Growing Pains

General Linguistics: An Introductory Survey

by R.H. Robins
Indiana, 389 pp., $7.50

The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching

by M.A.K. Halliday and Angus McIntosh and Peter Strevens
Indiana, 321 pp., $6.75

Linguist; drawing by David Levine

Can a study suffer from an Ishmael complex? Yes, if it has special difficulties in establishing its own independence in its peculiar field and methodology. For a while it may go on in a lonely, hoity-toity way, full of airs and ires, issuing denunciations, injunctions, and excommunications, venting its hostility towards whatever it supposes to have stood in the way of its advance. In time however, as it becomes more secure (and more divided), this aggressiveness abates.

For some decades linguistics has been the leading “example” of such behavior—much to the concern of that analogue to the U. N., the would-be United Studies. For how we should think about language matters very deeply in nearly all of them. If there is a study ready to settle this for us and intent upon doing so, we should indeed take note. And if this study claims to be alone in charge of saying how language works, more is needed. For premature confidence as to that, blindly followed in the schools, could do damage hard to repair. Inter-Study trespasses have often done so in less crucial areas and on a far smaller scale.

These two books are representative of present-day British linguistics. Both stem mainly from J. R. Firth and Daniel Jones. Both are well informed on other schools of linguistics, including past and present American movements, which are themselves only recently coming to take unpolemical account of their rival developments. Both make interesting and detached attempts to relate their own theory and model to those deriving from Leonard Bloomfield, Zellig Harris, Kenneth Pike, and others. Mr. Robins’s book, moreover, thoroughly earns its title. It can give the general reader who would like to know what has been and is being done a good over-all view and within a reasonable time. And there is enough detail and exemplification to let him see how it is done and this at all levels of analysis: phonological, grammatical, semantic. What will strike him most will be the amount of concern over which theoretical models should be used in description. In comparison, the new insight being gained into language may seem disappointing. Current linguistics regards itself as a young science. It is painfully conscious of duties that its new status as a science may entail. It is also sensitive lest it be supposed to be any the less for that among the humanities. And yet a reader coming to linguistics from literary criticism or philosophy who notes what stern, self-denying ordinances the linguist lays upon himself as a scientist, will wonder about the price. Are not its rigors, its ideals of power, economy, simplicity in explanation, its refusals to use in its formulations so much that it knows safely enough in other capacities, precluding it from being as helpful as it might be to itself and to other studies? It seems likely, however, that a strong reaction to this defensive isolationism…

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