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  • Are some languages better than others? by R. M. W. Dixon
  • Daniel Currie Hall
R. M. W. Dixon. 2016. Are some languages better than others? Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. vii + 272. $24.50 (paperback).

Are some languages better than others? The question posed in the title of this book is, as Dixon acknowledges, one that not many linguists would ask. And indeed, the book is not written for linguists, but for a general audience. To some extent, its provocative title serves as a pretext for showing the reader a glimpse of the diversity of spoken human languages, with sections illustrating cross-linguistic variation in features such as case, tense, negation, possession, evidentiality, and definiteness. (Signed languages are not mentioned at all.) Many of the examples come from languages [End Page 148] Dixon has worked on in his long and distinguished career as a descriptive linguist and fieldworker, in particular Dyirbal (indigenous to the Australian state of Queensland) and Jarawara (indigenous to the Brazilian state of Amazonas). But Dixon's purpose here is not solely descriptive, and he argues (in chapter 1) that the question in the title is one that should be taken seriously as part of the scientific study of language.

Linguists have shied away from asking this question, Dixon suggests, because of its racist history; in distancing ourselves from colonialist prejudices about the relative worth of languages, we have retreated into a dogmatic insistence on equality. But, he contends, "[i]f linguistics is to be regarded as a natural science […] then evaluation must be an element in its modus operandi" (p. 8). For Dixon, evaluation is one of the four goals of any science, the other three being description, explanation, and prediction. I am skeptical about the inclusion of evaluation as a defining property of science–does a zoologist ask whether some animals are better than others? Does an astronomer try to identify the best stars? Zoologists' research might help a rancher decide which animals are the best to raise for a particular purpose in a particular climate, and the work of astronomers might tell a navigator which stars are the most useful to steer by, but these are examples of how scientific knowledge may be applied, and not necessarily part of the practice of science itself.

In any case, if one wants to ask whether some languages are better than others, one must first define the criteria of evaluation. Dixon addresses this question promptly in section 1.1, and returns to it in chapter 9, "Better for what purpose?" The functions of language he identifies are essentially social ones: the list in section 1.1 comprises "assisting in the process of belonging", "enabling cooperative endeavour", "reflecting social organisation", "display[ing] emotions", "convey[ing] information", "aesthetic expression", "scholarly thought and argumentation", and "proselytisation" (pp. 2–4). But the grammatical features he discusses in the rest of the book are almost entirely irrelevant to the practical matter of choosing a language that will most effectively serve these purposes. A language's suitability for social goals depends on its social properties, not its structural ones. If I want to convey information or emotion, or to convince an audience of some proposition, what I care about is what languages my intended audience knows, and what social values they assign to them–not which language has the optimal number of tenses or cases. A person who is campaigning to be Prime Minister of Canada needs to be able to make their case in English and French, not because English and French have formal properties that are particularly suited to political persuasion, but simply because they are the official languages of Canada, and the ones with the largest numbers of speakers. The factors that make a language better or worse for the purposes Dixon identifies are external to the language itself.

One exception might be the function of "reflecting social organisation": presumably Dyirbal kinship terms do a better job of reflecting what familial relationships are important in Dyirbal society than those of other languages, and Korean honorific markers are particularly well suited to reflecting Korean norms of politeness and social structure. But such statements seem almost tautological, and the observation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-1115
Print ISSN
0008-4131
Pages
pp. 148-152
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-21
Open Access
No
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