Language: The Cultural Tool is really a vendetta against Chomsky and his idea of a built-in grammar, curiously similar to that of Western languages. The author spent years living with an Amazonian tribe with a very peculiar language and draws on his experience to conduct the discussion. The anecdotes and lessons from the Pirahas are wonderful; the learned disputes less so. But overall the author does a masterful job of showing that language is absolutely shaped by culture and that learning another language, even less strange than Piraha, requires an understanding of how the speakers live.
Tag Archives: language
The Story of English in 100 Words proposes a hundred words to tell the story of the English language, and it’s a monument of learning and erudition, and like many monuments it can be a little forbidding, and boring in places, but with lots of nice surprises sprinkled throughout. Reading through the book in one go probably is not the best approach!
If you like to think of subjects in 100 items, I recommend A History of the World in 100 Objects.
Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners explores the strange world of polyglots, but the main discussion is really about what it means to speak a language. Reading it? Having a few phrases handy for a superficial conversation? It seems that many hyperglots declare victory from very small achievements!
The more serious ones work awfully hard. Hours and hours of drill and practice (all alone, interestingly) and obsessive record keeping of said practice. How tedious!
I found myself moving from interested to bored while reading The Language Wars: A History of Proper English; perhaps one reason for the boredom is that I’ve read several books about English so some of the stories told here seemed to have been told already. I also found myself disagreeing with some of the author’s theses, the first one being that the nature of English is to complain. Really? Perhaps in the UK, where the author is from, and perhaps amongst fusty language mavens, of which he says he is not, but I can think of other cultures and languages that complain just as much.
As is often the case when I read books about language, I particularly enjoyed stories of goofy characters who tried to heroic changes. Here, it’s the venerable Webster who thought all silent letters should be dropped (“bred” for bread”, for instance), even as he made other more successful suggestions, and poor John Ash, writing about parentheses that need avoiding (o how he would hate my writing!) and unfelicitously using parentheses in the text of his prescription.
I pushed through The Last Lingua Franca and found lots of interesting food for thought but I must say that I flipped through the pages a lot, as the author’s minute analysis of language construction can be tedious. I liked the larger story: how English is one of the languages used as global communication language, after Latin and French, and how these languages come to occupy their position through the underlying economic and military power of the nations that use them.
His argument that English is losing its grip did not convince me. But I remain ready to learn Chinese, when needed.
The author of You Are What You Speak takes on what he calls the “language sticklers”, those who defend the integrity of language, and he casts a very wide net, from innocuous champions of punctuation (Lynne Truss, of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame), to the over-hyped writing gurus (like Strunk and White with The Elements of Style — annoying, perhaps, inconsistent, certainly, but evil, I rather doubt it), to the much ridiculed (including by the French) Academie Francaise and its belief that language can be regimented by fiat, to Latinist zealots (who gave us the splitting infinitive malaise), all the way to crazed nationalists who pretend to see differences in identical languages to serve their political aims (such as Bosnians and Croatians).
In so doing, he greatly weakens his argument, for surely there is a place for Truss, Skunk, White, and even a few French Immortels to help writers express themselves more clearly without incurring the wrath of the counter grammar police, pretending that there are no rules worth defining.
In the same genre, I much preferred Through the Language Glass.
In the Land of Invented Languages is a hilarious book, although it’s not always clear that the author intended it to be so funny, about made-up languages. I could only think of one when I picked up the book — Esperanto — but it turns out that hundreds of inventors have tried to create a simple, universal language, and that for centuries. None of them have had any success, with Esperanto being by far the most successful. Enough said.
So what’s so funny about these repeated failures? It’s their creators. All geeks, as we would call them today, they hold the strong belief that logic can win it all. So they try crazy schemes, including trying to create a universal classification of all the concepts in the universe. If you thought that was difficult to do for plants and animals, it turns out that language is particularly ill-suited to this exercise. Who says that editing and printing are part of “corporeal actions”? Others tried to create language by using affixes (the opposite of prefixes), thereby creating monstrously long words that seem impossible to pronounce or remember.
And those creators that actually were successful, such as with Esperanto and a funny and brilliant sign-based language called Blissymbolics, refused to admit that their new, pristine, logical creations could actually be modified by its speakers. It turns out that speakers of any languages (and for the sign-based language I should say users rather than speakers, since most were non-verbal, severely handicapped children and adults) like to make jokes and create shortcuts, hence the complexity and lack of logic of other, real languages.
Languages, it turns out, are too much fun to be left to geeks and gramarians.
Another good book for language nerds (like this one) — perhaps best read in small doses.
How to Sell will appeal to the language nerds amongst us — of which a surprising portion are non-native speakers, always on the lookout for some interesting convergence between two languages they know. Others may choose to read it in small doses!
The book can be seen as a series of essays on different aspects of English. It starts with a withering critique of Latin lovers who forget that English is not a romance language and blindly (and dumbly) dictate that infinitives shall not be split. I feel relieved now. It then romps into grammar, etymology, changes in word meanings, and even pronunciation. So I learned that we Americans often speak an older kind of English than our friends in Britain (sounds to me like we speak French like French Canadians!) ; that “like” as an interjection, as used by younger members of my household, rankles purists as much as me even if it can be seen as a completely reasonable construction; that using “bitch” as an insult for women may derive from using “son of a bitch” as an insult for men — I really liked that one — ; and that invented French derivations are as fantasist as I think they are. And how can I forget: using “they” for a gender-neutral singular pronoun is actually the revival of an old English usage. So perhaps we solved the “he or she” dilemma.
Language nerds: read this book!