Language is the expression of thought by means of spoken or written words. The English word language comes (through the French langue) from the Latin lingua - the tongue. But the tongue is not the only organ used in speaking. The lips, the teeth, the roof of the mouth, the soft palate (or uvula), the nose and the vocal chords all help to produce the sounds of which language consists. These various organs make up one delicate and complicated piece of mechanism upon which the breath of the speaker acts like that of a musician upon a clarinet or other wind instrument.
Spoken language is composed of a great variety of sounds made with the vocal organs. A word may consist of one sound (as Ah! or O or I), but most words consist of two or more different sounds (as go, see, try, finish). Long or short, however, a word is merely a sign made to express thought.
Thought may be imperfectly expressed by signs made with the head, the hands, etc. Thus, if I grasp a person’s arm and point to a dog, he may understand me to ask, “Do you see that dog?" And his nod in reply may stand for “Yes, I see him." But any dialogue carried on in this way must be both fragmentary and uncertain. To express our thoughts fully, freely and accurately, we must use words - that is….signs made with the voice. Such voice-signs have had meanings associated with them by custom or tradition, so that their sense is at once understood by all. Their advantage is twofold…..they are far more numerous and varied than other signs and the meanings attached to them are much more definite than those of nods and gestures.
Written words are signs made with the pen to represent and recall to the mind the spoken words (or voice-signs). Written language (that is, composition) must, of necessity, be somewhat fuller than spoken language as well as more formal and exact. For the reader’s understanding is not assisted by the tones of the voice, the changing expressions of the face and the lively gestures which help to make spoken language intelligible.
Most words are the signs of definite ideas. Thus, Charles, captain, cat, mouse, bread, stone, cup, ink, call up images or pictures of persons or things; strike, dive, climb, dismount, express particular kinds of action; green, blue, careless, rocky, triangular, muscular, enable us to describe objects with accuracy. Even general terms like goodness, truth, courage, cowardice, generosity, have sufficiently precise meanings, for they name qualities or traits of character with which everybody is familiar.
By the use of such words, even when not combined in groups, we can express our thoughts much more satisfactorily than by mere gestures. The utterance of the single word “Charles!" may signify…“Hullo, Charles! Are you here? I am surprised to see you." “Bread!" may suggest to the hearer….“Give me bread! I am very hungry." “Courage!" may be almost equivalent to, “Don’t be down-hearted! Your troubles will soon be over."
Language, however, is not confined to the utterance of single words. To express our thoughts we must put words together. We must combine them into groups and such groups have settled meanings (just as words have), established (like the meanings of single words) by the customs or habits of the particular language that we are speaking or writing. Further, these groups are not thrown together haphazard. We must construct them in accordance with certain fixed rules. Otherwise we shall fail to express ourselves clearly and acceptably and we may even succeed in saying the opposite of what we mean.
In constructing these groups (which we call phrases, clauses and sentences) we have the aid of a large number of short words like and, if, by, to, in, is and was which are very different from the definite and picturesque words that we have just examined. They do not call up distinct images in the mind and we should find it hard to define any of them. Yet their importance in the expression of thought is clear…for they serve to join other words together and to show their relation to each other in those groups which make up connected speech.
Thus, BOX HEAVY conveys some meaning…but “The box is heavy" is a clear and definite statement. The shows that some particular box is meant and is enables us to make an assertion about it. And, in “Charles and John are my brothers," indicates that Charles and John are closely connected in my thought and that what I say of one applies also to the other. If, in “If Charles comes, I shall be glad to see him," connects two statements and shows that one of them is a mere supposition (for Charles may or may not come).
In grouping words, our language has three different ways of indicating their relations.
(1) The forms of the words themselves
(2) Their order
(3) The use of little words like and, if, is, etc.
Change of Form :
Words may change their form. Thus…
The word boy becomes boys when more than one is meant.
Kill becomes killed when past time is referred to.
Was becomes were when we are speaking of two or more persons or things.
Fast becomes faster when a higher degree of speed is indicated.
Such change of form is called inflection and the word is said to be inflected.
Inflection is an important means of showing the relations of words in connected speech. In “Henry’s racket weighs fourteen ounces," the form Henry’s shows at once the relation between Henry and the racket,—namely, that Henry owns or possesses it. The word Henry, then, may change its form to Henry’s to indicate ownership or possession.
Order of Words :
In “John struck Charles," the way in which the words are arranged shows who it was that struck and who received the blow. Change the order of words to “Charles struck John," and the meaning is reversed. It is, then, the order that shows the relation of John to struck and of struck to Charles.
Use of Other Words :
Compare the two sentences.
The train from Boston has just arrived.
The train for Boston has just arrived.
Here from and for show the relation between the train and Boston. “The Boston train" might mean either the train from Boston or the train for Boston. By using from or for we make the sense unmistakable.
Two matters, then, are of vital importance in language…..the forms of words and the relations of words. The science which treats of these two matters is called grammar.
Inflection is a change in the form of a word indicating some change in its meaning. The relation in which a word stands to other words in the sentence is called its construction. Grammar is the science which treats of the forms and the constructions of words. Syntax is that department of grammar which treats of the constructions of words. Grammar, then, may be said to concern itself with two main subjects - inflection and syntax.
English belongs to a family of languages - the Indo-European Family - which is rich in forms of inflection. This richness may be seen in other members of the family such as Greek or Latin. The Latin word homo, “man," for example, has eight different inflectional forms,—homo, “a man"; hominis, “of a man"; homini, “to a man," and so on. Thus, in Latin, the grammatical construction of a word is, in general, shown by that particular inflectional ending (or termination) which it has in any particular sentence.
In the Anglo-Saxon period, English was likewise well furnished with such inflectional endings, though not so abundantly as Latin. Many of these, however, had disappeared by Chaucer’s time (1340–1400) and still others have since been lost, so that modern English is one of the least inflected of languages. Such losses are not to be lamented. By due attention to the order of words, and by using of, to, for, from, in, and the like, we can express all the relations denoted by the ancient inflections. The gain in simplicity is enormous.
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