The linguistics of history

The linguistics of history. By Roy Harris. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Pp. 256. ISBN 0748619305. $89.

Reviewed by Andreea S. Calude, The University of Auckland

The linguistics of history is a fascinating account of how issues surrounding language, such as the use of language, the obligatory reliance on and employment of linguistic materials, the bias of language, and so on, affect the historian and historical research. It offers a connecting link between the Western philosophy of history and the Western philosophy of language, spanning as far as back as Ancient Greece and as far into the present as the advent of television.

The book contains seven chapters. The first, ‘Language and the historian’ (1–33), addresses the question of how and if historians might be able to verify that their interpretations of linguistic resources used to depict past events are indeed accurate and faithful to their original intended purpose. Ch. 2, ‘History and the literate revolution’ (33–67), looks at how the invention of writing drastically changed our view of the past, how it helped record the past, and how it made ‘a continuous historical consciousness possible’ (66).

In Ch. 3, ‘History as a palimpsest’ (68–100), Harris explores the lingering impact of the literate revolution on language, politics, and historical truth. In particular, he explains that these aspects have become interlocked in such a way that it is increasingly difficult to disentangle them from each other. Ch. 4, ‘Historicism and linguistics’ (101–36), will perhaps be of most interest to linguists, since it concerns the birth of linguistics, in particular comparative philology, as a science, and the way in which the history of its founding was constructed to fit certain national and personal goals.

H returns to the responsibilities of the historian in Ch. 5, ‘History and ordinary language’ (137–67), where he deals with the use of ordinary language, prescriptivism, the limits and bias of language as a tool, as well as several ramifications of this bias. Ch. 6 (168–97) treats the issue of ‘autonomy’ of history and the extent to which one can talk about such an autonomy.

Finally, Ch. 7 (198–228) concludes with a philosophical discussion of truth in historical accounts, and the integration between oral language, written language, and historical truth. Significantly, this final chapter contains a detailed discussion of the various formats (oral, written) available to the historian for presenting the past, and the implications they each bring with them to the final chronicle.

The linguistics of history is an engaging read, for both historian and linguist alike. It is a fascinating mixture of philosophy, linguistics (especially spoken and written language and communication), and history. While the book is not, however, a straightforward, simple read for the unseasoned researcher, it does prove a rewarding and stimulating one for those willing to pursue it.