On Language: Descent from the Tower of Babel

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Using the fruits of the latest research in linguistics, history, psychology, and neurology, poet and critic Rod Mengham takes a new look at the origins, ends, and development of language. In a colorful examination that ranges from the details of brain functions to tracking the spread of Indo-European, the largest family of languages in the world, Mengham reveals how these processes have become complicated by successive waves of technological advance - by writing, by movable type and printing, by the telephone, by...
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Overview

Using the fruits of the latest research in linguistics, history, psychology, and neurology, poet and critic Rod Mengham takes a new look at the origins, ends, and development of language. In a colorful examination that ranges from the details of brain functions to tracking the spread of Indo-European, the largest family of languages in the world, Mengham reveals how these processes have become complicated by successive waves of technological advance - by writing, by movable type and printing, by the telephone, by computer networks. It is through language that human beings define themselves and their world. Studying the histories of societies and the lives of individuals, On Language analyzes how cultures are organized around language, from literary classics to advertising slogans, and reflects on the rise of dictionaries, translations, and universal language schemes. Above all, Mengham uncovers the fundamental role that language plays in the process of social change and demonstrates how it can be used equally as a force for conservatism or for radical innovation in the formation of nationality and family, gender and class. Throughout this extensive study, Mengham's arguments are persuasive, his conclusions controversial.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Mengham begins this selective, erudite overview of languages by reviewing neurological research that suggests the brain is structured according to a preexistent pattern including universally shared aspects of language. He brings the latest scholarship to bear on such issues as the origins of writing and of alphabets, patterns of language dispersal, the increase of ambiguity in ancient Greek under Athenian democracy, and modern attempts to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European, a mother tongue which flourished over 6000 years ago, giving rise to Greek, Sanskrit, Slavonic, Iranian, Germanic and other language groups. Director of studies in English at Cambridge University, Mengham also delves into such topics as Samuel Johnson's famed dictionary, the impact of nationalism and class divisions on literature from the American and French Revolutions to the 1840s, and today's lingos of advertising and ``computerspeak.'' (Apr.)
Library Journal
In this thin volume, Mengham (English, Cambridge Univ.) surveys the history and purpose of language. He begins with brain physiology, then moves on to ``purpose'' chapters that explore the dynamics between language and social, economic, and political systems. Unlike recent books by William Safire and Robert Lederer, this work is more analytical and theoretical, using current linguistic, philosophical, and psychological research to try to show that ``the human muddle rather than the original ideal of language is viewed as its creative source.'' Examples are generally drawn from English literature and the classics but are well enough explained to make the book accessible. Some quibbles with the work: though the discussion intrigues, conclusions are seldom really driven home; few examples are up-to-date; and it's very British. Consequently, in the United States this is primarily for research collections.-Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.
Roland Wulbert
In an excellent introduction to language studies--this century's major contribution to understanding social life--Mengham summarizes research on the links between language and the biology of the brain, investigation of the difference between writing and speech, sociolinguistics, rhetoric, problems of radical translation, the Rosetta Stone, the origin of writing in pharaonic Egypt or Mesopotamia or Iran writing was originally allied with counting and in all likelihood served the needs of business rather than religion, philology the history of the growth and diversification of language families, a major theoretical concern of Mengham's, and linguistic gender and class differences. The chapters are crammed with intriguing facts: e.g., boustrophedonic languages are written and read in alternating lines of opposite direction, such as left to right and right to left. What in other hands might have been a welter of facts is in Mengham's circumspectly integrated by means of theoretical concerns originating in Nietzsche's writings on what he called "geneology." The most original passages, which make "On Language" something more than a mere introduction to language studies, are exegeses of texts; e.g., a close reading of the Oresteia that reveals the tragedy in individual attempts to create language in opposition to tradition.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316566711
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 3/3/1994
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 188
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction: Hearing voices, seeing signs 1
1 Syntax and circuitry: language, mind and brain 15
2 Graphic equalizer: language in writing and speech 27
3 The curse from Babel: the distribution of languages 51
4 On parole: language in society 75
5 Worlds of words: universal grammars, encyclopaedic dictionaries 99
6 Ties of the tongue: language, nation, class and gender 121
7 The debt to meaning: language and money 141
8 The curse of babble: the language of distribution 159
Notes 179
Bibliography 182
Index 185
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