Sarraute's title suggests a study of utilitarian, everyday patterns of language--especially its dislocations, the wrenches it throws between people in common human contact. And she begins promisingly: Why did Chekhov, dying in a German spa, say his last words to his wife and doctor at his bedside (""Ich sterbe""--I'm dying) in German instead of Russian? Sarraute's answer: this was a privacy, a withdrawal, a final unreasonableness and selfishness at the end--from that most equable of all writers. But instead of going on to mine this subtle rein, with historical/literary incidents as her examples, novelist Sarraute turns to examinations of anonymous everyday phrases: ""My dear,"" ""I don't understand,"" ""Don't talk to me about that."" And here, through elliptical and very stagey elongation, she belabors the familiar phenomenon of people using language as pleas, summaries, unconscious emblems: ""And then. . . but this could go on forever. . . just this, however, just this little gem for those who wouldn't final it in their reserves. . . a real treasure when you know how to prescrit it in such a way as to bring out all its qualities, with an expression of 'disarming naivete' on your face and in your tone, just this little word: 'Why?' which releases an agitated spate of explanations, demonstrations, justifications. . . ."" An always-interesting but well-trod premise, then, left mostly in notebook form and delivered in a self-important style: strong in potential, only occasionally stimulating in the outcome.