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  • Are some languages better than others? by R. M. W. Dixon
  • Lars Johanson
Are some languages better than others? By R. M. W. Dixon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. vii, 272. ISBN 9780198766810. $40 (Hb).

This treatise unabashedly poses the simple polar question of whether some languages are ‘better’ than others. Dixon, an extraordinarily experienced linguist, is of course wise enough not to answer with a plain ‘yes’ or ‘no’. At the end of the book, he even completely leaves the decision to his readers: ‘It is up to you, the reader, to decide’ (245).

Before this final plea, however, close to 250 pages are devoted to preparing the issue in a careful and detailed way. D first states that it is legitimate and necessary to compare the relative worth of languages. Like every other science, he argues, linguistics has the fundamental task of evaluation. It is now time to fulfill this task and embark on a measured evaluation of the worth of different languages. The book aims to be a first step in this direction.

The fact that many linguists reject comparisons of this kind has its obvious reasons. The first stage in the history of linguistic evaluation was based on the belief in the superiority of European languages and the assumption that languages of other groups were primitive. D is certainly right in describing this as a racist approach, which partly still lives on (18–21). In many cases, however, the reason was sheer ignorance. We all remember the old bizarre statements of missionaries reporting that the exotic languages they were confronted with were so imperfect and difficult that their native speakers preferred not to use them.

The reaction to this stage was a second stage, a stage of redress. Anxious to avoid unfair evaluation, linguists had to emphasize, ‘as loud as was possible’ (20), that no language spoken in the world today is primitive and that all languages are about equal in complexity. According to D, linguists have now devoted about a hundred years to ‘redress of the racist idea’ (20), and thus it is time for a new, scientific assessment of the worth of languages.

A human language has several vital functions, for instance, to assist in ‘the process of belonging’ (2), to enable cooperative endeavor, to reflect social organization, to display emotions, and to convey information. It must be usable as a means for aesthetic expression, as a vehicle for scholarly thought and argumentation, as the conduit for proselytization, and as a means for persuasion and exhortation. These functions are dealt with in detail and properly exemplified.

Several chapters, especially Ch. 2, are devoted to the ways languages work. D explores (i) what is needed, (ii) what is desirable but not universal, and (iii) what is not really needed. All languages distinguish the three main speech acts (statements, commands, and questions), but they do so with different degrees of effectiveness. Many elements may in principle be desirable, but there is scarcely need for irregularities, suppletion, or grammatical and semantic redundancy. It is difficult to determine how many lexemes a language needs and how many words most of the non-major languages actually have. An ‘educated guess’ (172) might be between five and ten thousand. English and other major languages have many more, mainly because of numerous particular fields of activity that require specialized terminologies. In larger societies, every specialist group employs its own technical terms. In smaller language communities, D claims, the vocabulary covers all relevant aspects of the social and physical environment. [End Page 475]

As far as the limits of a language are concerned, D asserts, it is important to identify what must be expressed, for example, mood, negation, possession, and identifying roles. A different question is what can be expressed. Particularly interesting are the difficulties of translating culture-specific statements between languages. Certain grammatical elements, such as aspect categories, also pose considerable problems. D concludes that not everything that can be said in one language may be rendered into another with reasonable facility. ‘Everything can be said in every language’ is a false maxim (187).

Across all human societies, there are recurrent functions that must be fulfilled...


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pp. 475-477
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