Mind your tongue

September 17, 2009

What an unpopular chap Raphael Salkie is likely to be around the University of Oxford ("Strange death of Oxford linguistics", August). He begins his gracious, intelligent and even-tempered discussion of Roy Harris' Rationality and the Literate Mind by helpfully reflecting on the author's scholarly bona fides.

Unless I am being very dense, Salkie says that Oxford's appointment of Harris to its first professorship of general linguistics was a "bizarre intellectual crime", the outcome of a "tangled web of intrigue and ignorance". Does he have a shred of evidence for these offensive insinuations?

He then accuses Harris of "casual nastiness" and, in light of his criticism of the loadedness of the word "delusion" in Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Salkie remarks: "rarely can a blacker pot have condemned a kettle". Perhaps so, although it seems that occasionally an even blacker pot turns up. Still, what has The God Delusion got to do with Harris' book, the one ostensibly under review, you ask? There I cannot help you.

There are many errors in Salkie's piece about Harris (it is difficult to call it a book review): I won't comment on these. Let me mention instead what I see as its overarching misconception concerning linguistics.

Salkie complains: "Harris has produced virtually nothing that is recognisable as linguistics: instead, he has attacked the discipline for resting on illusions."

While the first claim here is open to debate, the second is unquestionably correct; and it needs to be added that Harris' attack on the discipline's fundamental assumptions has been done, in the course of a dozen or more books, by way of detailed, forensic argument. But what is then puzzling is that Salkie deplores this, regarding the critique of the discipline's fundamental assumptions as "not linguistics".

Salkie evidently has a strictly conformist approach. He seems unhealthily keen to banish - rather than report and debate the ideas of - this Oxonian "outsider" (his term).

Michael Toolan, Professor of English language, University of Birmingham.

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