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!
Tag Archives: language
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.
Concluding a week of messy books, let me introduce The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, whose main and only virtue is that it looks at the Emoji phenomenon in a serious way without pulling its hair about the barbarity of it all.
For the rest, the author seems to have slapped the book in a hurry. There are many repeats and more than one factual error (in French quotes; I know I’m being picky but isn’t this a book about language?). There are also large blocks of text that seem to have been lifted straight out of another book and have only a slight bearing on the topic at hand. It’s also very strange that some of the examples are segregated to a special section, making flipping back and forth annoying, while others are right in the text.
All that for not much: emojis add to the language rather than spell its doom, and nicely provide the humor and emotion that is so lacking in written communications. Duh.
I found highly enjoyable moments in In Praise of Profanity, especially the chapter on bathroom graffiti: some folks are patient enough to write proper quatrains that entertain and rhyme! The author also dazzles when he shows how profanity can add movement and intensity to dialog in real life and films.
But to get there, you will have to traverse the first couple of chapters, in which I think he tries to explain that there is no proper definition of profanity and we should not categorize words to begin with, and all words have the same rights. Hell no! As he himself points out, most adults who swear refrain in front of children, for instance, so clearly something interesting is going on. I would have liked to see more illustrations and fear sweeping judgments that all words are equal.
Can’t think of a better book for word lovers than Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, the memoir of a lexicographer (that’s a writer of dictionaries) for Merriam Webster. She takes us through the silent editors’ office (no phones, no chatter), the delightful duty of Reading and Marking (yes, she is paid to read, 8 hours a day! but that’s mighty active reading, hunting for suitable citations), the enormous task of updating the definitions of mundane words that no reader will likely check (hers was “take”; imagine that), the duties of pronunciation specialists (not her), and the unexpected email campaigns against this word or that. It’s fun and just a little worrisome for the future: now that dictionaries are online, and free, who will write them?
Linguists are interesting folks who love the smell of dictionaries… I’ve always loved dictionaries, from the first illustrated children’s dictionary my parents gave me when I could barely read (cute light blue polka dots on the cover!) but I cannot say that they smell any different from any other books. John McWorter can, and in Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally) he shows off his knowledge of arcane languages including Saramaccan and Kham, to show that the much-hated use of “like” of teenagers is completely normal and even has a name, “modal pragmatic marker” (now who uses ugly language, teenagers or linguists?) In another chapter, he demonstrates our meanings change over time, and have always done so, to the horror of contemporaries and full acceptance of later generations. The least successful chapter for me was the one about vowel shifts, which is greatly hampered by the spoken word and would benefit from a podcast rather than the written word. The rest is pure fun for word lovers.
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World is a just-for-fun book that should live on a coffee table, inviting amateurs to open it and nibble on a word or two. Reading it from cover to cover, as I did, makes it hard to appreciate the words that the author wishes would exist in English, but it shows two interesting themes: one is measurement, surprisingly. It may seem silly to speak of the time it takes to eat a banana (pizanzapra, in Malay) or the amount of water one can hold in one’s hand (gurfa, in Arabic), but I love the idea. If I could remember pizanzapra, I would definitely use it.
The other theme, not surprisingly, is behaviors and feelings. My favorites were tsundoku (leaving a book unread after buying it, piled up with other unread books, in Japanese) and nunchi (the subtle art of listening and gauging another’s mood, in Korean). I could see ways of using all the words in the book, except the puzzling mångata, which means the road-like reflection of the moon in the water in Swedish; do you feel you need a word for that?