Noam’s Ark

Walter Nash

  • The Twitter Machine: Reflections on Language by Neil Smith
    Blackwell, 275 pp, £9.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 631 16926 1
  • English in Use by Randolph Quirk and Gabriele Stein
    Longman, 262 pp, £17.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 582 06612 3

Die Zwitscher-Maschine is the title of a picture by Paul Klee, and a most beguiling picture it is: beaky, joky, reticular line-drawing on washes of demurest blue and rose, a sort of grave man’s Rowland Emmett. It makes a pleasant cover illustration for Neil Smith’s collection of propaedeutic papers on linguistics, providing a title for the book and a humorous gloss on the text, the first in a series of playful images and allusions deftly exploited by Professor Smith as he attempts to introduce his readers – defined as ‘outsiders’ and ‘beginning insiders’ – to the intricate delights and perplexities of his subject. Like most emblems, however, this cover motif is susceptible to diverse interpretations. For what, after all, is ‘The Twitter Machine’? Is it the human mind, which, to borrow a phrase from Louis MacNeice, ‘clicks like scissors’, snipping out instructions for the creation of language? Does it refer to what most of us mean by ‘language’, the working components, audible or visible, of speech and writing? Or might it be a merry metaphor for the operations of linguistic science?

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[*] A further collaboration should be noted: A Student’s Grammar of the English Language by Sidney Greenbaum and Randolph Quirk was published by Longman on 30 July (490 pp., £18.50 and £12.95, 0 582 07569 6).