Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/49

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45
HUMAN SPEECH

THE HISTORY AND VARIETIES OF HUMAN SPEECH[1]
By Dr. EDWARD SAPIR
THE CANADIAN GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

PERHAPS no single feature so markedly sets off man from the rest of the animal world as the gift of speech, which he alone possesses. No community of normal human beings, be their advance in culture ever so slight, has yet been found, or is ever likely to be found, who do not communicate among themselves by means of a complex system of sound symbols; in other words, who do not make use of a definitely organized spoken language. It is indeed one of the paradoxes of linguistic science that some of the most complexly organized languages are spoken by so-called primitive peoples, while, on the other hand, not a few languages of relatively simple structure are found among peoples of considerable advance in culture. Relatively to the modern inhabitants of England, to cite but one instance out of an indefinitely large number, the Eskimos must be considered as rather limited in cultural development. Yet there is just as little doubt that in complexity of form the Eskimo language goes far beyond English. I wish merely to indicate that, however much we may indulge in speaking of primitive man, of a primitive language in the true sense of the word we find nowhere a trace. It is true that many of the lower animals, for example birds, communicate by means of various cries, yet no one will seriously maintain that such cries are comparable to the conventional words of present-day human speech; at best they may be compared to some of our interjections, which, however, falling outside the regular morphologic and syntactic frame of speech, are least typical of the language of human beings. We can thus safely make the absolute statement that language is typical of all human communities of to-day, and of such previous times as we have historical knowledge of, and that language, aside from reflex cries, is just as untypical of all non-human forms of animal life. Like all other forms of human activity, language must have its history.

Much has been thought and written about the history of language. Under this term may be included two more or less distinct lines of inquiry. One may either trace the changes undergone by a particular language or group of languages for as long a period as the evidence at band allows, or one may attempt to pass beyond the limits of historically recorded or reconstructed speech, to reconstruct the ultimate

  1. Lecture delivered at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, April 1, 1911.