This book provides lively look at several aspects of modern English from a linguist's perspective.
The book starts with a few chapters discussing the...moreThis book provides lively look at several aspects of modern English from a linguist's perspective.
The book starts with a few chapters discussing the myriad ways that languages and dialects change over time. McWhorter shows that languages are not static and immutable, rather they are constantly evolving over time, like a lava lamp, to use one of McWhorter's favorite metaphors. These opening chapters are pretty much a shortened version of McWhorter's more recent book, The Power of Babel.
Through most of the remaining chapters, McWhorter discusses different aspects of modern English through the lens of language change. There are discussions of a lot of (sometimes) controversial rules that some "authorities" try to propagate, with McWhorter arguing that these rules are generally pointless. It's hopeless to try to preserve old bits when the language has moved past them (e.g., "whom"). Likewise it's pointless to fight against new evolutions in language ("hopefully" and the use of "they" as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun).
More interesting for me was the chapter on Shakespearean English. McWhorter describes how often Shakespeare uses language that is, essentially, foreign to the modern audience. Mostly this is a matter of word meanings and idioms. But McWhorter argues that many of us have to work so hard to understand a Shakespeare play (in the theater) and miss so much of its meaning that we really should be performing Shakespeare in translation---translation into modern English.
The final three chapters of the book are devoted to a discussion of Black English. The book was originally published shortly after the 1996-7 controversy over the teaching of Ebonics in the Oakland schools. And in many ways it is largely a vehicle for McWhorter to make his argument about this issue. McWhorter pokes holes in many linguistic misconceptions surrounding the debate and offers his views on the pedagogical challenges of teaching kids a new dialect at school and discusses the larger hurdles facing Black English speakers in American schools.
All in all, this was an entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking book. Some of the sections on Black English feel a bit dated, as they are focused on rebutting arguments that were put forth 15+ years ago. But even so, it was still a good read.
In reading the book, I was disappointed that McWhorter didn't draw some connection between his chapters on the folly of prescriptive rules in grammar and usage and his chapters on Black English. It seems to me that both of these issues touch on the topic of how language is used as a marker of class and status. McWhorter rightly argues against people who disparage Black English as linguistically inferior to Standard English. At the same time, he acknowledges the value in teaching everyone to speak Standard English. While the prescriptivist rules about split infinitives and "hopefully" may not have a solid linguistic basis, I would argue that they are examples of the same issues that come up with Black English. Failure to follow these rules can be viewed as an indication of inferior education, intelligence, and social background---just as many people treat Black English. Thus, to the extent that these rules are followed to sound like the educated and elite, it doesn't matter whether they have a sound linguistic basis.
On a completely different note, I found the cover photo on the hardcover edition of the book puzzling. It is a black-and-white shot of a city street in the late afternoon, with long shadows throwing everything into relief. Obviously this ties in with the title of the book, The Word on the Street. What's funny about it is that somebody obviously wanted to emphasize the canyon-like effect of looking down a city street and stretched the picture to make it longer and narrower. The result, however, is that all of the cars and trucks on the street are oddly out of proportion.
This book as a collection of two-page reflections on different aspects of programming, each contributed by a different practitioner. The topics range...moreThis book as a collection of two-page reflections on different aspects of programming, each contributed by a different practitioner. The topics range from specific practical items, such as the use of comments or specific design patterns, to the philosophical, such as why programmers should read the humanities.
There were some articles with interesting and new ideas. But as someone who has been programming professionally for more than twenty years those were definitely the minority. Nevertheless, the articles, even those covering old ground, were nicely written, and I picked up a lot of new ways to think about and describe old ideas.
The small bite-sized pieces make the book an easy read, and also had the benefit of forcing the writers to get their points across succinctly.(less)
This is another fun language book by McWhorter. This volume is organized around looking at all the ways that languages change and evolve over time. Mc...moreThis is another fun language book by McWhorter. This volume is organized around looking at all the ways that languages change and evolve over time. McWhorter describes a rich variety of changes that languages and dialects can undergo. We've all heard and read about how languages can change in pronunciation over time, and how word meanings can evolve. But that is only the start of McWhorter's entertaining and informative tour through the evolution of language.
Complex language features---such as inflection or the use of tone---come and go over time, and McWhorter provides some fascinating insights into how and why this type of change happens. He also describes a variety of other complexities that arise in the world's languages, but are generally unfamiliar to folks like me who are mostly only familiar with Romance or Indo-European languages.
There is a large (and interesting) section of the book devoted to pidgins and creoles. Creoles are essentially new languages that spring into being when people who use a much simpler pidgin are compelled to rely almost exclusively on that pidgin for communication of a long period of time. The resulting Creole is a true language with a grammar and vocabulary that provide sufficient expressiveness for the full range of human communications. McWhorter argues that since Creoles are less evolved, the common features across creole languages are probably a good indication of the types of features that would have been present in the earliest human language.
Another interesting aspect of the book was the contrasting of more isolated, regional languages and more wide-spread languages such as English, Hindi, Chinese, or Arabic. The truly bizarre and hard to grasp linguistic complexities are much more likely to be found in the more isolated languages, where most if not all speakers learn the language natively as children. Once a language gets big enough that many people are learning it as a second language, those rough edges get softened over time. Thus, for example, Swahili, a language adopted by many adults as a second language, is generally considered the "easiest" of the Bantu languages.
There are many other interesting aspects of language evolution in this book. How do languages change when the mix with each other, whether due to migration, trade, or conquest? What happens when a language starts getting written down? How do languages change as they die out? Do we have any hope of reconstructing the original human language?
The book is full of interesting examples English and other languages readers may know, such as French, German, and Russian, and from languages readers are unlikely to have heard of, such as Ngan'gityemerri, an Aborigine language from northern Australia. And McWhorter tells his story with enthusiasm and a pleasant sprinkling of personal anecdotes and asides, both relevant (such as his personal experience grappling with different German dialects) and merely entertaining (such as his musings on the quality of art in turn-of-the-century comic strips).(less)
I came to the Inspector Morse novels by a round-about route. We visited my in-laws over Labor Day weekend, and on Sunday evening wound up watching a b...moreI came to the Inspector Morse novels by a round-about route. We visited my in-laws over Labor Day weekend, and on Sunday evening wound up watching a bit of TV. Usually I do my best to ignore the television---engrossing myself in a crossword or a good book. But this particular evening a show called Inspector Lewis was on. At first I didn't pay too much attention but I wound up getting sucked in. It had interesting characters, and the setting---in and around Oxford, England was a familiar blend of the urban and the academic. The final plot twists were a bit of a stretch, but overall, the show was enjoyable---high praise from someone who usually does his best to ignore the television!
Over the next few Sundays, Jackie and I watched additional episodes of Inspactor Lewis until PBS's Mystery! rotated off to some other series of whodunits. Being curious, I did a bit of poking around on the web and discovered that Inspector Lewis was a spin-off of an earlier PBS/BBC series called Inspector Morse, where the Lewis character appeared as Sgt. Lewis. Furthermore Inspector Morse was based an a series of mystery novels by Colin Dexter, the first of which was Last Bus to Woodstock. A quick trip to the library, and I had another book to read...
Overall, this was a pleasant read, with a well-crafted mystery and good writing. It is firmly in the "hardboiled" school of detective fiction, presenting a gritty and ugly picture of humanity, focusing in particular on the sexual foibles of nearly every character---having affairs, buying pornography, engaged to people they don't love, looking for no-strings-attached sex, and so on. Morse, himself, is unlucky in love, drinks a lot, and is generally painted as a brilliant intuitive detective who is leading an unhappy life. While I think this was a pretty good book in the abstract, the bleak world view it presented wasn't really my cup of tea.
An odd aspect of reading this book was how old it made me feel. Characters rely on regular telephones, and even the postal service to communicate with each other! Facts have to be gathered via legwork; there is no internet. Reports are typed, and papers left at the office can't be retrieved electronically. Women are still pretty much confined to traditional gender stereo-typed roles---housewife, secretary, barmaid, and nurse. This is clearly a relic of an earlier age. Yet it was written in 1975---when I was ten years old---reminding me that I, too, am a relic of a different age.
I may pick up one or two later books in the series to see how Dexter and his characters develop over time, but I probably won't read the entire series. (less)
McWhorter describes the grammatical evolution of the English language, arguing that it is mostly the result of encounters with speakers of other langu...moreMcWhorter describes the grammatical evolution of the English language, arguing that it is mostly the result of encounters with speakers of other languages in the British Isles. English acquired certain constructs that are relatively rare in the world's languages except in Celtic languages spoken by the early inhabitants of Britain, hence this is probably how they came into English. And successive waves of Viking invaders/immigrants who spoke other Germanic tongues had trouble picking up some of the other grammatical complexities, such as word gender and case and tense markings on nouns and verbs, respectively, and thus these features were eroded out of the language. McWhorter also offers some (fascinating) theories about the origins of some of the oddities in the entire Germanic language family when compared with other Indo-European tongues.
Along the way, McWhorter lists and rebuts the various reasons other scholars don't accept (or might not accept) his hypotheses. This uncovers some additional interesting points about language and linguistic research. Such as the trouble of inferring what people's spoken language was like in a time when few people could write, and writing used the formal (rather than the colloquial) language of the time. But I also found these debates quickly grew annoying. As a reader who is not personally familiar with the current scholarship in linguistics, it was never clear whether McWhorter was rebutting active criticisms of his work, anticipating future objections, or merely refuting the reasons scholars have never, till now, considered these points. And since McWhorter is obviously on one side of any of these debates, it's hard to know how well he is representing the opposing view points.
McWhorter also devotes a chapter to using his view of the evolution of English to argue against the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, the idea that our thinking and behavior are influenced by the characteristics of the language we speak. I have to infer that this topic is something of a sore point for McWhorter, because it really felt a bit out of place in the book. Or maybe the problem is that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis strikes me as utter nonsense, and hence I would need to see a lot of supporting evidence for it---especially for the stronger forms of cultural influence McWhorter says it argues for---before I would find any counter arguments interesting or necessary.
Along the way, there are lots of interesting tidbits about language. Like many language writers, McWhorter takes some time out to poke holes in some of our notions of "correct" speech, and offers lots of interesting analogues and examples for a wide range of other languages, including both the commonplace (Russian, Frence, etc.) and the unusual (Frisian, Cree, et al.)
Overall an entertaining and educational read, especially if you're interested in how English got to where it is today, or in languages in general.
This book looks at the history and development of twelve major international cities via the infrastructure built underneath them. There is a brief int...moreThis book looks at the history and development of twelve major international cities via the infrastructure built underneath them. There is a brief introduction and conclusion, but the bulk of the book is the chapters for each of these cities---New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Mexico City, Cairo, Beijing, Tokyo, and Sydney.
I'm pretty much the target audience for this book---I'm a life-long city-dweller, I like to read and think about how cities work, and I am interested in the kinds of engineering challenges involved in building subways, sewers and the like. Also I read and enjoyed Alex Marshall's earlier book, How Cities Work.
Despite all it had going for it, the book was a bit of a disappointment. Or maybe I was expecting and hoping for too much. I expected a more general discussion of how cities develop their underground infrastructure, illustrated by examples from various cities. Instead, the book is primarily twelve separate essays on each of the twelve different cities. There is interesting stuff in each city's description, whether it is historical information about the cities, unique features, or ongoing challenges. But the book gets repetitive. Despite the differences between the cities, the bulk of the discussion of each city focuses on three topics: the subway system, getting water into the city, and getting sewage out of the city. This was fascinating for the first city (also the city where I grew up), interesting for the next few, and made my eyes glaze over by the time I reached Sydney at the end of the book.
Note: This is the second book I've finished in 2011---the same number as my wife. This won't last. By tomorrow she will have finished a third (and maybe a fourth!), and I'll spend the rest of the year watching her book count fly past mine. But tonight, we're equal!(less)
In our household, we've always enjoyed reading books aloud. Of course we read to our daughter when she was younger, but even before that, I would read...moreIn our household, we've always enjoyed reading books aloud. Of course we read to our daughter when she was younger, but even before that, I would read books to my wife---on long car rides, sitting on the beach, before bed, etc. And now that our daughter is older (12 years old), she reads books to us, too. I think the common theme is that reading a book to someone is a more intimate way of sharing a book you love than to simply give it to them and urge them to read it.
This is one of the books our daughter read aloud to us. She's been (intermittently) working through the series.
I enjoyed this one more than the second, although not quite as much as the first. Well done, with some fun moments. Some of the supporting characters become a bit more three dimensional in this one. We also see a lot more hints about general outline of the major confrontation that is likely to happen in the final book of the series.(less)
Recently I ate lunch with a work friend who loves math. In fact, I think she's just moonlighting as a computer programmer until she can figure out how...moreRecently I ate lunch with a work friend who loves math. In fact, I think she's just moonlighting as a computer programmer until she can figure out how to do math full time. That morning she had pointed me to Vi Hart's amazing math doodle videos and, not surprisingly, we wound up talking about them and how they do a brilliant job of making math fun and interesting. From there, our conversation touched on the various formative experiences the two of us had in learning about math as kids, our experiences with teaching or tutoring people in math, and the (many) woes of math education in the United States.
Somewhere during the course of the conversation I remembered this book, which I originally read more than ten years ago. I remembered i as being a fascinating comparison of how math is taught in the US, Germany, and Japan, and recommended it to my friend as a way to get a broader look at math education in the US, and at what other countries are doing differently and better. My original plan was to bring the book to work the next day and give it to her, but when I pulled it off the bookshelf I started re-reading. So it took a bit longer to get it to her.
This foundation for this book is a comparison of math education in the US, Germany, and Japan. A group of researchers took a random sample of schools in each country and went into them and video-taped an 8th grade math class from each school. By comparing what the saw in dozens of classes in each country, the researchers analyzed the differences in teaching styles between them.
The book starts with the actual research, describing sample classes from the three countries and then generalizing about the differences in lesson content and style between them. Since the authors are academics, this section also includes information about their methodology---how they tried to ensure that they videotaped a random set of classes, how they encoded the types of behavior and activity they saw in the videos, etc. Personally, I found this interesting---I like understanding how people in other fields do research---but I can imagine that this could be pretty dry for other readers.
But that is only the first part of the book, and although it was, for me, the most interesting part, it is really just the groundwork for the authors' primary argument. The authors describe the system of lesson study used in Japan. This is an ongoing process where each year teachers select a small number of topics to investigate. These may be very broad and abstract topics, such as, "How do we help students see both sides in an historical debate?" or very narrow, such as, "How do we help students start to understand the concept of 'borrowing' in subtraction?" The teachers meet regularly to discuss the topic, and typically prepare a new "lesson" which they try out in the classroom. They then write-up their results as a way of sharing their ideas and experience with peer teachers.
The authors argue that by having the teachers involved in this ongoing introspection about what works and what doesn't work in the classroom, the teachers themselves become more invested in finding (and using) better methods of teaching, thus leading to a continuing improvement in the quality of education. And they make a strong case for bringing something similar to American education. They identify some of the cultural and bureaucratic obstacles and suggest ways to overcome them.
As an engineer I was quite sympathetic to the argument in favor of lesson study. I, too, believe that the way you make any system better (whether hardware, software, or people) is to always be on the lookout for areas where there is room for improvement and then to figure out how to make them better. What is particularly appealing is that this general approach does not preclude any of the other ideas that people have come up with for improving education. It merely provides a vehicle for teachers to learn about them, reflect on what will work in their classroom, and discuss how to adapt ideas they believe in to their own lessons. (less)
My daughter and two of her friends dressed up as the Three Musketeers for Halloween. My wife sewed them matching blue tabards, they bought cheap plast...moreMy daughter and two of her friends dressed up as the Three Musketeers for Halloween. My wife sewed them matching blue tabards, they bought cheap plastic fencing sabres, and black cavalier hats, which they decorated with feathres and lace. They made quite a striking trio, and received many compliments, and even a dozen or so requests to pose for photographs as they made their rounds of the neighborhood.
This prompted to me read the book. Since my wife had read it, and never throws out a good book, I figured I would find a copy on the shelves someplace. To my surprise, however, we didn't own a copy. Apparently she read it in the stacks at Yale as an undergrad, and never bought her own copy. I quick trip to Harvard Square plugged the gap on our library, and gave me something to read on a recent business trip to North Carolina.
It's a long book, so I'm still reading. So far it's a hoot. The characters of d'Artagnan and the three musketeers are larger-than-life personalities that you can't help loving. There is a lot of action and intrigue. It's easy to see how it became a popular favorite 150 years ago, and why it still is one. (less)
This is yet another book that my wife has been urging me to read for years. Recently my daughter read it, too (and promptly devoured the rest of the t...moreThis is yet another book that my wife has been urging me to read for years. Recently my daughter read it, too (and promptly devoured the rest of the trilogy as well). Finally, I figured I should catch up with the family and see what all the fuss was about. So I packed this as my reading book on a recent trip to California.
The action is set in an alternative reality where magicians do not directly wield power. Instead they summon and enslave all manner of imps, djinns, and other spirits. Naturally, these magicians have become the ruling class, looking down their noses on the unmagical commoners. A modern London, with cars and trains, is a seat of magical power, ruled by the Prime Minster, the most powerful of hundreds of scheming and competing magical ministers and contending with its arch-rival.... Prague (!?). And it is in this magical London that the story is set.
The story centers on two characters---Nathaniel, a precocious young apprentice magician, and Bartimaeus, the 5000 year old Djinni he summons. Nathaniel summons Bartimaeus to steal an artifact---the eponymous Amulet of Samarkand---from a much more powerful magician who has offended him. One thing leads to another and before he knows it, Nathaniel (and Bartimaeus) are ensnared in intrigues that reach to the highest levels of power in London.
The story alternates between Bartimaeus's and Nathaniel's points of view. Bartimaeus tells us his part of the story in the 1st person, and we see Nathaniels point of view in 3rd person narrative. Bartimaeus is definitely the more interesting of the two. Not only is he the character that actually has most of the adventure in the book, he is also a colorful story-teller---mixing cynicism about his human masters (past and present) with a self-aggrandizing and sarcastic wit that had me laughing out loud many times.
On the downside, there were no characters in the story that I found particularly sympathetic. Nathaniel is whining, arrogant, too-easily-offended, and remarkably short on common sense. (Of course, as in many fantasy stories, if the hero had common sense, we wouldn't have a story!) Bartimeaus is powerful and clever and witty, which makes his sections of the book enjoyable to read. But he can also be as petty and vengeful as his master---always eagerly anticipating the opportunity to turn the tables on him so he can torment and kill him.
All-in-all, however, it was a good book. The plot was exciting and enjoyable. The world is creative and richly described, and the plot---once it gets going---is exciting and fast moving. In addition to the core plot, other mysterious strands are woven into the story---clearly setting up elements that will come into play in the subsequent novels.
As a follow up to The Lightning Thief, my daughter read me this book. More fun with Percy Jackson and his friends. As with The Lightning Thief the str...moreAs a follow up to The Lightning Thief, my daughter read me this book. More fun with Percy Jackson and his friends. As with The Lightning Thief the strength of this book Riordan's sense of humor and the clever ways he plays with and re-interprets the characters and events of Greek mythology. (less)
My daughter and I recently made a day trip to Vermont to visit some friends. As this meant more than five hours in the car, she packed a variety of en...moreMy daughter and I recently made a day trip to Vermont to visit some friends. As this meant more than five hours in the car, she packed a variety of entertainments for herself. This book, which she had already read, was one of them. Shortly after we left home, she said to me, "Dad, do you mind if I read you Lightning Thief? I think you'd really like it." It seemed like a good way for us to pass the time, so I said yes.
With plenty of breaks to rest her voice, my daughter read almost half the book aloud on that trip. She finished reading the rest of it to me over the next week or two. All in all, it was a great time---for both of us. My daughter enjoyed sharing a favorite book with me; it was a fun story; and I was proud of the fluency and dramatic characterization she displayed in reading the book to me.
Percy Jackson is an unpopular dyslexic kid who has been kicked out of one boarding school after another. He has a loving mother, but a mean step-father who makes Percy's life miserable when he is at home in New York City. All of this changes when Percy discovers that his mysterious missing father is really a Greek god, making Percy a demi-god. He finds himself unexpectedly spending a summer at "Camp Half-Blood" a "camp" specifically designed for the half-mortal offspring of Olympus. Just as he starts to feel like he has finally found a place where he fits in, Percy and a couple friends must leave the camp on a quest to prevent a dispute between the gods from escalating into World War III. On an adventure filled trek across the United States, Percy and his friends run into all manner of creatures and events pulled from Greek mythology and updated to 21st century America.
All in all, this book was a blast. If you're familiar with the Greek myths, half the fun is trying to guess what character or story Riordan will throw into the plot next. Can you guess who that sales clerk or teacher really is before the author tells you? On top of this, Riordan does a brilliant job adapting the myths to modern times---Dionysus has been grounded (kicked off Olympus for 100 years) and is drinking Diet Coke since he's also been forbidden to indulge in his prefered beverage---wine. Houdini escaped from Hades, and all manner of (in)famous monsters are on the prowl.
The pacing was great for kids. Every chapter seemed to contain new adventures and to uncover more plot elements. The chapter titles were hilarious. The first chapter is titled, "I accidentally vaporize my pre-algebra teacher." Who could read that and not want to immediately dive into the chapter?
There were a few minor downsides. The major plot arc was (mostly) predictable. Maybe I just made some lucky guesses, but I think that with the multiple dream sequences and prophecies (not to mention a bit of familiarity with the underlying myths) some big pieces of the plot were clear from early on. Nevertheless, there were some unexpected bits at the end, and a lot of fun twists and turns on the way. And this was fine. After all, the target audience is probably middle school kids, not well-read 40-somethings.
Another minor annoyance---and again, something that probably is more noticeable to adult readers than the target audience---is the ease with which Percy dispatches or overcomes every obstacle in his path. He defeats monsters, evades traps, and outwits gods with an ease that would make the most illustrious of his demigod brethren---Heracles, Theseus, Perseus---envious. And this depsite the fact that he is a kid---just out of 6th grade---with almost no training and who has only discovered his true heritage in the previous two weeks. On a practical note, however, this means that the plot can be structured as a series of bite-sized mini-adventures built around real characters and situations from Greek mythology. And the small mini-adventures made this great read aloud material, as there were lots of easy spots to stop and take a break.(less)