Mackay's Reviews > You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity

You Are What You Speak by Robert Lane Greene
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Jun 03, 11

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bookshelves: politics, language
Read in June, 2011

I read a review in the NYT and was intrigued, for I love language and grammar and thought, a book for me. It wasn't what I expected, but that's okay. At times it trends toward dry, with statistics from the study of linguistics, but never for too long. Mr Greene speaks 9 languages, so perhaps he's entitled to try to translate a rather arcane branch of study for general readers. The book is more a political investigation than a book about grammar, which thesis seems to be aimed at soothing the roiled waters of immigration-inspired fears for the core language, whether it be English here in America or French in France or...

The book contains some things everyone could benefit from reading, particularly the last chapter, which compares language to metaphors and clouds, and others which clearly burst the popular balloon that immigration (anywhere) destroys the dominant language or culture of the place where immigrants come. Yep, it's always and ever the reverse, and for linguist, the US is known as the killer of other languages, for by the third generation, and sometimes the second, the immigrant language is gone. Yep, even for Spanish speakers from Mexico and points south. There are interesting bits about Chinese, too, and why China holds to its own writing system, which is cumbersome, besides being heavily time-intensive to learn even halfway adequately for the Chinese. And the reason? Because linguistically, China hosts many separate languages (not just dialects) and they are only one in the written language, the dominant Mandarin. It would burst the Chinese political entity's myth of one China to adopt another, easier writing system.

Anyhow, it's an interesting book and not too long, and one could skip the portions one found uninteresting for the truly captivating sections about what languages are and how they grow and change. And how language is all metaphor.
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