Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success attempts to use spelling bees as a mode of inquiry into Generation Z kids, and it does not go well. The description of the bees and participants are told lovingly and were, to me, the most accomplished part of the book.
The rest seemed both repetitive and shallow, somehow. Why is it important to justify spelling bees as a “sport”? It’s not a sport, anymore than chess is a sport, but why should all children participate in sports? And yes, the winners are good at self-direction, and self-promotion, skills that will be useful to them later on. The winners of competitive endeavors are self-motivated. And the author tries so hard to portray the parents as not pushy that it’s a little suspicious. Surely, like in any other field, there are parents who step above the line, right? But I think you will enjoy the descriptions of the bees and the training methods used by the contestants. They certainly know a lot about how the English language came together.
Is there anything better than a language guide on a Monday? (Just say yes!) Written by a Random House’s copy chief Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style challenges us to a very-free week, encourages us to skip commas when they impede flow, shares his distrust of verging (yay!), and joyously tells stories in the footnotes. A treat for language nerds.
I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a children’s book on the blog (well, Harry Potter, but that’s for big kids!) and I’m so happy to recommend a very wonderful picture book, perfect for kids and adults who wonder how English spelling got so screwed up. You will discover G for gnocchi, T for tsunami, and of course K for Knight, with appropriately silly illustrations and commentaries. A gem.
All language lovers, read The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English. Written by an American woman who lives and teaches English in the UK, it thoroughly deconstructs the idea that one side of the Atlantic ocean somehow speaks the “proper” kind of English — and at the same time that imports into either dialect move just one way. Armed with hundreds of examples, she explores etymology, how languages change over times, the influence of regional accents and word variants, and, most interestingly, how cultural differences mold the language. Fascinating and never dry.
The title may be the best attribute of Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, as the rest can be relatively humdrum, consisting of a series of loosely connected chapters about language, physical effects of swearing (it does diminish the sensation of pain, apparently), and an entirely non-surprising assessment that swearing is all about culture. There are some fun parts, certainly, and the writing is upbeat, but the whole thing does not quite jell.
How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation is an uber-nerdy book about language, that dissects the complex dance we enter into when we talk with others. It turns out that the amount of time that elapses between utterances is precisely calibrated — and deviations will create problems and misunderstandings, not to mention the famous um’s and uh’s that some would like to eradicate. The author also highlights how we start conversations differently if we have a short statement to make or a longer one, and how we adapt the way we pose questions or provide answers to what we think the other person wants to hear. No wonder the art of conversation is difficult!
David Crystal is at it again, this time not with words but with grammar. Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, and he starts, charmingly, with stories about his daughter’s building up her communication skills from single words to sentences. It works pretty well, for the first few chapters, and then peters out, of course. There are amusing tidbits such as why Latin grammarians invented the genitive case (misunderstanding the Greek origin, ha!), and why Irish speakers might say “I’m after giving him a lift”. And the overall feeling that trying to force language into neat categories and rules is by definition a doomed errand.
Perfect for grammar nerds.