Scoring the language game

Roy Harris

  • Language and Linguistics: An Introduction by John Lyons
    Cambridge, 356 pp, £15.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 521 23034 9

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.

To appreciate the nature of Professor Lyons’s labours, it is essential to grasp the fact that an introduction to linguistics is by no means the same thing as an introduction to the study of language. This may come as a surprise to those laymen who have always assumed that ‘linguistics’ is just the official academic name for the academic study of language. They would thus interpret the title of Professor Lyons’s book as being for all practical purposes equivalent to ‘Language and the Study of Language’. But they would be wrong.

Language can be studied from many different points of view other than that usually adopted in linguistics. As an academic subject, linguistics has always concentrated on one particular cluster of problems: how to analyse the different sets and combinations of sounds and words that are found in the world’s languages. In this respect, modern linguistics is the successor to that long tradition of European grammatical studies which goes back to Classical antiquity. But from other points of view those particular problems may be more or less irrelevant. For language is not simply the sum total of languages. Its manifestations are no less germane to the study of the individual personality than to the analysis of international politics. It affects our lives in all kinds of ways which never get recorded or even reflected in grammar books and dictionaries. Psychology, biology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy and literary criticism have at least as much of interest to tell us about language as linguistics has.

It follows that anyone who sets out to write a book of the kind Professor Lyons has taken on is forced to be very selective about what he presents and how he presents it. There is no longer – if there ever was in the past – a generally accepted set of elementary propositions and principles about language, which the beginner can be taught in much the same way as if he were embarking on school geometry or mechanics. That is one reason why the study of language at the present time is such a very rich, open and intellectually exciting field.

It is all the more reason, however, why the reader who takes Professor Lyons as his field guide should pause to consider exactly what kind of introductory survey he is getting. Language and Linguistics covers an ambitious range of topics. None is treated in great detail, but some are dealt with far more scantily than others, and their order of presentation is not without significance. Although there are sections towards the end of the book which touch on psychological and sociological aspects of language, the central and fullest chapters are those devoted to phonetics and phonology, grammar, semantics and language-change. In other words, the bias of the book is heavily towards the traditional preoccupations of teachers of linguistics. Wider issues concerning language are seen as peripheral to and arising out of those preoccupations.

Although this accurately reflects the view still taken by most university teachers of linguistics that it is they who are engaged in the science of language (as distinct from just one of the language sciences), the view itself is open to criticism. Many would say that whatever justification there may have been for this view in the past, today it no longer corresponds to reality. Its survival in university departments of linguistics indicates at best a failure to keep up to date, and at worst intellectual arrogance. Professor Lyons shows himself to be uncomfortably aware of the problem in his introductory discussion of the question ‘Is linguistics a science?’ As he wryly remarks, disciplines whose scientific status is unquestioned do not feel the need to justify their scientific status. ‘Why is it that, in defending his scientific credentials, the linguist so often gives the impression of protesting too much?’ Like jesting Pilate, having posed his question, Professor Lyons does not stay for an answer.

Whatever the status of linguistics as a discipline, the position within linguistics which Professor Lyons adopts in his role as guide is one which could fairly be described as ‘orthodox Establishment’. Where that position lies can roughly be gauged from the three names which appear with the longest lists of references in the Index: they are Saussure, Bloomfield and – by far the longest of all – Chomsky. Index references at the opposite end of the scale are also quite revealing. Wittgenstein, Piaget, Skinner, Labov and Austin can muster only one apiece. Firth, Halliday, Pike, Lamb, Guillaume, Lévi-Strauss, Frege, Cassirer, Quine, Russell and Freud fail to score at all.

Thus to anyone who is not a beginner and cares to glance first at the Index, it will come as no surprise to find that whereas Professor Lyons has a great deal to say in his book about phonemes and morphemes, he has comparatively little to say about paragraphs, or conversations, or narratives, or linguistic communities. Although he claims to be equally concerned with the cultural as with the biological basis of language, the cultural activity seems to be a curiously curtailed process which inexplicably stops short at the sentence. And that happens to be just where Establishment linguistics stops.

Now no objection can be raised against adopting the Establishment position in a book of this kind. Anyone who is starting out on an inquiry into any subject, from finance to fly fishing, wants first to know what the orthodox doctrines, techniques and explanations are. But where language is concerned it is nowadays a mistake to suppose that the first-year student or the general reader will be content merely to be told that the Establishment position is contentious. He wants straight away to know why it is contentious. On this, the book will give him little guidance.

He will find no account of why it is, for example, that some linguists do not accept such hallowed and haloed distinctions as ‘linguistic competence’ v. ‘linguistic performance’, or langue v. parole. Or ‘synchronic’ v. ‘diachronic’. Or why they contest the notion that grammar depends on knowledge of rules. Or regard the much-debated problem of grammaticality as a pseudo-problem. In short, the reader will find no account of why at present the whole Saussure-Bloomfield-Chomsky approach to language (the theoretical differences between those three gurus being, as Professor Lyons rightly points out, far less fundamental than their disciples have often claimed) is currently open to question.

Why this is so could have been quite simply stated. It is because Establishment linguistic theory, from Saussure down to Chomsky, presupposes the validity of a static Lockean model of communication. But this model simply fails to correspond to our experience of language. It is not an oversimplification but a basic misrepresentation of how language works. The reason Establishment linguistics is vulnerable to this criticism could have been equally simply stated. Establishment linguistics, in the view of its critics, confuses the relation between the two questions ‘What is language?’ and ‘What is a language?’ In other words, its basic mistake has always been the identification of language with structure. This appears to be an identification which Language and Linguistics not merely aknowledges but positively endorses. For on page 11 we are told that ‘when we say that the linguist is interested in language, we imply that he is interested, primarily, in the structure of language-systems.’ Elsewhere the author speaks of linguistics as engaged in the study of ‘language-systems as such’. What the critics of Establishment linguistics question, precisely, is whether there is any such animal as a determinate ‘language-system as such’.

Once this question is seriously raised, it becomes legitimate to ask whether the debates which have recently been conducted within the framework of Establishment linguistics are anything more than debates about rival systems of notation for representing various fragments of linguistic structure. In print, the results look impressively scientific and mathematically precise. But is it science at all? Could we have a science of cricket which concerned itself exclusively with rival systems of keeping the scorebook?

Just as cricket involves incomparably more than the facts that get entered in scorebooks – or even could get entered – so language involves incomparably more than the facts that get entered or could get entered in grammars and dictionaries. Professor Lyons provides a concise guide to the terminology and procedures used by scorers in the language game. But whether that is what the uninitiated need to get them intellectually interested in the game in the first place must be dubious.

For in linguistics the situation is even worse than the cricket analogy suggests. At least in cricket the scorers have a job they understand. They know what constitutes a run, what constitutes a dismissal, and how to calculate at the end of the day which side has won. Whereas would-be scorers in the language game – the grammarians, the lexicographers, the descriptive linguists – find themselves in a quandary. The language game often has no clearly demarcated playing-field, no boundary line, no clear distinction even between players and spectators, and above all no explicit agreement as to the conduct of play.

Herein lies the source of the various dilemmas which modern linguistics has been struggling with unsuccessfully from Saussure onwards. It has never been sure whether to define form and meaning independently of each other, or interdependently. It has never been sure what to include under ‘form’ and what to exclude. Nor what to accept as ‘meaning’ and what to reject. It has been unable to decide in any principled way where language ends and non-language begins. It has failed to come up with any foolproof criteria for the classification of linguistic units or the differentiation of linguistic relations. In short, by committing itself in advance to the postulation of specific language-systems, it has found itself grappling with a series of unresolved and unresolvable problems about how these postulated systems operate.

What Establishment linguistics refuses to entertain is the possibility that all these problems arise because it has espoused a model which is just not viable as a general model for interpreting linguistic communication between human beings, however useful it may at one time have been for pedagogical purposes in the classroom. Although Professor Lyons does not draw his readers’ attention directly to that issue, perhaps he expects them to be intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions from the manifest contradictions between their own experience as language-users and the idealised fairy-tale account of languages which orthodox linguistics is on record as giving.

Be that as it may, Language and Linguistics offers no discussion of how the patterns of human intention, convention, belief and expectation have to be related in order to make speech communication a possibility. Nor of how speaking and writing have to be integrated with other forms of human activity in order to achieve human communicational purposes. The reader may well ask himself whether a linguistics which does not treat these as fundamental questions has even begun to explain what language is.