I have this incredible mental block about reviewing nonfiction.
My formal linguistics experience is limited to exactly one History of the English Lang...moreI have this incredible mental block about reviewing nonfiction.
My formal linguistics experience is limited to exactly one History of the English Language class as a college junior (and it remains one of the most fascinating, satisfying and illuminating classroom experiences I've ever had, university-level or otherwise), which was about when I realized that the study of language was up there with the school paper and my creative-writing courses in terms of the all-over fulfillment I found in it. It helped that I had an enthusiastic professor whose wealth of knowledge and general zeal turned my disappointment in the English department's lack of additional linguistic offerings into a fervent hunt for extracurricular reading material regarding the topic, though I can't help but feel that my self-guided tour through the field isn't yielding the same benefits I'd've received from exploring the same terrain with an expert leading the way. Hence my concern that I'll sound like I'm trying to pretend that I know what I'm talking about on some deeper level when my background in the roots of language is far more recreational than academic. All's I can say for sure is that The Language Instinct was great fun, beautifully written and an absolute whirlwind of information that covers a dizzying array of unexpected but thought-provokingly relevant subjects.
Oh, and that Steven Pinker has the most admirably disheveled hair since Georges Perec. Their locks are not to be trifled with, nor, clearly, are their minds.
The last language-centric book I read argued in favor of a point that had been laughed into noncredibility for years thanks to the implied racism it still carried from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis days, which is that the world actually looks different based on one's view of the world based on his or her culture and language (Through the Language Glass, written by Guy Deutscher and published in 2010 -- and which I must admit to having read long enough ago that I have shamefully forgotten many of its finer details but do recall as having made a rather convincing argument, as it delved into stuff such as how a language can reflect a culture's attitude toward its women) -- an hypothesis that Pinker decried within the first 50 pages of this 1994 bestseller as "wrong, all wrong," as it is his view that "discussions that assume that language determines thought carry on only by a collective suspension of disbelief." My copy of The Language Instinct includes Pinker's chapter-by-chapter asides about updates in the many areas he explored in a book he published more than two decades ago, including the neo-Whorfism that has sprung up in recent years, a revival that allowed works such as Through the Language Glass to be taken more seriously because the misguided blinders and red herrings of the linguistic avenue of contemplation have finally fallen away and its points can be made in such a way to sidestep the unfortunate pitfalls of the past.
Seeing the inverse of an argument made just as successfully as my initial exposure to it was what sucked me in for good with this book. The overlapping of an argument's two sides and seeing familiar names, familiar backgrounds, familiar failings and completely different conclusions were all strangely rewarding payoffs for my own curious, solitary explorations.
And that spark of recognition just kept cropping up in myriad forms as I read on and on (and on and on, as it took me, like, two months to finish this -- absolutely no fault of Pinker's, but rather that of my compulsion to juggle two and three books at once and work's nasty habit of reducing my reading time in two-week cycles). While the biology and neurobiology and child development and abnormal psych were all a bit of alien territory for me, Pinker presented them all in such accessible ways that my tactile-learner self was picking up everything he was putting down. Which made the friendlier faces I'd seen before all the more inviting: The progression of Old English to Middle English to Modern English was like having tea (or mead) with an old friend, reading about the Great Vowel Shift was like reminiscing with an old lover and wondering if maybe the stars are finally aligned in our favor, the uncanny commonalities between seemingly unrelated tongues was a kiddie ball pit wrapped in a trampoline for my brain, and the pages and chapters of grammatical theory? Be still, my pedantic heart! I didn't even mind, as a happily neurotic proofreader, when Pinker started asserting that maybe the Grammar Mavens have their priorities all wrong, that even nontraditional dialects have their merits, that "whom" ought to go the way of "ye" and its other equally antiquated brethren, that it's okay to hang on to the rules of usage for clarity's sake rather than browbeating those poor folks who don't work themselves into paroxysms of glee at the very notion of sentence diagrams over their truly nitpicky transgressions.
I had no idea the lengths and detail necessary in asserting that something so mind-bogglingly complex but is so universally taken for granted -- that is, human speech -- is a deep-seated biological impulse, hard-wired into our brains to the point that we are all, in fact, baby geniuses when it comes to sussing out most of the nuances of our diabolically tricky native languages by the age of three. I had no well-formed opinion on the matter of language as a learned habit versus a communicative imperative instilled in us via evolution before coming into this but did Pinker ever reel me in, hold my attention and make me want to delve deeper into his research, theories and positions regarding the language instinct. Bearing witness to the impressive lengths he goes to to cover all his ground from every angle is reward enough for hearing him out for nearly 500 pages, because Pinker's dedication to the language instinct is evident enough in the miles of homework he did to make his point with armfuls of wide-ranging detail and chapter upon chapter of some truly compelling writing.(less)
I finished this book, like, two weeks ago, right when my job's special breed of life-consuming crazy was bearing down on me with an animalistic rabidi...moreI finished this book, like, two weeks ago, right when my job's special breed of life-consuming crazy was bearing down on me with an animalistic rabidity. Let's see what I remembered about it, aside from the fact that it was generously packed with treats that made my inner word-nerd dance oh-so-whitely with joy.
First of all, the author's first language is Yiddish. Seeing as I know far more native-tongue butchers of English than I do folks who can finesse the language like they're trying to get into its pants on the first date, it always disproportionately impresses me when a non-native speaker can so thoroughly rock this notoriously tricky tongue. Every well-executed pun (my ultimate linguistic guilty pleasure, for sure), every beautifully rendered lengthy sentence, every GRE-worthy word did something extra-special to my brain because I just couldn't get over how flawless and stunning Deutscher's English is. There are people who can write literately and there are people who should be getting paid to write because they're so bloody good at it: Betcha can't guess where I think the author fits on that spectrum.
The book begins with a lengthy examination of how color names and thresholds vary across languages. The strangeness of Homer's color vocabulary in "The Odyssey" ("wine-dark sea" being the jumping-off point here), possible biological mutations of the eye over a couple millennia, different cultures' attitudes toward the importance of naming hues, and how red always seems to be the first proper color to be saddled with a name are just a few of the topics explored in the book's first half. Since the influence that language and culture have on each other is apparently a concept in its respectable infancy (being the victim of red herrings, faulty conclusions and plain ol' stereotyping had reduced the line of thinking to rather embarrassing lows), it seems like using color-naming conventions as a primary example was the best way to go; however, had I not come to this book with a background in art and color theory (waning as they may be), I probably would have gone cross-eyed many times before yelling at the book to get to the bloody point already.
In exploring a topic as broad as cultural variations, even confining them to their linguistic mirrors leaves room for numerous forays into surprise discoveries. The failure of translations -- when, for example, one language employs gender nomenclature in ways the other doesn't -- was especially interesting to me. Realizing how a passage can be so packed with implications and inherent musicality in its original tongue but so flat and uninspired in another left me with a whole new respect for the difficulties of translating an entire work, especially once this book offered up snippets indicating that knowing a language is only half of truly understanding its place as a living, malleable part of society.
There were other things that tickled me enough to hastily scribble a few now-nonsensically truncated notes to myself, like how this book didn't focus on just the more popular Germanic and Romance languages, as quite a few tribal tongues received considerable attention. A number of languages seemed to reflect a less-than-modern view of women (I'll be damned if I can think of any examples right now). And it seems as though Latin has been key in uncovering cultural differences, though I could have told you that as a high-school freshman, thanks to my then-textbook's inclusion of "plagosa" (which means "fond of whipping") in its back-of-the-book dictionary. (less)
I LOVED this book. Putting it down was physically painful. But a well-written (and often charmingly cheeky) narrative penned by a professional, curiou...moreI LOVED this book. Putting it down was physically painful. But a well-written (and often charmingly cheeky) narrative penned by a professional, curious linguist exploring invented languages is essentially candy for my brain. I drank up every well-researched tidbit, every cleverly made observation, every lovingly crafted account of just how interminably weird Klingon speakers are.
If reading Bukowski poems is a thank-you to myself, getting lost in this book was the literary equivalent of onanastic rapture. I implore Ms. Okrent to pen more things for me to read. Immediately. Please?(less)
The cache of typos in the introduction aside, reading this was quite fun. For a while, anyway. Eventually, it felt a little redundant and like the aut...moreThe cache of typos in the introduction aside, reading this was quite fun. For a while, anyway. Eventually, it felt a little redundant and like the author was going for some painfully obvious examples (though The Bard's less popular plays do get more attention than usual, which was neat). I just couldn't help but feel like there was a better way to organize this book to give it a little more original thought and depth.
Still, it's about Shakespeare's fondness for and adept inclination toward the naughty. And anything's worth a go if it explores the delightfully dirty undertones of Willy Shakes.(less)