A Tour of Babel: Frazer and Theories of Language

  • David Richards


Wittgenstein compared the interest in ancient rites and customs largely fostered by The Golden Bough to the Victorian passion for building follies and ruins1 — the frisson of the archaic, glimpsed in the broken fragments of ancient texts. The Golden Bough has the substance of a Victorian dream. Its materials are, perforce, incomplete, since the project never will nor can be finished. Its narratives are violent, often sexy, given the sealing grace of the prehistoric distance of the uncivilised. The text’s fragments of ethnography of contemporary “primitives” (for there are no “social wholes” in The Golden Bough) renders all its subjects beyond the scope of history, and by discarding history promulgates the Victorian desire for the liberating agency of timelessness. The Golden Bough is that “Other” of the Victorian imagination as it struggles to free itself from too much history by reconstructing its remote past in speculative reformulations of human evolution. Its secret agenda is to make better versions of historical narratives; this is evident in its insistence upon the undifferentiated nature of its cultural materials, almost as if what is known of the past is irrelevant to the text’s procedures. Its landscape is an exotic medley of human cultural traces, follies and ruins.


John Benjamin Structural Linguistic Grammatical Gender Symbolical Sign Historical Phase 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Ludwig Wittgenstein. Remarks on Frazer’s “Golden Bough”, ed. Rush Rhees (Retford, Notts: Brynmill Press, 1979 ) p. 17.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Cited in Henri Baudet, Paradise on Earth: Some Thoughts on Images of Non-European Man, tr. Elizabeth Wentholt (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965 ), p. 65.Google Scholar
  3. 34.
    J. P. Mallory, “The History of the Indo-European Problem”, Journal of Indo-European Studies, 1, no. 1 (1973), 60.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    R. W. Wescott, ‘The Evolution of Language: Reopening a Closed Subject“, Studies in Language, 19, no. 1/4 (1967), 67.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Müller (1872), quoted in Hilary Henson, British Social Anthropologists and Language: A History of Separate Development ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974 ), p. 120.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Müller (1887), quoted in E. F. K. Koerner (ed.), Towards a Historiography of Linguistics: Selected Essays ( Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1978 ), p. 31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 9.
    For a description and comparison of the various systems of Comte, Renan and Herder see James H. Stam, Inquiries into the Origin of Lanugage: The Fate of a Question ( New York: Harper and Row, 1976 ).Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Edward Evans-Pritchard, A History of Anthropological Thought ( London: Faber and Faber, 1981 ), p. 187.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Quoted in John Skorupski, Symbol and Theory: A Philosophical Study of Theories of Religion in Social Anthropology ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976 ), p. 138.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    A. H. Sayce, Introduction to the Science of Language, 2 vols (London, 1880 ) I, 75.Google Scholar
  11. 23.
    Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object ( New York: Columbia University Press, 1983 ), pp. 98–9.Google Scholar
  12. 26.
    David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, (1789), ed. D. G. C. Macnabb ( London: Fontana, 1962 ), pp. 54–5.Google Scholar
  13. 27.
    R. Angus Downie, Frazer and “The Golden Bough” ( London: Victor Gollancz, 1970 ), p. 59.Google Scholar
  14. 28.
    E. F. K. Koerner, Ferdinand de Sassure (Amsterdam. John Benjamins, 1973) pp. 9ff.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Richards

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations