Noam’s Ark

Walter Nash

  • The Twitter Machine: Reflections on Language by Neil Smith
    Blackwell, 275 pp, £9.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 631 16926 1
  • English in Use by Randolph Quirk and Gabriele Stein
    Longman, 262 pp, £17.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 582 06612 3

Die Zwitscher-Maschine is the title of a picture by Paul Klee, and a most beguiling picture it is: beaky, joky, reticular line-drawing on washes of demurest blue and rose, a sort of grave man’s Rowland Emmett. It makes a pleasant cover illustration for Neil Smith’s collection of propaedeutic papers on linguistics, providing a title for the book and a humorous gloss on the text, the first in a series of playful images and allusions deftly exploited by Professor Smith as he attempts to introduce his readers – defined as ‘outsiders’ and ‘beginning insiders’ – to the intricate delights and perplexities of his subject. Like most emblems, however, this cover motif is susceptible to diverse interpretations. For what, after all, is ‘The Twitter Machine’? Is it the human mind, which, to borrow a phrase from Louis MacNeice, ‘clicks like scissors’, snipping out instructions for the creation of language? Does it refer to what most of us mean by ‘language’, the working components, audible or visible, of speech and writing? Or might it be a merry metaphor for the operations of linguistic science?

It is certainly possible to derive any or all of these meanings from a study of the book, but on the whole the reader is left to assume that what Professor Smith has principally in mind is mind itself: more particularly, the workings of that part of the mind that processes language. His arguments and demonstrations are based on a position that most linguists would now accept as a locus communis. This is, that we can satisfactorily explain the unceasing innovations of language, and the astonishing power of individuals to produce utterances they can never have heard before, only by imputing to the human brain an innate competence to deduce the processes, or ‘rules’, which produce, or ‘generate’, recognised patterns of verbal activity, a ‘performance’. This competence, though nurtured by observation and imitation, transcends mere mimesis: if as children we could do no more than mime the words and phrases addressed to us by our adult monitors, we would never acquire real control of our native language. But we are more than simple imitators, more than laboratory animals responding to controlled stimuli. We are possessed of a creative power bred into our species, a power to devise unprecedented sentences, unrivalled speeches, tales unparalleled, poems unheard-of.

A consequence of this preoccupation with language as a psychological event is that the brute facts of speech, the substantial traces of what people actually say, and where, and when, and to whom, and for what purpose, are apparently perceived as being of less moment than the theory which purports to explain them. Observations of usage which have no theoretical consequences are commonly dismissed by generativists as ‘anecdotal’ (a fierce bad word, for it lies next door to ‘fictitious’), and evidences of fact which seemingly invalidate the theory are deemed in no wise to falsify it, but only to compel its extension and refinement. Professor Smith insists on a distinction between scientific laws, which are refutable by the observation of facts, and theories, which are not: ‘A theory is an imaginative construction of the human mind, making connections and predictions beyond those of the laws which fall under its scope. As such, a theory is not refutable in the way that a law is, but only replaceable by a superior theory, a theory which may indeed maintain some if not all of the laws of the earlier theory.’ Such elegant removal of the goal-posts to a different field of play is a feature of the Chomskyan argument to which proponents of other linguistic philosophies most commonly take exception.

Other kinds of linguist, it must be said, get rather short shrift from Professor Smith, who either ignores the pretensions of sociolinguists, discourse analysts, functionalists and corpus grammarians or alludes to their activities in terms that suggest the pained tolerance of a Jesuit contemplating the heretical enthusiasms of Nonconformist sects. He is obliged to concede, however, that it is an incomplete theory of language that does not take into account its communicative functions: speech has meanings which are defined by the response to speaking. To account for the operations of language in the interlocutory world, he turns to pragmatics, and specifically to the theory developed by Sperber and Wilson in Relevance: Communication and Cognition (1986). The nub of the theory is that the things people say to each other are perceived as relevant, in a greater or lesser degree, to the context in which they occur, and hence are framed in ways calculated to enhance or modify, progressively, the understanding of a situation. In short, we catch on and provide the means of catching on. Thus the effects of language as interaction are provided for in the cognitive processes of language-production. The mental rules still rule, and the ‘relevance’ theory of communication, being comfortably compatible with the Chomskyan theories of competence and performance, is all that is required, Professor Smith implies, to round out a unified theory of language. I think there are those who will respect this assumption without feeling compelled to share it.

What can be instantly shared is Smith’s delight in what he does, and the cheerful spirit of instructive play which leads him to give his chapters titles like ‘Quails and Oysters’, ‘Must and the Randy Pachyderm’, ‘Lellow Lollies’ and ‘Annie’s Botty-Wotty’ – this last a quotation from, believe it or not, the correspondence of the uxorious Charles Darwin. In such sprightly instances the road to philosophy begins, although it is usually not too long before the going becomes, if not exactly rough, at least resistant. This is not solely attributable to the inherent difficulties of the subject. It is very hard to write a ‘popular’ book, to be lucid without appearing to have been lobotomised; even if you attempt to write an affable, jargon-less prose, you may still be in danger of having to furnish an apparatus for every paragraph. It is also hard to win acceptance for a ‘popular’ book, since novices will think you too hard and the knowledgeable will suppose you too easy. Prudent academics customarily write judiciously inaccessible texts.

Neil Smith deserves credit at least for not designedly taking refuge in such academic prudence. He clearly hopes that the book will have its beneficiaries, and lists the kinds of people who might be regarded as potential consumers of his brand of linguistics: speech therapists, information theorists, researchers into language acquisition, teachers of English as a second language, stylisticians, philosophers, people with communicative work in hand, looking for the tools that should lie within reach. They could do worse, no doubt. For my own part, if I am drawn to this book, it is for strictly unlinguistic causes: I like the glimpses of humanity flickering through the cognitive conundrums. I am touched by Professor Smith’s affectionate pleasure in the competences and performances of his children, and by his warm loyalty to pupils and colleagues like the Malawian poet and linguist Jack Mapanje, now held incognito, imprisoned for his good verses.

Some thirty years ago, at a time when I was beginning to wonder whether academic departments might ever be persuaded to give serious attention to the study of the common tongue, I was lucky enough to be shown a proof copy of a book called The Use of English. This volume, by Randolph Quirk, did me and countless others a great service, by demonstrating how students of the English language – shuffling misfits corralled into a dusty corner of Literature’s great kingdom – might turn without excuse from their contemplation of the ja/jo stems and the Great Vowel Shift and address themselves to newspapers and novels and conversations and card-games and cook-books and poems and police reports: in short, to the whole language, the property of the whole people, not an eventide home for antiquarians and combative eccentrics.

Now Sir Randolph, in fruitful collaboration with Professor Gabriele Stein of the University of Heidelberg, has returned to his educative theme with a volume entitled – almost palindromically – English in Use. The result is something more than a script refurbished: old topics are revisited, and new ones introduced, in the light of three decades of scholarly enquiry to which the authors themselves have contributed not a little. A student comparing this recent volume with its predecessor might, I suspect, learn a great deal about developments in English Language studies over the past three decades. The spread of English as an international language, the rise of distinctive ‘Englishes’, the study of functional varieties within the compass of the standard language (whatever ‘standard’ may imply), the question of how we learn our native language, are all matters to which the present-day student’s attention is obligatorily committed, and all have, whether by textual design or general implication, a central place in this volume. The authors are learned without a parade of learning, write attractively (the collaboration works so well that, as the late lamented Eric Morecambe was wont to remark in a different context, ‘you can’t see the join’), and have made their book potentially useful to the self-instructing student and the self-mistrusting teacher by providing a little programme of exercises at the end of each chapter.[*]

Pedagogically, the book is admirable, and will surely enable readers ‘to understand something of the nature of English, be encouraged to use it more intelligently, respond to it more sensitively, and recognise more completely the implications of its international use today’. Its audience is best defined in the words used by Professor Smith: ‘outsiders and beginning insiders’. If Quirk and Stein have been more successful in producing an introductory text, it is no doubt because their reflections on language are more readily accessible to a relatively untutored audience than those of Neil Smith. He is concerned throughout his book with the exposition and defence of a theory of language; their business is to present a language in discursive action, in all the diversity of its cultural, social and artistic functions. They would perhaps not thank me for describing their activities as philology rather than linguistics, since ‘philology’ is a fusty old word with a musty old reputation. The Jacobean lexicographer Henry Cockeram glosses it as ‘love of vain babbling’. But babbling (or twittering, or wittering, or rabbiting, or rapping, or just banging on) is on the whole what people do best, give or take a kiss and a cuddle, and if it enables them to negotiate their lives with less frequent resort to our race’s more violent accomplishments, it is not, after all, so vain.

[*] A further collaboration should be noted: A Student’s Grammar of the English Language by Sidney Greenbaum and Randolph Quirk was published by Longman on 30 July (490 pp., £18.50 and £12.95, 0 582 07569 6).