Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Posted by Neal on November 3, 2009

Rhymes with "mustard"?“Hey, Doug, listen to this,” I said. “This guy’s writing about how different English is from related languages like German and Swedish. He says:

English’s Germanic relative are like assorted varieties of deer — anteloopes, springboks, kudu, and so on — antlered, fleet-footed, big-brown-eyed variations on a theme. English is some dolphin swooping around underwater, all but hairless, echolocating and holding its breath. Dolphins are mammals like deer: they give birth to live young and are warm-blooded. But clearly the dolphin has strayed from the basic mammalian game plan to an extent that no deer has.

Doug and I were sitting in the front hallway of Adam’s school, waiting for his class to let out. While we waited, I was reading John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. (Not to be confused with Derek Bickerton’s Bastard Tongues; see below.) Now I understand that new FCC rules require me to notify readers when I’m reviewing a piece of blog swag — i.e. free stuff that people from marketing departments send to bloggers in hopes of favorable mentions or reviews. So I’ll say right now that I got this book courtesy of the publicity department at Gotham Books. And to make the existing record clear, I also received free copies of The Unfolding of Language and Forbidden Words, as noted in the reviews I wrote. I also got Grammar Girl’s first book this way, though I didn’t mention this fact in the review. Books that I’ve bought or borrowed myself and reviewed or mentioned include:

That last one was also by John McWhorter, and I liked it so much that when I was offered a review copy of his latest book, I accepted right away. But, you ask, if I was so eager to read it, why didn’t I lay hands on a copy of it myself last year, when it came out in hardback? The fact is that I just wasn’t terribly interested in reading another history of English. I watched the PBS miniseries on it in the late 1980s; I have my own copy of Baugh and Cable’s history; shoot, one of the things that really got me interested in linguistics was reading the history of English in that World Book Encyclopedia supplement back in high school (which I’ve mentioned once). And if I wanted to read another one, I could borrow my wife’s copy of Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue (though I’ve been warned that Bryson’s works tend to contain a lot of errors, and I see this one perpetuates the Eskimo snow-vocabulary fiction in its first chapter). “Untold history?” I thought. “No, it’s been told a lot.” But with a free copy, delivered to me, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.

When I read the first page of the introduction, I suddenly realized that McWhorter really did have a different plan for his story. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Reviews | 32 Comments »

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

Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments »

David Crystal’s Just a Phrase I’m Going Through

Posted by Neal on June 26, 2009

And with good clause, too!In Just a Phrase I’m Going Through: My Life in Language, David Crystal recounts his development as a linguist, starting with his childhood in a mixed Welsh, English, and Irish community, and ending with his current status as an independent linguistic consultant, public speaker, entrepreneur, and author. In between, he tells about his teen years in Liverpool, his college years at University College in London, his time in the faculty of the University of Reading, his various endeavors in fields of applied linguistics (including teaching English as a foreign language, speech therapy, and helping with the English translations of the Catholic Mass following the Second Vatican Council), his retirement from academe, and his experiences with radio and television.

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Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments »

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Book

Posted by Neal on July 20, 2008

Back in February, I wrote about the podcast Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. As I noted at the time, Grammar Girl (aka Mignon Fogarty) forgoes the ranting tone often taken by writers on grammar and usage (think James J. Kilpatrick) or punctuation (Lynne Truss), and instead provides friendly and humorous tips and mnemonics to improve your writing. Although Fogarty admits to having grammar peeves, and is sympathetic to the peeves of her listeners, she also says, “I often have to tell people their pet peeves aren’t actually hard-and-fast grammar rules,” and points out that the most fertile ground for grammar peeves is those areas where the rules aren’t so clear-cut.

The podcast has led to the publication of a book by the same name. If you like the podcast, you’ll probably like the book: It consists mostly of material taken from the podcast scripts, though with some material that seems to be new. Better yet, the entries are organized into chapters covering broad topics, which makes it easier to find all the entries on, say, word usage than it is on the website. If you’re unfamiliar with the podcast, you should know that despite her chosen nickname, Fogarty does not restrict her tips to just grammar. In addition to word choice and issues of syntax and word forms, the book covers punctuation, capitalization, online writing, and even how to generate ideas and overcome writer’s block. If it will in some way improve your writing, it’s fair game for Grammar Girl. Nevertheless, this book is not intended for people who make their living as professional writers, and who presumably already have other, more thorough references on their desktops. This is a guide for “everyday writers” who would like to write clearer memos, emails, blog posts, and the like.

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Posted in Focus-sensitive operators, Prescriptive grammar, Reviews | 7 Comments »

It’s a Word! It’s a Phrase! It’s Grammar Girl!

Posted by Neal on February 1, 2008

For a while I’d been noticing a podcast called Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Clean Up Your Writing when I browsed through the podcasts at iTunes. I never subscribed to it because first of all, I’m pretty comfortable with my grammar, and second, I figured it would be the same old things grammar and writing guides are always telling you: don’t use the passive voice; don’t use hopefully as a sentential adverb; in fact, avoid adverbs wherever possible. But I finally got curious enough to check out a few episodes, and what a surprise! The podcasts present traditional grammar rules, provide nonjudgmental observations of what’s actually happening in the language when the rules don’t reflect common usage, and give practical advice on what to do when faced with these mismatches. Even better, Grammar Girl will get into linguistic topics when doing so will help explain a grammar point. And just a couple of episodes ago, she talked about a linguistic topic apparently just because it was interesting all by itself.

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Posted in Diachronic, Prescriptive grammar, Reviews, Variation | 3 Comments »

A Book to Sink Your Teeth Into

Posted by Neal on January 28, 2008

A few weeks ago my wife caught me reading a book I wasn’t supposed to have. She was hurt. She had thought that out of consideration for her, I would have refrained from buying this material.

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Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments »

Uh Must

Posted by Neal on January 7, 2008

I arrived at the agreed-upon location precisely at 10:30. He was waiting for me.

“You got the stuff?” I asked.

He glanced at his shoulder bag but didn’t open it. “Show me the money.”

I handed over a $20 bill, which he pocketed. He reached into his bag, and drew out the package.

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Posted in LSA, Reviews | 6 Comments »

Review: Daily French Pod

Posted by Neal on November 2, 2007

Every now and then, I feel like brushing up on the French I had in high school and college. About ten years ago, I subscribed to the French version of Reader’s Digest for a year. Years later, I got a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in French and I have now read almost to the end of chapter one in it. Ah, who am I kidding, using the present perfect tense that way? Let’s be honest: I read almost to the end of chapter one. Oh, and the table of contents, where I was interested to find out that the French word for magic wand is baguette. My trouble when I read things in French is that I keep vacillating between what I want to accomplish. Do I want to read just for the meaning, getting the gist and passing over the words I can’t get from the context? Or do I want to improve my vocabulary, paying special attention to precisely those words? Only for the shortest texts can you try to accomplish both goals, and I don’t have a nice, convenient set of short French texts.

That wasn’t a hint for a Christmas present. I don’t want a nice, convenient set of short French texts, because for the past couple of months I’ve been listening to archived episodes of Daily French, “your daily dose of French language as it’s spoken by native speakers.” Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Language learning, Reviews | 5 Comments »

Coffee Break Scottish English

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2007

If you’re interested in improving your Scottish accent (“and who isn’t?”, I believe it’s customary to say at this point), then don’t pick it up it secondhand from Shrek or Groundskeeper Willie. Instead, learn from actual Scots in a convenient, free, online resource: the weekly podcast of Coffee Break Spanish, “the show which brings you language with your latte.”

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Posted in Language learning, Reviews | 14 Comments »

LSA 2007: Book Report

Posted by Neal on January 12, 2007

When I wandered through the book exhibit last week, I saw Heidi Harley‘s book English Words; on display. She’d plugged it on her blog, but this was the first chance I had to look inside it. I flipped to the section on “accidental words,” since that’s where she talked about backformations. The first thing I found there, though, was some stuff on folk etymology, including this:

For a long time when I was a teenager, I thought the word facetious was related to the word feces — during that time, for me, facetious was a fancy way of saying “full of shit.” I had created a folk etymology. (p. 92-93)

Hah! Love that scatological humor. This one’s almost as good as the widely and falsely held belief in the execrable/excrement connection. BTW, has anyone seen a movie where a teacher hands back some student essays or tests, and says to the class, “Your {papers, tests, whatever} were execrable!” and one surfer-dude-type guy says, “Excellent!” and the teacher tells him, “I was comparing them to excrement!” That was my tipoff that there was some folk etymology going on with that word, but a search for quotation keywords in the IMDB fails to identify the movie. Oh, and before we move on, let’s not forget fallacious and fellatious.

I bought the book but haven’t read anything else in it yet. I’m hoping she’ll clarify the difference between folk etymology and eggcorns. As near as I can tell, when linguists refer to eggcorns, they are talking about folk etymologies that haven’t caught on enough to have gained legitimacy in most speakers’ minds. Hey, wait, what am I sitting here writing this for, when I can find out what she says right now? Let’s see … OK, if I understand her right, her take is that folk etymology is a cover term for eggcorns and mondegreens. Do any of you eggcorn enthusiasts have an opinion on this definition?

I also bought David Wilton’s Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Like many books of this type, it’s good, entertaining bathroom/airplane/waiting-for-kids-at-the-bus-stop reading, but unlike many others, the author makes a concerted effort not to spread bullshit, giving numerous OED and other citations in the index, including many from the online archives of the American Dialect Society. After reading some of this book, I was mad at Erik Larson. He wrote The Devil in the White City, and repeated the story that Chicago’s nickname Windy City was a reference to its uppitiness in campaigning for the 1896 Columbian Exposition to take place in Chicago. I believed him, but referring back to the book now, I see that he indeed did not give any citations for this claim, just like David Wilton said people tended not to.

I bought W. Cowan and J. Rakušan’s Source Book for Linguistics, which is an entire book full of linguistic exercises. As a reviewer on the back cover said, “If you’ve been teaching upper-level undergraduate introductions to linguistics with Cowan and Rakušan, then you’ve been scrambling about in search of examples and exercises in phonetics, phonology, morphology and syntax long enough.” Also historical reconstruction problems, with data all nicely selected and cleaned up for you. If you’re not teaching linguistics classes, it’s a nice book of logic puzzles to take on an airplane with you, if you’re tired of (or never liked) crosswords, word searches, logic puzzles, or (these days) sudoku.

The only other title I bought was Robert D. Van Valin’s An Introduction to Syntax, mainly for the chapter at the end with thumbnail sketches of several flavors of syntactic theory, all compared in one place. Haven’t read it yet, but it looked useful enough for me to buy it for that reason alone.

Posted in Folk etymology, LSA, Potty on, dudes!, Reviews | 2 Comments »