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[The Algonkian languages are particularly characterized by the extended use of compounded verbal stems.] Every stem is stamped with the quality of abstract meaning: the notion of some stems is so vague and so volatile, as they stand in detached form, as to seem almost void of tangible sense. Some stems can be analyzed into elements that have at most the feeblest kind of sense; it is only as they stand in compound form that they take on a social meaning. It is not altogether clear how these stems, so vague and subtle as they stand alone, can convey the sensuous notions that they do when thrown together into a group; how, for example, an initial stem introduces a general notion, and forms a group complete in statement but incomplete in sense, as when in composition it terminates with only a pronominal ending. Yet such a group can be of sufficiently frequent use as to become an idiom; in that case it takes on an added sense, which is due not so much perhaps to the inherent meaning of the combined stem and pronoun as to an acquired association with a particular activity. The psychological peculiarity of the process is more marked in the wider developments, as when initial and secondary stems combine for the larger groups. The components seem to stand toward each other in the position of qualifiers, the sense of the one qualifying the sense of the other with an effect of directing the meaning toward a particular direction. But, whatever the influence at work, the result is a specialization of meaning, not only of the single member of the group, but of all the members as they stand together with reference to one another. The stems seem charged with a latent meaning which becomes evident only when they appear in certain relations; out of those relations they stand like empty symbols. It is important to emphasize the fact that the order of stems in a group is psychologically fixed. Some stems precede and others follow, not with a freedom of position and not in a haphazard manner, but with a consecutive sequence that is maintained from beginning to end with a firm stability.

The following examples illustrate these principles of composition:

poni is an initial stem signifying No MORE, NO LONGER: its original sense comes out best by adding the terminal animate pronoun, and making poniwa. The group means that one has been previously engaged in an activity, and has now come into a state of cessation, making altogether a rather vague statement, as it stands unrelated to anything else. But travel has made a figure of speech of it, and it has come to be the particular idiom for ONE CAMPS, ONE GOES INTO CAMP. . . .

An initial stem, pag-, has the general sense of STRIKING AGAINST SOMETHING; akw- is a secondary stem denoting RESISTANCE, and so pagakw- is TO STRIKE AGAINST A RESISTANCE. The stem -tun- is a mobile secondary stem denoting the special notion of PLACE ABOUT A CAVITY, and has become a special term indicating THE PLACE ABOUT THE MOUTH; and so pagakwituna- is TO STRIKE AGAINST A RESISTANCE AT A POINT ON THE MOUTH. . . .

Again, -cin- is a secondary coordinative stem, and refers to change from motion to rest, but leaves the character and duration of the change to be inferred from the implications of the stems that precede; furthermore, it indicates that the performer is animate, and serves as a link between the terminal pronoun and what precedes; and so pagakwitunacinwa is a definite statement meaning that one strikes against a resistance and is brought for a time at least to a condition of rest. HE BUMPS HIMSELF ON THE MOUTH and HE BUMPS HIS MOUTH would be two ways of putting the same thing in English.1

It will be noticed from this passage that habit formation, the repetition of an activity in a given situation, determines the concrete meaning in the long run. "Animate-moving-stops" means eventually "to camp" because that meaning became fashionable. Similarly, "animate-moving-cavity-resistance-cessation" becomes conventionally, "he was stopped by a blow on the mouth." In the same language kiweskwapyawa, meaning generally "he is in a state of aimless movement in the region about the neck and head" becomes idiomatically "he is drunk."2

From the portions I have italicized in the passage from Jones it will be noticed also that the collective dependency among the elements in the word sentence may be compared with the "collective consciousness" in human groups which was termed "gregarious" by Rivers in the preceding chapter and is described as "mystic participation" by Durkheim and Lévy-Bruhl. But quite contrary to this, the unconscious cooperative dependency of individuals in group activity, like the dependency of sounds in groups of sounds, gets its meaning through habit formation.

In many linguistic groups there is a far-reaching discriminative particularization of meanings and relationships, with different degrees of emphasis on different aspects of the situation described and on the relation of the speaker to the situation, indicating that the attention, whether physiologically or consciously, has been engaged by this or that aspect of the total situation. And the linguistic particularization of detail in one direction will mean the neglect of other aspects of the situation.

1Jones, W.n/an/an/an/an/a, "Algonkian (Fox)," in Boas, . . . , 1: 759–761.

2Ibid., 1: 794.


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Chicago: Boas, ed., "Handbook," Handbook in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=23H25VAGPDDPVFV.

MLA: . "Handbook." Handbook, edited by Boas, Vol. 1, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=23H25VAGPDDPVFV.

Harvard: (ed.), 'Handbook' in Handbook. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=23H25VAGPDDPVFV.