Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist and one of the moving spirits behind their language blog, Johnson (where his latest post is called “Anti-Peeve Peeve Friday”); last year I praised his column on the best books about language, and now Sophie Roell has a good interview with him at The Browser in which he again discusses language books (like me, he’s a fan of Guy Deutscher and Arika Okrent, but he thinks more highly of Steven Pinker than I do). So I was expecting to enjoy the copy of his new book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity that the good folks at Delacorte sent me—but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as thoroughly as I did. He covers pretty much all the ground I was vaguely thinking of covering in the language book I’ve been vaguely thinking of writing, and does it so well and so convincingly my impetus has been drastically diminished. This is the book I will be recommending to people who want to know how to think about language without getting themselves and others more agitated than is necessary—or, as he puts it in his charming preface, “Too many people are too angry about language too much of the time. That time that could be better spent listening, learning, and enjoying the vast variety of human language around them.”

He starts off discussing some general myths about language (giving Bill Bryson a well-deserved whack along the way), then moves on to “A Brief History of Sticklers,” starting off with the wretched Lynne Truss—”She doesn’t do subtlety”—and leaping back to Caxton’s late-fifteenth-century complaint about varying ways to say ‘eggs,’ moving forward again through Dryden, Swift, Lowth, and the usual twentieth-century suspects, two of whose names rhyme with “funk” and “blight” (“But on what basis could White condemn ‘hopefully’ while accepting the new extension of ‘to dress’? We never find out. Peeves are like that: my peeves are law, yours are unhealthy obsessions”). Then he delves into academic linguistics, where he is fortunate to have Mark Liberman (of the Log) as a guide; my complaint about the chapter, which is also my only complaint about the book, is that he jumps from Saussure straight to Chomsky, ignoring the entire storied history of American linguistics, that beautiful and varied garden that Chomsky stomped into submission and replaced with his identical rows of plastic flowers. In fact, he has a horribly misleading paragraph on page 73 that begins “Having killed behaviorism with this kind of dry wit, and having also published his revolutionary 1957 book Syntactic Structures, Chomsky launched linguists on the task of trying to construct ‘grammars’ of languages.” This is the exact reverse of the truth; it is the prior tradition of American linguists, led by the great Leonard Bloomfield, that worked on constructing scientific grammars of languages. Chomsky had no interest in grammars of anything but English, as illustrated by a remark of his Liberman passes on to Greene (on pages 64-65) to the effect that “it wouldn’t matter a whit to have descriptive grammars of all the world’s languages (and that one might as well survey the location of every blade of grass on MIT’s campus).” But that’s not Greene’s fault; he’s simply repeating what passes for the Story of Linguistics these days, from which the pre-Chomsky tradition is effaced much as the pre-Mao founders of the Chinese Communist Party like Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu were written out of its history once Mao became the Great Helmsman. Other than that, the chapter is well done, and ends with an excellent discussion of diglossia that includes this telling anecdote about Arabic:

In the first full-length Arabic conversation I ever had, with two young Egyptians I met in South Africa who didn’t speak English, I could speak only fusha (not yet having begun learning a modern colloquial Arabic dialect). They tried to respond in kind. But it was a clumsy exchange on both sides. They mixed in not only typically Egyptian pronunciations (such as gadiid for jadiid, “new”) but “wrong” ones in fusha that came from their dialect, such as munazama for munadhama (“organization”). Though I struggled to remember some vocabulary, in other ways my fusha was better than theirs. (On the other hand, a sociolinguist might say my overall performance was much worse; fusha is utterly inappropriate for late-night hotel-bar drinks. I must have sounded something like a professor lecturing to them.)

The fourth chapter, “More Equal than Others: How All Languages Can Express Almost Everything,” starts with a discussion of this hilarious YouTube clip, which was new to me: “I’ve probably watched the video fifty times, and it makes me laugh every time. I’ve quoted the video so often that a friend suggested I call this book Shit Flyin’ in My Mouth.” But he deplores the racist commentary on YouTube and the fact that the video is titled “Ghetto Reporter,” saying that the reporter’s sudden change from standard English to his native (Louisiana) dialect is exactly comparable to what happens to his Danish-born wife, who speaks “incredibly fluent English” but “as soon as she stubs her toe on our bed frame, she always says the same thing: For Satan!, cursing in Danish.” He goes on to discuss the Ebonics controversy, Whorfianism, and other touchy topics with admirable good sense.

The fifth chapter is about linguistic nationalism, and of course covers Hebrew, with this delightful bit:

Hebrew even has—and this should not surprise readers of this book so far—declinist sticklers. “Ben Yehuda would be dismayed by the demotic Hebrew spoken today,” said the Israeli author and journalist Hillel Halkin. Another Semiticist scholar, Ullendorff, scoffs:

Modern oddities like the grammatically impossible mekir instead of makkir and similar monstrosities had not arisen in Mandatary Hebrew, and I am glad that it is left to those who nowadays watch over the health of contemporary Hebrew either to come to terms with such horrors or to endeavour to discard them.

Just a hundred years old, and already being ruined by the kids! A normal language indeed.

He also discusses the former Yugoslavia, with some vivid quotes from linguist Robert Greenberg, who specializes in the region. When giving a speech in Zagreb, “Much to my embarrassment, my interlocutors chastised me for using the Serbian form jul ‘July’, rather than the Croatian form srpanj. To add insult to injury, one of the Institute’s staff then took me aside and made me repeat after her all the proper Croatian forms for all twelve months.” And:

Having landed at Sarajevo [Bosnia] Airport in June 1998, I struck up a conversation with one of the airport’s land crew. Her first comment was that she was impressed with my skills in the Bosnian language. Frankly, I had had no idea that I was even capable of speaking Bosnian…

The next morning I crossed the inter-entity boundary… in order to catch the bus to Belgrade. In Bosnian Serb territory, I spoke the same language I had used the day before, only now I was treated as a Serb. When the Yugoslav border guards singled me out for extra questioning upon my entry into Serbia, the bus driver told them to let me through, because he considered me to be one of theirs.

The sixth chapter is on “The Folly of Legislating Language Rules,” dealing with Turkish, French, and German before wading bravely into the touchy subject of Chinese and Japanese and their possible Romanization. Chapter Seven is about nationalist pressures in English and French (on the latter: “It is no longer seen as the done thing to attempt to destroy indigenous languages, and the attitude of the government in Paris has become what some call ‘hostile tolerance’ of the regional languages”), with good discussions of Breton (he visits Brest and tries to find someplace where Breton is in use) and the Midi, about which I learned something from this paragraph:

Finally, there are the Romance dialects: Picard, Gallo, Nissart, Occitan, Provençal, and the like. These are all closely related to French, and their speakers often themselves regard them as little more than substandard “patois.” They are different enough from French to be reasonably classified as separate languages, however, and they do have their ardent backers. But they are either small—as with the northern varieties—or divided, as in the south. “Provençal” and “Occitan” are dialects of each other, or Provençal is a dialect of Occitan, or they are the same thing, depending on whom you ask. But the supporters of “Provençal,” in the southeast and near the Alps, are associated with the political right, and the fans of “Occitan,” in the central south and southwest, are tied to the left. They don’t get along and so have been unable to form a strong united front for the single strongest and uniquely French Romance tongue after French itself.

The final chapter is on “Better Ways of Thinking About Language,” and it is so wise and eloquent that it should be required reading in schools (and definitely for politicians). A couple of passages I particularly like:

In thinking about languages themselves, most people succumb to a simple vision that might be called languages-as-boxes. Just as boxes have a rigid geometrical shape, people want a language to have one rigid, supposedly perfectly “logical” variety: the correct one handed down in prescriptive dictionaries and grammars. Moreover, people also want or expect those boxes to correspond exactly with national boundaries. Only one variety of one language called German should be the language of exactly one country called Germany, which should include all and only German-speakers; and so on for Italians, French, and so forth. One crucial step to realizing the boxes metaphor in the real world is to create “nation-states,” largely achieved in Europe but elusive in most of the rest of the world. The other step is to standardize the language so that everyone within their borders speaks the same dialect; variation is to be scorned, as against unity and patriotism, against the nation itself. This metaphor is taught, overtly or tacitly, to children in schools when they are told to stop speaking their Alsatian/Cajun/ Scots/Ebonics and start speaking the “real” language, the only one worthy of the name and the one that defines the society the children live in.
* * *
Language is not law; it is in fact a lot like music. Speech is jazz—first you learn the basic rules, and then you become good enough to improvise all the time. Writing is somewhat more like classical composition, where established forms and traditions will hold greater sway. But nobody sought to punish Franz Liszt for using Hungarian folk songs in his compositions, nor to put Jimi Hendrix in jail for playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his guitar (though Jimi did spark indignation). We need to put away the idea that someone speaking a way we don’t like is some kind of offense against the public order.

If you think any of the statements I’ve quoted are too simple, rest assured that he’s probably gone on to qualify them. He has the journalist’s knack for the pithy and memorable line, combined with an admirable respect for the messy and endlessly disputed nature of the human world. I hope the book sells like hotcakes and stays in print forever, so I can go on recommending it to anyone who wants to know how to think about language.


  1. I am certain to include that music analogy in polite conversation in future.
    Brilliant stuff.
    (I do tend to think established form holds sway in writing for a very good reason: writing is harder to comprehend than the spoken word so expression needs to be formally clearer, but that’s nitpicking.)

  2. marie-lucie says

    The book sounds great.
    Writing is not necessarily harder to understand than speech (with a foreign language it is often easier as it is slower), but you don’t have a person in front of you whose facial expressions and questions provide feedback and show you when you need to rephrase or explain, so you have to pay attention to your own words to make sure they truly reflect what you mean to convey. Formal oratory or poetry (as in Ancient Greek), spoken by a single person to an audience, had much the same problems as formal writing.

  3. Sounds great. I bet Hat has a similar and equally great book in him.

  4. Regarding the whole “Language should be like a box” paragraph – I wonder if the author mentions Sant Vincenç Ferrer?
    I think Wikipedia doesn’t mention this, and I’d have to check the references; but decades ago, we learned about Sant Vicenç – that he came from València and WALKED NORTH preaching. It was (we were told? read?) viewed as miraculous that he was understood as he travelled. We, of course, are convinced that he spoke Catalan; even though we have trouble understanding some Valèncian speakers ourselves. But the point of the story, really, is that at the speed of a man on foot, the language from València to Vannes, where we saw his skull, was such that no hard and fast language frontier was ever met. It might not be strictly, historically true (who will disprove it?) but it is a delightful and encouraging tale…

  5. marie-lucie says

    Continuing Catanea’s post, I have read that before the advent of national languages a person could have walked from, let’s say Gibraltar to the tip of the Italian boot, gradually adapting to the local speech varieties without encountering an actual language frontier.

  6. I like Ullendorff’s “mekir instead of makkir“. You can see how he’s trying to wrestle with the grammar even in his choice of transliteration: the /k/ in /ma’kir/ is traditionally geminated, but gemination is basically fiction in Modern Hebrew (and less than fiction in 2011). Personally I would transliterate it as makir, which then makes clear that the only change in /me’kir/ is the vowel. But because he transliterates it as makkir, he now has to decide whether the kaf in the innovative form is also geminated. He has apparently decided that it isn’t, which then accentuates the “ungrammatical”-ity. (The newer form, incidentally, could be vocalized and transliterated in a “grammatical” way — מֶכִּיר mekkir — but that loses something, because it ignores the reason for the pronunciation, which is influence from words such as מֵרִים /me’rim/.)

  7. Modern Hebrew is a peevologist paradise: my co-bloggers and I at Dagesh Kal battle asinine major-newspaper language rants on a twice-a-week basis.

  8. Getting peeved with the petty-peeved is the biggest peeve of all 🙂

  9. Gassalasca says

    Regarding the bit about academic linguistics, Saussure, Chomsky etc. – do you have by any chance a book you’d recommend as a sort of a decent, comprehensive introduction to the whole subject?

  10. I’m afraid I don’t—I’ve been out of the field so long all the books I used are long out of date. But Mikael Parkvall’s Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages has a lot of good information and a substantial bibliography. Maybe marie-lucie or another actual linguist will weigh in with a recommendation.

  11. LinguistsLinguist says

    Why do you continue with this claim that “Chomsky had no interest in grammars of anything but English”? It’s just a lie.
    His own MA thesis was on the “Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew”.
    One of the earliest hires he made at MIT was the legendary Ken Hale, whose whole life was devoted to the grammars of everything except English (see his Wikipedia biography for more).
    Furthermore, his work on “Government Binding Theory” from the late 1970s on spawned an entire subfield of “comparative syntax”, which today continues to investigate the structure of countless languages.
    The constant repetition of stuff like “Chomsky had no interest in grammars of anything but English”, with no regard to the actual, easily discoverable facts (see, for example) is like birtherism. The facts just don’t matter, so long as the calumny is emotionally satisfying.

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