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.)
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.
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.