Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/51

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HUMAN SPEECH

For some, in fact for most languages, however, literary monuments are either not forthcoming at all or else are restricted to a single period of short duration. At first sight it would seem that the scientific study of such languages would have to be limited to purely descriptive rather than historical data. To a considerable extent this is necessarily true, yet an intensive study will always yield at least some, oftentimes a great deal of, information of a historical character. This historical reconstruction on the basis of purely descriptive data may proceed in two ways. It is obvious that the various phonetic and grammatical features of a language at any given time are of unequal antiquity, for they are the resultants of changes that have taken place at very different periods; hence it is reasonable to suppose that internal evidence would, at least within modest limits, enable one to reconstruct the relative chronology of the language. Naturally one must proceed very cautiously in reconstructing by means of internal evidence, but it is oftentimes surprising how much the careful and methodically schooled student can accomplish in this way. Generally speaking, linguistic features that are irregular in character may be considered as relatively archaic, for they are in the nature of survivals of features at one time more widely spread. Not infrequently an inference based on internal evidence can be corroborated by direct historical testimony. One example will suffice here. We have in English a mere sprinkling of noun plurals in -en, such as brethren and oxen. One may surmise that nouns such as these are but the last survivals of a type formerly existing in greater abundance, and indeed a study of Old English or Anglo-Saxon demonstrates that noun plurals in -en were originally found in great number but were later almost entirely replaced by plurals in -s. There is, however, a far more powerful method of reconstructing linguistic history from descriptive data than internal evidence. This is the comparison of genetically related languages.

In making a survey of the spoken languages of the world, we soon find that though they differ from each other, they do so in quite varying degrees. In some cases the differences are not great enough to prevent the speakers of the two languages from understanding each other with a fair degree of ease, under which circumstances we are apt to speak of the two forms of speech as dialects of a single language; in other cases the two languages are not mutually intelligible, but, as in the case of English and German, present so many similarities of detail that a belief in their common origin seems warranted and indeed necessary; in still other cases the two languages are at first glance not at all similar, but reveal on a closer study so many fundamental traits in common that there seems just ground for suspecting a common origin. If other languages can be found which serve to lessen the