Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Linguistic Memoirs

Posted by Neal on September 20, 2009

I’ve been having fun reading books in a recently emerged genre: the linguistic memoir. I’ve already reviewed David Crystal’s contribution. I’ve also read three others, but haven’t had the time to do a proper review of them. Luckily, others have, and I’ve picked out the reviews that reflect how I’ve felt about the books.

Bastard TonguesThe best of the three was Bastard Tongues, in which Derek Bickerton takes the reader to Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and the Pacific as he searches for and analyzes creole languages of the world, showing what they tell us about the nature of language. Almost as interesting as the linguistic discussion are Bickerton’s stories of dealing with academic bureaucracy, working with colleagues and protégés, and hanging out in bars and other seamy places in his research locales. Michael Erard reviews it here.

Don't Sleep, There Are SnakesNot quite as interesting, but still pretty good, was Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. This is a mixture of memoir not only with linguistics, but with anthropology, as Everett recounts his adventures and lessons learned during his time as a missionary with the Pirahã tribe of Brazil, including how his experiences with them affected his family, and ultimately caused him to question his own Christian beliefs. Although the Pirahã language is discussed throughout the book, the first part of the book is primarily anthropological; the second part lays out how different this language is from other languages, and how (he argues) it poses challenges for Chomskyan linguistic theory. Deborah Cameron reviews it here. I agree with all of what she says except for her ultimate conclusion that they make the book “more frustrating than enlightening”.

Dreaming in HindiThe third one, Katherine Russell Rich’s Dreaming in Hindi, is different from the others. She’s not a linguist, but incorporates linguists’ research on second language acquisition as she recounts her year of living in India to learn Hindi. The linguistic parts were very interesting, but the memoir overall dragged so much that I’m still only halfway through it, even though I’ve kept it to the end of the library’s lending period, and will have to return it tomorrow unfinished. It also suffers from the lack of an index — both to revisit the linguistic explanations, and to refresh your memory on characters you’ve forgotten who have reentered the narrative. Katherine Hill reviews it here for Bookforum.com.

3 Responses to “Linguistic Memoirs”

  1. Oh, sigh. In my mind, all Chomsky has posited–if you’ll allow me to way oversimplify–is that the brain is pre-programmed with some toggles. Hi, I’m a language! Either I’m pro-drop or non, either adjectives come before or after the nouns they modify, etc. And some of these rules come together as sets. Just because a culture arises, and language with it, that doesn’t make use of all the available toggles the human brain is capable of employing doesn’t shoot holes in the theory that they exist.

  2. […] Bastard Tongues […]

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