**spoiler alert** Pinker is entertaining as he explains the basic tenets of language development for laypeople or beginning students of linguistics. H...more**spoiler alert** Pinker is entertaining as he explains the basic tenets of language development for laypeople or beginning students of linguistics. He argues that humans do indeed have an instinct for language - for grammar, to be specific - unparalleled in other species, as one-of-a-kind as the elephant's trunk. This instinct driven by nature prevails over environmental or nuturing factors, though one can't take that argument too literally. Obviously, whether a baby speaks English or Zulu is determined by the family and community, but many so-called "mistakes" children make in grammar are proof of the brain's perseverance in calculating sentences correctly.
My main disagreement with Pinker's argument relates to the beloved pasttime of descriptive linguists to bash "the language mavens" - i.e., teachers and writers who criticize certain styles of speech and writing. He is right that language is man-made; it is always changing and always will change. Every big change creates a dialect and no dialect is "wrong" or "right." Linguists can certainly contribute to socio-political progress in proving that Southern dialect, Ebonics, and the Queen's English are all grammatically consistent and equally rife with potential for creative expression. However, to argue that all languages change and therefore no one should care one way or another what is spoken where or when is dangerously libertine, for it ignores the significance of social subtlety and the value of skilled oratory and writing.
If one uses a youth dialect variant at a job interview or a conference with the word "like" inserted before every adjective, verb, and noun, "it will kill the pathos," as a professor of mine once said. Likewise, if one uses the Queen's English at a rave, you will be kindly asked to remove the pole from thine ass, and rightly so. Both linguists and writers should recognize that no language is ultimately superior to the other, but that social constructs do dictate what sort of language will be received well in what sort of context and to dismiss these rules is indeed to demonstrate social and aesthetic ignorance and/or arrogance. (See EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES by Lynne Truss for more on that.)
Some professors have dismissed Pinker's book as pop science, whereas others are of course excited about his giving the subject popular appeal. I've taken courses on linguistics, but I'm not a linguist, so I found it to be neither patronizing nor elite.
I'm disturbed by the current trend of history authors focusing more on the biographies of the inviduals involved in a project rather than the ideas be...moreI'm disturbed by the current trend of history authors focusing more on the biographies of the inviduals involved in a project rather than the ideas behind it. Have we as readers convinced them we are that voyeuristic? Is the People magazine approach to intellectual history the only thing that sells these days? Or do hardcore fans simply become so enamored of the figures who made it all possible that they cannot resist the urge to delve into the personal? This would be understandable if an author like Winchester decided instead to write a complete biography with all the depth and attention to character nuance that entails. But he didn't. The tantalizing title lured me with notions of lexis and alphabet amory, but the book generally restricted those ideas to the first chapter and epilogue. If the company I work for or any project I've helped bring to fruition were ever reason for a researcher to spit out juicy tidbits about my personal life and those of my colleagues, I would hardly consider it an honor.
See my review of Bill Bryson's At Home or Michael Davis's Street Gang for more examples of my sputtering over how frustrating this trend is. See Reading the OED and Sleeping with the Dictionary for the sort of word orgies I'm after.(less)
An der Uni vor ein paar Jahren habe ich eine Arbeit genau zu diesem Thema geschrieben: die englische Sprache, das eigentliche Kind von Französisch und...moreAn der Uni vor ein paar Jahren habe ich eine Arbeit genau zu diesem Thema geschrieben: die englische Sprache, das eigentliche Kind von Französisch und Deutsch, bringt jetzt seine zwei Eltern um. Die Mehrheit meiner Kommilitonen aus der Linguistik Fakultät fand meine These viel zu präskriptiv, obwohl ein paar linke Aktivisten stimmten zu, dass die geeilte Verbreitung der englischen Sprache mit der aggressiven, unnatürlichen Übernahme der Globalisierung verglichen werden könnte. Nachdem ich Schneiders Buch gelesen habe gebe ich zu, dass die präskriptive Philosophie oft konservativ und polemisch ist. (Ist das Wort „Netzwerk“ wirklich so schlecht, Herr Schneider?) Die beeindruckende Anwesenheit von Anglizismen in Deutschland ist vielfältig, kulturbezogen, und hauptsächlich eine Frage des Geschmacks. Hier sind die Vorteile und Nachteile von meiner subjektiven, politischen und ästhetischen Meinungen:
• Die Deutschen sprechen Englisch sehr gut und nicht hauptsächlich wegen Anglomanie oder Vergangenheitsbewältigung, sondern wegen eines besonderen Interesses an der ganzen Welt. Sie sprechen Englisch um überall reisen zu können und dieses Phänomen ist absolut herrlich und beneidenswert. Die einsprachigen Engländer, Franzosen und Amerikaner haben so gut wie keine Fernweh und Ausländerfreundlichkeit im Vergleich zu den Deutschen und das ist nur eine kulturelle Behinderung für sie. (Nur 17 aller Engländer und 9 Prozent aller Amis sprechen fließend eine Fremdsprache!)
• Anglizismen in der Computersprache oder in der Rockmusik sind vergleichbar mit französischen Worte in der Ballettsprache oder italienischen Worte in der Opernsprache. Ausländische Substantiven passen manchmal in solchen Fällen besser, obwohl Verben sollten auf jeden Fall vermieden werden, denn Schneider hat Recht, dass „gedownloadet“ oder „downgeloadet“ problematisch und albern ist.
• Im Gegensatz zur Französischen, die deutsche Sprache ist traditionell doch ausländerfreundlich und hat deswegen dopple so viele Worte anzubieten. Die Mehrheit fremder Worten waren aber früher fast immer adoptiert als Lehnworte oder Lehnübersetzungen. „Abenteuer,“ „Palast,“ „falsch,“ „klar“ „korrigieren,“ „Fernseher“ und „Rechner“ sind die Ergebnisse der Eindeutschung und dies hat ästhetische sowie soziale Vorteile. Wegen der phonetischen Schreibweise ihrer Muttersprache gibt es wesentlich weniger deutschsprechende und italienischsprechende Legastheniker als Französischsprechende und Englischsprechende. „Handy,“ „Back Shop,“ und „der Computer“ sind viererlei Verbrecher der deutschen Ausspracheregeln und sehen doof aus. Die ersten zwei würden von englischen Muttersprechlern vollig missverstanden werden.
• Anglizismen tauchen besonders häufig bei Werbungen auf und die kulturellen Nebenwirkungen sind einfach schade. Werbungen sind selten bewundernswert aus ästhetischen Gründen, aber das Maß der englischen Fremdworte ist beispielslos. Als mein amerikanischer Bruder die Schönhauser Allee herunterlief, sagte er, „Ich bin schon überrascht, dass ich so viele hier verstehe“ („Clean Car,“ „Sunshine Studio,“ „Coffee to go,“ „Come in and find out,“ „Pimp my store,“ „Video Collection,“ „McPaper,“ usw.) Es war mir schon klar, dass ein Teil der Kultur beim aussterben ist. Worte wie „cool“ oder „super“ können Plätze als Synonyme finden, aber warum muss Deutschlands Inter City Express so sich heißen, besonders wenn amerikanische und britische Züge berüchtigt sind? Eine Bahn namens „Hochgeschwindigkeitszug“ wäre absolut sinnlos in Amerika oder England. Internationalität ist eine schöne Konzept, aber es ist schade wenn man im Ausland umreist um neue Kulturen zu erleben und es sieht oft genau wie zuhause aus. (less)
I appreciate how often the authors insist that animal communication is so complex and our knowledge of it so limited that very few assumptions should...moreI appreciate how often the authors insist that animal communication is so complex and our knowledge of it so limited that very few assumptions should be made regarding it. Too often anthropocentrism clouds our view of animals, leading to inaccurate conclusions, the best example being a layperson's emotional, self-centered interpretation of smiling as conveying pleasure or affection when most primates use it to indicate aggression.
Nevertheless, the authors still make what I consider to be broad assumptions. They assert that, unlike many animal species, all humans can distinguish between the sounds "ta" and "da," yet native speakers of many Asian languages do not. Unlike Steven Pinker, they are convinced that many primates have been taught sign language, but, unlike Pinker, give little evidence of it and even fewer details regarding the procedure. I neither believe nor doubt that primates lack the intelligence to learn grammatical structures or abstract words like "die" or "comfortable," but I do doubt the human capacity to teach such concepts to creatures about which we know so very little. More depth and detail would have strengthened such claims.
Science is fallible because it is conducted by humans who always risk seeing what they want to see, which the authors admirably emphasize. They both assert and demonstrate that often animals do not need us and an anthropocentric approach is dangerously limiting. When we assign human characteristics to animal communication, we obstruct our view of more complex structures that could tell us so much about the world we inhabit and our own selves.
It was somewhat useful in its reiteration of many rules of German, but not at all witty (as I had hoped). Any efforts to match the brilliant self-mock...moreIt was somewhat useful in its reiteration of many rules of German, but not at all witty (as I had hoped). Any efforts to match the brilliant self-mockery of EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES produce lame, run-of-the-mill complaints from someone who certainly qualifies to some extent as a social as well as linguistic conservative. The pig-headed nature of his prescriptive approach to linguistics annoyed me as much as the pig-headed nature of Steven Pinker's descriptive rants did.
It would be nice to find a lover of language who celebrates linguistic creativity and progress but still cringes at arrogant ignorance and context clash. Most creative writers (and artists, for that matter) are aware that you must know the rules before you can break them. Few of them, however, pen books about those rules. Perhaps Sarah Palin will inspire someone.(less)
A very positive book with idealistic views presented through realistic guidelines. Her basic thesis is that nothing of course can be guaranteed until...moreA very positive book with idealistic views presented through realistic guidelines. Her basic thesis is that nothing of course can be guaranteed until the child's own linguistic intelligence can be ascertained, and thus why not remain optimistic until that point? Children with Down Syndrome have been successfully raised to be bilingual and other children of more average intelligence have rebelled, but the point is to at least give it a try because multi-culturalism is indeed a gift and an opportunity, not a burden or an identity crisis. Anyone wishing to raise a child in two or more languages (and cultures!) should read this, if nothing to counteract all the preceding decades of xenophobically-implicit pessimism toward the subject. For non-German speakers, I am sure there are available titles in English.(less)
This is a great reference for proofreading, editing, or keeping one's own non-fiction writing à la mode, grammatically infallible, and politically up-...moreThis is a great reference for proofreading, editing, or keeping one's own non-fiction writing à la mode, grammatically infallible, and politically up-to-date. I use it for all my translation and editing work, and for that I find it far more useful than Strunk and White's guide, which is too conservative for me on many counts and inflexible to the point of being inapplicable to academic theses in computer science or other jargon-laden works. Somewhere among the definitions and guidelines, the New York Times authors mention that their writers' goal is to "not insult the intelligence of the reader." With a credo like that, I can't help but put my faith in this book.(less)
A cute history of the United States and the words it has contributed to the English language. I would have preferred a more concentrated focus on the...moreA cute history of the United States and the words it has contributed to the English language. I would have preferred a more concentrated focus on the evolution of American English; Bryson seems to get overly excited by simply recounting all of U.S. history. This is fine and very well done in some cases, but Bryson is a storyteller, not a historian, so one can't completely trust his version of every event.
His short rant about the opponents of political correctness, however, should be published as a separate essay. He hit the nail that was just asking for it on the head.(less)
I fell off the couch laughing. At old me, at current me, and so many of my fellow amateur writers.
At times the advice is diconcertingly broad (especia...moreI fell off the couch laughing. At old me, at current me, and so many of my fellow amateur writers.
At times the advice is diconcertingly broad (especially regarding plot and theme), as if the reader is supposed to be penning a piece for Oprah's Book Club only. And at times the tongue-in-cheek writing samples become tedious. But the commentary is as scathing as one could hope.
After a while I just stayed on the floor until I was done with the book. Saved me a lot of trouble.
Ultimately lacking specific information on bilingualism or universal truth on multi-cultural identities, the collection seems to be for entertainment'...moreUltimately lacking specific information on bilingualism or universal truth on multi-cultural identities, the collection seems to be for entertainment's sake. Some were rather entertaining - Papandrou, Tan, and Shteyngart's musings flowed. Other authors struck me as too discordant, trying unsuccessfully to merge the cerebral with the sentimental. The book was thus less entertaining than I had hoped.(less)
Interesting and helpful, especially to those wanting to raise their children bilingual. I especially liked the explanations on children's language dev...moreInteresting and helpful, especially to those wanting to raise their children bilingual. I especially liked the explanations on children's language development.(less)