The author of Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language manages to talk about new knowledge in linguistics without drowning us in (too much) jargon and impenetrable theory. No, not having a word to say X does not mean that speakers of that language don’t understand X. Yes, etymology is fascinating but ultimately useless at divining the current meaning of a word. And no, Chomsky’s universal grammar does not hold up to the most cursory observation of a child’s use of language. Peppered with examples from many languages, including Arabic and Mandarin, the book is enjoyable and easy to read.
A nit: in a language-obsessed book, it would be good to properly quote Champollion’s Je tiens l’affaire .
The Grammarians are twins, obsessed with language and indulged in their love by their parents, and it’s a funny family comedy, featuring their psychiatric uncle as the prophet of doom. As they move into adulthood, they turn into grammatical enemies, one prescriptivist and one descriptivist, and the story bogs down into something that only a grammar-obsessed reader can love. In other words, enjoy the first half.
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.