I had landed near the northwestern tip of the island. Back of the beach lay a grove of coconut palms, extending southeastward to a low ridge of jagged limestone covered with impenetrable spiny scrub. Hull down on the horizon lay the larger island of Peleliu, scene of ferocious fighting in World War II, home to deadly sea crocodiles, one of which had recently caught a fisherman and stashed his corpse on an underwater ledge, to dine on later. North and east, the central lagoon of Palau spread its vast expanse of tranquil blues and greens, dotted with tiny islands like giant toadstools.
I was marooned on a genuine desert island.
Why on earth would a professor of linguistics have himself marooned on a desert island? Well, that’s a long story.
It began eleven years earlier, in West Africa. I was teaching English literature at what was then called the University College of Science Education, located in Cape Coast, Ghana. Science education, what exactly did that mean? Teaching science? Or teaching how science should be taught? Or just teaching everything in a scientific way? Nobody knew, but it sure sounded impressive. Once, in a bar at three in the morning, I stumbled on one of our janitors, paralytic drunk, sitting by himself and repeating, over and over, in tones of rapt adoration: “U-ni-ver-sity Coll-ege of Sci-ence Ed-u-cation! U-ni-ver-sity Coll-ege of Sci-ence Ed-u-cation!”
I wasn’t there out of love of Africa or because I particularly wanted to be a literature teacher. There wasn’t anything I wanted except to travel and have new experiences. I just did the next thing, whatever that was, and when it got boring I moved on to something else. Yet always at the back of my mind was this feeling that one day I’d meet someone in a bar who’d tell me my true purpose in life.
And believe it or not, this finally happened.
It was just another steamy, sweaty morning on the coast once called the White Man’s Graveyard. Thirsty from teaching, I dropped into the Staff Bar for a cold one (faculty are called staff in Britain and its ex-colonies). Somebody called me over to a table and introduced me to an unfamiliar face: John Spencer, Professor of Linguistics, University of Leeds, England, just passing through. I sat down and we talked and drank good Ghanaian beer. To all appearances, a morning like any other.
For some reason I started talking about what it was like teaching English literature to West Africans. The week before we’d been doing George Eliot—I think it was The Mill on the Floss—and we came to the bit where the outraged father drives his daughter and her illegitimate baby out into the snow. Teaching about snow in the tropics is bad enough; likewise explaining how any father who was not an unnatural monster could banish his own child and grandchild just because someone hadn’t spoken some words in some church. But then it turned out the whole class thought she was carrying the baby on her back. Naturally, since that’s how Ghanaian mothers do it. “No,” I said, “in her arms—like this.” And I demonstrated. And one of the students said, “What a stupid way to carry a baby.”
How could you ever get over cultural barriers like these? And lurking behind my frustration was a still deeper unease. How could you ever make any objective judgments about literature? If I say Joyce is the greatest twentieth-century English novelist, and you say, no, it’s Lawrence, how can we ever decide who’s right?
“You should study linguistics,” John said.
I asked him what that was. I honestly didn’t know.
John explained that it was the scientific study of language. And how would that help solve my problems? Well, if you scientifically studied the language writers used, you could get objective measures to compare them with. At least that was what John claimed, and I believed him.
And how could I study it, given that I had my living to earn?
There was a one-year course, John said, at his university. It was primarily designed to train teachers of English as a foreign language, but it mostly consisted of linguistics, and a generous British government would pay me the princely sum of £17 a week (at the 1966 rate of exchange, equivalent to about $45) while I was taking it.
And under normal circumstances that would have been that. Many times in your life you meet someone who suggests something to you and you say, “Hey, yeah, that would be interesting,” and promptly forget about it. So why didn’t I then? We were happy in Ghana. I was paid well for very little work. We had good friends, we loved the life there: the ratty bars where we all danced the highlife, Biriwa Beach on weekends, servants to do the house and yard, knowing that for as long as we stayed there we’d never feel cold, it would always be summer.
The ironic thing was that until then I’d been a card-carrying grammatophobe. In common with a great many other people, I loathed grammar and anything connected with it. At Cambridge I’d actually switched my major from English to history when I found out that for my finals I’d be expected to take courses in Anglo-Saxon and Italian. All I could remember about grammar from school was diagramming sentences. Why do that, what’s it for? Just shut up and diagram, dummy! And here I was, with a wife and three young children to support, gambling my career, such as it was, and my whole way of life on something I’d always hated, on a casual word from a stranger.
I can’t really explain it, to this day, but somehow I knew destiny had called me. And I’d always been ready to take a chance, to follow my gut instinct, do whatever it told me and damn the consequences. Luckily Yvonne felt the same way about things as I did.
I handed in my resignation forthwith; in a few months we were in Chapeltown.
Chapeltown is the wrong-side-of-the-tracks section of Leeds where all the immigrants hang out, and on $45 a week it was about the only place a family of five could afford to live. Even if you went without a car. We used to take the bus to the city market on Saturday afternoons, when prices dropped by half, and come home with the platform at the back of the double-decker laden down with our sacks of produce. Home was the rented bottom floor of a big house that had come down in the world, its tall windows still defended by enormous wooden shutters—we did “There’s trouble at t’ mill, lass” routines every time we closed them.
In retrospect, the course itself wasn’t up to much. We had ten lectures on Noam Chomsky’s new transformational grammar (as it was then called) given by someone who’d been a student in the course himself the year before. We were taught some British invention called systemic grammar; luckily it never got into my system. We had a ferocious female martinet of a phonetics teacher, a type only Britain can produce—if you’ve seen The Weakest Link you know what I mean—who effectively cured me of any interest in the sounds that make up language.
And yet, for all its flaws, the course was a revelation to me.
I realized that all my life I’d been deaf and blind to an endless string of fascinating mysteries that were there all the time, happening right under my nose, under everyone’s nose. For instance, how had I learned language? I couldn’t remember. Nobody can. By the time memory starts, language is there already. And once you’ve learned it, you don’t ever have to think about it. You may worry over the content of what you’re saying, or your precise choice of words, but how you’ll fit the sentences together—never. You never catch yourself thinking things like, “Do I need a relative clause here, or would an infinitival phrase work better?” You may not even know the names for half the things you use, and neither you nor I have the least inkling about how we assemble them. It’s as if language was like digestion, or breathing, or circulating the blood—you have no need to know, your brain does it all for you, deep down, below the level of consciousness.
What you speak is English, you think. But listen to a couple of physicists or teenage computer geeks—it’s like they were talking in Double Dutch, yet that’s English too. Pick up a grammar text, you’d think English was some monolith, but that and all other languages are shifting all the time as you move across professions, situations, classes, races, sexes. Or as you move through time. Grandkids and grandparents understand one another, even if each thinks the other talks weird sometimes, but after a couple of dozen generations the stuff will have become incomprehensible. Or as you move through space. Start walking in the middle of France and finish in the middle of Spain, you’ll hear pure French at one end and pure Spanish at the other, yet along the way, any two adjacent villages understand each other perfectly.
Small wonder that many linguists nowadays think first and foremost of Language with a big L, and see the various languages as simply different manifestations of this concept. Chomsky once went so far as to say that there is only one human language, with several thousand varieties. To the la...