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.
LRB 17 July 1980 | PDF Download