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Full text of "The Loom Of Language"

The Classification of Languages         205
Since we can see four processes, isolation, agglutinative contraction,
levelling by analogy and flexional fusion, competing simultaneously in
English or Italian, these extremes do not exhaust all the conceivable
possibilities of evolution. If we hear less about a third, and more likely
one, the reason is that most linguists still allow far too little time for the
evolution of speech It has taken us long to outgrow Archbishop
Ussher's chronology which fixed the date of the creation as October 4,
4004 B c, at nine o'clock in the morning Although our knowledge of
grammar does not extend much further back than three thousand
years, human beings like ourselves have existed for at least twenty times
as long. We now know that the age of man, as a talking animal, may be
as much as 100,000 years, perhaps more, and anything we can learn
about Sanskrit, old Chinese—or even the ancient Hittite language—can
never be more than the last charred pages of a burnt-out book-shelf
Long ago, one philologist saw the implications of this In his book
Sprachwissenschaft Von der Gabelentz (1891) has suggested the possi-
bility that isolation, agglutination, and flexion may succeed one another
in a cyclical or spiral sequence
"Language moves along the diagonal of two forces The tendency
towards economy of effort which leads to a slurring of the sounds, and
the tendency towards clearness which prevents phonetic attrition from
causing the complete destruction of language The affixes become
fused and finally they disappear without leaving any trace behind, but
their functions remain, and strive once more after expression In the
isolating languages they find it in word-order or formal elements, which
again succumb in the course of time to agglutination, fusion and eclipse
Meanwhile, language is already preparing a new substitute for what is
decaying in the form of periphrastic expressions which may be of a
syntactical kind or consist of compound words But the process is
always the same The line of evolution bends back towards isolation,
not quite back to the previous path, but to a nearly parallel one It
thus comes to resemble a spiral . If we could retrace our steps for
a moment to the presumptive root-stage of language, should we be
entitled to say that it is the first, and not perhaps the fourth, or seventh,
or twentieth in its history—that the spiral, to use our simile once more,
did not already at that time have so and so many turns behind? What
do we know about the age of mankind >"
While the distinction between agglutination and amalgamation or
external flexion is fluid, modification of meaning by root-inflexion, such
as in swim-swam-swum is sharply defined This example shows that it
exists in the Indo-European group, though it is less typical than addi-