Roy Harris

Roy Harris is Professor of General Linguistics at Oxford and a Fellow of Worcester College. His book The Language-Makers was published earlier this year.


Roy Harris, 21 February 1985

On 10 May 1933 an undergraduate at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, wrote in her diary a description of the clothes she was wearing on that sultry summer’s day. The description includes the phrase blue celanese trollies. The diary entry in question was not published until 1984, by which time the diarist, Barbara Pym, had become a cult figure in English literary circles. By that time, too, the words blue celanese trollies needed translation. Neither celanese nor that particular meaning of trolley are to be found in the recent Longman Dictionary (the phrase being roughly equivalent for later generations to blue artificial silk knickers, blue nylon pants or blue synthetic briefs). The passage of time both makes the philologist’s lot, and makes it a difficult one. The chronological hiccough between Barbara Pym’s diary entry and its eventual publication also succeeded in outdating the entry trolley in Partridge, where it is described as a word for underpants in the 1950s, possibly emanating from the Royal Navy. History is a hard taskmaster for lexicographers, if history’s faithful servitors they aim to be. More frustrating still, Miss Pym’s late contribution to our knowledge of the terminology of 20th-century underwear still leaves us without a glimmer of an answer to the question: ‘But why trollies?’

What was meant by what was said

Roy Harris, 20 September 1984

The picture on the dust-jacket of Language, Sense and Nonsense is a 17th-century allegory by Laurent de la Hire. It shows Grammar as a lady seriously engaged in watering some rather spindly potted plants. In her left hand she holds what looks like a very long tape-measure, bearing the words vox litterata et articulata debito modo pronuntiata. Presumably this tape-measure is for checking inch by inch the growth of her diminutive and sickly-looking horticultural specimens. For Grammar in the 17th century, that is fair enough. But in the 20th century the allegory would need to be painted rather differently. Grammar would not need a watering-can at all. The spindly plants would give way to a luxuriance of hothouse foliage, and the tape-measure would have to be calibrated to measure the proliferation of nonsense. That is approximately the canvas sketched in by artists Baker and Hacker.

All my eye and Betty Martin

Roy Harris, 1 December 1983

Lexicographical apparatus, as Walter Ong recently reminded us in Orality and Literacy, was ‘a very late accretion to language as language’. It was also quite a profitable accretion for at least two classes of language-user: printers and publishers. It still is, to judge by the way dictionaries continue to proliferate. One gets the impression that the dictionary industry has rarely been in finer fettle since the invention of alphabetical order. Looking back over the industry’s history, what is perhaps surprising is how long it took for anyone to realise that the combination of alphabetic sequence and lexical entry provides the book-production party with a winning ticket that outdreams all the Kinnocks-and-Hattersleys. (When will they commission a Dictionary of Ephemeral References? It will come, never fear.) For there is literally no end to the list of potential subjects eligible for the dictionary treatment.

From Adam to Aarsleff

Roy Harris, 19 August 1982

The modest title of Hans Aarsleff’s book From Locke to Saussure conceals, among other things, the fact that it goes a long way beyond Saussure. Its implications reach right down to linguistic controversies which continue unabated at the present day. The 14 essays presented in this volume undoubtedly include what must, by any standards, rank among the most stimulating writing on language and European thought to have been published during the past quarter of a century. It is lucid, informative, profound, provocative and well-argued. Throughout it manifests a breadth of reading and depth of erudition of formidable extent. What is more important still is that it must, if Aarsleff is right, radically alter our understanding of the intellectual history of modern linguistics. And that means our grasp of the world of ideas in which we live. Few will disagree with Aarsleff that the history of the study of language is both a legitimate subject in its own right and itself a contribution to our understanding of language. Indeed, the claim is understated. Some readers, among whom I include myself, would want to press a much stronger case for the importance of this particular subject: namely, that, for lack of understanding of its own ancestry, much of what passes for contemporary linguistics is in a state of deep-seated philosophical confusion.

Scoring the language game

Roy Harris, 15 October 1981

Language is one of those subjects on which it is almost impossible nowadays to say anything worth saying which is not highly controversial. That is why it takes a brave man like Professor Lyons to attempt a book which, in less than four hundred pages, aims to provide a ‘general introduction to linguistics and the study of language, intended particularly for beginning students and readers with no previous knowledge of or training in the subject’. Thirty years ago, the task would have been comparatively straightforward. Today it is Herculean.

Where structuralism comes from

John Sturrock, 2 February 1984

With Chomsky seemingly off the stage – exit left, the script reads, brooding on the sins of American foreign policy – it is now or never for Ferdinand de Saussure to take his place....

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Linguistics demythologised

Michael Dummett, 19 August 1982

This book, a follow-up to the same author’s The Language Makers, published in 1980, is a wholesale onslaught on ‘orthodox modern linguistics’. It is, and is meant to be,...

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Language Questions

Barbara Strang, 17 July 1980

Professor Roy Harris’s The Language Makers is the natural starting-point. His book comes oddly naked into the world: we have no statement about the aims or intended audience, no listing or...

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