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  • Are some languages better than others? by R.M.W. Dixon
  • Ravi Parihar
R.M.W. Dixon. 2016. Are some languages better than others? Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. vii + 272. £21.88 (hardcover).

Dixon has written many important texts, such as I am a linguist (2011), Australian languages: Their nature and development (2002), The rise and fall of languages (1997), A grammar of Yidiɲ (1977), and The Dyirbal language of North Queensland (1972). The book Are some languages better than others? is not as technical as Dixon's other works. It is written in a simple style and straightforward manner, making it accessible to the general public. Although readily understandable, the book still discusses complex issues and aspects. For instance, Dixon not only [End Page 145] describes his fieldwork experiences with languages such as Jarawara, Dyirbal, Tariana, but also provides general definitions and illustrations of linguistic terms. The book contains eleven chapters, supported by notes and sources, references, index, etc.

In chapter 1, "Setting the scene", Dixon argues that language is the basic means of expression of human beings, and one of its foremost functions is providing information. While discussing the functionality of languages, he adds that the languages spoken in the contemporary world are more sophisticated than the earliest languages. Dixon states that initially, languages had limited vocabulary and their communication system was primarily dependent on gestures. Gradually, with the passage of time, these languages developed their vocabulary and grammatical mechanisms and became more sophisticated. Modern-day languages are now used for a variety of functions, such as social organization, aesthetic expression, argumentation, and proselytizing (the political function), which were not possible with the earliest languages.

"How languages work", the second chapter, describes the components of a language: a grammar and a lexicon. The grammar and the lexicon are interdependent, that is, "interlocked" (p. 25) for the proper functioning of a language. Further, Dixon discusses the eyewitness (evidentiality) and non-eyewitness concepts in Jarawara. Similar concepts, which seem to be universal, are discussed by Everett (2005) for Pirahã, an Amazonian language spoken in Brazil (p. 622–623). However, Dixon specifies how languages can be different from one another; he compares English and Jarawara which, unlike English, does not distinguish between /l/ and /r/ phonemes. To further illustrate his description of how languages work, Dixon explains that any language having 12 consonants and 3 vowels can have in principle 36 monosyllables of the CV pattern type and 1296 disyllables of the CVCV pattern. This statement is based only on the logical combinatorial possibilities of the phonemes; Dixon does not show that any particular language exhibits all of the possibilities.

Chapter 3, entitled "What is necessary", discusses the grammatical features that are available in the languages of the world that the author considers essential components of a language. These include statements, commands, questions, and the system of negating an expression. Dixon tackles the topic of polar and content questions: polar questions can be either statements or questions in disguise (with final raising intonation), whereas content questions are always formed using Wh-question words. While discussing the necessity of grammatical features, Dixon claims that, for clause linking, explicit coordination markers such as and and disjunction markers such as or, are highly desirable in a language (p. 72). Other features, such as gender and tense, are not necessary (p. 47).

In chapter 4, "What is desirable", Dixon further explores features of the world's languages, putting emphasis on their desirability. He states that it is desirable for languages to have genders and classifiers, even though they are absent in some languages. Also, Dixon argues that a language having no articles faces difficulties, since contrasts in meaning are lost. Dixon states that elements like an evidentiality system, comparative constructions, reflexives, and reciprocals are valuable assets to a [End Page 146] language. He also asserts that the causative construction is an advantageous feature, while according less importance to applicatives.

In Chapter 5, "What is not (really) needed", the author shifts his focus from the grammatical aspects of language to style of speech and writing. Dixon contrasts the repetition of lexemes, words, or phrases in a speech from formal writing. He argues that...


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