Only God speaks Kamassian

Walter Nash

  • The World’s Major Languages edited by Bernard Comrie
    Croom Helm, 1025 pp, £50.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 7099 3243 X
  • Studies in Lexicography edited by Robert Burchfield
    Oxford, 200 pp, £27.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 19 811945 3
  • Van Winkle’s Return: Change in American English 1966-1986 by Kenneth Wilson
    University Press of New England, 193 pp, £7.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 87451 394 4
  • Words at Work: Lectures on Textual Structure by Randolph Quirk
    Longman, 137 pp, £5.75, March 1988, ISBN 0 582 00120 X
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David Crystal
    Cambridge, 472 pp, £25.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 521 26438 3

In the third book of Gulliver’s Travels there is a gobbledygook machine. Designed by the ingenious academicians of Lagado, it consists of a frame filled with vocables that can be shuffled at the turn of a crank, and its brave technological purpose is to generate a universe of discourse. What it manufactures, of course, is scrambled poppycock: for language is the product neither of cranks nor yet of chips, but of the human mind as it projects one ruling competence onto a diversity of actual tongues. How great a diversity, Swift can hardly have imagined; it needed the researches of a William Jones or a Wilhelm von Humboldt to begin to persuade literary Europeans that they were not quite the masters of the speaking world.

Now we know better – well, perhaps just a little. We know that something like four thousand languages are spoken in the world today (‘at a very conservative estimate,’ says Bernard Comrie), and we know that everywhere they challenge our culture-bound ideas of what speech-sounds, writing systems, morphologies, patterns of syntax and discourse conventions should be like. To become acquainted with the structure of at least one foreign language is to take a step in the right direction – away from the Academy of Lagado. What Professor Comrie offers, for our continued enlightenment, is a series of fifty descriptions, by eminent scholars, of the distinctive characteristics of the world’s major languages and language-groups. But what is a ‘major’ language? It seems that the notion is to a lesser extent demographic and to a greater extent social and cultural. It is something for a language to be spoken by a fairly large number of people, but this in itself is not enough, and in some cases is irrelevant: Latin, for example, is here considered a major language. More important than brute numbers are the social functions of speech – in diplomacy and international relations, in business, sport, tourism, travel – and its cultural pervasiveness, through literature, philosophy, the recording of experience and the transmission of ideas. By these sometimes elusive criteria, Polish and Pashto, Spanish and Sanskrit qualify as major languages in their own quarters of the globe, and are fully treated in Professor Comrie’s collection. Other tongues mutter plaintively from parentheses and hurried little asides – if they are allowed to speak at all, for languages, like species, are dwindling and dying all around us. Comrie records how ‘linguists learned in 1970 that the last speaker of Kamassian, a Uralic language originally spoken in Siberia, had kept her language alive for decades in her prayers.’ So now only God speaks Kamassian. Ah, you crass mechanics of Lagado, crank away at that.

There are people who will respond with a kind of awe-stricken glee to the information that Papua New Guinea has 750 languages for a population of just over three million people; and there are those who will grumble that the beggars would be better-off speaking English. If you are that sort of sullen monoglot, this book is not for you; but if you like language to be various and mottled, like a garden of agreeable beasts, this is your guide to the greatest show on earth. The languages it describes are listed in sections, according to their genetic groupings; each section contains a general account of the languages of the group, and essays on individual languages. The longest section, as one might expect, is devoted to the Indo-European group. It contains 26 chapters, by contrast with the section on Tamil and the Dravidian languages, which consists of only one essay. In all cases the contributions suggest a degree of editorial control, in that they approximate to a standard pattern of exposition; the typical procedure is that an introductory section on the historical and social background is followed by sections on the script, the phonology, the morphology and syntax, the discourse conventions and the lexicon of the language concerned. This expository norm accommodates the description of features pre-eminently characteristic of particular languages: of scripts (the Arabic script, the Devanagari of Sanskrit and Hindi, the kana syllabaries of Japanese), of phonologies (the tones of Chinese and Yoruba), of morphologies (the complex agglutinations of Turkish and the Bantu languages, the root-and-pattern forms of the Semitic group), of syntax (the marking of clause patterns in Tagalog).

Thus constructed, the book steadily informs and occasionally entertains. How pleasant to learn, for instance, that in older dictionaries of Arabic ‘a word is listed by what it ends with ... The reason that this was done was to make life easier for the poets.’ And how amusing to discover that the lexicon of Japanese includes phonomimes, phenomimes and psychomimes; a phonomime being a word like gata-gata, ‘clattering noise’, mimicking a sound, a phenomime depicting a state – like yoboyobo, ‘wobbly’ – and a psychomime evoking a mental reflex, like tikutiku, ‘stingingly’. Swift would have enjoyed this (and is yahoo a phonomime, a phenomime, a psychomime, or all three?). But of course the purpose of the book is not to provide casual amusement for the browser. To appreciate its educational value, the reader should choose a theme in language and follow it under the direction of Professor Comrie and his associates.

One such theme is the pattern of the sentence, its diversities of word-order, and the variety of morphological devices specifying the relationship of its constituents. Compare extremes: the elaborate inflectional systems of Hungarian, Finnish and Turkish, marking functions and agreements throughout the sentence, and the stripped-down uninflectedness of Chinese, an ‘isolating’ language, dependent on word-order and context, and making extensive use of ‘topic-comment’ constructions. Do Turks ever have monosyllabic hankerings? Do the Chinese ever itch for more affixes? It seems that we accept, as both sufficient and necessary, the system we are born into. Speakers of Tagalog, a language of the Philippine archipelago, use special affixes and particles to ‘trigger’ recognition of semantic roles (agent, patient, instrument) in the sentence. Such roles are not specifically marked in English: we do not designate ‘agent’ and ‘patient’ in ‘He (agent) had his property insured’ and ‘He (patient) had his car stolen.’ Another language that uses ‘trigger’ designations is Japanese: the particle wa, for example, is used as a topic marker (in ‘Me, I’m going home,’ ‘me’ is a ‘topic’), and concomitantly as a way of distinguishing between descriptive and evaluative statements.

Problems of antecedence and co-reference are ingeniously, indeed wittily, solved in languages so obscure that Technological Man might dare to consider their speakers ‘primitive’. Recurrently in English we are dogged by the pronominal ambiguities of sentences like ‘My father called to the postman as he was walking down the street.’ The available processes of disambiguation are more or less clumsy: to re-cast the sentence, to repeat the appropriate noun, or to use ‘the former’/‘the latter’. The Algonquian languages elegantly distinguish between two sets of personal pronouns, ‘proximate’ and ‘obviative’, which are used to select the appropriate antecedent. Another kind of ambiguity in English is represented by the sentence: ‘When they arrived they were eating chips.’ Is the subject of the principal clause (‘they’) co-referential with that of the subordinate clause – are ‘they’ the same ‘they’ – or does it make a separate reference? The languages of the New Guinea Highlands have what is known as a ‘switch reference’ system: the verb of the dependent clause is marked to show whether it has the same or a different subject from that of the independent clause. Since in switch reference languages the dependent clause commonly precedes its principal, Papuan highlanders are obliged to plan their discourse with judicious care. Professor Comrie rightly comments: ‘This should, incidentally, serve to dispel any lingering notions concerning the primitiveness or lack of grammar in the languages of other societies.’

But the layman as a rule asks other questions: not ‘Is Laputian an SVO language?’, or ‘Does Brobdingnagian have a transitivity system?’, but ‘What’s the Lilliputian for boiled eggs?’ Grammarians are made, coaxed, or cultivated, but there is a little lexicographer, born and ready for business, in every one of us. Studies in Lexicography, it must be said, raises matters of greater moment than the musings of the tourist or the crossword puzzler. This collection of essays is undeniably a book for academic inmates (if the race of lexicographers may be so described), with a content that only occasionally extends a broad appeal to the friendly layman. Its editor, the distinguished Dr Burchfield, describes it as being ‘Mainly concerned with large historical, period, or regional dictionaries, including those of the classical languages and of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English’, adding that ‘broad theoretical considerations are not overlooked.’ This description, however, is one of the two misguided features of the volume. (The other is the price.) Learned the work may be, but it is not quite abstract and passionless. Readers who doubt that lexicography has a human face – wearing at times a crooked grin – might try reading W.S. Ramson’s essay (‘G’day,’ it says) on the Australian National Dictionary, where they will learn much concerning diggers, cobbers, mateship, bludgers and larrikins and jackeroos, the bush and the outback, and other news from Oz; and if you appreciate (as I do) a scholar who goes about this business with the gusto of a sabreur, you will enjoy Yakov Malkiel on Romance Etymology in English Dictionaries. I mention Professor Malkiel’s essay for its manner; in matter it is possibly the richest in the book, a little education in a large subject that must interest any native English speaker with a disposition to reflect on the farrago, cattlecake or stewpot of our lexicon.

The general programme of these studies is not discussed at length by the editor, but is more or less implied in the order of the contributions. In general, the essays report on the current state of lexicography in specific works and projects; discuss some technical questions crucial to the lexicographer – hence two excellent chapters on homonymy and polysemy, by Dr L.V. Malakhovski and Professor R.H. Robins; and investigate the cultural significance of dictionaries, whether in education (Peter Strevens on Learner’s Dictionaries), in the celebration of a national consciousness (Dr Ramson), in the geographical diffusion of a vocabulary (the admirable Frederic Cassidy on the Dictionary of American Regional English), or in the historical tradition of words (Malkiel). In the course of these expositions the imagination is caught, as so often happens, by things incidentally said: for instance, by A.J. Aitken’s allusion to the significance of computers in modern lexicography, as illustrated by ‘the surprising and previously wholly unnoticed, indeed all but unknowable, fact that of 15,500 occurrences of dryhten (in Old English) almost all refer to the Christian Lord and only 28, mostly in verse, to secular lords, of which 15 are in Beowulf.’ It is not so much the instance as the incidental phrase ‘all but unknowable’ that arrests me: the thought of all those facts, laid in their vellum, swaddled in silence, Lord, for centuries, until the right magic resurrects them and they are known. Yes: mysterious beings, these lexicographers.

A lexicographer lurks behind the eponymous expositor of Van Winkle’s Return. Van Winkle is Kenneth Wilson, a Professor of English who in 1966 nodded off into a deep snooze of administration, from which, twenty years later, he awoke, to find himself once more a teacher and scholar. Things had been happening while he slumbered in college Deanship and Vice-Presidency: ‘Meantime, the English language went on changing, as language always does, and the study of language, the arguments about its use and abuse, and the efforts to understand, reform, liberate, preserve, modernise, regulate, correct, describe, and teach the English language went on apace without me.’ It is the purpose of his book to describe what had been ‘going on apace’, and the undertaking draws him into observations on linguistic change, problems of usage, regional variation in language, language and social questions, language in education – but above all, language in the dictionary. What the book is about, basically, is lexicography as the record of usage, and attitudes to usage as reflected in lexicography. Van Winkle’s amazed old eyes keep wandering to Webster, and Random House, and Funk & Wagnalls, and The American Heritage, and all the lexicons of the learned and the laity; there is not a chapter in the book that does not refer to the arbitration of dictionaries, and some chapters are essentially about dictionaries. What I like about this preoccupation is Professor Wilson’s keen appreciation of the commerce between the lexicon and life; he knows that dictionaries are produced for customers, and in discussing the relationship between the dictionary and the customer he manages to tell us a great deal about both.

The book is of primary interest to Americans, because the concerns it voices are so deeply implicated in American life, particularly in American education. This does not mean, however, that it has no informative or admonitory value for Britons. Apart from the fascination of looking on at someone else’s quarrels (’such nice people, really, but don’t you just love a good row?’), there is great value in an alternative hearing of debates that also bicker on this side of the Atlantic. And I am grateful, so very grateful to Professor Wilson for not writing with the dystrophied crankiness of the true academic, as though he had been sitting in the stocks for twenty years. If the experience could enhance a little the humanity of donnish prose, would that whole faculties might be wafted away to padded chairs in slumbrous decanal chambers.

One of Van Winkle’s observations reads: ‘In my view, today’s noisiest battles over usage are being fought not between the regions or the social classes, but between small constituencies of specialists and the general population – that’s one set of skirmishes – and between the older and the younger generation.’ I do not take issue with this (it is, in fact, as astute remark), but I feel nonetheless that the crucial battles over usage are not in the least noisy, and that the fight is for objectives that are in an odd way less visible than the things people habitually quarrel about. While we decide whether like is a conjunction, or settle the business of gender pronouns, enormities are being perpetrated in language that is grammatically unexceptionable and lexically ‘standard’; in political rhetoric, in the style of public proceedings, in the impudent abstractions of editorial journalism, in writings that celebrate the carefully articulated perversion of meaning. That is why the authority of the lexicographer is not quite enough: Van Winkle, if he is to stay awake, must become a textologist, and study the structure of discourse.

One way of doing that – without risking a second narcoleptic episode – would be to read Words at Work; a short book, lucid, elegant, spirited, and as good an introduction as I know to the analysis of communication in written texts. In itself it is a record of an essay in communication, being a version of eight public lectures given by Sir Randolph Quirk in Singapore in 1985-86. The lectures rehearse in detail the conditions under which texts are constructed, the creative rules which all successful writers acknowledge, though they perhaps could not enumerate them. Sir Randolph demonstrates how communication depends on shared knowledge, on the collaborative appeal of writer to reader, on a writerly sense of what is appropriate to diverse compositional aims, and on an acceptance of the constraints that govern behaviour in language. These demonstrations, essentially of the social foundations of writing, occupy the ‘outer’ lectures of the series; a central sequence is devoted to the technical problems of the writer in creating discursive illusions, those properties of coherence and inherence that make a good piece of writing a self-sustaining world of words.

If you attempt something of this kind, you assume the burden of telling your audience, with appropriate method and emphasis, what they will discover that they already know; and there can be no greater challenge to those skills of exposition and persuasion which, luckily, Quirk easily commands. He has the twin capacity, inestimable in a scholar of his profession, to comprehend the analysis of language and respond sensitively to literature: so that he can expound with equal urbanity a passage from a novel or the principles of Functional Sentence Perspective, and be engrossed as comfortably by a poem as by a page of Seaspeak (a newly-devised language of maritime pilotage). And always he is impishly aware that those who write about communication must themselves play the communication game: there are many places in the book where his own stylistic colour changes, with a kind of imprinted virtuosity, in response to the principles he is expounding.

Books like this give rhetoric a good name. In two senses at least, they heighten proficiency in the craft of language. First, they enable us to compose more skilfully, by making us more sensitive to what composition involves; let instinct work as it will, it is never amiss to know consciously how every word comes on to the page. Second, we begin to see what is in other people’s writing; we see through – appreciatively or critically – the narrative, the leading article, the report, the polemic, the text of the speech; we become adepts in a branch of the criticism of language, a discipline served by the lexicographer and informed by the general linguist, whose global concerns are represented by David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. ‘My purpose in writing this book,’ says Professor Crystal in his preface, ‘is to celebrate the existence of human language, and to provide a tribute to those who engage in its study.’ This purpose he has brilliantly achieved: the book is indeed a celebration of language in all its oddity, beauty, fun, astonishing complexity and limitless variety. The general reader will be drawn to the book by its presentation – it has pictures and conversations, such as Alice would have liked, and cartoons too – and by the frequent use of bold-faced marginalia or bits in boxes, like a learned ‘Did you know?’, to tempt the browser into the bigger text. These samples (which I shall store for table-talk) tell of diversely engaging things: of the qwerty keyboard, of mystical letters, of trucker talk, of speech habits in New York department stores (they speak posher at Saks than at Macy’s); of words for ‘cow-house’ in English (I favour ‘shippon’), and words for ‘hole’ in Pintupi (katarta means ‘the hole left by a goanna after it has broken the surface after hibernation’); of foreign words in Japanese TV commercials, and of Shakespeare in pidgin (‘A kam ber Siza, a noh kam preyz am’ – ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’); of sneezing in Tongan, and speaking in tongues; of unlanguaged, feral children, like Victor the Wild Boy of Aveyron, and of phenomenally gifted language-learners like Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who was ‘reputed to have been able to speak 50 languages, to understand a further 20, and to translate 114’; and of so many other wanderings of the word that in the end one feels a wry sympathy with the cartooned cave-dweller who complains to his rugged mate: ‘I miss the good old days when all we had to worry about was nouns and verbs.’

But these are anecdotal recommendations of a serious, well-organised text, based on prodigious reading. Professor Crystal tells us that his book ‘is not an introduction to linguistics’ – a disclaimer that provokes a muttered ‘speak for yourself’: for it seems to me that these 480 large pages constitute a crib-cum-sourcebook for any academic young person with access to 25 pounds. Merely to list the topics treated in one section of the book, that devoted to the structure of language, is to indicate material for a primary course in general and applied linguistics: linguistic levels, typology and universals, the statistical study of language, grammar, semantics, dictionaries, names, discourse and text, pragmatics. The book is excellently furnished with glossary and bibliography, and with an index of topics to facilitate casual entry. (I tried boustrophedon and was presently immersed in a wide-ranging, copiously illustrated discourse on graphology.) If this book is not a good introduction to linguistics, I should like to see one. In the end, however, I perceive Crystal’s intention as moral and social. ‘I hope,’ he writes, ‘the book will help promote an informed awareness of the complexity of human language, draw attention to the range of human problems that have a linguistic cause or solution, and emphasise the fact that people have language rights which should not be neglected.’ This is a hope which can only invite sympathy and assent from those of us whose business is language. We are committed to the study of how human beings speak to each other, and it is a long and exacting discipline. Surely we must work hard at it if we are to hear each other above the noise: the traffic noise, the political noise, the babble of innumerable misapprehensions, the dismal squeak of handles turning in Lagado.