The first foreign language I learned to complete fluency was German - after five years of high school German I spent a year at a German boys' boardingThe first foreign language I learned to complete fluency was German - after five years of high school German I spent a year at a German boys' boarding school. At the end of that year I was completely fluent, but noticed an odd phenomenon, that I felt like a slightly different person when I spoke German than when speaking English. Since then I've also learned Spanish to a high degree of fluency, and the same observation holds. In both cases, the main difference that I perceive has to do with humor, and the way the language I'm speaking affects my sense of humor. So I've always been interested in the extent to which language affects thought. The notion that it does is what linguists refer to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Belief in Sapir-Whorf reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century, but since then the notion that language affects cognition has been discredited by almost all mainstream linguists.
In "Through the Language Glass" Guy Deutscher mounts a careful, very limited defence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He considers three major areas - the link between language and color perception, how different languages deal with spatial orientation, and the phenomenon of differences in noun genders across different languages. His examination of the link between language and color perception is extensive and thought-provoking - he traces the development of linguistic theory on color perception from British prime minister Gladstone's commentary on the relative paucity of color terms in Homer's work, through the Berlin-Kay model (stating essentially that languages all tend to split up the color spectrum in similar ways) through very recent experiments suggesting that the existence of a particular color distinction in a language (e.g. the existence of separate terms in Russian for light and dark blue) affects the brain's ability to perceive that distinction. Deutscher's account of the evolution of linguistic theory about color perception is a tour de force of scientific writing for a general audience - it is both crystal clear and a pleasure to read.
Two factors contributed to my eventual disappointment with this book. The first is that, even after Deutscher's careful, eloquent, persuasive analysis, one's final reaction has to be a regretful "So what?" In the end, it all seems to amount to little of practical importance.
The second disappointment pertained only to the experience of reading this book on an Amazon Kindle. Reference is made throughout to a "color insert" which evidently contained several color wheels as well as up to a dozen color illustrations. This feature was completely absent from the Kindle edition, which had a severe adverse effect on the overall experience of reading this book. Obviously, this point is relevant only if you are contemplating reading the Kindle version - DON'T!...more
I read McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" a few years ago and thought it was terrific. His subsequent effort, "Doing our own Thing", was a major disappoI read McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" a few years ago and thought it was terrific. His subsequent effort, "Doing our own Thing", was a major disappointment - self-indulgent, undisciplined, and essentially pointless. So I would have skipped this one (a cover blurb that squeezes the chestnuts "rollicking tour" and "rousing celebration" into the same sentence is generally not a good sign). Did I really need reassurance from yet another linguist that it's OK to split an infinitive, or to end a sentence with a preposition? But then there was Manny's recent rave review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....
My reaction? Modified rapture at best. There's a kind of forced flashiness to McWhorter's style that I don't particularly enjoy. Calling English a dolphin in a family of assorted types of deer (the Germanic relatives of English) gets the point across, but the metaphor is nowhere near as clever as McWhorter seems to think, and spinning it out across two paragraphs ("antlered, fleet-footed, big-brown-eyed variations on a theme" - yeah, dude, we know what the word "deer" means, as if you hadn't already enumerated "antelopes, springboks, kudu, and so on" earlier in the sentence) is irritating, to say the least.
For the first 60 pages of this book, McWhorter sets out to answer the question of why English favors the use of "be" and "do" as auxiliary verbs in constructions like "I'm watching TV" (actual present, as opposed to the habitual present "I watch TV", a distinction which confuses the bejasus out of most non-native speakers), in questions ("do you watch"?), or negative statements. None of its immediate relatives, either on the Germanic or the Romance side, uses such a construction. Fair enough, it's not a completely boring question, though it's hardly the major mystery he makes it out to be either. I figured out the answer to this at about age 5, when I first started to learn Irish (Gaelic) -- it's a Celtic thing, see?
So that extended first chapter, in which the only point that is being developed is that the Celtic languages (Irish, Welsh, Scots Gaelic) influenced English syntax, hardly qualifies as a major revelation. Unfortunately, McWhorter beats it into the ground like the proverbial dead horse. For 60 pages. You start the second chapter with a sense of profound relief only to find - unspeakable horror - that he's not done. More statement of the profoundly obvious.
I guess this is the major reason for my inability to share Manny's rabid enthusiasm for this book. Like so many of his colleagues, McWhorter expends a lot of effort in addressing what I consider to be obvious linguistic strawmen - the notion that linguistics is just about etymology, the red herring of grammatical hypercorrectness, the idea that vocabulary is the only measure of influence of one language on another, the spectacularly uninteresting strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It's as if he's writing for a readership consisting exclusively of people who have never undergone the intellectual exercise of learning a second language. Because if you've ever gone through that particular struggle, it seems to me that you're guaranteed to have thought about language deeply enough to make much of the material in this book seem like little more than a statement of the bloody obvious.
And yeah, what the hell - it's a book about language, so I'll bitch. The shorthand term McWhorter uses throughout, that English employs a "meaningless do", seems infelicitous at best. ...more
This wasn't quite as brilliant as the first chapter, included as teaser in the New Work Times book review a few weeks ago, led me to expect. But thereThis wasn't quite as brilliant as the first chapter, included as teaser in the New Work Times book review a few weeks ago, led me to expect. But there is plenty of good stuff to cheer and amuse the reader.
The book is formatted like a dictionary, in which each entry is an idiosyncratic riff by Blount on some aspect of the alphabet, words, the English language, language generally, or English usage. (Blount is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel.)
What do I mean by 'idiosyncratic riff'? Here is a representative sample:
Why do so many reduplicative expressions (e.g. heebie-jeebies) in English begin with 'h' than with any other letter? (with an impressive list of 54 examples) Origins of the word 'mansuetude'. Menu-ese: language atrocities culled from menus. Goldwynisms; The (non)-admissibility of 'hopefully': Blount comes down squarely against it. (A position I disagree with - it seems to me to fill the same need as its German equivalent - "hoffentlich" - and Blount's charges of ambiguity seem unconvincing to me). Synesthesia. Great one-word, two-word, and three-word sentences; e.g. 'Fuhgeddaboudit', 'Nooses give', 'Omit needless words'. Ruminations on each of the individual letters of the alphabet.
To me, Blount's thoughts about the individual letters of the alphabet were hit-or-miss, with more misses than hits. Another recurring theme of his which was reasonably amusing the first couple of times he brought it up, much less so the fifteenth, was the property he refers to by the cutesy-irritating coinage 'sonicky'. Blount uses it to mean a broader kind of onomatopoeia - a 'sonicky' word is one which is acoustically appropriate to its meaning. As examples he cites 'chunky', 'squeeze', 'foist'. The concept didn't bother me particularly, but Blount's obsessive returning to it every few pages got old really fast, and the term 'sonicky' should have been put down at birth. My final complaint about "Alphabet Juice" is the unforgivable lack of an index - a lazy, annoying omission.
But this is mere caviling. These are minor flaws in a book which has more than its share of highly amusing entries. Blount's enthusiasm for language, and his appreciation for its oddities, are infectious.
This would make a good gift for any language-lover on your Christmas list. That is, assuming he or she already owns the five-star "Limits of Language" by Mikael Parkvall:
Having read and enjoyed "The Power of Babel", I expected better from McWhorter. But this was a lazy, sloppy, pointless, self-indulgent, piece of nothiHaving read and enjoyed "The Power of Babel", I expected better from McWhorter. But this was a lazy, sloppy, pointless, self-indulgent, piece of nothing. Somehow I find it more annoying when someone as obviously talented as this author perpetrates something as sloppy as this book...more
A potentially fascinating subject, whose interest is leached out completely by the pedestrian writing and deathly prose of Diane Ravitch. Enormously dA potentially fascinating subject, whose interest is leached out completely by the pedestrian writing and deathly prose of Diane Ravitch. Enormously disappointing, because I've heard this woman interviewed on the radio a number of times, and she is by no means as humorless and devoid of intellect as this book would suggest. ...more
In her charming essay, "Insert a Carrot", Anne Fadiman describes a trait shared by everyone in her family - a heightened sensitivity to the flaws in oIn her charming essay, "Insert a Carrot", Anne Fadiman describes a trait shared by everyone in her family - a heightened sensitivity to the flaws in other people's writing. The Fadimans all belong to that tribe whose members cannot read without simultaneously copy-editing. When dining out, they amuse each other by pointing out typos on the menu. It might seem obnoxious, but really they just can't help it. If you're blessed with the copy-editing gene you can't just switch it off.
I have the same problem. When I read, typographical and grammatical errors leap off the page, assailing my eyeballs, demanding to be noticed. A distraction that I am incapable of ignoring, they hijack my attention and diminish my respect for the author. I want my own writing to be free of such distractions; it should be forceful and persuasive. I welcome constructive advice that helps me attain that goal. My copy of "Modern American Usage" is grubby and well-thumbed. I think its author, Bryan A. Garner, has accomplished something quite remarkable. He has written a usage guide that gives writers clear, concrete, reasoned advice, without being overly dogmatic or erring on the side of sloppiness. I hate sloppy writing.
I also hate Strunk and White. Its popularity is inexplicable to me. Here are just a few of my objections:
1. Their famous motto, "Omit needless words", is fatuous and has absolutely no practical value. (If I knew how to do this, I'd already be some kind of great communication guru.) Repeating this essentially vapid advice in similarly empty formulations like "Be clear" and "Don't explain too much" is of no practical help to anybody, and suggests that even the authors have difficulty in deciphering their own admonitions.
2. The stylistic tips that are not simply platitudinous are often just silly, hopelessly vague, or reflective of the long outdated prejudices of a couple of old white dudes.
For example -
Do not inject opinion. Prefer the standard to the offbeat. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good. Write with nouns and verbs. Don't construct awkward adverbs. Avoid fancy words. Use figures of speech sparingly. Do not overwrite.
Having trouble figuring out whether your ear is "good", your adverb is "awkward", or your writing is "over"? Good luck with that. S & W will be of no help whatsoever. Why not?
3. The examples used to illustrate "bad" style in the book are generally ludicrously bad. The need for correction is so glaringly obvious that the examples have little instructive value. The authors are well able to demolish straw men, but if you want advice on a subtle point, they are unlikely to be of any practical help.
4. The fetishistic obsession with avoiding the passive voice is (a) baffling (b) profoundly irritating when some freaking paperclip starts to lecture you about it (c) so obviously idiotic that the authors themselves ignore it throughout the book.
Other questionable decrees include the ukase that "none" should always take a singular verb, the prohibition on starting a sentence with "however", and the pointless "which/that" discussion.
These exemplify one of the book's biggest problems, which - to be fair - is not necessarily the authors' fault. It has achieved the status of a kind of sacred text, with all of the problems that result. People become blind to the internal inconsistencies within the text, it gets quoted with the kind of self-righteous zeal characteristic to "true believers" and to similar ends. Instead of stimulating thoughtful discussion, S & W is wielded as a weapon to end it. Which might not be so terrible if the advice it contains were not so vague, idiosyncratic and frequently inconsistent. Probably the most infuriating aspect of writing our book was my co-author's continual invocation of Strunk and White as the final arbiter. One can only wonder by whose authority these two gentlemen were anointed God.
In a cunning marketing gimmick, the latest edition of Strunk and White has been jazzed up by including illustrations by Maira Kalman. Ms Kalman is a delightful artist, whose work elsewhere I greatly admire. But she really should have said no to this particular project. Her illustrations are occasionally pretty, sometimes baffling, but generally pointless. They add no particular insight, though some readers may find them a welcome distraction from the barked eccentricities of the book's two main authors.
I found this book to be a great disappointment. Don't get me wrong - there's nothing I find healthier than a little myth-debunking. So I was predisposI found this book to be a great disappointment. Don't get me wrong - there's nothing I find healthier than a little myth-debunking. So I was predisposed to like this collection of 21 essays, edited by Bauer and Trudgill.
Each chapter takes a particular 'language myth' and then argues against the validity of the myth, some more convincingly than others. (Having tried to learn both Russian and Spanish as foreign languages, I think it's fair to say that the statement "Some languages are harder than others" is not a myth). The quality of the contributions is somewhat variable, though most are quite readable. This accessibility to readers who may not necessarily have any formal exposure to linguistics is the book's main strength, in my view.
The reason for my disappointment is that, for almost half the chapters, I found the stated myth to be a straw man, which made those chapters not particularly interesting to read. There were two common problems - in some cases, the wording of the myth was so non-specific as to be meaningless, another common flaw was that the myth was worded in a very extreme fashion, essentially presenting a straw man for the author to demolish.
For instance, myth 1 "The meanings of words should not be allowed to vary or change" is couched in such absolute terms that anyone expressing even slight disagreement is automatically made to seem unreasonable. Or take the example "bad grammar is slovenly". The author appears to interpret "bad" grammar to mean anything that deviates, even slightly, from some highly codified set of rules. The acknowledgement that one can communicate clearly, without ambiguity, without sticking to the letter of the law each and every time, is hardly startling, That said, there are some deviations from the rules which are not helpful, because they induce an avoidable ambiguity. This type of bad grammar is indeed slovenly. By arguing against a strawman of questionable relevance, an opportunity is lost to explore the question in a more nuanced fashion.
Other allegedly widespread myths whose prevalence I found questionable were "Some languages are just not good enough" (what does this even mean?), "French is a logical language", "Women talk too much" (are these people serious?), "Some languages have no grammar" (does anyone over the age of 10 seriously believe this for an instant?), "You shouldn't say 'It is me'" (why single out this particular example?), "Everyone has an accent except me", "They speak really bad English down South and in New York City", "In the Appalachians they speak like Shakespeare" (even if one tries to take this seriously, the inevitable question rises unbidden: "how would anyone know?")
I might have liked the book better if it had eschewed the "mythbusting" device, the effect of which was to polarize arguments unnecessarily, and instead had just explored the questions raised in a less artificially polemic manner. ...more
This "book from the site" is hilarious, informative, and entertaining. I highly recommend it.
*boyzilian (noun): the male equivalent of the bikini wax *floordrobe (noun): A pile of discarded clothes on the floor of a person's room. *carbage (noun): the accumulated garbage, papers, and other assorted detritus that litters one's car after a road trip. ...more