Edgar Howard Sturtevant.

Linguistic change : an introduction to the historical study of language online

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Linguistic Change




E. H. Sturtevant

jbauant Profiatr of CUtacal PUlclcgj in
Columbia Umvtrtily



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/« r

CoPYUGBT 1917 By
Tbk UxnvEssiTy or Chicago

AD Rights Reserved

Published October 19x7

Composed and Printed By

The Univenltjr of Chicago Press

Chicago. lUiaols. U.S.A.


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This little book, which has grown out of lectures to
students beginning their scientific study of language,
is primarily intended as a textbook for similar introduc-
tory courses. It is hoped, however, that it will appeal
to a wider public, and consequently technical terms and
symbols that are not familiar to all educated people
have been eliminated as far as possible. Some readers
will be ojffended at the lack of any exact system of
phonetic notation; but such a notation would have
required a long explanation, which some readers would
have skipped, and which would have caused others to
lay the book aside. No real ambiguity seems to result
from our attempt to use ordinary symbols and terms
in their familiar values.

Since the book is the result of reading and thought
extending over more than fifteen years, the author
caimot now recall the source of each idea expressed.
He is under obligation at some point or many to most
of the standard works on linguistics. In addition to
books mentioned in the text and to the handbooks which
stand at the elbow of every linguist, we may specify
Paul Passy's Petite phonetique comparSe and Leonard
Bloomfield's An Introdtiction to the Study of Language.
Much of the book, perhaps more than the author is
aware, is traceable to the classroom lectures of Professors
William Gardner Hale, Frank Frost Abbott, and Carl
Darling Buck. Dr. W. M. Patterson has read and


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corrected the section on rhythm. Professors Roland G.
Kent and Charle? Knapp have read the book in manu-
script, and their criticism has improved it in many
places. Professor Knapp has also read the proof.

E. H. Stxjrtevant
CoLTTMBiA University
July, 1917


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I. Introduction on the Nature or Language . . i

I. Relation between Speech and Writing .... i

a) Development of Alphabets a

b) Imperfections of Alphabets 6

3. The Anal3rsis of Language lo

3. Phonetics 14

a) Consonants 15

b) Vowels 17

c) Syllables 21

4. Relation between Form and Meaning .... 33

5. Imitation 24

6. Change in Language 29

n. Primary Change of Form 32

1. Mistakes during the Learning of a Language . . 33

a) Defective Hearing 33

b) Defective Reproduction 34

c) Learning Foreign Languages 36

2. Associative Interference 37

a) Analogy 38

(i) Analogy Based on Meaning Groups . . 38

(2) Analogy Based on Functional Groups . . 40

(3) Analogical Creation 42

b) Association within the Sentence 44

(i) Anticipation 44

(2) Repetition 49

(3) Metathesis 50

(4) Dissimilation 52

3. Rhythm S^

a) Stress-Rhythm 57

b) Pitch-Rhythm 59

c) Quantitative Rhythm 60

4. Speed of Utterance 60



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5. Ease of Artictilation 6i

6. Spelling and Pronunciation 65

7. Custom and Pronunciation 65

8. Unknown Factors 66

in. Secondaky Change qf Form 68

1. Changes Affecting Several Words 68

a) Empirical Description 68

(i) Usually Regular . . .* 68

(2) Sometimes Irregular ....... 74

(3) Gradual Spread 76

b) Explanation 78

(i) Gradual Change 78

(2) Sudden Change 79

2. Isolated Changes 82

a) Causes of Isolation 82

(i) Fewness of Models 82

(2) Association of Change with Meaning . . 83

b) Contrast with Regular Change 83

IV. Change op Meaning 85

1. Semantic Change Erratic 85

2. Types of Semantic Change 86

a) Shift of Emphasis 86

b) Worn-out Figures of Speech ...... 89

c) More Specific Meaning Due to a Modifier . . 92

d) More General Meaning Due to a Pleonastic
Modifier 93

c) Analogical Change of Meaning 94

3. Semantic Rivalry 96

o) Survival of Several Meanings 97

b) Loss of One of Sefveral Meanings .... 97

V. Change in Vocabulary 99

I. Reasons for the Loss of Words 99

a) Loss of Ideas 99

b) Exact Synonymy 99

c) Taboo 100


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2. Reasons for the Rise of New Words .... 103

a) New Ideas 103

h) Desire for Novelty 107

c) Taboo 108

d) Change of Model 109

3. Sources of New Words 109

a) Analogical creation 109

(i) Composition no

(2) Derivation 113

(a) Suffixes 113

(b) Prefixes 118

(c) Significant Change in the Body of a
Word 118

(d) Inverse Derivation 120

b) Variant Forms 121

c) Loan-Words 121

d) Words from Proper Names 125

e) Original Creation 127

(i) Interjections from Expression Movements

and the Like 128

(2) Imitation of Movements and Sounds of

Nature 129

VI. Change in Syntax 131

1. Analogy 131

a) Meaning Groups .131

(i) Of Words or of Sentences 131

(2) Of Words and Sentences 133

b) Functional Groups 135

c) Formal Groups 135

2. Change of Form 137

3. Change of Meaning 139

a) Shift of Emphasis 139

b) More Specific Meaning Due to a Modifier . . 143

c) More General Meaning Due to a Pleonastic
Modifier 143

d) Figures of Speech 144


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Vn. Language and Dialect 146

1. Linguistic Variation 147

a) Division of a Community 147

b) Variation within a Community 148

c) Dialect Mixture 151

d) Rate of Variation 152

2. Classification of Speech 153

3. Growth of Larger Linguistic Communities . 155

a) Common Language 155

b) Literary Language 155

c) Standard Language 157

Vin. The Trend op LiNGmsTic Development . . . 159

1. Adequacy 160

a) Mental Horizon 160

b) Analysis 161

(i) Substantive States of Consciousness . . 161

(2) Transitive States of Consciousness . . . 162

c) Association 167

2. Convenience 171

a) Regularity 171

b) Economy 172

(i) Avoidance of Repetition 172

(2) Significant Word-Order 172

(3) Short Words 173

(4) A Test of Economy 174

3. Can We Assist Linguistic Improvement ? . . . 175

Index 179


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Relation between Speech and Writing

There is a widespread impression that the written
word is the norm or model of human speech while the
spoken word is a more or less faulty imitation. It is not
hard to see how such a feeling originated. Written
discourse, particularly if printed, is in general composed
by the more gifted and careful members of a community,
and people take more pains with their style in writing
than in speaking. Then again, the content of books
is as a rule more interesting and valuable than that of
ordinary speech. In the experience of most of us con-
versation is trivial and ungrammatical, while written
language has some value and is usually correct. So the
feeling has spread abroad that the language of books is
the norm on which speech should be modeled and by
which it must be judged, and to a certain extent this
feeling is justified.

As a matter of fact, however, whether we think of
the history of human speech in general or of the lin-
guistic experience of the individual speaker, spoken
language is the primary phenomenon, and writing is only
a more or less imperfect reflection of it. We all learn to
understand speech before we learn to read, and to speak
before we learn to write. We all hear more language
than we read and speak a great deal more than we write.
Spoken language is ordinarily more flexible than written


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language; it leads the way in linguistic development,
while written language follows at a greater or less
interval. The exact relationship between the two wiU
be clearer if we examine briefly the origin and develop-
ment of writing.

Development of Alphabets

The picture-language of the American Indians be-
longs to the most primitive type, in which the sense is
entirely independent of spoken language — ^in otder to

Fig. I

understand a docimient it is not necessary to know the
language of the writer, but merely to be familiar with the
general principles of the system. Fig. i is a reproduc-
tion of a letter from an Indian chief to the president of
the United States,^ the original of which is in colors.
Figures are inserted for convenience of reference. The
identity of the recipient of the letter (8) is indicated
by the fact that he has a white face and stands in

' Reproduction and interpretation (in the main) are from School-
craft, Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the Indian Tribes
of the United States i, 418 ff.; cf. Wundt, Volkerpsychologie, Die
Sprach^, I, 235 f.^


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a white house, that is, "to the white man in the
White House." The writer (i) identifies himself as be-
longing to a tribe of the eagle totem and marks himself
as a chief by the lines rising from his head; his extended
arm denotes an ojffer of peace and friendship. The four
eagles behind (2, 3, 4, 5) represent warriors of his, who
are also of the eagle totem. The figure in the rear (6)
represents another warrior, who is of the catfish totem.
No. 9 is pictured merely as a man instead of being iden-
tified by his totem. That he, as well as No. i, is a chief
is shown by the lines rising from his head, and their
nimiber indicates that he is the more powerful of the two.
The lines connecting the eyes of the various persons
indicate harmony of view and purpose. The houses
imder three of the warriors indicate that they will
hereafter live in houses, that is, will become civilized.
The letter may be read as follows: "I, a chief of the
eagle totem, several of my warriors, who belong to the
eagle totem, another of the catfish totem, and a certain
chief who is more powerful than I, are assembled and
oJffer our friendship to you, the white man in the White
House. We all hold the same views and hope that you
will too. Three of my warriors intend to live in houses."
Several of these ideas are more explicitly put in our verbal
interpretation than in the original pictograph, but there
is no doubt as to the general purport of the letter.

The development of alphabetic signs from such a
system as this can be most easily seen in Egyptian. We
cannot actually trace the evolution in the extant texts;
for the Egyptian system of writing changes only in
unessential details in the more than four thousand years
that are covered by our records. But the system in


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use from the earliest monuments down contains clear
traces of its origin and prehistoric development.

It is only rarely that one meets in Egs^tian anything

really analogous to the Indian picture-writing, but there

are enough such cases to show that Egyptian has passed

• through a similar stage. For example, the sign for the

west f has arms attached with which it is offering

bread ^^^. That is similar to the device which we

have just seen in the Indian chief's letter, and its signifi-
cance is equally independent of any particular language.
If modem scholars are able to attach some phonetic
value to such a sign, that is merely because they have
learned elsewhere the Egyptian words involved.

Ordinarily an Egyptian ssnnbol does not, as in this
case, express a sentence, but at most a single word;
and there are symbols for verbs and pronouns as well
as for nouns. Many of the word-signs are pictures, pure
and simple, and consequently are independent of speech.
Thus <2> means "eye" or "oculus" or "Auge" as
much as it does Egyptian ^'HrL'^ Other purely pic-
torial symbols are O "sun,'' «J^ "front," ^ "face,"
<=> "mouth."

The first essential connection with spoken language

is to be recognized in the use of a pictorial word-sign for a

second word of similar sound. The sign C3 is the ground

plan of a house and represents the idea "house" directly.

It was, however, closely associated with the word pr^

* The Egyptian phonetic signs never mdicate the vowels, and so we
are almost entirely ignorant as to the number and character of the vowels
in the various words whose consonantal skeletons have been recorded.
One must supply enough vowels to make the words pronounceable, and
it is customary to employ the vowel e for this purpose.


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"house," and came to be employed for the phonetically
similar verb prj "to go out."

A further step is seen in the use of pictorial word-
signs in a phonetic value to denote parts of longer
words. The sign f"*^ means mn "draughtboard," but
it is regularly used for the combination mn in any word
that is written phonetically. Similarly n denotes the
sound-group pr as well as the words pr "house" and prj
" to go out ; " 9 denotes the soimd-group hr as well as the
word Ar "face."

The "alphabetic" symbols for the single consonants
originated in the same way. The sign cua means pri-
marily l^ "lake, tank," but it is also used for the sound
I m any word. <r> means r^ "mouth" and also, with
neglect of the weaker consonant, the soimd f. Th^
Egyptians had alphabetic s)nnbols for all their con-
sonants, and it would have been easy to write the lan-
guage with these alone. The priestly scribes, however,
always combined the other methods of writing with this
one, chiefly, no doubt, because they did not realize
the advantages of phonetic writing, but partly also
because the picture symbols were both decorative and

Whether the Egyptian hieroglyphs ever actually

gave rise to a real alphabetic system in the hands of

Semitic or Cretan borrowers we do not know. But it is

probable that the Phoenician alphabet, whether it was

borrowed from Egypt or not, and also every other

' The soimd I was similar to English sh. By ^ we mean to indicate
the glottal stop which is represented by Hebrew aleph and which is heard
in German as the initial of words which in writing begin with a vowel.
The sound is produced by impounding the breath behind the vocal
chords and suddenly releasing it.


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sjTstem of phonetic writing has passed through a develop-
ment similar to that which we can reconstruct for the
Egyptian of more than six thousand years ago.

Even if the Egyptians had thrown away all of their
hierogl)^hs except the signs for the consonants, their
system of writing would still have been very imperfect
in that it would not have indicated the vowels. Such
purely consonantal writing is actually seen in the
Phoenician and Hebrew alphabet; for the use of vowel-
points in writing Hebrew is a modem refinement.

If, according to tradition, the Greeks borrowed their
alphabet from the Phoenicians, they made good the lack
of vowel-signs. And yet the Greek alphabet was far
from perfect. In its earliest stages it did not denote
vowel quantity at all, and even in its developed form
a majority of the vowels were not marked as long or
short. Accent was not indicated until Alexandrian
times and then very imperfectly. There was never
any attempt to indicate syllable division. We are
certain of several further serious lacks, and, if our
knowledge of Greek pronunciation were more extensive,
we could no doubt detect still others.

Imperfections of Alphabets

That the English alphabet is very imperfect everyone
knows, but how great its shortcomings are is not so
obvious. Although we are in the habit of thinking that
such a word as "ran" has only three soimds correspond-
ing to its three letters, phonographic and other records
of speech-sounds show, in the first place, that there is no
division of a word into parts and, in the second place,
that the pronimciation constantly changes throughout


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the word. No two vibrations of the initial r-sound are
precisely alike, although the r-vibratiohs are far more
nearly like one another than like the a-vibrations.
Between the two groups of vibrations there is an inter-
mediate territory which resembles both r and a in some
degree. We can convince ourselves of the truth of these
observations by pronoimdng the word "ran" very
slowly and noticing the gradual alteration of soimd from
r to a. We cannot fix any boundary between the two,
and we cannot pick out any moment as representing a
pure a unmixed with either r or «. In order to represent
speech perfectly an alphabet would have to indicate
several varieties of r and of a and also the intermediate
stages between them. It would have to contain so
many symbols that its use for practical purposes would
be very difficult indeed. '

No known alphabet represents speech-soimds even
as accurately as would be convenient. They all exhibit
such imperfections as the representation of a single
soimd by several signs (English "iinc," "ad"), the
representation of several soimds by a single sign (English
"cart,"'"city "), the representation of a simple sound by
a combination of signs (English tK)y or the representation
of a combination of sounds by a single sign (English x).
There are five chief causes of the imperfection of

I. As alphabets are an outgrowth of picture-writing
tkey are almost certain to have in their earlier stages
several signs for the same sound. For example,
Egyptian has at least four ways of representing the
sound-group nw; either O or /v-^ has this value. The

alphabetic signs ^ are theoretically possible, but


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scarcely occur together without additional characters.
Either of the following combinations, however, may be

employed: o^, ^1^0^ •

2. Alphabets grow up at a time when there is no
scientific system of phonetics — ^no clear idea of how many
and what sounds require representation. When certain
signs began to be used for vowels in early Greece,
no account was taken of the important difference
between long and short vowels. Either men were
not fully conscious of the difference, or it did not seem
to them of sufficient importance to require repre-

3. All known alphabets have been borrowed from
some foreign source, and, since no two languages employ
precisely the same sounds, an alphabet which suits one
language tolerably well is inadequate for another.
Sometimes the borrowing people fill in the gaps by newly
invented|signs. This seems to have been the case with
Greek ^ for ph (pronoimced nearly as in "haphazard")
and with Anglo-Saxon |> and 8 for th (pronounced as in
"thin" or as in "thine"). Sometimes a combination of
several signs is used to represent the peculiar sounds of
the borrowing language. In the early Greek inscrip-
tions of Thera the aspirate which was elsewhere and
later represented by 4> is written by a group of two signs
TTH. Again, the difficulty is sometimes avoided by
the use of a sign in several values with or without
diacritical marks to differentiate them. The Oscans
borrowed their alphabet from their Etruscan neighbors,
who had no vowel and consequently no sign for that
sound. The Oscans made good the lack by employing


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the sign V for as well as for u; after a whfle the letter
came to be written V in case it stood for 0.

4. When a system of writing has once become
familiar,. there is a tendency to stick to it, even if the
pronunciation jhaijges. Examples of this may be seen
in almost any written language. In Latin the diph-
thong ei became long i about 150 B.C., but the spelling
with ei was in common use till the beginning of the
Christian era. We see this natural conservatism pushed
to a ridiculous extreme in the traditional spelling. of
French and English. In English we not only continue
to write numerous letters that have not represented any
actual soimd for hundreds of years, but we have besides
introduced silent letters into certain words which never
had the corresponding soimds. The word "doubt" is a
French loan-word, and therefore the most archaic
spelling we could expect in English is that of the French
datUCj but a b has been introduced by some schoolmaster
who wanted to exhibit his knowledge of Latin dubito,

5. Sometimes foreign words are retained in writing
after they come to be translated in speech. We write
"etc." for et cetera, "e.g." for exempli grcUia, "i.e." for
id est, but we read "and so forth," "for example," "that
is." In Persia in the time of the Sassanians the written
language consisted largely of Aramaic words, although
the spoken language was Persian.

In consequence of the first three factors just discussed
all known systems of alphabetic writing have been more
or less imperfect at the outset, and in consequence of
the last two factors (especially the fourth) they con-
stantly tend to become less and less faithful representa-
tives of speech. If there were no contrary tendency,


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alphabetic writing would ultimately become as arbitrary
and difficult as the systems out of which it developed.
This unfortunate result is obviated only by a series of
more or less thorough spelling reforms, each of which is
succeeded by a longer or shorter period during which
the written language again remains nearly stationary,
and the spoken language continues its development.
Consequently it is only the spoken language that has

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Online LibraryEdgar Howard SturtevantLinguistic change : an introduction to the historical study of language → online text (page 1 of 13)