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The Growth of Languages

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It is postulated that in the growth of languages new words are formed by combination, and that these new words change by attrition to secure economy of utterance, and also by assimilation (analogy) for economy of thought. In the comparison of languages for the purposes of systematic philology it often becomes necessary to dismember compounded words for the purpose of comparing the more primitive forms thus obtained. The paradigmatic words considered in grammatical treatises may often be the very words which should be dissected to discover in their elements primary affinities. But the comparison is still lexic, not grammatic.

A lexic comparison is between vocal elements; a grammatic comparison is between grammatic methods, such, for example, as gender systems. The classes into which things are relegated by distinction of gender may be animate and inanimate, and the animate may subsequently be divided into male and female, and these two classes may ultimately absorb, in part at least, inanimate things. The growth of a system of genders may take another course. The animate and inanimate may be subdivided into the standing, the sitting, and the lying, or into the moving, the erect and the reclined; or, still further, the superposed classification may be based upon the supposed constitution of things, as the fleshy, the woody, the rocky, the earthy, the watery. Thus the number of genders may increase, while further on in the history of a language the genders may decrease so as almost to disappear. All of these characteristics are in part adventitious, but to a large extent the gender is a phenomenon of growth, indicating the stage to which the language has attained. A proper case system may not have been established in a language by the fixing of case particles, or, having been established, it may change by the increase or diminution of the number of cases. A tense system also has a beginning, a growth, and a decadence. A mode system is variable in the various stages of the history of a language. In like manner a pronominal system undergoes changes. Particles may be prefixed, infixed, or affixed in compounded words, and which one of these methods will finally prevail can be determined only in the later stage of growth. All of these things are held to belong to the grammar of a language and to be grammatic methods, distinct from lexical elements.

With terms thus defined, languages are supposed to be cognate when fundamental similarities are discovered in their lexical elements. When the members of a family of languages are to be classed in subdivisions and the history of such languages investigated, grammatic characteristics become of primary importance. The words of a language change by the methods described, but the fundamental elements or roots are more enduring. Grammatic methods also change, perhaps even more rapidly than words, and the changes may go on to such an extent that primitive methods are entirely lost, there being no radical grammatic elements to be preserved. Grammatic structure is but a phase or accident of growth, and not a primordial element of language. The roots of a language are its most permanent characteristics, and while the words which are formed from them may change so as to obscure their elements or in some cases even to lose them, it seems that they are never lost from all, but can be recovered in large part. The grammatic structure or plan of a language is forever changing, and in this respect the language may become entirely transformed.

Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico, 1891

Linguistic Families


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