Sixty years ago, a University of Saskatchewan English professor wrote a book on language that became a best seller - not in Canada, but in England.
George Bernard Shaw hailed it as a book on which everyone should be examined "before being certified as educated or eligible...for any scientific, religious, legal, or civil employment," pressed London publishers to reprint a less expensive edition of the book, and even wrote a lengthy preface to it.
In 1949, Globe and Mail editor William Deacon said the book is "Canada's supreme contribution to world literature," and its author the only Canadian to date likely in time to affect the philosophical outlook of the world.
The book that elicited this enthusiastic response? Dr. Richard Albert Wilson's The Birth of Language, published in 1937 in London; republished in 1942 (as, thanks to G.B. Shaw, The Miraculous Birth of Language) with the preface added.
Dr. Wilson, who was a professor of English and head of the Department of English from 1915 to 1940, worked for 20 years on the 200-page book which, he said, set out "to describe the problem that gave birth to language in the general scheme of world evolution, and to point out its basic relation to the two forms of sense, Space and Time."
The adequate biform instrument
Wilson demonstrated that language, transformed by convention from an expression of natural sound in time to fluid expression in time and space, "made the adequate biform instrument for the translation of the biform world."
He sent a copy of the book to G.B. Shaw "as an instalment of interest on an old debt." Shaw was much taken with Wilson's small volume and later commented: "I learned that it (Wilson's professorial chair) was at Saskatoon, a place of which I had never heard, and that his university was that of Saskatchewan, which was connected in my imagination with ochred and feathered Indians rather than with a university apparently half a century ahead of Cambridge in science and of Oxford in common sense."
On the occasion of Wilson's death in 1949, Dr. Carlyle King, head of the English Department from 1950 to 1964, wrote that "while Dr. Wilson began exploring the origin of language, he went on to make the most original contribution a Canadian has yet made to an understanding of man's relation to the universe."
Wider and wider acclaim
And in Extending the Boundaries (1967), Dr. King noted that "the book continues to win wider and wider acclaim; year after year scholars write to the University of Saskatchewan from Europe, Africa, and Asia, asking for information about a sequel or sequels to The Birth of Language. A typical comment is that of the distinguished American philosopher Lewis Mumford, who in his The Conduct of Life (1951) speaks of Wilson's sound critique of mechanistic attempts to minimize the gap between man and the rest of the animal world and highly recommends the philosophical outlook of the book."
Happily, this sustained, international acclaim drew belated national attention to this gentle, unpretentious professor who, as one Globe and Mail letter writer put it, "reached the conclusion that the Greek philosophers and everybody else who has dealt with the subject, down to the most exalted of his contemporaries, were wrong. It was the University of Saskatoon (sic) against the world on a major issue, a Canadian David challenging a whole army of Goliaths of learning and reason."