Linguistics demythologised

Michael Dummett

  • The Language Myth by Roy Harris
    Duckworth, 212 pp, £18.00, August 1981, ISBN 0 7156 1528 9

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, provocative and stimulating, and will prompt fruitful debate in an area still made murky by difficult conceptual problems, but surely rightly seen as critical in our present state of knowledge of ourselves and of the world.

The ‘language myth’ of the title is defined in Chapter One to consist of two fallacies: that words stand for ideas, speech thus being a means of conveying ideas from one mind to another; and that a language consists of a fixed coding of ideas into sounds or written signs. These are somewhat inelegantly labelled by Harris the ‘telementational’ and the ‘determinacy’ fallacies respectively. His characterisation of the determinacy fallacy rapidly introduces a second strand: the combination of words into sentences. The fallacy involves attributing to the speaker of a language a knowledge of the principles governing the possible forms of its sentences: that is, the permissible combinations of words in sentences capable of expressing thoughts.

This initial characterisation may rightly be felt to do extremely rough justice to the conception Harris wishes to criticise, in two respects. First, it is tendentiously entitled a ‘myth’, and its two components ‘fallacies’, before any attempt has been made to show-that it is in any way in error. Nor is the characterisation immediately followed by such an attempt: indeed, the entire book contains no head-on refutation of the alleged myth. Rather, Harris’s plan is to draw out, in the course of five chapters, the consequences of various versions of the ‘myth’ in the writings of philosophers and, more particularly, linguists, and to raise objections to them and point out difficulties to which they lead: only in the sixth and last chapter is a sketch given of a linguistic theory not infected by the myth. If the reader is to be persuaded that the myth really is a myth, and its components genuinely fallacies, he must acknowledge that the difficulties raised by Harris are truly insurmountable, that the consequences drawn by him truly follow, and that the versions of the myth he surveys exhaust all possibilities, or, at least, that any other conceivable version would be subject to analogous objections. Harris makes no pretence of proving these contentions. The work is tacitly left – in the manner of mathematics textbooks – as an exercise for the reader, but as one he is not expressly encouraged to undertake.

In the second place, the initial characterisation is excessively vague. Just what is sufficient to convict anyone of the crime of thinking that words stand for ideas? Frege is surely the founder of modern semantic theory, and to him contemporary philosophy of language and contemporary linguistics are both deeply indebted: should we nevertheless see him as having committed this crime? He certainly denied that words have any essential connection with the contents of the mind, and held that, when an expression can be held to designate anything, what it designates will normally be something in the external world about which we intend to speak, except, of course, when our intention is to speak of our inner experience or something else not part of the external world; and perhaps this is enough to secure his acquittal. But he also held that each unitary expression of a language expresses an objective sense grasped by the speakers of the language; perhaps this may, after all, render him guilty. There is really no saying: the ‘telementational fallacy’ has been characterised so imprecisely that we have no sure way of telling when it has been committed.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in