Over a month ago, I got a review copy of Mikael Parkvall’s Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages and almost immediately fell in love with it. I kept meaning to write about it, but every time I looked into it I discovered more goodies and thought “I’ll live with it some more before I do the post.” Now, prodded by an e-mail from C. Max Magee of The Millions reminding me that it was time to submit an essay for his annual “A Year in Reading” series (here‘s my entry from last year), I realize that it’s high time I got around to it, so I’m just going to grab examples at random and assure you there’s much, much more where that came from.
Parkvall, a Swedish linguist, says in the foreword: “I hope that Limits of Language can show the uninitiated some of the incredible aspects that linguistics and human languages have to offer, teach beginners some of the basics of linguistics, but also to serve as a reference book for experienced linguists—here, the linguist can identify the extremes, and thereby judge to what extent his or her own language is ‘normal’.” (This last clause explains the title; I must admit I was disappointed that it was not from the Godard/Wittgenstein quote cited in this post, but you can’t have everything.) You can see the table of contents at the end of this LINGUIST List post; it includes things like “Language as a legal matter,” “Language in alternate history,” and “Classic example sentences” as well as basics like “Language change,” “Consonants,” and—close to my heart—”Language myths” (which starts with a subject dear to Geoff Pullum’s heart: “The legendary snow hoax”). But you can’t predict what’s going to be included in a section; under “Language change” we find “Bizarre sound change” (“Examples include */w/ → /q/, */j/ → /q/, */V/ → /ŋgV/, and even */s/ → /k/ before /e/ and /i/”), under “Place names” there’s a two-page discussion of American toponyms like Calnevari (California + Nevada + Arizona), and under “Written language” are “Frequent alphabet changes” and “Chromatographic writing” (a script used by the Edo of Nigeria in which “the color of the ovals is distinctive”). Wherever you open the book, you find some fascinating nugget like “An odd geolinguistic situation”:
The tiny Caribbean island of Saint-Barthélemy, or St. Barth, presents a remarkable linguistic fragmentation. Despite being a mere 10 kilometers across, and home to little more than 3 000 people, it has traditionally had at least four distinct languages. In the north-western part, a Norman patois has some 500-700 speakers, and in the east, a French-lexicon creole is used by 600-800 people. In the middle region, an archaic variety of French is now on the verge of extinction. In addition to this, in the administrative center of Gustavia, a black population, some 100 strong, speaks a local and slightly creolized variety of English. On top of this, standard French is the official language, and is increasingly used…. Understandably, this diversity requires isolation, and as late as in the 1940s, there were people in the northwestern village of Flamands who only visited Gustavia once a year. And yet, the distance between the two is about two kilometers.
(And there’s a map!) Under “Miscellaneous” on p. 375, after a brief explanation of Shaw’s “ghoti” = “fish,” we learn “Mark Okrand also included this as a deliberate pun in his creation Klingon (pp 157-158). The Klingon word for ‘fish’ is ghothI.” At the end there’s an extensive “Linguist’s Calendar” (on November 16 in 1974, “A puzzle for future Alien linguists to solve, a message containing information on mankind and the planet we inhabit is broadcast to the M13 star cluster, 50 000 light-years from us”) and a 15-page bibliography in small type. It’s fun to leaf through, and if you’re interested in pursuing a subject further, they point you in the right direction. What more could you ask?
Geoff Pullum wrote about the U.K. edition a couple of years ago, calling it “the ideal birthday present for the linguist in your life who you feel already has everything.” It would also, of course, be the ideal Christmas present for anyone who loves language and prefers facts to fancy.