Book Review: Are Some Languages Better Than Others?

Are Some Languages Better Than Others?, by R.M.W. Dixion

If I do not agree with everything this author has to say, I think the author at least deserves to be commended for a certain degree of bravery in his approach of seeking the comparative judgment of languages in the face of a cultural climate in the West that tends to view such matters as a sure sign of provincialism and racism. The author’s aim, as he makes clear throughout the book, is to place the comparative discussion of languages on a scientific level that does not merely allow someone to display pride in their own languages, but actually to seek what it is that makes a language useful and clear. The author notes, as everyone who studies languages can see for themselves, that there are certain trade-offs that prevent languages from having all of the bells and whistles that some would want. An elimination of case endings usually requires increased rigidity in word order, for example. Tones can decrease the number of phonemes that need to be remembered but add difficulty to the learning of the language by others. And so on it goes. If the author does not know enough languages to be as much an expert as he fancies, the book does at least demonstrate the thinking of someone who has thought seriously and in a generally fair-minded way on the elements that make languages better than others, at least potentially and slightly.

This book is a short one at about 250 pages or so, and it is divided into eleven questions. The author begins with a preface and a opening chapter that sets the scene in seeking to talk about the comparative value of languages from a point of view that is not based on racism and disregard for the worth of languages as a whole (1). After that the author discusses how it is that languages work (2), while also providing a discussion on that which is necessary (3) that all known languages include, as well as those features that are desirable (4) that some languages contain. There is a discussion about what is not really needed (5), as well as a look at how it is that languages end up being complex (6). There is a discussion of how many words there should be, which the author considers to be at least 20,000 words based on the vocabulary that people tend to have (7), which is followed by a discussion on the limits of language (8). After that the author examines what purposes different languages can be better for (9), while also discussing some ideas for an ideal language in the author’s thinking (10). The book ends with the author’s call for readers to face up to the question of comparative linguistics (11) after which there are notes, abbreviations, acknowledgments, references, and an index.

It is striking in light of the author’s desire to demonstrate that some languages are better than others because of the features that they happen to include or the distinctions that they allow some languages to make, which better allows for people to understand the world in which they live and express themselves in a clear and unambiguous fashion, it is striking that the author does not include evidence that has been collected that demonstrates that languages may indeed be better in the sense that the distinctions and clearness that some languages have can allow for increased safety and the avoidance of workplace accidents when compared with neighboring but distinct languages, as has been the case between Swedish and Finnish, for example. It appears that the author is not interested so much in demonstrating which languages are better on a practical or pragmatic level, which would require messy political concerns and dealing with reality, but rather from a theoretical standpoint, where the heat of the issue can be reduced and where there can be less rancor, to the greatest extent possible given the rancor that is involved in linguistic concerns in general.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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