A vivid commentary on Jewish survival and Jewish speech communities that will be enjoyed by the general reader, and is essential reading for students and researchers interested in the study of Middle Eastern languages, Jewish studies, and sociolinguistics.
The content of the book is clearly indicated in its title. It is described by the writer as a textbook (xv)and assumes no previous acquaintance with the subject.
In accordance with its teaching aims, its material is organised in labelled sections and subsections, the endnotes contain references only, additional information is displayed in user-friendly boxes, pictorial illustrations are provided, and there is an avoidance of advanced linguistic or philosophical jargon. The instructional aim is also revealed throughout by thought-provoking questions and comments directly addressed to the reader; for example, describing an argument in the Occitan "Leys d'Amors" there is a parenthetical question that asks "what word class would you consign 'Mr' and 'Mrs' to?" (203). At the same time, this is not a book for school children, for it contains no oversimplifications or over-generalisations; Law's scrupulous attention to details and to maintaining as far as possible the highest standards of scholarliness result in a book that will be appreciated by academics at any stage of their career, and that is an important reference for students of the history of thought, not just of linguistic thought.
While the book teems with facts, ideas, comments and analyses, Law has remained alive to the difficulties readers face in coming upon streams of facts new to them, the sheer memory overload that occurs when reading chunks of linguistic thought of the "Plato argued . . . Aristotle said . . . Priscian wrote . . ." type. Such bald reporting is avoided, and we are given in its place a coherent history in the course of which the different ideas and practices of those who wrote about language are disclosed in their natural places and within their explanatory contexts.The advantages of this includethose coming from use ofa single person's "sense of perspective" of "the grand themes and recurring patterns of the 2,500 years of European Intellectual history" which, Law notes, "is what disappears between the cracks in a multi-authored history" (xv). To illustrate a further advantage, whereas books like Harris and Taylor (1997) (while serving a great need) tell us what certain people thought about language, Law shows us why they thought that way.
The use of boxes rather than extended footnotes or simple references to other works dealing with the points referred to is more than just a matter of making information more accessible; it enables the writer to add a large amount to the main text without detracting from the flow of the story of ideas. It takes great skill and dedication to collect so much information and to present it so clearly and with such apparent ease, so much so that when one considers the total number of facts presented - even in the boxes alone - one is not surprised to learn that the book is based upon 25 years of research (xvi). The boxes cover a very wide range of topics from "what is a Golden Age" (Box 3.1, 39) to lists of the Church Fathers (Box 5.3, 98), the Modists (Box 8.7. 174) and of Early European grammars of Non-European languages (Box 10.4, 219). There are lists for further reading within each box as well as bibliographies at the end of each chapter. These would be good places for postgraduate students to start dissertation workas, especially, would be the last section of the book, "Research resources for the history of linguistics" (284-289).
The need for such a book.
Up until now, the student of linguistic thought has had recourse to very few surveys that cover the period from Classical Greece to 1600. Robins (1967) has been the only English language book to cover this and later periods within the same covers; its wider chronological scope, however, necessarily results in much less space being given to this early period than the 257 pages that take us up to 1600 in Law. The same is true of Mounin (1974) who, in an introduction that provides a brief history of histories of linguistics,identifies a complete lack of satisfactory historical surveys up tothe early 20th century(Wilhelm Thomsen's "Sprogvidenskabens Historie"; Copenhagen, 1902), and the scarcity of such surveys, in any language,since then.They are all, he says, either too cursory, or toodated, or not focussed upon linguistics proper, or paying little to no attention to earlier periods of thought (8-9). Robins (1967) is named as the only survey that can satisfy our demands for contextual and causal explanations (10).
In addition to the general lack of surveys, full-scale studies of the Middle Ages have been particularly scarce, whereas references to and discussions of Classical theories of language and to those of the later Renaissance period are plentiful, if scattered. Law made these intervening ages her particular domain and published extensively in the area; more extensively, perhaps, than anyone else. In the middle chapters of this book, then, she is writing about her special interest and for once we find a survey that does not lump all the complex issues of those hundreds of years into one amorphous entity referred to as 'medieval'. Here, not only are the Middle Ages given a little more space than the Classical Ages and the Renaissance, but they are presented with their own chronological and thematic subdivisions (Christianity, the early middle ages, the Carolingian Renaissance, Scholasticism, Medieval vernacular grammars). This may be contrasted with the approach of Harris and Taylor (1997), who selected for their book works mostly "composed either before 100AD or after 1650AD", explaining this huge gap by claiming that inclusion of more medieval and Renaissance writers "would have promoted the work of those periods to a level of importance which its limited originality does not warrant in Western Linguistic thought" (viii). Robins (1967), who gave us 33 pages, or an average-length chapter, on the Middle Ages, had indicated however that this period may be not so much uninteresting as under researched, saying that "a great deal remains to be done before a really satisfactory full-scale historical treatment of the years linking Western antiquity with the modern world can be envisaged" (vi). As Law also does in her introduction, he warned the reader against the arrogance of dismissing the ideas and discoveries of one age just because another age (our own) does not place importance on the same questions: "the aims of science vary in the course of its history and the search for objective standards by which to judge the purposes of different periods is apt to be an elusive one" (1967, 3). Law, friend and "spiritual daughter" (Matthews 2002, 12)of Robins, finds perhaps the best alternative to objective standards in this case to lie in one major attribute - the "fundamental attitude" required of scholars of history - that is, empathy (2003, 276). Both in terms of scholarship and, ultimately, of ethics, she claims that empathy with one's sources is essential, and the attempt to demonstrate and instil such an empathetic approach informs and moulds the whole of her book.
Mounin had, in a way, hinted at the necessity for empathy or something like it, when he stressed that no thinker, however much of a genius he may be, is "alone on his individual Mount Sinai, but a link in a very long chain. The history of any science presents us with a dose of humility" (1974, 20). Law's book, with its empathy-inducing narration of the ebb and flow of ideas (2003, 8) administers such a dose, in a most pleasurable way. It challenges assumptions of the "limited originality" of thinkers in any of the ages it touches upon, making the reader aware not only of thenew ideasthat were, in fact, happening during the derided Medieval period, but also, indirectly, of the narrowness and historicity of our demands for and definitions of "originality". Linguists of the Middle Ages were, after all, the first to tackle the huge and multifarious issues of foreign languages and their diversity, to study linguistic form in structured declensions and paradigms, and the first to create a developed metalanguage for grammar (199). Early Humanists wrote comparative word lists from different languages, the direct ancestors of later comparisons which lead to the Comparative Method of historical linguistics; and it was in these early days of the Renaissance that morphology and articulatory phonetics were at last paid attention to in the western world (through 16th century translations of Hebrew grammars (247), ultimately fashioned on Arabic works of the 9th century (241).). I think Robins, who called this "the book that is to replace me" (Law 2003, xvi), would have agreed that this is a "really satisfactory full-scale treatment" of these much neglected years of linguistic thought.
The balancing of erudition and education
Self-awareness as a (human and) methodological necessity is a strong if mostlyhidden message in this book, and Law's integrity is again evident in the awareness of herself and of her methods that she shows. Calling herself "a researcher rather than a textbook-writer by temperament" (xvi), she identifies the two elements of detailed scholarship and explanatory clarity which are often played against each other, or watered-down, in the search for a compromise in teaching books - and which she has here so successfully reconciled. Covering what must be all the main Western grammarians and writers about language in a 2,000 year period, she manages to present more specific details and analyses from individual works than do any of the other surveys mentioned in this review. This interplay of the broad view and the deep analysis may be illustrated with one of many possible examples: her discussion of Donatus (65-80):
A very brief biography (not much else is known) is followed by a description of the "Ars Maior" and the "Ars Minor". The "Ars Maior's" structure is then given, with the contents of each of the 3 books into which it is divided being listed (67-68). Law shows how the structure of the work echoes the structure of language as understood by the ancients (68-69). The reader is now reminded of the philosophical basis for such an understanding of language and treatment of material. This leads to a presentation of one chapter from the "Ars Minor", translated into English and set out on the left hand side of pages 70-72, with Law's detailed comments on the right hand side. This gloss comments directly on the text and at the same time establishes links with broader issues. The discussion moves on to a more detailed analysis of the structure of the chapter, set out in a tree diagram (76) and of the advantages and disadvantages of organizing knowledge in such hierarchical or vertical structures - reminding us on the way that "in both syntax and historical linguistics, the heavy use of tree diagrams has recently brought to light the limitations of the model. In other spheres of life, too, hierarchical models lead to difficulties in dealing simultaneously with diversity and equality" (76). Moving back to Donatus, we are now told that for eight centuries this structure was used in textbooks on any subject, even though "the inability of the hierarchical model to cope with horizontal relationships brought grammarians up against the biggest problem in western linguistics: how to relate meaning and form in a single framework" (76, 78[77 and most of 78 are taken up with Box 4.10, Latin inflectional morphology]). Two pages detailing how Donatus deals with issues of form now follow, and the section is concluded with a summary of the achievements and shortcomings of this grammar.
The reader gains a very clear idea of exactly what Donatus's grammar contains, how it sets out and discusses its contents, its ordering and influence, as well as why he uses the categories and orders he has, where these ideas came from and what consequences they had. Donatus's work has been placed within the local context of other known Schulgrammatik works (names and dates given in Box 4.7 with up to date editions cited) and the chapter continues with a discussion of Donatus's commentators, equally well referenced, and more discussions of grammar as found in those commentators. In this way Law overcomes the dual problems of "too much linguistic history with too little analytic interpretation [in histories of linguistics, and ] . . . too much text with too little commentary [in anthologies] (Harris and Taylor, vii-viii).
One of the difficulties facing students new to any historical subject is a lack of information about what knowledge and which earlier works were or were not available to the writers of any particular age. For all ages, but especially for those before the printed book, we have very few references works that will help us to ascertain the reading habits of our subjects. Law is particularly good at giving us this sort of information, telling us, for instance, that to medieval scholars "Plato's writings were all but unknown" (162). Likewise, the popularity and influence of medieval books are mentioned (Alexander on pages 180-181, Aelfric on page 195), and the excitement with which Aristotle was rediscovered is in the way brought to life (especially on page 162)
Another way in which Law's erudition and scholarliness become evident is related to detail. It takes dedication to look up "which planets were in conjunction in the third week of December 1991" (xvi), a piece of information used merely to illustrate an argument about the historicity of historical explanations (4). There are many examples of this sort of delightful detail: the morpheme was first mentioned in 1896, we are told (68), in a by-the-way parenthesis; indexes and tables of contents became routine only from the 13th century (70); collections of pressed flowers began in the 16th century (214). Such gems are provided throughout the book in a generous sharing of interest.
There are many other praiseworthy aspects of this book that deserve mention, but the reader will have understood whatthis reviewerconsiders to be itsmost outstandingstrengths (beautifully presented scholarliness).Some remainingcomments may, then, be summarizedin this section. First of all, the subject matter is treated with full respect to its importance in the place of human understanding (it is, ultimately, the history of thinking about thinking: a uniquely human attribute, as Law says (xvii).). This justifies, quite naturally, utilization of all the writer's considerable powers and skills of understanding, explaining and the use ofyears' worth of familiarity with primary as well as secondary sources. Nothing can replace first hand knowledge of the texts, and anecdotes and morsels of information gleaned from experience handling manuscripts illuminate many pages, making the subject an enticing prospect for future researchers. A good example of this may be found in her comments on female scribes and writers (Box 8.6, 170). Next, the matter of layout is extremely important because, as she showed in her analyses of early grammars, choice of structure largely determines what can and what cannot be made manifest. Sections and sub-sectionshere follow a chronological order, but the extensive use of boxes overcomes the constraints of chronology and enables us to make thematic links which may otherwise be hidden. Similarly, they enable us to follow the story beyond the Renaissance and up to the present day in various ways, something which is more explicitly undertaken in Chapter 11, "A brief overview of linguistics since 1600".
Finding any negative criticism is next to impossible in such a work, and seems the worst sort of nit-picking when faced with strengths of the type described above. There are nevertheless a few (very few) typographical errors that the publishers may wish to take note of for the next printing: a misplaced parenthesis (32, line 1), "here" for "there" (72, gloss on cases), a missing "the" (271, second line of last paragraph), andthe word"lsagwge" that I cannot understand at all and think must be an error (220).InBox 10.11 (294) the letters "v", "y" and "v" (again) are described as "servile" in "veysismor" -I think the second mention of "v" is incorrect and should perhaps read "s".Not knowing Hebrew I cannot be sure of this, however. I also wondered about Law's use of the word "mystery" in reference to the various "mystery centres" of the ancient world (42). These are more usually called 'mystic centres' (especially in relation to Pythagoras); but later repetition of the same word with the same meaning, the "mystery cults of the ancient near east" (like Mithraism)(95), leads me to suspect that she may have used this word intentionally, referring to places of divine revelation perhaps (as in the second definition given in the OED), orto indicate the differences both anthropologically and religiously between the ancient practices she is referring to and the modern associations of the word 'mystic'. I bow down willingly before Law's greater knowledge.
This review must not end on a negative or even questioning note. The book is going to be a revered classic in its field. It is a fitting memorial to a superb and much loved scholar.
Harris, Roy and Talbot J. Taylor. (1997). Landmarks in Linguistic Thought I. The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. 2nd edition. London: Routledge.
Oxford English Dictionary online. http://www.oed.com/
Matthews, Peter. (2002). Personal tribute to Vivien Law in The Henry Sweet Bulletin No. 38, May 2002; 12-13.
Mounin, Georges. (1974). Histoire de la linguistique des origines au XXe siecle. Presses Universitaires de France.
Robins, R. H. (1967). A Short History of Linguistics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Margaret Sonmez has been teaching courses in linguistics, the history of
history of ideas, methodology and literatureat the Middle East Technical
University for the past10 years. Her research interests centre on
variation and change inEarly Modernwritten English.