Language Questions

Barbara Strang

  • The Language-Makers by Roy Harris
    Duckworth, 194 pp, £15.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1430 4
  • Beyond the Letter: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Ambiguity, Vagueness and Metaphor in Language by Israel Scheffler
    Routledge, 146 pp, £8.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0315 3
  • Linguistic Perspectives on Literature edited by Marvin Ching, Michael Haley and Ronald Lunsford
    Routledge, 332 pp, £9.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0382 X

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 titling (let alone running titles) of chapters, only the sketchiest of indexes to suggest what topics have been covered. It therefore behoves the reviewer to start with an account of what the objectives seem to have been. The book is centrally concerned to demonstrate that the question ‘What is a language?’ – strange and probably wrong-headed favourite of the professional linguist – has been persistently misapprehended as being capable of a culture neutral answer. Bad, however, as the question is, it can at least claim priority over what, if the concept of a language is not culture-neutral, must be a non question: ‘What is language?’ The theme is explored in relation to familiar modes of speculation about language, from the Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian origins of our own traditions to the present day, with glances at more exotic traditions as evidence of how differently the issues might have been identified and tackled. Particular prominence is given to the causal relationship between social needs and the kinds of presupposition built into the linguistic questions any one culture asks, or fails to ask.

The emergence of such speculation in the European tradition is interpreted as a consequence of political change, specifically as a result of the pressures put on the ancient Greek educational system by the switch from early monarchical and oligarchical forms of government to the participatory democracy of the fifth-century BC city-states. New modes of assumption and speculation follow other political and social developments, a key stage in the formation of the modern linguistic mind being Renaissance nationalism. To this, after diverse excursions, the dominant traditions of the last generation have reverted. Prominent here is the insistence on the species-specific status of language – an ancient view reiterated in every century since Isocrates, but new in its import because now it involves denial of extensive and conclusive evidence of linguistic behaviour in non-human animals. For this ostrich-like attitude among certain linguists an explanation is found in the post-war Western social, political and intellectual climate: the tension between superpowers, the availability of weapons for universal destruction, together with pervasive moral doubts and consciousness of social failure, setting up unprecedented and partly conflicting pressures. ‘How the concept of language can fulfil a role consistent with these conflicting demands upon it remains the underlying dilemma of contemporary linguistics.’

Now that is a very challenging idea, and perhaps Professor Harris was right not to specify his readership, for his theme is one any intelligent person should be interested in. It is, I hardly need say, a theory of such a kind that one cannot say what would count as proof or disproof of it. Just as well, for if our questions and answers are as closely determined by our culture as some of Professor Harris’s words suggest, then those of us drawing a salary as professors of linguistics are in pretty equivocal position; but of course he does not hold this extreme view, for according to it he would not be able to provide so detached a perspective as he does.

The book displays erudition of rare breadth, aptly deployed; it is written crisply and wittily (a pity it is so expensive). There is something rather treacherous in its readability. Take the title: language as a determinant of a compound neutralises the contrast between language and a language, and therefore the title cannot be understood by those who look no further, the ambiguity is then increased (perhaps not altogether deliberately) by ambivalence between a language and (the users’) concept of a language; then again, though it is claimed that ‘a language-user (sc. linguist ex officio) already has the only concept of a language worth having’, in tact the evolving concepts traced are those that surface in the formulations of ‘experts’ and thinkers, from Plato to Chomsky. This would not matter it covert and overt linguistic theories in a single culture were similar, but notoriously they are not, and indeed Harris makes use of the difference in contrasting the generally pretheoretical semantics of monoglot dictionaries (above all, of ditionary-users) with the explicit theories of linguists in all ages since the dictionary became a major cultural force.

What is most impressive is the comprehensive view of the European or Western tradition (these terms being rather loosely used and equated). Certain assumptions are seen as due to its bias: e.g. that languages are translatable. Unfortunately Harris’s claim that empiricism would not lead to such a belief does not hold water, and this weakens his attack on the notion that there is such a thing as language, with universal properties. European linguistic theories are classified as mainly surrogational or instrumental. The former, holding words to be tokens of things outside of inside language, is pervasive and takes many forms, the varieties of nomenclaturism prominent among them. It words are typically names of things, they may bear a natural or an arbitrary relationship to these things that are prior to them. Exponents of the range of surrogational views are demolished one by one – with, alas, some tendency to the choosing of Aunt Sallies.

Professor Scheffler’s book. Beyond the Letter, indicates its purpose by a subtitle, and implies its intended readership by its membership in a series devoted to philosophy and scientific method. From both pieces of evidence the conclusion to be drawn is that only a philosopher can do it justice. Nevertheless there is reason for including a brief account in the present review. Not only will the title catch every linguist’s eye, but the blurb claims that the book ‘will be of interest not only to philosophers but also to theorists of literature, students of semantics and semiotics, and psychologists of language and cognition’.

Well, up to a point. After an Introduction three are three sections, on ‘Ambiguity’, ‘Vagueness’ and ‘Metaphor’ respectively. The focus is on dissection of error and inadequacy in previous theories of these concepts. For the most part, the scholars whose work is analysed are philosophers; there are exceptions, but many of the names a literary or linguistic scholar would expect to be prominent are not there; I say this not to reflect on the author, but to show how many disciplines are involved in such topics as these. As in The Language-Makers, the problems of applying analytic techniques to essentially pre-theoretical terms such as (a) language, ambiguity, vagueness, metaphor are not adequately faced. A general linguistic theory seems to be applied which itself is responsible for many of the difficulties encountered, notably in the account of theories of metaphor. And this is surprising in view of the opening statement that the purpose of the book is to clarify such concepts as precision, determinacy, unreality and literalness, in order to improve our understanding of what distortion is involved in the ‘ideal conception of language as utterly precise, determinate, purely literal and perfectly unequivocal’ which has often guided philosophical and other studies. Generally, the Introduction promises well, and, for a linguist, holds out hope of more than is fulfilled. Ambiguity, for instance, is typically word-ambiguity, Vagueness ‘is a challenge to the theory of language’; on what I take to be vagueness and what I take (pace Harris) to be language, the first is essential to the second, but it turns out that Professor Scheffler and I differ, overtly at least, as to what vagueness is rather more than as to what language is. (On that issue he differs more sharply from Professor Harris, since his assumption of surrogationalism is pervasive.) On metaphor, six theories are examined and found wanting. The intuitionistic affirms the power of metaphor to outstrip the range of literal expression; the emotive stresses the capacity of metaphors to evince or arouse feelings, as distinct from conveying information; the formulaic supposes that there is some formula for specifying in literal terms the meanings of metaphorical expressions, the intensional that metaphorical effects are released through the blocking of normal interpretations; the interactionist interprets the use of metaphor as producing ‘two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word or phrase, whose meaning is a resultant of their interaction’ (Black); the contextual ‘suggests that a search of the context of each metaphor yields ... a set of clues relevant to its interpretation.’ Having reviewed them all. Scheffler rightly emphasises the creative or exploratory role of metaphor. The book is slightly shorter than Harris’s and costs just over half is much.

The anthology Linguistic Perspective on Literature is roughly twice as long as either and costs relatively little. That is not to say it is the best value. It goes to extremes by way of introducing itselt: the blurb describes the book and the editors; the text opens with a section ‘About the Editors’ (they list then published reviews and unpublished papers) and continues with one ‘About the Contributors’. Part I provides in Introduction; Part II nine papers on ‘Figurative Language’, with a prefatory note explaining what the contributors are going to say; each contribution is also preceded by an abstract stating what the particular contributor is going to say. Part III contains nine papers on ‘Stylistics’, introduced in the same ‘tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em’ manner.

Part I, though conscious of the damage done by the inflated claims of some linguists about their capacity to contribute to critical debate, falls into that vers trap. It would displease Harris (as it does me) by its blinkered sycophancy towards the new dawn of 1957. Of the nine papers in Part II seven have already been published at various dates since 1969; only Bickerton’s ‘Prolegomena to a Linguistic Theory of Metaphor’ has things to say important enough to warrant reappearance and it says them in a lively way; it does, however, take an idiosyncratic line about what is an instance of metaphor. It is noteworthy that most of these paper discuss metaphor, especially theory of metaphor, but there is very little overlap with the topics and authorities considered by Scheffler, for reasons I have already mentioned. Of the nine papers in Part III eight have been published before. The first sub-section is called ‘Style as Choice’: it opens with Pavel’s study of the grammar of narrative structures, which is related to that head only by the most tenuous connection (devising a narrative structure requires choice by the author), and continues with Dillon’s examination of inversions and deletions in poetry from Spenser to the Victorians, which doesn’t come much closer. There follow three papers on ‘Style as Meaning’. By far the best is Widdowson’s soberly written and illuminating ‘Stylistic Analysis and Literary Interpretation’ (but this has already appeared under two guises). Irene Fairley’s study of syntactic deviation and cohesion in cummings has also been published in two other versions. Keyser on Wallace Stevens illustrates dangers Widdowson warns of. The final sub-section deals with ‘Style as Tension between Meaning and Form’, including Verma on topicalisation. Handler on understanding poetic speech acts (good sense here), and Heller on the typology of the pun. Not, take it for all in all, a wholly warrantable piece of book-making.