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The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity
The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity
Charles Taylor
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2016
368 pp., $35.00

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John H. McWhorter


Talking Heads

Charles Taylor on the distinctiveness of human language.

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Taylor builds on his basic formulation with further ways that language renders us cognitively unique. Hobbes' The Leviathan opens with an almost curiously lengthy disquisition about the exact meaning of assorted terms, which charity dictates excusing any undergraduate class from in a philosophy survey. This prologue makes sense only within Hobbes' conviction that metaphor is antithetical to effective communication: he wanted to keep words within the cages of their core meanings. Taylor objects that metaphor is actually part of the heart of what makes human language special, ever shedding light on new facets of the basic referent. To bat one out of the park, to go all the way, to go the whole nine yards, to go for the gold—all of these expressions expand the mind beyond the confines of the mere triumph or complete, and sometimes even contract the mind as well (such as in these expressions' implication that achievement is inherently masculine, competitive, and/or rapid). Whatever communication is going on among baboons, the closest thing to a metaphor would seem to be mimed bites and swats of the arm. Also, language allows us not only to feel abstract emotions such as respect and remorse, but to discuss them, elaborate upon them, the highest rendition of this being narrative and other arts.

A prime takeaway from Taylor is that a model of human language as a mere logical system along the lines of a computer program hopelessly undershoots and distorts what language actually is. Statements, questions, and commands—which lend themselves most readily to symbolic representations of language as a variation on mathematics—are only the surface. Hence how resistant actual language usage is to calls to use language as if it were, indeed, a sequence of logical formulas under which two negatives make a positive and a word like literally cannot "coherently" be used to mean "figuratively" (I was literally dying of laughter). The language never "goes to the dogs" as grammar hounds fear, because language is so much more than classically diagrammable sentences like The boy bounced a ball.

Rather, the miracle of language is, as I write this, that a week ago my daughter, one year and a few months old, pointed at the door on a night when her mother was working late, and I said "No Mommy!" and she started crying. The sheer fact that she understood that I was communicating information to her—naming a thing (Mommy) and saying something about it (as in indicating that it was not imminent)—with this information neither directing her to sustenance, informing her of bodily danger, nor indicating aggression, made this a uniquely human moment. That morning my four-year-old had trotted up to a friend and asked, "What are you up to?" Seemingly so uninteresting, this one phrase involved using words in distinctly non-literal meaning (up to what?) and was also used without expectation of a literal answer, in that the person in question was just standing waiting for the school bus like everybody else, not "up to" anything. What are you up to? was a question only in form; in essence it was a greeting, as in a ritual acknowledgment of the other person's presence, indicating a basic respect.

Taylor's The Language Animal, although it needed more stringent editing, is about a kind of animal in all of us—an animal whose language makes us smarter than we are often taught to suppose.

John H. McWhorter teaches linguistics, English, American studies, comparative literature, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University. His book The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (Oxford Univ. Press) was just reissued in paperback.

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