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.

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