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After Babel: Aspects ofLanguage and Translation, by George Steiner; pp. 507. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975, $20.00. Discussed by Christopher Norris The critical reception of After Babel, since its publication more than a year ago, provides another chapter in the history of closedshop academic attitudes which Steiner sets out to challenge. The book has received remarkably little attention from the linguists, philosophers and cultural historians—the community, in short, of which Steiner himself is part and whose concerns he also deeply questions. One reason for this lack of attention is doubtless the academic narrowness which regards such mixing of disciplines as a kind of professional affront. Another is probably the feeling induced by Steiner's immoderate show of learning, the feeling that one man could not possibly have read so much, or could only have covered it by hunting selectively through footnotes and abstracts. Certainly Steiner is a great seeker-out of handy information, sometimes thrown off with a point-making neatness which omits a large background of argument. Yet Steiner proceeds by massing such evidence precisely against the kind of specialized, hermetic thinking which has lately overtaken the linguists and philosophers of language. He is opposed in particular to the theorists of transformational grammar, with their reductive emphasis on the "deep structures" of syntax which supposedly form the basis of all human language. It is here that he brings up the range of conflicting evidence—from ethnolinguistics and other comparative disciplines—by way of questioning the a priori assumptions of current language-theory. To this extent, the open-eyed eclecticism is a part of the book's argumentative structure, and not to be criticized as such. If the legacy of Babel is in one sense the doom of cultural isolation, it can also be seen as a richness of linguistic options and compensations, a diversity which cannot be rationalized— only denied or obscured—by the putative "sciences" of language. There is another, more important aspect of Steiner's eclecticism which also strikes at the heartof any abstract or generalizingtheory of language. This involves the cardinal idea of his book: that the act of translation, or of moving preconsciously between languages, is in many ways the paradigm of all linguistic competence. Steiner himself claims an equal though shifting fluency in English, French and German, together with a knowledge of other languages normally "just out of hearing." He 107 108Philosophy and Literature believes that some such multi-lingual matrix must be the ground of any qualified talk about linguistic production and the "logic" of individual grammars. Generative syntax and its various offshoots may, Steiner thinks, have their own heuristic value as devices for mapping out the broadest regularities of language. But they cannot in the end go far towards explaining the inherent diversity, or ambiguous richness, of language at large. Only from the standpoint of a working account of translation can the linguist become aware of the far-reaching subtleties, the intuitive checks and balances, involved in the native character of a language. Steiner refers to Greenberg (p. 98), whose list of grammatical "universale" is in fact confined to the empirical study of not more than thirty individual languages. More generally, he objects that Chomsky and his followers have developed their ideas in rigid disregard of comparative factors, or indeed of all languages apart from English and its nearest relatives. Possibly Steiner is too much impressed by the sheer diversity of tongues: the "four to five thousand" languages now in use, and the fact that every day "some ancient and rich expression of articulate being is lapsing into irretrievable silence." The fact of multiplicity need not mean in principle that there is no potential basis for a universal grammar. Steiner is rather apt to harp on striking particulars—like the absence in certain languages of a clear noun/verb distinction—as if somehow to "prove" this bottomless relativity. But the real force of his argument lies in the other, more positive aspect of this basically differentialawareness of language. Ethnolinguistics and comparative data only go to confirm what a sensitive speaker makes out instinctively through his own developing experience. The bases of language are not to be found by pushing...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 107-117
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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