Never knowingly upstaged: Leofranc Holford-Strevens takes on James Hurford and the Origins of Grammar.




When it comes to a work of non-fiction, we reasonably expect a review to deliver at least three things: a concise summary of content, an informed assessment of the main arguments, and some steer on whether the book is worth the purchase price.

In the London Review of Books there is a review of Professor James Hurford’s Origins of Grammar which fails on all three counts.  The summary of the book’s main sections is very far from concise. The assessment of the arguments is uninformed and isn’t fair. There is no recommendation to add or not to add the book to your shelves. By the end of this rambling piece it is clear that the reviewer, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, has lost track of the purpose of a book review and has instead used the space to parade his own knowledge-nuggets and the bees in his bonnet. You can read the full 3,000 words here:

If a linguist is simply someone who knows a lot of languages, then Leofranc Holford-Strevens (henceforth LH-S) is pre-eminent, claiming to ‘handle about 40’:

But this won’t do. It’s like saying that someone with a very large butterfly collection is pre-eminent among lepidopterists.  Within the modern discipline of linguistics, knowledge of individual languages is far less important than knowledge of language itself. On the basis of this review, LH-S may be a polyglot, but his acquaintance with linguistics appears to be limited to the things that interest or annoy him. And he so much wants to share them all with us.

In summarising Hurford’s book, LH-S simply cannot refrain from repeated and gleeful interjections where he spies what he thinks is a weak spot. For example, where Hurford observes, uncontroversially,  that there is:

a  tendency for words meaning ‘mother’ to begin with m or n, and those meaning ‘father’ to begin with p or t.

LH-S complains that Hurford ‘unfortunately’ does not go on to add that:

in Georgian ‘father’ is mama and ‘mother’ deda, or that these associations do not protect a consonant against phonetic change: to Latin pater correspond English father, Armenian hayr, and Irish athair, all in accordance with the transformation of Indo-European p.

What would that add to Hurford’s point? He has just said there is a tendency in this sound-symbol mapping, not an unbreakable bond. Why demand he go off on a tangent to explain to the reader that Georgian is different, and in some Indo-European languages p has shifted to f  then to h and then disappeared entirely?  The only answer I can offer is that LH-S is very keen that you the reader should know that he the reviewer knows these things.

There are many such places in the review where LH-S feels compelled to intrude. Here’s another. Hurford uses Culicover and Jackendorf’s  2005 example of a so-called gapping construction to show that Katie the Kazoo, and Robin the Rebec, is a grammatical answer to the question Who plays what instrument? whereas *Katie the Kazoo is not. Hurford remarks upon the obviously contrived nature of this example (Whoever has heard of a rebec? –not me) and uses something more commonplace to demonstrate the same point. The question posed in a restaurant Who wants what? will give rise to a response like Dave tacos and Anna enchiladas, and not just Dave tacos. Job done.  But LH-S, eager for us to know that he has heard of a rebec and moreover is familiar with its irregular development from Arabic rabãb, chastises the Professor for these omissions. The illocutionary force of Hurford’s Whoever has heard of a rebec? has passed him by completely.

LH-S revisits Arabic in pursuing a disagreement with Hurford on grammaticality. Hurford is in the midst of showing, quite properly, that the line between what is and is not grammatical can sometimes be unclear. For LH-S such indecisiveness is a dereliction of duty. Linguists, he complains, are subject to failure of the grammatical instinct, the intuitive perception of a sentence as grammatical or ungrammatical. He gives us a lengthy and tedious demonstration that there is no such failure of intuition in him. Here is a taste:

On the next page, apropos of sentences with referential-indefinite noun subjects, Hurford writes that whereas in the colloquial Arabic of Egypt raagil figgineena is ungrammatical, its English equivalent A man is in the garden ‘is not felt to be strictly ungrammatical, although we may feel somewhat uneasy about it, and prefer There’s a man in the garden.’ Agreed, but the subject is still a man, just as in the Egyptian Arabic example raagil is still the subject in the grammatical sentence fiih raagil figgineena (where fiih, literally ‘in it’, corresponds neatly to our ‘there’). Rather there is a prohibition in Egyptian Arabic on placing an indefinite noun in the initial position that has become normal for the subject.

The root of the problem LH-S has with this book is, I suspect, that Hurford is a Professor of Linguistics who has managed to write engagingly—and not simplistically– about a complex subject for an audience of non-specialists. He does not act the part of a lofty and omniscient academic emphatically laying down the law, something LH-S seems to want him to be because that’s how authority imparts knowledge to those who lack it.  When Hurford tells his readers that there is no agreement among linguists about the Australian language Warlpiri, and concedes that frankly he needs help figuring out the arguments, LH-S is quick to sneer, Are we meant to pack our bags and find out for ourselves? When Hurford says that there is some dispute about the test results that compared the understanding of language by a two-year-old child with that of a language-trained ape, the sneering becomes childish:  few readers can be expected to procure an ape (and at the right point in its training engender a child) in order to replicate the experiment.

The last 700 words of this 3,000 word review are devoted to an introductory-level lecture by LH-S on pidgins and creoles (including the odd tip to pronounce the Pisin part of Tok Pisin as the French piscine) in which he severely criticises linguists for not defining these terms consistently. As Hurford himself concedes that the definition of a creole needs better agreement, LH-S need not have laboured the point so much.  But the longer he goes on, the more impatient he seems to be to grab the book away from Hurford and write it himself. Indeed with his fund of knowledge of 40 languages, his lifetime experience of editing books, and his ability to craft elaborate hypotactic sentences in the formal English of a bygone era, perhaps LH-S felt he could have a written a better book on the origins of grammar, something magisterial in tone  in which there was no room for any doubt. But the evolution of grammar is a topic with plenty of room for doubt, no matter how much a tidy mind might want it otherwise. What grammar is and how it might have developed are questions that require the mustering of a very large body of research, some of it contradictory and some of it unclear, much of it specialised and all of it complex. Hurford presents it in a style that LH-S complains is too colloquial for his taste, but which is better described as approachably scholarly. That’s quite an achievement.