparatively recent times We can check
the value of clues which suggest common parentage of related lan-
guages by an almost continuous historical recoxd of what has happened
to Latin.
Word~$wMlarity is one of the three most important ot these clues It
stands to reason that two closely related languages must have a large
number of recognizably similar words. Comparison oi the members of
the Romance group shows that this is so Such resemblance does not
signify identity, which may be due to borrowing Evidence for kinship
is strongest if words which are alike are words which are not likely to
have passed from one language to the other, or to have been assimilated
by both from a third Such conservative words include personal pro-
nouns; veibs expressing basic activities or states, such as come and go>
give and take* cat and drink* live and die*? adjectives denoting elementary
qualities such as young and old* fag and small., high and deep* or names
which stand for universally distributed objects, such as earth* dog*
$toney water*, fire> for parts of the body such as head, ear* cyay nose* mouth,
or for blood relationship such as father* mother* sister, brother.
If the number of words which two languages share is small, and
confined to a special aspect of cultural life, it is almost certain that one