Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/50

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origin of speech in general, and to connect these remote origins by means of reconstructed lines of development with historically attested forms of speech. Superficially the latter sort of inquiry is similar in spirit to the labors of the evolutionary biologist; for in both apparently heterogeneous masses of material are, by direct chronologic testimony, inference, analogy and speculation, reduced to an orderly historical sequence. As a matter of fact, however, the reconstruction of linguistic origins and earliest lines of development is totally different in kind from biological reconstruction, as we shall see presently.

Taking up the history of language in the sense in which it was first defined, we find that there are two methods by which we can follow the gradual changes that a language has undergone. The first and most obvious method is to study the literary remains of the various periods of the language of which we have record. It will then be found that not only the vocabulary, but just as well the phonetics, word morphology, and syntactic structure of the language tend to change from one period to another. These changes are always very gradual and, within a given period of relatively short duration, slight or even imperceptible in amount. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of these slight linguistic changes is, with the lapse of time, so great that the form of speech current at a given time, when directly compared with the form of speech of the same language current at a considerably earlier time, is found to differ from the latter much as it might from a foreign language. It is true that the rate of change has been found to be more rapid at some periods of a language than at others, but it nevertheless always remains true that the changes themselves are not violent and sudden, but gradual in character. The documentary study of language history is of course the most valuable and, on the whole, the most satisfactory. It should not be denied, however, that there are dangers in its use. Literary monuments do not always accurately reflect the language of the period; moreover, orthographic conservatism hides the phonetic changes that are constantly taking place. Thus, there is no doubt that the amount of change that English has undergone from the time of Shakespeare to the present is far greater than a comparison of present-day with Elizabethan orthography would lead the layman to suppose, so much so that I am quite convinced the great dramatist would have no little difficulty in making himself understood in Stratford-on-Avon to-day. For some languages a considerable amount of documentary historical material is available; thus, the literary monuments that enable us to study the history of the English language succeed each other in a practically uninterrupted series from the eighth century A.D. to the present time, while the course of development of Greek in its various dialects can be more or less accurately followed from the ninth century B.C., a conservative date for the Homeric poems, to the present time.