LINGUIST List 28.2022

Mon May 01 2017

Review: Anthro Ling; Ling & Lit; Socioling: Finnegan (2015)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 25-Jan-2016
From: Sherrie Lee <>
Subject: Where is Language?
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Ruth Finnegan
TITLE: Where is Language?
SUBTITLE: An Anthropologist's Questions on Language, Literature and Performance
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Sherrie Lee, University of Waikato

Reviews Editor: Robert A. Coté


The book “Where is Language? An Anthropologist’s Questions on Language, Literature and Performance” is a collection of thoughts about language by renowned scholar and anthropologist, Ruth Finnegan, who is currently Emeritus and Research Professor at the Open University, UK. Her call for “a more multiplex, challenging, but more contextually situated understanding of language, literature, and performance” (p. iv) stems from her ethnographic work in Africa, England and Fiji . The book questions the assumptions held by many researchers and scholars about language and how it is perceived and expressed. Finnegan’s unique insights into the nature of language will appeal to researchers interested in orality, literacy, narrative, ideology, and performance of different cultural communities. Finnegan’s engaging and lyrical prose will delight anyone who has a keen interest in understanding human communication, especially across cultures.

In Chapter 1, “Where is the Art of Language?”, Finnegan reflects on the essence of language by discussing the tensions between the performance aspect of language and how and for whom language is represented in written accounts. While Finnegan has published extensively about her anthropological research, she is careful to point out that her reflections are based on experience and not from a theoretical or specialist point of view.

Based on her experience of recording and transcribing African oral stories, she reflects on the difficulties of capturing the subtleties of live performance such as variations in pitch and tempo, and non-verbal expressions to convey a range of emotions and attitudes. The importance and challenges of documenting languages in her research has led her to re-evaluate the seemingly straightforward and neutral task of transcribing speech into written text. Her view of language has evolved to “seeing language as ultimately something spoken, performed, oral, … [not essentially] in written text but in active performance and interaction” (p. 4).

Finnegan acknowledges that there are unavoidable uncertainties in treating language as a dynamic entity, such as the multiple perceptions involved in communication among people. Indeed, there can be no one single or cross-culturally neutral or apolitical point of view of language. She reminds her readers that “all data, wherever it originates, has to be treated critically, with full awareness of the providers’ social situatedness, whether outside or within ‘the field’” (p. 13).

Finnegan contends that researchers will have to be selective in their choices in deciding what counts towards their analysis of language but reiterates that researchers need to be ever conscious of the fact they are making choices which will lead to particular views about the nature and working of language.

Chapter 2, “Playing with the Heroes of Human History”, critiques the dominant understanding of language and literacy, that is, the Western view that the written language in alphabetic writing is the true mark of rationality, civilization and progress. This in turn leads to an oversimplified vision of non-Western societies as not fully civilized by focusing on its oral practices and exclusion of other forms of communication.

Alongside contemporary alternative views of human communication, Finnegan considers the verbal and cognitive aspects of language to be merely part of a larger repertoire of communication modes, whether in Western or non-Western cultures. She points to scholars who highlight the reality and importance of recognising feeling and imagination, and non-verbal communication modes such as bodily gesture, dance and music.

Finnegan cautions researchers against assuming the prominence of the verbal element of language in communication and urges them to recognize the diverse modes of communication among different cultures, traditions and occasions. Even examining the verbal aspect of communication alone will inevitably involve considering other modes of expression and communication, as Finnegan shows in the remaining chapters.

In Chapter 3, “‘Artisting the Self’: The Craft of Personal Story”, Finnegan examines self-narrative, that is, stories people tell about themselves. She briefly outlines the theoretical aspects of narrative or story as a way to bring order and make sense of one’s life experiences and histories.

Using narrative examples from her research on people’s stories about their lives in a particular town in England, Finnegan shows that personal stories are not a simple reflection of reality or life but a way for the tellers of the stories to construct reality for themselves. This constructed reality often uses cultural conventions of sequence and coherence, for example, a plot that makes sense to the audience. At the same time, the stories were individually different, and creatively and interactively performed.

Finnegan draws attention to understanding oral narrations not so much as fixed written texts but as an expression based on people’s personal experiences, directed at a particular audience on a particular occasion.

In Chapter 4, “Forget the Words…: It's Performance!”, Finnegan highlights how understanding cultural and artistic performances are not just a matter of transcribing what was said, but that the meaning of these performances are extends to the way the performance was communicated, the participants and settings. She discusses three contrasting examples - an African community performance, a poetry performance, and Christmas carols. Through these examples, Finnegan shows how performance and text are not separate from each other but are dimensions of verbal art; neither is text more important than the other elements of the performance. The meanings of cultural and literary arts need to be explored through their multidimensional aspects.

Chapter 5, entitled “Reclothing the ‘Oral’”, takes readers through debates about oral versus literate societies and examines in detail how researchers, in particular anthropologists, have analysed oral cultures. Finnegan highlights the ethnocentric and limited grand narrative of Western culture - that non-Western traditional oral cultures are dominated by homogeneous and local thinking, and associated with an emphasis of emotion over reason, while Western cultures are characterised by civilized, secular and scientific thought.

Finnegan uses the work of anthropologist Jack Goody (e.g. 2000, 1998) to illustrate how vocal speech needs to be understood in its context, and not be subservient to its written counterpart. Finnegan notes that Goody (2000, 1998) rebuts the stereotype of oral cultures based on his research in African communities. For instance, Goody found that there were divergent views and attitudes among people in oral cultures, and questions the supremacy of writing over orality, given that oral speech remains a dominant form of human interaction.

Finnegan also reinforces earlier ideas about the complexity of oral speech, for example, that the meaning of a spoken language cannot be reducible to a transcription of speech. She concludes this chapter by stressing that the multidimensionality of the oral, that is, involves a range of dimensions and media such as visual, auditory, tactile, and material. She acknowledges that there is no straightforward way of unpacking oral language, but welcomes an openness and broadened perspective towards what is a rich and complex component of human communication.

In Chapter 6, “Song: What Comes First: Words, Music or Performance?”, Finnegan continues exploring the complexity of the oral in a different form, that of song, or music with words. She examines various approaches in understanding a song by looking at words, music, and performance. At times, scholars may find it necessary to identify them as separate entities, but Finnegan highlights that a thorough appreciation of a song must take into account “a recognition of the staged, performed actuality of sung words enacted by the voice …. [in that] performing moment” (p. 105).

Chapter 7, “Competence and Performance: Was Chomsky Right After All?”, evaluates Finnegan’s stance on language as a multilayered and creative performance by considering Chomsky’s view of language as being abstract and based on a universal competence in the person’s mind. While Finnegan has clearly argued the case for approaching language as performance in the preceding chapters, she nonetheless acknowledges that Chomsky’s cognitive view of language has its place.

In Chapter 8, “Poem and Story: The Arts of Dreaming and Waking to Sweet Words”, Finnegan explores the origin of human language by using her personal experience with creating stories based on her dreams. She suggests, perhaps tentatively, that dreams and imagination are the ultimate sources of human language.

In the concluding chapter, “Where is Literature?”, Finnegan argues that literature should not be thought of as written text or oral performance, but rather, should be understood in multiple ways literature is expressed and embodied. In her view, all literature is performed. Finnegan concludes that it is important to recognise the multiplexity of language, and hence literature, so that it avoids the ethnocentric view of the Western written form of literature as being the main reference, and allows an “understanding and appreciation of all literatures of the world” (p. 141).


Finnegan has taken on a complex task of trying to uncover the multifaceted and interrelated entities of language, literature, communication, and performance. While it is impossible to have a comprehensive understanding of language in all its variation and situatedness, Finnegan marshals her own experiences and scholarly knowledge to put together a convincing argument that language and communication is neither one-dimensional nor neutral. Any researcher claiming an understanding of language, or of people and culture through language, need to be cognizant of the multiple modes and the interactional and creative nature of language.

As the author’s intention was to offer personal reflection rather than to provide a comprehensive treatise on the nature of language, the writing may come across as repetitive at times, especially when there are many overlapping aspects of language and communication. In addition, some chapters could have been better connected to the overall argument, in particular Chapters 3 and 8. For example, Chapter 3 could have explored the performance aspect of personal storytelling in more detail.

Overall, the book is a fine addition to contemporary understanding of language and communication. While novices in the field may need to refer to other texts for background information, graduate students and researchers will appreciate Finnegan’s detailed and passionate arguments. The book is a timely reminder of the Western bias in much of language-related analysis, and the need to be open to the complexity and dynamic nature of language in all cultures and contexts.


Goody, Jack. 1998. Food and love. A cultural history of East and West. New York: Verso.

Goody, Jack. 2000. The power of the written tradition. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.


Sherrie is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education at the University of Waikato. Her research focuses on informal learning practices of international students. As a committee member of the Postgraduate Students’ Association, she is actively involved in organising social and professional development events, as well as advocating support for postgraduate students. She was formerly a business communications lecturer at a polytechnic in Singapore. She completed her Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) at the University of Southern California. In her previous research, she examined the identity of an English learner as influenced by competing discourses and social relationships.

Page Updated: 01-May-2017