Elements of Fiction

Language Roots:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

All quotes are by Edward Sapir:

“Language in its fundamental forms is the symbolic expressions of human intuitions.”

“Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.”

“[An] ‘element’ of experience is the content or ‘meaning’ of the linguistic unit.”

“The essence of language consists in the assigning of conventional, voluntarily articulated, sounds, or of their equivalents, to the diverse elements of experience.”

“The fundamental groundwork of language — the development of a clear-cut phonetic system, the specific association of speech elements with concepts, and the delicate provision for the formal expression of all manner of relations — all this meets us rigidly perfected and systemized in every language known to us.”

“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 whole.”

“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.”

“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) elements 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 the 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.” [My italics — UW]

“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.”

“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 disturbance of meaning.”

“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.”

“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.”

“The multiple expression of a single concept is universally felt as a source of linguistic strength and variety, not as a needless extravagance.”

“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.”

“It must be admitted that ideation reigns supreme in language, that volition and emotion come in as distinctly secondary factors. . . . The world of image and concept, 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.”

“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.”

“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 the 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 unquestionably 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.”

“The mere phonetic framework of speech does not constitute the inner fact of language and . . . the single sound of articulated speech is not, as such, a linguistic element at all.”

“Every language possesses one or more formal methods for indicating the relation of a secondary concept to the main concept of the radical element. Some of these grammatical processes, like suffixing, are exceedingly wide-spread; others, like vocalic change, are less common but far from rare; still others, like accent and consonantal change, are somewhat exceptional as functional processes.”

“Let us now take up a little more systematically, however briefly, the various grammatical processes that linguistic research has established. They may be grouped into six main types: word order; composition; affixation, including the use of prefixes, suffixes, and infixes; internal modification of the radical or grammatical element, whether this affects a vowel or a consonant; reduplication; and accentual differences, whether dynamic (stress) or tonal (pitch). There are also special quantitative processes, like vocalic lengthening or shortening and consonantal doubling, but these may be looked upon as particular sub-types of the process of internal modification.” [My italics — UW]

“The simplest, at least the most economical, method of conveying some sort of grammatical notion is to juxtapose two or more words in a definite sequence without making any attempt by inherent modification of these words to establish a connection between them.” [My italics — UW]

“It is psychologically impossible to hear or see the two words [sing praise] juxtaposed without straining to give them some measure of coherent significance. . . . as soon as two or more radical concepts are put before the human mind in immediate sequence it strives to bind them together with connecting values of some sort.”

“It depends entirely on the genius of the particular language what function is inherently involved in a given sequence of words.”

Composition, the uniting into a single word of two or more radical elements.” [My italics — UW]

“Psychologically this process is closely allied to that of word order in so far as the relation between the elements is implied, not explicitly stated. It differs from the mere juxtaposition of words in the sentence in that the compounded elements are felt as constituting but parts of a single word-organism.”

“In a great many languages composition is confined to what we may call the delimiting function, that is, of the two or more compounded elements one is given a more precisely qualified significance by the others. . . . In English, the qualifying element regularly precedes.”

“Of all grammatical processes affixing is incomparably the most frequently employed.” [My italics — UW]

“Of the three types of affixing — the use of prefixes, suffixes, and infixes — suffixing is much the commonest.” [My italics — UW]

“Indeed, it is a fair guess that suffixes do more of the formative work of language than all other methods combined.”

“A subsidiary but by no means unimportant grammatical process is that of internal vocalic or consonantal change.” [My italics — UW]

“In some languages, as in English (sing, sang, sung, song; goose, geese), the former of these has become one of the major methods of indicating fundamental changes of grammatical function.”

“Nothing is more natural than reduplication, in other words, the repetition of all or part of the radical element.”

“The subtlest of all grammatical processes, variations in accent, whether of stress or pitch.”

“The chief difficulty in isolating accent as a functional process is that it is so often combined with alternations in vocalic quantity or quality or complicated by the presence of affixed elements that its grammatical value appears as a secondary rather than a primary feature.”

“The single word expresses either a simple concept or a combination of concepts so interrelated as to form a psychological unit.”

“It would be impossible for any language to express every concrete idea by an independent word or radical element. The concreteness of experience is infinite, the resources of the richest language are strictly limited. It must perforce throw countless concepts under the rubric of certain basic ones, using other concrete or semi-concrete ideas as functional mediators.”

“The ideas expressed by these mediating elements — they may be independent words, affixes, or modifications of the radical element — may be called ‘derivational’ or ‘qualifying.’”

“Corresponding to these two modes of expression we have two types of concepts and of linguistic elements, radical (farm, kill, duck) and derivational (-er, -ling).”

“It is rather the tyranny of usage than the need of their concrete expression that sways us in the selection of this or that form.”

“The form tends to linger on when the spirit has flown or changed its being.”

“Irrational form, form for form’s sake — however we term this tendency to hold on to formal distinctions once they have come to be — is as natural to the life of a language as is the retention of modes of conduct that have long outlived the meaning they once had.”

“In dealing with words and their varying forms we have to anticipate much that concerns the sentence as a whole. Every language has its special method or methods of binding words into a larger unity. The importance of these methods is apt to vary with the complexity of the individual word. The more synthetic the language, in other words, the more clearly the status of each word in the sentence is indicated by its own resources, the less need is there for looking beyond the word to the sentence as a whole.”

“The Latin sentence speaks with the assurance of its individual members, the English word needs the prompting of its fellows.”

“The most fundamental and the most powerful of all relating methods is the method of order.”

“The very process of juxtaposing concept to concept, symbol to symbol, forces some kind of relational ‘feeling,’ if nothing else, upon us.”

“Words and elements, then, once they are listed in a certain order, tend not only to establish some kind of relation among themselves but are attracted to each other in greater or in less degree.”

“Stress is the most natural means at our disposal to emphasize a linguistic contrast, to indicate the major element in a sequence.”

“It is somewhat venturesome and yet not an altogether unreasonable speculation that sees in word order and stress the primary methods for the expression of all syntactic relations and looks upon the present relational value of specific words and elements as but a secondary condition due to a transfer of values.”

“If we are actually justified in assuming that the expression of all syntactic relations is ultimately traceable to these two unavoidable, dynamic features of speech — sequence and stress (very likely pitch should be understood along with stress) — an interesting thesis results: All of the actual content of speech, its clusters of vocalic and consonantal sounds, is in origin limited to the concrete; relations were originally not expressed in outward form but were merely implied and articulated with the help of order and rhythm.” [My italics — UW]

“At some point or other order asserts itself in every language as the most fundamental of relating principles.”

“Our conventional classification of words into parts of speech is only a vague, wavering approximation to a consistently worked out inventory of experience.”

“It is merely a matter of English or of general Indio-European idiom that we cannot say ‘it reds’ in the sense of ‘it is red.’ There are hundreds of languages that can.”

“The ‘parts of speech’ reflects not so much our intuitive analysis of reality as our ability to compose that reality into a variety of formal patterns. A part of speech outside of the limitations of syntactic form is but a will o’ the wisp. For this reason no logical scheme of the parts of speech — their number, nature, and necessary confines — is of the slightest interest to the linguist. Each language has its own scheme. Everything depends on the formal demarcations which it recognizes.”

“No language wholly fails to distinguish noun and verb, though in particular cases the nature of the distinction may be an elusive one. It is different with the other parts of speech. Not one of them is imperatively required for the life of language.”

“It must be obvious to any one who has thought about the question at all or who has felt something of the spirit of a foreign language that there is such a thing as a basic plan, a certain cut, to each language.”

“This type or plan or structural ‘genius’ of the language is something much more fundamental, much more pervasive, than any single feature of it that we can mention, nor can we gain an adequate idea of its nature by a mere recital of the sundry facts that make up the grammar of the language.”

“When we pass from Latin to Russian, we feel that it is approximately the same horizon that bounds our view, even though the near, familiar landmarks have changed. When we come to English, we seem to notice that the hills have dipped down a little, yet we recognize the general lay of the land. And when we arrive at Chinese, it is an utterly different sky that is looking down upon us.”

“Languages, traveling along different roads, have tended to converge toward similar forms.”

“Back of the face of history are powerful drifts that move language, like other social products, to balanced patterns, in other words, to types. As linguists we shall be content to realize that there are these types and that certain processes in the life of a language tend to modify them. Why similar types should be formed, just what is the nature of the forces that make them and dissolve them — these questions are more easily asked than answered.”

“A linguist that insists on talking about the Latin type of morphology as though it were the high-water mark of linguistic development is like the zoologist that sees in the organic world a huge conspiracy to evolve the race-horse or the Jersey cow.”

“All languages have the resources at their disposal for the creation of new words, should need for them arise.”

“Every language can and must express the fundamental syntactic relations even though there is not a single affix to be found in its vocabulary.”

“Chinese . . . has no formal elements pure and simple, no ‘outer form,’ but it evidences a keen sense of relations, of the difference between subject and object, attribute and predicate, and so on. In other words, it has an ‘inner form’ in the same sense in which Latin possesses it, though it is outwardly ‘formless’ where Latin is outwardly ‘formal.’”

“In spite of my reluctance to emphasize the difference between a prefixing and a suffixing language, I feel that there is more involved in this difference than linguists have generally recognized. It seems to me that there is a rather important psychological distinction between a language that settles the formal status of a radical element before announcing it — and this, in effect, is what such languages as Tlingit and Chinook and Bantu are in the habit of doing — and one that begins with the concrete nucleus of a word and defines that status of this nucleus by successive limitations, each curtailing in some degree the generality of all that precedes. The spirit of the former methods has something diagrammatic or architectural about it, the latter is a method of pruning afterthoughts. In the more highly wrought prefixing languages the word is apt to affect us as a crystallization of floating elements, the words of the typical suffixing languages (Turkish, Eskimo, Nootka) are ‘determinative’ formations, each added element determining the form of the whole anew.”

“An analytic language is one that either does not combine concept into single words at all (Chinese) or does so economically (English, French). In an analytic language the sentence is always of prime importance, the word is of minor interest. In a synthetic language (Latin, Arabic, Finnish) the concepts cluster more thickly, the words are more richly chambered, but there is a tendency, on the whole, to keep the range of concrete significance in the single word down to a moderate compass. A polysynthetic language, as it name implies, is more than ordinarily synthetic. The elaboration of the word is extreme.”



Raised by trolls in northern Sweden, now settled on the California coast a stone’s throw south of the Oregon border. Here I meditate and write. Wolfstuff.com.

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Ulf Wolf

Raised by trolls in northern Sweden, now settled on the California coast a stone’s throw south of the Oregon border. Here I meditate and write. Wolfstuff.com.