The key to language

The key to language: An essay on the meaning that exists prior to and independent of language. By Laurence Sherzer. Naples, FL: Laurence Sherzer, 2009. Pp. xxiii, 206. $25.

Reviewed by Dustin De Felice, University of South Florida

Laurence Sherzer briefly discusses a theory of meaning that may answer some critical questions about language. S begins by stating that linguists associate the study of meaning with the meaning of words and operate under the assumption that the origin of language lies in the need to reference what has been experienced. In response, he argues for the following theoretical foundation: experience furnishes the mind, which in turn creates meaning. The study of (or the key to) language needs to originate in a well-defined concept of meaning.

The text can loosely be divided into three sections, with much overlap and repetition throughout the various chapters. Much of the content consists of S responding to quotes from various language scholars over the last century. In Chs. 1–5, S briefly treats two of the founders of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure and Noam Chomsky, and the flaws he sees in their approaches to language from this meaning-based concept of language. He also attempts to delineate language myths and assumptions that scholars currently maintain, e.g. that words-as-a-concept are equated with meaning and that thought is indistinguishable from language.

In Chs. 6–14, S discusses linguists’ assumptions about language. He states that linguists believe that language occurs only after a child begins to speak, and that words (or sentences or grammar) are the beginnings for language study. To the contrary, S posits that language begins with experience and equates experiential language with ‘pre-linguistic conceptualizations of experience’ (53). S further states that speaking a word is just the evidence of the first act in learning a language.

In Chs. 15–18, S delineates a conceptual guide for a theory that will serve to extinguish the myths and assumptions held by linguists, and concludes with a list of sixty-five critical points that must be addressed in developing a new theory of meaning.

This volume is a challenging read. S raises interesting questions but would have been better served in providing more information and observations instead of reacting to scholars like Leonard Bloomfield, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Pinker. One of the most interesting examples given by S involves children and mathematics (150), drawn from his experience as a professor of mathematics. More examples from his experience would have added stronger and clearer support to his approach.