Basic Linguistic Theory, Vols 1-3 – Book Review

Author: R. M. W. Dixon
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN 13: 978-0199571062, 978-0199571086, 978-0199571109

Reviewed by Howard Jackson, Centre for Linguistics, Translation and Literacy. Course Leader, MA in Field Linguistics.

What is language like? What are languages like? These are two questions that are fundamental to the discipline of linguistics. Linguists divide into two camps on the basis of which of these two questions they regard as more fundamental or to be the top priority for linguistic research. The first is pursued by ‘theoretical’ linguists, whose goal is to build a theory or model to ‘explain’ human language. The second is asked by ‘descriptive’ linguists, who see their primary goal as the investigation and description of the world’s thousands of languages. The approach of the first is deductive (from theory to hypothesis to data), that of the second inductive (from data to hypothesis to theory). Dixon belongs decidedly to the second camp; and his three-volume Basic Linguistic Theory, based on a lifetime’s work as a descriptive linguist, mounts a spirited defence of the inductive approach.

Dixon argues that linguists should proceed from language data to description, and from the descriptions of many languages to theory – the ‘basic linguistic theory’ of the title of his work. The theory is based on the cumulative knowledge and insights of descriptive linguists; and any new description of a previously unanalysed language could potentially modify the theory, if some previously unidentified feature is found or if a feature is used in a previously unrecorded manner. Languages must be analysed in their own terms; descriptive labels and terminology may be derived from the theory and applied to phenomena in the language under analysis that are sufficiently similar to those in other languages. Dixon maintains that no two languages are precisely the same in any feature, so that the theory must always be provisional.

The first Volume of Basic Linguistic Theory (BLT) is entitled ‘Methodology’. In it Dixon sets out his aims, to propose “an outline characterization of the structure of human language” (p.1), and to provide a manual for field linguistics, i.e. for those investigating previously unanalysed languages, in the field. Dixon is an experienced field linguist himself, having worked on languages of Australia, Fiji and the Amazon, among others, including English. What he has to say is of direct relevance to linguists working with SIL, who are engaged with analysing languages as a step towards Bible translation and literacy work. The first volume is essential reading for anyone training to become a field linguist. It outlines the scope of grammar, demonstrating the kinds of features that the grammatical systems of languages contain. It explains how to analyse languages and describe their grammars; it shows how to ‘do linguistics’ and engage in linguistic argumentation; and it gives tips on field linguistics. While the focus is on grammar, this volume also contains a chapter on phonology and on the lexicon (i.e. vocabulary), as well as on the issue of terminology.

The subsequent two volumes are concerned exclusively with grammar: Volume 2 ‘Grammatical Topics’ (487 pages) and Volume 3 ‘Further Grammatical Topics’ (545 pages). Grammar is the means by which words are tied together and is thus central to the analysis of a language. How the language is pronounced, what words and other expressions make up its vocabulary, how its discourses and texts are organised are all important; but, arguably, the grammatical systems of a language are somehow at the core. Volumes 2 and 3 cover a wide range of topics in the main areas of grammar; they are illustrated with examples from a variety of different languages and language types; and each chapter concludes with a ‘What to investigate’ section, giving a list of questions to guide a field linguist in investigating the particular grammatical topic under discussion. Volume 3 concludes with a useful chapter on ‘language and the world’, discussing how cultural factors, such as politeness and honour, may be reflected in a language’s grammar, as well as how geographical terrain, world view, kinship systems and size of the language community may influence grammar.

Dixon asserts that linguistic fieldwork should be undertaken for its own sake, and one of ‘poor reasons’ that he gives for doing fieldwork is “missionaries feel[ing] a call to translate parts of the Christian Bible into some new language” (Vol 1, p.310). He notes that some missionaries, who haven’t done the linguistics properly, end up producing poor translations; but he does acknowledge that there are missionaries who have done the linguistics well and who produce good grammatical descriptions and good translations. Dixon’s link between the adequacy of field linguistics, grammatical description, and quality of translation is a valid point and should be taken note of.

Although Bible translation is an important motivator for missionary field linguistics, one might argue that there is, for the Christian, another motivator. Language is one of the characteristics that define us as human beings created in the image of God. To study languages in all their variety and complexity is to seek to understand this attribute of our humanness which enables us to form relationships with God and with our fellow human beings. Dixon’s three-volume work on ‘basic linguistic theory’ is an excellent resource for doing that, as well as an essential vade mecum for the field linguist, whatever their motivation might be.

Please Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Redcliffe College.

Return to Issue 46.

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