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The Elements of Speech

We have more than once referred to the “elements of speech,” by which we understood, roughly speaking, what are ordinarily called “words.” We must now look more closely at these elements and acquaint ourselves with the stuff of language. The very simplest element of speech—and by “speech” we shall hence-forth mean the auditory system of speech symbolism, the flow of spoken words—is the individual sound, though, as we shall see later on, the sound is not itself a simple structure but the resultant of a series of independent, yet closely correlated, adjustments in the organs of speech. And yet the individual sound is not, properly considered, an element of speech at all, for speech is a significant function and the sound as such has no significance. It happens occasionally that the single sound is an independently significant element (such as French a “has” and à “to” or Latin i “go!”), but such cases are fortuitous coincidences between individual sound and significant word. The coincidence is apt to be fortuitous not only in theory but in point of actual historic fact; thus, the instances cited are merely reduced forms of originally fuller phonetic groups—Latin habet and ad and Indo-European ei respectively. If language is a structure and if the significant elements of language are the bricks of the structure, then the sounds of speech can only be compared to the unformed and unburnt clay of which the bricks are fashioned. In this chapter we shall have nothing further to do with sounds as sounds.

The true, significant elements of language are generally sequences of sounds that are either words, significant parts of words, or word groupings. What distinguishes each of these elements is that it is the outward sign of a specific idea, whether of a single concept or image or of a number of such concepts or images definitely connected into a whole. The single word may or may not be the simplest significant element we have to deal with. The English words sing, sings, singing, singer each conveys a perfectly definite and intelligible idea, though the idea is disconnected and is therefore functionally of no practical value. We recognize immediately that these words are of two sorts. The first word, sing, is an indivisible phonetic entity conveying the notion of a certain specific activity. The other words all involve the same fundamental notion but, owing to the addition of other phonetic elements, this notion is given a particular twist that modifies or more closely defines it. They represent, in a sense, compounded concepts that have flowered from the fundamental one. We may, therefore, analyze the words sings, singing, and singer as binary expressions involving a fundamental concept, a concept of subject matter (sing), and a further concept of more abstract order—one of person, number, time, condition, function, or of several of these combined.

If we symbolize such a term as sing by the algebraic formula A, we shall have to symbolize such terms as sings and singer by the formula A + b. The element A may be either a complete and independent word (sing) or the fundamental substance, the so-called root or stem or “radical element” (sing-) of a word. The element b (-s, -ing, -er) is the indicator of a subsidiary and, as a rule, a more abstract concept; in the widest sense of the word “form,” it puts upon the fundamental concept a formal limitation. We may term it a “grammatical element” or affix. As we shall see later on, the grammatical element or the grammatical increment, as we had better put it, need not be suffixed to the radical element. It may be a prefixed element (like the un- of unsingable), it may be inserted into the very body of the stem (like the n of the Latin vinco “I conquer” as contrasted with its absence in vici “I have conquered”), it may be the complete or partial repetition of the stem, or it may consist of some modification of the inner form of the stem (change of vowel, as in sung and song; change of consonant as in dead and death; change of accent; actual abbreviation). Each and every one of these types of grammatical element or modification has this peculiarity, that it may not, in the vast majority of cases, be used independently but needs to be somehow attached to or welded with a radical element in order to convey an intelligible notion. We had better, therefore, modify our formula, A + b, to A + (b), the round brackets symbolizing the incapacity of an element to stand alone. The grammatical element, moreover, is not only non-existent except as associated with a radical one, it does not even, as a rule, obtain its measure of significance unless it is associated with a particular class of radical elements. Thus, the -s of English he hits symbolizes an utterly different notion from the -s of books, merely because hit and book are differently classified as to function. We must hasten to observe, however, that while the radical element may, on occasion, be identical with the word, it does not follow that it may always, or even customarily, be used as a word. Thus, the hort- “garden” of such Latin forms as hortus, horti, and horto is as much of an abstraction, though one yielding a more easily apprehended significance, than the -ing of singing. Neither exists as an independently intelligible and satisfying element of speech. Both the radical element, as such, and the grammatical element, therefore, are reached only by a process of abstraction. It seemed proper to symbolize sing-er as A + (b); hort-us must be symbolized as (A) + (b).

So far, the first speech element that we have found which we can say actually “exists” is the word. Before defining the word, however, we must look a little more closely at the type of word that is illustrated by sing. Are we, after all, justified in identifying it with a radical element? Does it represent a simple correspondence between concept and linguistic expression? Is the element sing-, that we have abstracted from sings, singing, and singer and to which we may justly ascribe a general unmodified conceptual value, actually the same linguistic fact as the word sing? It would almost seem absurd to doubt it, yet a little reflection only is needed to convince us that the doubt is entirely legitimate. The word sing cannot, as a matter of fact, be freely used to refer to its own conceptual content. The existence of such evidently related forms as sang and sung at once shows that it cannot refer to past time, but that, for at least an important part of its range of usage, it is limited to the present. On the other hand, the use of sing as an “infinitive” (in such locutions as to sing and he will sing) does indicate that there is a fairly strong tendency for the word sing to represent the full, untrammeled amplitude of a specific concept. Yet if sing were, in any adequate sense, the fixed expression of the unmodified concept, there should be no room for such vocalic aberrations as we find in sang and sung and song, nor should we find sing specifically used to indicate present time for all persons but one (third person singular sings).

The truth of the matter is that sing is a kind of twilight word, trembling between the status of a true radical element and that of a modified word of the type of singing. Though it has no outward sign to indicate that it conveys more than a generalized idea, we do feel that there hangs about it a variable mist of added value. The formula A does not seem to represent it so well as A + (0). We might suspect sing of belonging to the A + (b) type, with the reservation that the (b) had vanished. This report of the “feel” of the word is far from fanciful, for historical evidence does, in all earnest, show that sing is in origin a number of quite distinct words, of type A + (b), that have pooled their separate values. The (b) of each of these has gone as a tangible phonetic element; its force, however, lingers on in weakened measure. The sing of I sing is the correspondent of the Anglo-Saxon singe; the infinitive sing, of singan; the imperative sing of sing. Ever since the breakdown of English forms that set in about the time of the Norman Conquest, our language has been straining towards the creation of simple concept-words, unalloyed by formal connotations, but it has not yet succeeded in this, apart, possibly, from isolated adverbs and other elements of that sort. Were the typical unanalyzable word of the language truly a pure concept-word (type A) instead of being of a strangely transitional type (type A + [0]), our sing and work and house and thousands of others would compare with the genuine radical-words of numerous other languages. Such a radical-word, to take a random example, is the Nootka [4] word hamot “bone.” Our English correspondent is only superficially comparable. Hamot means “bone” in a quite indefinite sense; to our English word clings the notion of singularity. The Nootka Indian can convey the idea of plurality, in one of several ways, if he so desires, but he does not need to; hamot may do for either singular or plural, should no interest happen to attach to the distinction. As soon as we say “bone” (aside from its secondary usage to indicate material), we not merely specify the nature of the object but we imply, whether we will or no, that there is but one of these objects to be considered. And this increment of value makes all the difference.

We now know of four distinct formal types of word: A (Nootka hamot); A + (0) (sing, bone); A + (b) (singing); (A) + (b) (Latin hortus). There is but one other type that is fundamentally possible: A + B, the union of two (or more) independently occurring radical elements into a single term. Such a word is the compound fire-engine or a Sioux form equivalent to eat-stand (i.e., “to eat while standing”). It frequently happens, however, that one of the radical elements becomes functionally so subordinated to the other that it takes on the character of a grammatical element. We may symbolize this by A + b, a type that may gradually, by loss of external connection between the subordinated element b and its independent counterpart B merge with the commoner type A + (b). A word like beautiful is an example of A + b, the -ful barely preserving the impress of its lineage. A word like homely, on the other hand, is clearly of the type A + (b), for no one but a linguistic student is aware of the connection between the -ly and the independent word like.

In actual use, of course, these five (or six) fundamental types may be indefinitely complicated in a number of ways. The (0) may have a multiple value; in other words, the inherent formal modification of the basic notion of the word may affect more than one category. In such a Latin word as cor “heart,” for instance, not only is a concrete concept conveyed, but there cling to the form, which is actually shorter than its own radical element (cord-), the three distinct, yet intertwined, formal concepts of singularity, gender classification (neuter), and case (subjective-objective). The complete grammatical formula for cor is, then, A + (0) + (0) + (0), though the merely external, phonetic formula would be (A)—, (A) indicating the abstracted “stem” cord-, the minus sign a loss of material. The significant thing about such a word as cor is that the three conceptual limitations are not merely expressed by implication as the word sinks into place in a sentence; they are tied up, for good and all, within the very vitals of the word and cannot be eliminated by any possibility of usage.

Other complications result from a manifolding of parts. In a given word there may be several elements of the order A (we have already symbolized this by the type A + B), of the order (A), of the order b, and of the order (b). Finally, the various types may be combined among themselves in endless ways. A comparatively simple language like English, or even Latin, illustrates but a modest proportion of these theoretical possibilities. But if we take our examples freely from the vast storehouse of language, from languages exotic as well as from those that we are more familiar with, we shall find that there is hardly a possibility that is not realized in actual usage. One example will do for thousands, one complex type for hundreds of possible types. I select it from Paiute, the language of the Indians of the arid plateaus of southwestern Utah. The word wii-to-kuchum-punku-rügani-yugwi-va-ntü-m(ü) is of unusual length even for its own language, but it is no psychological monster for all that. It means “they who are going to sit and cut up with a knife a black cow (or bull),” or, in the order of the Indian elements, “knife-black-buffalo-pet-cut up-sit(plur.)-future-participle-animate plur.” The formula for this word, in accordance with our symbolism, would be (F) + (E) + C + d + A + B + (g) + (h) + (i) + (0). It is the plural of the future participle of a compound verb “to sit and cut up”—A + B. The elements (g)—which denotes futurity—, (h)—a participial suffix—, and (i)—indicating the animate plural—are grammatical elements which convey nothing when detached. The formula (0) is intended to imply that the finished word conveys, in addition to what is definitely expressed, a further relational idea, that of subjectivity; in other words, the form can only be used as the subject of a sentence, not in an objective or other syntactic relation. The radical element A (“to cut up”), before entering into combination with the coördinate element B (“to sit”), is itself compounded with two nominal elements or element-groups—an instrumentally used stem (F) (“knife”), which may be freely used as the radical element of noun forms but cannot be employed as an absolute noun in its given form, and an objectively used group—(E) + C + d (“black cow or bull”). This group in turn consists of an adjectival radical element (E) (“black”), which cannot be independently employed (the absolute notion of “black” can be rendered only as the participle of a verb: “black-be-ing”), and the compound noun C + d (“buffalo-pet”). The radical element C properly means “buffalo,” but the element d, properly an independently occurring noun meaning “horse” (originally “dog” or “domesticated animal” in general), is regularly used as a quasi-subordinate element indicating that the animal denoted by the stem to which it is affixed is owned by a human being. It will be observed that the whole complex (F) + (E) + C + d + A + B is functionally no more than a verbal base, corresponding to the sing- of an English form like singing; that this complex remains verbal in force on the addition of the temporal element (g)—this (g), by the way, must not be understood as appended to B alone, but to the whole basic complex as a unit—; and that the elements (h) + (i) + (0) transform the verbal expression into a formally well-defined noun.

It is high time that we decided just what is meant by a word. Our first impulse, no doubt, would have been to define the word as the symbolic, linguistic counterpart of a single concept. We now know that such a definition is impossible. In truth it is impossible to define the word from a functional standpoint at all, for the word may be anything from the expression of a single concept—concrete or abstract or purely relational (as in of or by or and)—to the expression of a complete thought (as in Latin dico “I say” or, with greater elaborateness of form, in a Nootka verb form denoting “I have been accustomed to eat twenty round objects [e.g., apples] while engaged in [doing so and so]”). In the latter case the word becomes identical with the sentence. The word is merely a form, a definitely molded entity that takes in as much or as little of the conceptual material of the whole thought as the genius of the language cares to allow. Thus it is that while the single radical elements and grammatical elements, the carriers of isolated concepts, are comparable as we pass from language to language, the finished words are not. Radical (or grammatical) element and sentence—these are the primary functional units of speech, the former as an abstracted minimum, the latter as the esthetically satisfying embodiment of a unified thought. The actual formal units of speech, the words, may on occasion identify themselves with either of the two functional units; more often they mediate between the two extremes, embodying one or more radical notions and also one or more subsidiary ones. We may put the whole matter in a nutshell by saying that the radical and grammatical elements of language, abstracted as they are from the realities of speech, respond to the conceptual world of science, abstracted as it is from the realities of experience, and that the word, the existent unit of living speech, responds to the unit of actually apprehended experience, of history, of art. The sentence is the logical counterpart of the complete thought only if it be felt as made up of the radical and grammatical elements that lurk in the recesses of its words. It is the psychological counterpart of experience, of art, when it is felt, as indeed it normally is, as the finished play of word with word. As the necessity of defining thought solely and exclusively for its own sake becomes more urgent, the word becomes increasingly irrelevant as a means. We can therefore easily understand why the mathematician and the symbolic logician are driven to discard the word and to build up their thought with the help of symbols which have, each of them, a rigidly unitary value.

But is not the word, one may object, as much of an abstraction as the radical element? Is it not as arbitrarily lifted out of the living sentence as is the minimum conceptual element out of the word? Some students of language have, indeed, looked upon the word as such an abstraction, though with very doubtful warrant, it seems to me. It is true that in particular cases, especially in some of the highly synthetic languages of aboriginal America, it is not always easy to say whether a particular element of language is to be interpreted as an independent word or as part of a larger word. These transitional cases, puzzling as they may be on occasion, do not, however, materially weaken the case for the psychological validity of the word. Linguistic experience, both as expressed in standardized, written form and as tested in daily usage, indicates overwhelmingly that there is not, as a rule, the slightest difficulty in bringing the word to consciousness as a psychological reality. No more convincing test could be desired than this, that the naïve Indian, quite unaccustomed to the concept of the written word, has nevertheless no serious difficulty in dictating a text to a linguistic student word by word; he tends, of course, to run his words together as in actual speech, but if he is called to a halt and is made to understand what is desired, he can readily isolate the words as such, repeating them as units. He regularly refuses, on the other hand, to isolate the radical or grammatical element, on the ground that it “makes no sense.”  What, then, is the objective criterion of the word? The speaker and hearer feel the word, let us grant, but how shall we justify their feeling? If function is not the ultimate criterion of the word, what is?


It is easier to ask the question than to answer it. The best that we can do is to say that the word is one of the smallest, completely satisfying bits of isolated “meaning” into which the sentence resolves itself. It cannot be cut into without a disturbance of meaning, one or the other or both of the severed parts remaining as a helpless waif on our hands. In practice this unpretentious criterion does better service than might be supposed. In such a sentence as It is unthinkable, it is simply impossible to group the elements into any other and smaller “words” than the three indicated. Think or thinkable might be isolated, but as neither un- nor -able nor is-un yields a measurable satisfaction, we are compelled to leave unthinkable as an integral whole, a miniature bit of art. Added to the “feel” of the word are frequently, but by no means invariably, certain external phonetic characteristics. Chief of these is accent. In many, perhaps in most, languages the single word is marked by a unifying accent, an emphasis on one of the syllables, to which the rest are subordinated. The particular syllable that is to be so distinguished is dependent, needless to say, on the special genius of the language. The importance of accent as a unifying feature of the word is obvious in such English examples as unthinkable, characterizing. The long Paiute word that we have analyzed is marked as a rigid phonetic unit by several features, chief of which are the accent on its second syllable (wii’-“knife”) and the slurring (“unvoicing,” to use the technical phonetic term) of its final vowel (-mü, animate plural). Such features as accent, cadence, and the treatment of consonants and vowels within the body of a word are often useful as aids in the external demarcation of the word, but they must by no means be interpreted, as is sometimes done, as themselves responsible for its psychological existence. They at best but strengthen a feeling of unity that is already present on other grounds.

We have already seen that the major functional unit of speech, the sentence, has, like the word, a psychological as well as a merely logical or abstracted existence. Its definition is not difficult. It is the linguistic expression of a proposition. It combines a subject of discourse with a statement in regard to this subject. Subject and “predicate” may be combined in a single word, as in Latin dico; each may be expressed independently, as in the English equivalent, I say; each or either may be so qualified as to lead to complex propositions of many sorts. No matter how many of these qualifying elements (words or functional parts of words) are introduced, the sentence does not lose its feeling of unity so long as each and every one of them falls in place as contributory to the definition of either the subject of discourse or the core of the predicate. Such a sentence as The mayor of New York is going to deliver a speech of welcome in French is readily felt as a unified statement, incapable of reduction by the transfer of certain of its elements, in their given form, to the preceding or following sentences. The contributory ideas of of New York, of welcome, and in French may be eliminated without hurting the idiomatic flow of the sentence. The mayor is going to deliver a speech is a perfectly intelligible proposition. But further than this we cannot go in the process of reduction. We cannot say, for instance, Mayor is going to deliver. [8] The reduced sentence resolves itself into the subject of discourse—the mayor—and the predicate—is going to deliver a speech. It is customary to say that the true subject of such a sentence is mayor, the true predicate is going or even is, the other elements being strictly subordinate. Such an analysis, however, is purely schematic and is without psychological value. It is much better frankly to recognize the fact that either or both of the two terms of the sentence-proposition may be incapable of expression in the form of single words. There are languages that can convey all that is conveyed by The-mayor is-going-to-deliver-a-speech in two words, a subject word and a predicate word, but English is not so highly synthetic. The point that we are really making here is that underlying the finished sentence is a living sentence type, of fixed formal characteristics. These fixed types or actual sentence-groundworks may be freely overlaid by such additional matter as the speaker or writer cares to put on, but they are themselves as rigidly “given” by tradition as are the radical and grammatical elements abstracted from the finished word. New words may be consciously created from these fundamental elements on the analogy of old ones, but hardly new types of words. In the same way new sentences are being constantly created, but always on strictly traditional lines. The enlarged sentence, however, allows as a rule of considerable freedom in the handling of what may be called “unessential” parts. It is this margin of freedom which gives us the opportunity of individual style.

The habitual association of radical elements, grammatical elements, words, and sentences with concepts or groups of concepts related into wholes is the fact itself of language. It is important to note that there is in all languages a certain randomness of association. Thus, the idea of “hide” may be also expressed by the word “conceal,” the notion of “three times” also by “thrice.” The multiple expression of a single concept is universally felt as a source of linguistic strength and variety, not as a needless extravagance. More irksome is a random correspondence between idea and linguistic expression in the field of abstract and relational concepts, particularly when the concept is embodied in a grammatical element. Thus, the randomness of the expression of plurality in such words as books, oxen, sheep, and geese is felt to be rather more, I fancy, an unavoidable and traditional predicament than a welcome luxuriance. It is obvious that a language cannot go beyond a certain point in this randomness. Many languages go incredibly far in this respect, it is true, but linguistic history shows conclusively that sooner or later the less frequently occurring associations are ironed out at the expense of the more vital ones. In other words, all languages have an inherent tendency to economy of expression. Were this tendency entirely inoperative, there would be no grammar. The fact of grammar, a universal trait of language, is simply a generalized expression of the feeling that analogous concepts and relations are most conveniently symbolized in analogous forms. Were a language ever completely “grammatical,” it would be a perfect engine of conceptual expression. Unfortunately, or luckily, no language is tyrannically consistent. All grammars leak.

Up to the present we have been assuming that the material of language reflects merely the world of concepts and, on what I have ventured to call the “pre-rational” plane, of images, which are the raw material of concepts. We have, in other words, been assuming that language moves entirely in the ideational or cognitive sphere. It is time that we amplified the picture. The volitional aspect of consciousness also is to some extent explicitly provided for in language. Nearly all languages have special means for the expression of commands (in the imperative forms of the verb, for example) and of desires, unattained or unattainable (Would he might come! or Would he were here!) The emotions, on the whole, seem to be given a less adequate outlet. Emotion, indeed, is proverbially inclined to speechlessness. Most, if not all, the interjections are to be put to the credit of emotional expression, also, it may be, a number of linguistic elements expressing certain modalities, such as dubitative or potential forms, which may be interpreted as reflecting the emotional states of hesitation or doubt—attenuated fear. On the whole, it must be admitted that ideation reigns supreme in language, that volition and emotion come in as distinctly secondary factors. This, after all, is perfectly intelligible. The world of image and concept, the endless and ever-shifting picture of objective reality, is the unavoidable subject-matter of human communication, for it is only, or mainly, in terms of this world that effective action is possible. Desire, purpose, emotion are the personal color of the objective world; they are applied privately by the individual soul and are of relatively little importance to the neighboring one. All this does not mean that volition and emotion are not expressed. They are, strictly speaking, never absent from normal speech, but their expression is not of a truly linguistic nature. The nuances of emphasis, tone, and phrasing, the varying speed and continuity of utterance, the accompanying bodily movements, all these express something of the inner life of impulse and feeling, but as these means of expression are, at last analysis, but modified forms of the instinctive utterance that man shares with the lower animals, they cannot be considered as forming part of the essential cultural conception of language, however much they may be inseparable from its actual life. And this instinctive expression of volition and emotion is, for the most part, sufficient, often more than sufficient, for the purposes of communication.

There are, it is true, certain writers on the psychology of language  who deny its prevailingly cognitive character but attempt, on the contrary, to demonstrate the origin of most linguistic elements within the domain of feeling. I confess that I am utterly unable to follow them. What there is of truth in their contentions may be summed up, it seems to me, by saying that most words, like practically all elements of consciousness, have an associated feeling-tone, a mild, yet none the less real and at times insidiously powerful, derivative of pleasure or pain. This feeling-tone, however, is not as a rule an inherent value in the word itself; it is rather a sentimental growth on the word’s true body, on its conceptual kernel. Not only may the feeling-tone change from one age to another (this, of course, is true of the conceptual content as well), but it varies remarkably from individual to individual according to the personal associations of each, varies, indeed, from time to time in a single individual’s consciousness as his experiences mold him and his moods change. To be sure, there are socially accepted feeling-tones, or ranges of feeling-tone, for many words over and above the force of individual association, but they are exceedingly variable and elusive things at best. They rarely have the rigidity of the central, primary fact. We all grant, for instance, that storm, tempest, and hurricane, quite aside from their slight differences of actual meaning, have distinct feeling-tones, tones that are felt by all sensitive speakers and readers of English in a roughly equivalent fashion. Storm, we feel, is a more general and a decidedly less “magnificent” word than the other two; tempest is not only associated with the sea but is likely, in the minds of many, to have obtained a softened glamour from a specific association with Shakespeare’s great play; hurricane has a greater forthrightness, a directer ruthlessness than its synonyms. Yet the individual’s feeling-tones for these words are likely to vary enormously. To some tempest and hurricane may seem “soft,” literary words, the simpler storm having a fresh, rugged value which the others do not possess (think of storm and stress). If we have browsed much in our childhood days in books of the Spanish Main, hurricane is likely to have a pleasurably bracing tone; if we have had the misfortune to be caught in one, we are not unlikely to feel the word as cold, cheerless, sinister.

The feeling-tones of words are of no use, strictly speaking, to science; the philosopher, if he desires to arrive at truth rather than merely to persuade, finds them his most insidious enemies. But man is rarely engaged in pure science, in solid thinking. Generally his mental activities are bathed in a warm current of feeling and he seizes upon the feeling-tones of words as gentle aids to the desired excitation. They are naturally of great value to the literary artist. It is interesting to note, however, that even to the artist they are a danger. A word whose customary feeling-tone is too unquestioningly accepted becomes a plushy bit of furniture, a cliché. Every now and then the artist has to fight the feeling-tone, to get the word to mean what it nakedly and conceptually should mean, depending for the effect of feeling on the creative power of an individual juxtaposition of concepts or images.

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