Aspects of Language
reviewed by Robert W. Blake - 1969
This is a fine book, and it succeeds splendidly in doing what it sets out to do, to give the non-linguist an appreciation of what modern linguistics is all about. It is not just another book with "language" in its title, aimed at giving the reader the whole scoop on "linguistics" over a weekend. In fact, Mr. Bolinger has left the word "linguistics" out of the title of his bookand wisely so, I think. For the general reader and for the English teacher especially, "linguistics" has become a dirty word and evokes"provokes" may be a better verbas many furious responses by purists of the language as do the putative felonies of ending sentences with prepositions, using "I could care less," instead of "I couldn't care less," mis-using "disinterested" for "uninterested," pronouncing "creek" as "crick," and committing the unpardonable sinnext in the hierarchy of offenses against God and man only to the violation of the sanctity of the human heartof using the phrase, "Ain't I?"
My tone does not reflect Mr. Bolinger'swhich is dispassionate yet whimsical and scholarly and at the same time lucid, in the best sense of that overworked wordand I do not wish to do injustice to his gently authoritative approach, but I am as disturbed as he is by the "towering failure of the schools to inform ordinary citizens about language." I would qualify his statement by adding the failure of universities to inform their students, who, in turn, may become public school teachers whose duty it is to inform their students about language. I am more than slightly disgruntled because I can cite only too many incidents which go to show that there is a woeful gap between the facts about languageinteresting and vital factssubstantiated by linguists and the incorrect and even harmful assumptions revered by most laymen. When a child whose dialect is different from that of a middle-class school teacher is branded as mentally and socially inferior because of that differencealthough it is a linguistic fact that dialect differences are the result of geographical and environmental factors, not the result of a lack of innate intelligencethen I maintain that such mis-assumptions may be harmful.
"Linguistics! That's what has screwed up language arts in the schools," remarked one elementary school teacher when the topic of linguistics was mentioned.
"What I still want to know is what is my responsibility toward my students for teaching them parts of speech?" asked a high school teacher for the fifth time after five weeks of an NDEA Institute in English: Applied Linguistics, even after four linguists has suggested that, possibly, knowing definitions of parts of speech and being able to identify them in textbook exercises was not as valuable as being able to use various types of written and spoken English effectively.
And my colleague in the speech department is proud of the fact that in his American speech class he has taken students who speak educated brands of English from London, England; Charleston, South Carolina; and New York City and has taught them "correct" TV-radio-"theatre" speech, quite unaware that acceptable English is spoken by people with such disparate dialects as President Johnson of Texas and Senators Kennedy and Javits of Massachusetts and New York.
I suppose the credibility gap between research in language and the assimilation of such knowledge by teachers and laymen is a result of what Mr. Bolinger so wisely notes: science has tended to be concerned with that which is remote from manastronomy was one of the earlier sciencesand has tended to be concerned only lately with matters which are very intimately and personally a part of him, such as psychology, sex, or language. There's a good deal of evidence to support the contention that sex education will sooner become a legitimate subject for the public schools than will the accurate and serious study of language. The findings of William H. Masters are, I venture, better known than the most recent books by Henry Lee Smith, Jr. and Noam Chomsky. "It is easiest to be objective about what touches us least intimately," writes Bolinger. "Linguistics as a science is barely out of rompers, and one reason is surely that language is closest of all to what each human being feels is part of him."
The structure of the book is simple yet natural, and Mr. Bolinger writes about most of the important matters that make up the domain of modern linguistics. What impressed me most was his ability to come to each new topic with a quiet sureness of fact coupled with original and sometimes daring insights. The first two chapters, "Born to Speak" and "Some Traits of Language," have to do with a description of language, a definition of language, and a consideration of some universal characteristics of all languages. For many years, the descriptive linguistswho pride themselves on their strictly scientific approach-defined language as a conventional, learned system of arbitrary vocal symbols whereby human beings communicate and interact. Bolinger's definition rightly reflects more recent linguistic scholarship which sees language not as a solely imitative action but as an innate capacity for language creation "as much a part of us as our mating instincts and our hunger drives."
Chapters 3 and 4, "The Phonetic Elements" and "Structure in Language: The Units of Sound," deal with the physical aspects of the speech-producing organs, various methods devised by linguists for categorizing and describing sounds, and of the identifying characteristics of such linguistic concepts as the phoneme, allophones, and the syllable. These difficult topics are treated in enough detail so that we have some idea of the technical questions raised by linguists, but Bolinger has the special faculty for using a metaphor or analogy which helps one grasp a difficult concept. Anyone, for instance, who has tried to transcribe sounds with a given phonemic system knows how easy consonants seem and how difficult the problem of vowel sounds is. "A consonant is an easy target as a rulethe teeth, for example, occupy a discontinuous part of the mouth and the tongue knows exactly what to aim for; but with the continuum of the mouth cavity as a whole there are no definite targets and it is not easy to aim true. So we find many speakers whose vowels would disagree here and there with the chart, in their position and even sometimes in how many of them there are." Notwithstanding the importance of describing the sounds of a language, Bolinger rightly notes that, "For all their importance, units of sound are fundamentally meaningless. Meaningful units are on the higher levels of language."
A quick, but accurate, consideration of morphology and syntax is the subject of Chapter 5, "Structure in Language: The Higher Levels." A word is "evidently 'something that is not to be broken up.' Words are prefabricated units. Language in action is a process of fabrication that takes two forms: the fabrication of larger segments using words and the fabrication of words themselves. The first we call syntax." The second we call morphology, and the morpheme "is the semi-finished material from which words are made. Semifinished means second-hand." A morpheme, for instance, is usually defined as the smallest meaningful grammatical unit of language. The word unselfish is thus made up of three morphemes: un+self+ish. But, asks Bolinger, how many morphemes does the word bumbershoot have? It is a patchwork quilt word that some daring speaker has manufactured from the "bumber-, altered from umbr- in umbrella, and the -shoot, based on the -chute of parachute, that go to make up the word bumbershoot" The question of what a morpheme is "is less an analytical question than a question about history." And finally, syntax is "like the computer." "What we think of as the free play of ideas is to some extent pure frolicking with the semantic features of words, which the syntax of our language permits us to do."
The chapters on the historical changes in our language6, "The Evolution of Language: Courses, Forces, Sounds, and Spellings"; 7, "The Evolution of Language: Meanings, Interpretations, and Adjustments"; and 8, "The Evolution of Language: Views and Measurements" were, to my mind, the least successful. I think I can understand his reason for dealing with historical change in such a manner; he wished, I imagine, to avoid the "Outer History" of Englishthe story of the migrations and political maneuverings of those peoples who spoke ancestral dialects of English. He also slights any consideration of the chronological changes in vocabulary, pronunciations, and grammar in English which comprise the "Inner History" of the language. But such a criticism is really a matter of my own preference, not a quarrel with the substance of this discussion. His examination of the processes of word change such as blends, folk etymology, fusion, metaphor, euphemism, hyperbole, and analogy most aptly serve his purpose in helping the reader to understand that "almost nothing of interest to the linguist goes on anywhere that does not go on in our communication here and now." The "almost" pointedly refers to historical linguistics.
"Dialect" is the subject of Chapter 9. "Linguistic history is dialectology writ large, and dialectology is the idiosyncrasies of particular speakers writ medium," writes Bolinger, and the general discussion of the topics of geographical, social, and functional differences in language is up-to-date and informed. Chapter 10, "Writing," is an account of the problems involved in attempting to resolve the phoneme-grapheme differences in English and of the growth of writing systems in western culture from wordsyllabic to syllabic to alphabetic writing.
The chapter having to do with a description and evaluation of the differing linguistic "-isms" over the last one-hundred-and-fifty years Chapter 11, "The Evolving Approaches to Language"is worth the price of the book alone. Taking no sides but synthesizing the essential characteristics of the major schools of grammatical analysis, Mr. Bolinger presents the best summary of the competing schools that I know of. "The five stages [of the growth of linguistics as a science] are traditional grammar, historical linguistics, descriptive linguistics, structural linguistics, and formal linguistics. Though born of conflict, they represent different emphases rather than irreconcilable rivalries; so each lives on." Bolinger briefly describes each school of linguistic analysis, offering their worthwhile contributions but also noting the reasons why competing systems may have gained new recognition. "Traditional grammar lost favor because, with all its fondness for universality, it refused to see the universality of change. Historical linguistics was pushed to one side because it traced individual lines of development and failed to grasp the succession of systems. Structuralism fell from grace because it was hypnotized with data and was unwilling to make a place for conceptual frames and theories. It seems that the seeds of revolution are apt to lie in that part of the field to which the attitudes in vogue deny importance." One part of the field which has been denied attention, especially by the structuralistswho chose not to discuss aspects of language that could not be objectively verifiableis that of meaning. The "formal" grammariansas Bolinger calls themor generative-transformationalists, as they are more popularly knownhave begun to be very much concerned about meaning as manifested by form and have used the terms of "surface" structure and "deep" structure to describe these levels of language. The "deep" structure of language accounts for the basic, universal aspects of language held in common by all men; such deep structures appear on the "surface" as men utter superficially different sounds to represent the same deep structures of meaning. Bolinger, in another one of his striking metaphors, prefers the terms of the "firing line" and the "rear" to "surface" and "deep" structures. "The activity in language is up front, on the firing line. There is where the speaker is a free agent. Until he learns better, a child treats the depths as if they were surface. They become depths when he is no longer free. . . . The surface is where life is in language."
What is meaning? Does man control reality through language, or does man's language restrict his viewpoint of reality? The consideration of meaning in language is the inevitable concern of the linguists. In chapters 12, "Meaning" and 13, "Mind in the Grip of Language," Bolinger presents the major positions taken by semanticists and more recent linguists who have studied aspects of language larger than the phoneme or morpheme. Essentially, meaning is explained as a process whereby man fits the concepts he has in his mind to the ever-changing reality he encounters. The process is one of segmenting reality, in which individualsby manipulation of an object or ideaseparate it from their environment and are thus able to talk about it. Since language permeates all of human behavior, then language is the supreme instrument for segmenting and coping with reality. One of the most respected of anthropological linguists, Benjamin Lee Whorf, saw the behavior of human beings as being strictly controlled by their language and likened language "as a pair of glasses with more or less warped lenses through which we view our surroundings." Although such a thesis seems to have a good deal of truth in it, some modern linguists feel that Whorf's position was exaggerated; our language may control us to some extent, but we have the right and ability to control our environment through the creative use of language. In any event, Bolinger is right: the study of semologyof meaning in languagewill be increasingly more important for linguists in the future. "It has been so cozy for linguists inside the formal system, with everything ticketed and orderly, that they have been reluctant to allow any rowdy element on the premises. Meaning, as we have seen, is an exceedingly ill-assorted fellow. One can scarcely invite him into the house without admitting at the same time one or more of his drunken friends. The technique has been either to lock him out or to demand a password and slam the door shut the moment the legitimate guest is inside, which not infrequently has cost him part of an arm or leg."
For his parting comments in Chapter 14, "Some Practical Matters," Bolinger writes on the problems of national language academies, the role of the linguist in compiling modern dictionaries, the problem of learning a second language as seen by linguists, and the role of the English teacher in the classroom. The job of teaching formal, standard English has become the sole province of the English teacherhistory teachers and math teachers, for instance, insist that their jobs have nothing to do with languageand in many cases, the English teacher has considered that indoctrination of his students in classroom English was his only job. Very simply, Bolinger feels that "For the schools to play their authoritarian role more effectively, they must have enough trained people to do the job. The teacher needs to be thoroughly familiar with the regional standard in addition to the universal written standard and to be aware of other dialects and their scales of acceptability, especially the ones that are native to his students. Beyond that, the chief requirement is an ability to make his students see their language objectively." What Bolinger recommends should be the standard equipment for the English teacher: a knowledge of the most powerful facts available from linguistic research, a command of the basic tools of linguistic analysis, and an awareness of the relevancy and potency of language. In other words, he should know just the sorts of things that this book discusses.
Aspects of Language represents the individual perspective of a fine linguist, who, because of the mastery of his discipline is able to bring a wisdom not restricted by a mere command of the facts. His style is delightfulespecially for one who is a member of a discipline which is notorious for its foreboding and impenetrable forest of jargon. Time after time, metaphors and analogies help the reader to understand difficult ideas from linguistics. For instance, modern man's reverence for the printed word is "Our five-hundred-year romance with printer's ink." Language "represents the human capacity for system raised to the nth degree." Individual sounds, or "Phonemes are indeed affected by the company they keep, much as letters are affected in ordinary handwriting." "Words are prefabricated units" Syntax "is the airiest stratum of language, where elements unite and separate in the white heat of communication." "Concentration on errors of usage is like the concentration on sin in an old-time religion. The list of thou-shalt-nots is somewhat longer than the Ten Commandments but still brief enough so that one can substitute learning them by heart for the more arduous task of acquiring a command of a second dialect of English."
Most importantly, however, Mr. Bolinger poses the important questions asked by the great linguists, past and present, which after all is the duty of any fine scholar and teacher. We certainly can never arrive at any valid answers if we don't even know what the right questions are. What is language? How do human beings learn it? By simply imitating other humans? Or is there an innate capacity for learning language as basic in humans as the drives for thirst, hunger, and sex? How do we describe sounds by written symbols? How do we classify and describe the building blocks of words and sentences? What has happened to the English language historically? What can we prophesy for its future? Why is it that people using the same language talk differently? How did our writing system develop? What is meaning? How do words represent reality? Do we control reality through language? Or does our language dictate how we see reality? What should be the role of the English teacher in teaching English? Mr. Bolinger's book doesn't provide all of the answers to these questions about aspects of language, but it does help one to make an intelligent, interesting and delightful start.