Where is Language?

An Anthropologist's Questions on Language, Literature and Performance

Non-Fiction - Cultural
Kindle Edition
Reviewed on 02/13/2016
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Rabia Tanveer for Readers' Favorite

Where is Language?: An Anthropologist's Questions on Language, Literature and Performance by Ruth Finnegan is a book on language and how it is used in the common world. It may sound boring to you, but if you have read Why Do We Quote by Finnegan, you know that you are about to go on a cross-cultural adventure that will teach a lot more than just what the title says. I have come to respect and expect a lot from Ruth Finnegan; she is the type of a person who I wish had taught me when I was in college.

Her new book, Where is Language?, talks about how we use language and how we perceive it. There are so many fashions and types of language and, yes, they are beyond verbal, oral and written. Yet again, Finnegan takes us on a journey where you travel the world with her and see where language is spoken and used in many colorful ways. I am actually shocked by her determination because coming up with a book like this is not easy.

She had to do a lot of research and I am pretty sure that most of the time that research was not enjoyable. However, she made it possible for the reader to not only enjoy the book, but also gain a lot from it. I definitely learnt a lot from it. This is yet another Ruth Finnegan creation that will stay in my book collection for a long, long time.

Lori A. Moore

Where is Language? An Anthropologist’s Questions on Language, Literature and Performance by Ruth Finnegan is an academic look at the art of language, including song and the humanities, and defining what and where is literature. A lot of thought and research went into these 176 pages. Finnegan is an anthropologist and explains how language is more than just the written word in what she refers to as her informal reflections and not a scholarly work, but I can tell you that this book is very thought-provoking and interesting. One of her brainteasing questions about song asks us to contemplate which comes first in song - the words, the music, or the performance? We are asked to consider that language exists not only in literature and written language, but also in performance and non-verbalized cultural expressions. Where is Language? is fascinating in stating that “The essence of human-ness is posited as language; and language in its two predestined modes, first oral then written, as unrolling the stages of human history.”

As a professor, thinker, and reader, I greatly enjoyed reading Where is Language?. It was stimulating and informative. Reading about how gestures are systematically coordinated with speech, and whether the boundaries of language should include them, was eye-opening. Lovers of words and language will find a treat in Where is Language? An Anthropologist’s Questions on Language, Literature and Performance. Language is complex, but Finnegan helps us see it from a new viewpoint that includes performance and oral literature.

Hilary Hawkes

Where is Language?: An Anthropologist's Questions on Language, Literature and Performance by Ruth Finnegan is a fascinating and revealing exploration about human language, what it is, how and where we find it, and what shapes it. The author is a well-respected anthropologist and this book draws on her lifetime’s work and research – from studies with African tribes and their rites to individuals on the western side of the world telling their life stories. This in depth study shows that language is far more than written texts or recordings, and only really comes to life to convey its real meanings when understood within its cultural context or when performed or spoken. This is because a myriad of non-verbal and visual cues need to be seen and are an essential part of communication. Language is what makes us human. Writing has moved us from barbarism to modern day civilization. How psychologists see human narratives or life stories, and the connection between language, music, poetry, songs and narrative in dreams are also explored.

Where is Language? is an academic study of interest to those whose studies involve literature, language or communication. Finnegan poses and answers questions that uncover her findings and conclusions. Her emphasis is on the importance of language as a multi sensory activity, and I found her discussions and findings really got at the heart of how human communication works. The whole subject of how we were able to develop speech, language, literature, and other forms of interaction is presented here in a fascinating way. The author’s records of narratives told by different individuals illustrate her various theories and I liked the emphasis on the importance and influence of cultural differences and identities. Her belief that language has a physical base rather than a cognitive function alone is supported with her recounting her own illness and temporary inability to speak. Ruth Finnegan’s compelling and enlightening book is at one with the eighteenth century Thomas Astle’s view that “without speech we should scarcely have been rational beings,” and that the invention of writing “hath contributed more than all others to the improvement of mankind.” A book that is a thorough and revealing study and puts language in its rightfully important and essential place in humankind's progress and achievements.

K.C. Finn

Where is Language?: An Anthropologist's Questions on Language, Literature and Performance is a cultural and academic non-fiction text by author Ruth Finnegan. As an anthropologist, Ruth Finnegan has witnessed language in all of its forms: spoken and written, poetry and report, music and textbook, the list goes on. Where is Language? attempts to encompass all forms and expressions of language, determining where it truly lies and fully uncovering the multi-faceted discipline and its unbreakable connection to human life. The volume dissects language into the different ways in which it is expressed, as personal narrative, performance etc., and uses Finnegan’s own studies in anthropology to explain the different purposes and results of using language in these ways.

As someone who is pursuing a PhD in linguistics and who works professionally in the world of writing, I could not have found a better book to read this week. Finnegan connects language closely to identity, ideology and personal culture, unravelling the mysteries and misunderstandings which still pervade our complex communication system in the present day. Her ethnographic examples for her own personal studies over the years provide fascinating insight into the many uses and perspectives we have on language, presenting a cross-cultural view that also draws on literature across the ages. Typical stereotypes are challenged freely, developing an exciting new multi-disciplinary approach to the future of language studies. Where is Language?: An Anthropologist's Questions on Language, Literature and Performance is a highly recommended read for those with an interest in the study of language. Eye-opening, educational and superbly thought-provoking.

Alysha Allen

Literature has long been conceptualized by its written/verbal embodiments, while its oral counterparts have been devalued. Cultural anthropologists and socio-linguists alike have recently observed this hierarchical distinction between Western conceptions of literature as texts and the multifarious non-verbal modes of communication not included within standard definitions of literature. Ruth Finnegan, however, extends the concept of what might be constituted as literature by exploring and taking into consideration the various modalities by which we transmit information and interact with one another. In other words, we must look to the several elements that comprise a scene beyond the written page for a more developed and detailed theory of language. Some of these elements which Finnegan explores in Where is Language? are the visual, tactile, and somatic, as well as the human element, making literature a dynamic performance.

Repositioning literature so that it includes more than the written/verbal, decentralizes any one culture as superior and civilized than those whose primary form of literature does not rely on text. In this way, Finnegan's approach to literature opens up new avenues of discourse for linguistics and related disciplines, along with eliminating the dichotomy between what is "Western" and "Other." The effect is a non-polar inclusive position of diversity from a culturally heterogeneous perspective. Where is Language? appears to be a seminal work of interdisciplinary literature for the academic community to be also used towards real-life applications in the global community. Altogether, Finnegan's monograph carries substantial influence with inculcating multilingual and multicultural viewpoints in the arena of language and literature.