Essays on Linguistics: Language Systems and Structures
Peggy Mohan
Essays on Linguistics: Language Systems and Structures by The Institute of Linguistics Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1982, 298 pp., $ 6.75
July-August 1982, volume 7, No 1

I have often said, verbally and in print, that India’s cosy reliance on English as our access to international academia has effectively blinded us to work of excellence in other foreign traditions of scholarship while not, in com¬pensation, encouraging excel¬lence locally.

In assembling together Essays on Linguistics: Lang¬uage Systems and Structures the Soviets seem to recognize this. This is not just a ran¬dom sampling of Soviet research output in linguistics, nor, more significantly, is there a specific focus on any one area of linguistics. It is, quite literally, a collection of essays on linguistics: essays, by eminent Soviet linguists, on some of the topical theoretical issues which, in their opinion, give the field its conceptual shape. Didactic rather than speculative in tone, Essays in Linguistics is like an exposi¬tion of the state-of-the-art of Soviet linguistics to educate the more parochial linguist abroad.strong>

The central philosophy under¬pinning this collection of essays is the contention that there exists a fundamental op¬position between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ structure in language, and that inner form (‘notional categories’) is universal, com¬mon to all languages. Outer form, however, differs strik¬ingly across languages. The question, then, is what this inner form consists of, how it generates so many divergent outer forms or different lang¬uages, how to represent this process while capturing the essentially psychological nature of the phenomenon, and how do this ‘objectively’.

This is all consistent with the American generative theory formulated by Chomsky. These essays, however, ques¬tion the very universality of the abstract categories Chomsky proposes based on English structure. If Chinese adjectives and numerals can function as verbs, and the sentence ‘the man killed the deer’ can be expressed in Yutagir as a single compound word kode-dilen-bunil (‘man-deer-killing’) how valid are categories like ‘verb’, ‘adjective’, ‘predicate’, ‘noun’ and even ‘word’ and sentence at the deepest levels of human grammar?

The quest for the ideal descrip¬tive categories, and analyses which capture psychological reality, takes the form of a wide-angle focus on human language—do our abstract theories check out against the shape of languages in the real world. And here one encoun¬ters the famous Soviet tradi¬tion of linguistic typology which, imported into India via Chicago, has proved to be a technique well suited to inves¬tigating vast ‘linguistic areas’, like the sub-continent at a given point in time. Indeed, this process of looking dispas¬sionately at typology (rather than word) has ultimately called into question the idea of distinct ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ languages in India, finding the major Indian lang¬uages instead astonishingly alike.
Central to the Soviet view of languages is the notion of system: language is a ‘system which functions in time, space and society’, with ‘the primacy of system over elements, of the whole over the parts’. This, in principle, is true of Western linguistics too, where this notion has been less well deve¬loped. System, however, is a powerful security blanket in Soviet linguistics, permitting bold analyses which sweep all sorts of ‘subunits’ like ‘dia¬lects’, ‘technolects’, ‘sociolects’, ‘styles’, ‘registers’ and ‘idiolects’ together as ‘part of a single language’. System averts the necessity for justi¬fying these bold decisions in terms of impossible criteria like ‘homogeneity’.

This explains how Soviet linguistics was able to totally ignore preposterous American fancies like variation theory and continuum theory, which depict languages as inherently unstable simply because, out¬wardly, they can never be totally homogenous. Soviet theorists simply said that man, by virtue of being human, and because of his cultural/lingui¬stic gestalt, must have a ‘sub¬jective’ and not an ‘objective’ view of reality—an eminent¬ly more defensible claim. In other words, Soviet and American linguistics, despite their common objectives, differ subtly in approach. Soviet linguistics regards theory as an invaluable ancillary tool for comprehending a chaotic reality, something cognitively ‘real’ and not in constant need of empirical justification. American linguistics does not give explicit importance to its theoretical underpinnings but instead regards theory as an ultimate derivative of empirical research. Hence the American sociolinguist’s reluc¬tance to grapple with the obvious conceptual differences between individual and group behaviour, and individual and group momentum, when he cannot physically isolate ‘group’ as a minimal unit. Hence, too, the naive and fuzzy language-change models which characterize linguistic evolutionary theory.

The most refreshing theory about Essays on Linguistics is its explicit concern with linguistic issues, as though legitimizing the linguist’s natu¬ral desire for a conceptual component after all the field-work. There is a distressing local school of thought in linguistics which holds that theoretical abstraction is un¬necessary in the present Indian context, and ‘un-objective’ compared with dogged field-work among the poor tribals—a view reinforced, no doubt, by the un-saleability of theoreti¬cal essays in the top American journals.

But Essays on Linguistics add¬resses a very real need; it deals with precisely the type of questions, and linguistic terrain, that specifically in¬terest serious students of linguistics in India. A large number of our linguistics stu¬dents are fascinated by psycho-linguistics: and their line of enquiry is fully compatible with the issues raised in this book. Which is why despite the ponderous, scholarly, technical style (surprisingly billed as for ‘informed lay¬men’ as well!). Essays on Linguistics will probably be popular here—especially at the absurdly low price of Rs 6.75.

But again we have asked the outside world to interpret it¬self for us through the mirror of English, so our vision is not complete An Indian trans¬lator sifting through the lar¬ger Soviet compendium may have found even more crucial papers to translate. But per¬haps this is just wishful think¬ing. If we cannot see beyond the mincing slokas to the awesome alternate reality in the linguistic logic of our own Sanskrit traditions, except through the eyes of the West, then we may not really be ready to look after ourselves as linguist Peggy Mohan is ICSSR Fellow, Centre of English and Linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


Review Details

Book Name: Essays on Linguistics: Language Systems and Structures
Reviewer name: Peggy Mohan
Author name: The Institute of Linguistics
Book Year: 1982
Publisher Name: Progress Publishers, Moscow
Book Price: $ 6.75
Book Pages: 298