The review copies have been accumulating, so it’s time once again for a language book roundup!
1) Women Talk More Than Men … And Other Myths about Language, by Abby Kaplan. The author explains her approach on the second page:
First, it is about popular beliefs about language: the conventional wisdom on topics from linguistic sex differences to the effects of text messaging. Sometimes, of course, popular opinion has things more or less right –- but it’s more interesting to examine cases where ‘what everyone knows’ is wrong, and so we will put a special focus on debunking language myths. […]
Second, this is a book about how to study language — not in the sense that it will train you to do linguistic analysis for yourself, but in the sense that it provides a glimpse of the kinds of things linguists do.
The chapter titles are myths, like “A dialect is a collection of mistakes” and “Chimpanzees can talk to us,” and she does a splendid job of debunking; there are a lot of academic references and statistics, which may put off some people, but in a field chock-full of books with little beyond hand-waving and obiter dicta, it’s a welcome corrective. For a fuller discussion, see Stan Carey’s review. This is a fine book that I would recommend to anyone interested in language.
2) The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, by John Simpson. The former chief editor of the OED describes his experiences with it and provides a great deal of intriguing lexical information along the way. In discussing the decision to have the full text keyed manually rather than being scanned, he says “it transpired that there was no company in Britain big enough and courageous enough to take on the job”; the bold indicates that the word will be treated separately, and on the next page there is a two-and-a-half-page discussion beginning “In the mid- to late eighteenth century, the verb to transpire caused no end of arguments between otherwise healthy individuals” and continuing with an exemplary and funny analysis of how the meaning shifted, including the parenthetical “(should you be the sort of person who finds things ‘wrong’ with language).” As you can tell from those quotes, the author is lively company, and anyone interested in the OED will want this book.
3) Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally), by John McWhorter. The aim of this compact, readable book is laid out in the introduction:
In the wake of conclusive discussions of these grammar rules, such as many of David Crystal’s publications and, most recently, Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style, there is little need to dwell on them further. This book will focus on something larger, in a way, than that compact collection of grammatical no-nos: the general sense that when English is morphing along in any way (new accents, new meanings) we are seeing not transformation but disruption. I want to propose a sunny (and, frankly, scientifically accurate) way of hearing the speech around us, as a substitute for a view of English as a collection of words embalmed between the covers of dictionaries.
If you’re in the market for books like this, you’re probably already familiar with the genial McWhorter and his pleasantly colloquial style; this has some good (if often familiar) examples and a healthy attitude toward language change and usage.
And finally, a couple of books on one of my favorite topics, bad language:
4) What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, by Benjamin K. Bergen. The publisher’s blurb says:
In this groundbreaking yet ebullient romp through the linguistic muck, Bergen answers intriguing questions: How can patients left otherwise speechless after a stroke still shout Goddamn! when they get upset? When did a cock grow to be more than merely a rooster? Why is crap vulgar when poo is just childish? Do slurs make you treat people differently? Why is the first word that Samoan children say not mommy but eat shit? And why do we extend a middle finger to flip someone the bird?
And the book lives up to that description. It’s got charts showing unacceptability levels for bad words in New Zealand, England, and the US; one illustrating the fact that “People rate made-up words as more profane when they have more consonants, either at the beginning of the syllable or at the end” (“deeve” is felt to be worse than “dee” and “smurb” than “smurr”); an illustration showing one dog labeled “LUCK” and another labeled “FUCK”… oh, it’s a lot of fun, and scientifically sound too!
5) In Praise of Profanity, by Michael Adams. I’ve reviewed books by Adams before (Slang: The People’s Poetry in 2009 and From Elvish to Klingon in 2011), and I’ve come to find him a reliably interesting author; as I said in that first review, he thinks clearly and writes vividly. He quotes graffiti (“NoticeI will suck off 2 boys’ (over 16) cocks next Sunday”), Miss Manners, Jesse Sheidlower (another LH favorite), the poetry of William Dunbar and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (“Whence rows of mandrakes tall did rise,/ Whose lewd tops fucked the very skies”), and the comedy of Sarah Silverman. He ends with a coda about the excellent word clusterfuck as discussed at a conference banquet at Pembroke College, Oxford: “We concluded that it’s just about a perfect word structurally; it’s perfect just in the aesthetics of its form.” If that sounds like the kind of thing you like, or someone you want to give a present to would like, you can’t go wrong with this delightful book.