Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can’t Be Tamed by Lane Greene

It’s not really true that if you boil a frog slowly it won’t notice and will never try to escape. But if a lot of speakers very gradually inch a vowel forward or back, up or down in the space in the mouth, without even knowing, then over time a major change can set in without anyone acting in time to stop it. That is because vowel-boiling, unlike frog-boiling, is painless and victimless.

Another winner from Liz! I loved this book. It has just the right mix of expert, researched history and linguistics information, and irreverent, populist sense of fun and utility. In fact, utility is part of the central lesson of this book. Using English should be about effective communication; one can be correct, eloquent, elegant, without being snooty about it; correctness is relative and subject to context; the language is tough and durable, and doesn’t fall apart just because we slip up on the distinction between ‘who’ and ‘whom.’ (‘Whom’ plays a large-ish role in the book, to great effect.)

Lane Greene is an editor, a linguist, and a columnist on language. He’s originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but now lives in England with his Danish wife, and speaks nine languages. He has a deeply impressive grasp of the history and trends of the English language and of linguistics; he is an expert in these areas and easily wins my trust. And it’s refreshing to meet an expert who is not purist or snobbish about his field – although as Greene points out, the more expert the linguist, the less purist they’ll be.

He begins with the basics: the difference between prescriptivist and descriptivist linguistics. Descriptivism observes how language is used and has been used, and makes recommendations for how we use language based on how it’s been and is being used. Prescriptivism tries to make rules based on some sense of what is correct – it tries to prescribe, rather than observe. Prescriptivists believe there is what Greene calls One Right Way to do things, which is an inherently problematic concept. Greene knows how to set and follow rules; in one of his roles, he works as an editor, so he knows about the application of standards. (Particularly for a certain publication, for example, a “house style” sets rules.) But he is at heart a descriptivist. “To sum up: language is not so much logical as it is useful. It is not composed; it is improvised. It is not well behaved; it is resourceful. It is not delicate; it is hardy. It is not always efficient, buts redundancy makes it robust. It is not threatened; it is self-renewing. It is not perfect. But it is amazing.”

The book-length metaphor at work here is evident in the title. Language is wild, not to be tamed, and doesn’t take to prescriptivism’s puritanical tendencies. It is always changing, and it takes care of itself; it doesn’t actually need guarding or protecting. Greene proves this via a number of case studies and fascinating histories, including the Great Vowel Shift and shifts in the meanings of individual words: “In the Middle English era, manners dictated that a girl was expected to be silly and buxom, but never nice” (because each of those words meant something very different then than they do now). He relates humanity’s adventures in language, including the design of purely logical languages (never caught on) and attempts to teach computers natural language, which doesn’t work because “the rules are too many, the exceptions too manifold.” He studies language as a political tool (less powerful than some think).

And in my favorite chapter (six), “Whom in a biker bar,” he handles questions about register and the limited necessity for ‘proper’ English. “The choice of [register] allows a speaker or writer a valuable second channel of communication, alongside the literal meaning of the words and grammar that (hopefully) add up to a clear proposition, command, question or request. … To restrict yourself only to Formal – to buy into the One Right Way fallacy – is to leave a valuable and versatile tool lying on the ground.” I had been wondering, throughout this spirited and convincing defense of descriptivism over prescriptivism, why indeed I am teaching my students to avoid comma splices (etc.), and chapter six answered it for me. There is still a utility for a ‘proper’ English in certain settings, but the grammar police of the world (and those whom Greene calls ‘language tamers’) take undue pleasure in correcting us when in fact we could stand to relax in most settings – especially in spoken language. “Insisting that speech – a live activity, always changing, a biological behavior – must imitate writing – which is fixed – is a bit like insisting that people should continue to look like an old photo of themselves.”

This book is a joy for anyone who loves language, its niceties and nuances and finer points, its ever-changing, exciting, shape-shifting utility and its fascinating history. It’s certainly for anyone who is still hung up on correcting other people’s grammar, and it is certainly for anyone (like an editor or an English teacher) whose job it is to do so. If you’re unconvinced that prescriptivism doesn’t serve us, please read this book. If you love words, read Lane Greene. I think I know of some students who will be assigned excerpts this coming fall semester!


Rating: 9 prepositions at the ends of sentences.

Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter

A linguist argues for the legitimate and complicated contributions of the language he calls Black English.

talking-back

Linguistics professor John McWhorter (Words on the Move) has a message in Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca: he exhorts his readers and the general public to recognize Black English (a term he prefers to African American Vernacular English or to Ebonics) as a language unto itself, not merely a mess of grammatical mistakes and slang: “a development that happens alongside the standard variety, not in opposition to it.”

McWhorter worries that academic linguists have relied too long on scholarly arguments in making this point. He does review some of those arguments–for example, Black English’s systematicity, meaning it has a grammar of its own–but then turns to global language patterns. Many cultures and language groups speak both a formal and a casual language in different settings, e.g., Standard Arabic and the local colloquial form (Egyptian Arabic, Syrian, etc.). While he acknowledges that racism partly underlies a general resistance to Black English as a legitimate language, he quickly moves on to what he sees as the larger problem: a misunderstanding of the value of diglossia, or speaking two languages. Along the way, McWhorter cites the relationship between modern Black English and the lingo of minstrel shows, makes the case for a recognizably black way of speaking (or “blaccent”) and examines usages such as “baby mama,” “who dat?” and what he perceives as two versions of the N-word.

Linguistics fans will be enthralled by McWhorter’s fascinating and logically presented study of two forms of English spoken in the United States.


This review originally ran in the January 24, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 vowels.

Teaser Tuesdays: Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About American’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Linguistics, race, and what is weirdly unique about the United States: I was drawn to this book for its subjects. It’s just a slim little thing, too. Here’s a teaser for you:

talking-back

When humans move, or are moved, in large numbers and have to pick up a language quickly, typically their version of the language is more streamlined than the original one. This is worldwide linguistic reality, not special pleading for the speech of black people in the United States. We know this from Modern English itself, as well as, if anyone asks, from Mandarin Chinese compared to other Chineses like Cantonese, Persian compared to languages related to it, like Pashto and Kurdish, Indonesian, Swahili, and many, many others.

There is some ambiguity in those final clauses: are we to understand that Indonesian and Swahili are similar to Persian, too, or just the Pashto-and-Kurdish phrase? (I think the latter. Maybe some semicolons would help!) But the overall point is well taken. It’s been an interesting & informative read; I hope you’ll join me.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Other-Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely From Around the World by Yee-Lum Mak, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley

otherwordlyWhat a perfectly charming little book.

Other-Wordly is fewer than 60 pages long, and its spreads are adorned with appealing illustrations, so that it is easily flipped through in no time at all. It invites the reader, though, to pause and explore. Vocabulary words from a wide range of languages are offered to satisfy us when we say, I need a word for that thing, you know when… I was delighted to find a word that a friend of mine has more than once looked for. How gratifying, to pass that along!

The words are great fun, and some will be useful (others merely fun). For example, check out Tartle (verb, Scots): to hesitate while introducing or meeting someone because you have forgotten their name. Or Nunchi (noun, Korean): the subtle art of evaluating others’ moods from their unspoken communications and knowing what not to say in a certain social situation. The illustrations are lovely, filled with personality and feeling, and I loved how words are grouped together with a drawing that serves to illustrate each in turn. For example, Sturmfrei (German, obviously), Cwtch (Welsh, perhaps just as obviously) and Abditory (English) share a young girl just peeking out from a door under a staircase, looking pleased with her hiding place. Yes, there are English words in here, too, but only three had meaning to me before reading. (Those were offing, inglenook and scintilla, if you’re wondering.) Other languages featured run from the expected European ones through Bantu and Yaghan (what is Yaghan?). The Japanese language seems to have a special knack for that there’s-a-word-for-it thing.

Brief, informative, great fun, sweetly illustrated: a fine coffee table book and one I will pull out frequently. By all means. My only request now is more, please.


Rating: 8 Erlebnisse.

Teaser Tuesdays: Otherwordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely From Around the World by Yee-Lum Mak, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Otherwordly is a lovely book, which I came across when Shelf Awareness sent me this blog post from Chronicle Books. I immediately bought the book.

otherwordly
It’s just a slim little thing, easily flipped through in a sitting, but I’m taking my time browsing back and forth. Here’s a sample word:

Nefelibata (noun, m+f, Spanish and Portugese): lit. “cloud-walker”; one who lives in the clouds of their own imagination or dreams, or one who does not obey the conventions of society, literature, or art

And the illustrations are perfect, too. I wish you could see the illustration that accompanies this (and one other) word on this spread: a crowd of people in dark somber colors, raincoat and umbrellas, and the one young woman with her head bare, a red ribbon in it, a red coat, holding a bunch of tulips. Her head is raised slightly to the sky and she has a hint of a smile on her lips.

My review to come.

Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: An Illustrated Guide by Josh Katz

Regional linguistic patterns in the U.S. are explained with intelligence, whimsy and visual aids.

speaking american

In December 2013, the New York Times published an online dialect quiz that became the paper’s most-viewed page. Times graphics editor Josh Katz expands that quiz’s contents and the powerful response it elicited with Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: An Illustrated Guide.

This large-format book organizes United States dialect patterns by subject matter: how we live, what we eat, where we go and more. Two-page color-shaded maps visually communicate regional usages, like the predilection for “rummage sale” in southeastern Wisconsin, over “garage sale” and “yard sale.” Maps and text zoom in for unusual local outliers, like Pittsburgh’s distinctive use of “yins” for the plural “you.” Katz notes the rare case where gender is predictive of usage (women are more likely than men to say “bless you,” or anything at all, when someone sneezes) as well as the “linguistic fault line running from Texas up through Arkansas, then tracking the Ohio River… toward the Mason-Dixon line,” credited to white settlers’ expansion patterns. Besides seriously investigating the questions of sneaker vs. tennis shoe, doodle bug vs. roly-poly, semi vs. 18-wheeler and more, Katz clearly enjoys his subject: especially amusing are the “How to Pretend You’re From…” sections. For Nebraska, you might pick up some “pickles” at the store–not pickled cucumbers, but a form of legal gambling.

Offering some new material since the famous quiz and elucidating the original, Speaking American is a fascinating survey of U.S. dialects as well as a fun, humorous exploration of a nation.


This review originally ran in the November 4, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 potato bugs.

guest review: Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert, from Mom

My mother is here today to guest-review a book to which she brings special expertise. Mom has a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Houston; used to teach English as a foreign language to adults in community college settings; and now volunteers her time tutoring English language learners one-on-one. The disclosure here is that I was sent a free copy of this book in exchange for my mother‘s honest review. (It’s fun how that fact plays off this book’s title.) Thanks, Mom!

mother tongue

Christine Gilbert is quite the adventurous spirit. She tells the story in Mother Tongue about her quest to learn three languages – Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish – in less than three years, while living in three countries. This adventure includes a baby who acquires a sibling along the way. She and her husband have few ties to the U.S., and are able to work remotely. Thus they are perfectly placed for the language quest.

The quest is primarily hers, but includes her son as he grows and learns the local language effortlessly, as children do. (Her back-story includes a genetic disposition to Alzheimer’s disease, and she learns of brain research that suggests that young bilinguals have an advantage over monolinguals that gives about five extra years before onset of Alzheimer’s.) She sets out to understand language learning theories, while researching all the logistics of moving house and choosing the places.

Gilbert does her homework on language acquisition theory, and she makes her case for total immersion (no hanging out with English speakers!). She works long days in language study. In the beginning – Beijing during a very cold winter with pollution too severe for the family to go out much – she chooses to hire a tutor for working at home, as well as a housekeeper who doesn’t speak English. When a crisis takes the family away suddenly, she reviews her experience and decides complete isolation within the foreign country is not the only way to absorbing language and culture. Each move and new setting will bring more lessons, and Gilbert gets quite good at her tasks.

This is not a dry tome about memorizing vocabulary for long hours. We make friends along the journey, we learn to talk and savor local food. Gilbert is a fun character, and her husband’s story is equally interesting; the book is a travel story on lots of levels. As a parenting and family dynamics study, Mother Tongue is yet another book. I’ve been involved enough in the bigger story to follow her adventures as told on her blog, and can reveal that this is an unending quest – two more countries appear there, and since I haven’t looked lately, who knows where they may be now.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

This compelling novel of resistance to the Norman Invasion, told in a hybrid of Old English, will satisfy motivated readers of history, ecology and the persistent pull of the old gods.

wake

The Wake is a singular debut novel by Paul Kingsnorth (One No, Many Yeses; Real England), set in England immediately following the Norman invasion of 1066. Its first-person narrator is a landowner named Buccmaster, who has lost everything to the attack: his family, his home, his land and his privilege. He takes to the fens and woods, with revenge in his heart and an intention to drive the French from his land and all of England. There he becomes one of the guerrilla fighters known as green men, whose chapter in history is little known.

What makes this powerful story distinctive is Kingsnorth’s decision to write the story in what he calls a “shadow tongue,” an Old English hybrid of the author’s invention, made slightly more understandable to the modern reader. This choice presents an undeniable challenge to the reader, and requires substantial extra effort to pursue the story. (Hint: try reading aloud, to hear cognates and the rhythm of the speech). But Kingsnorth defends his strategy: it evocatively renders Buccmaster’s voice, and brings to an already gripping saga a layer of new meaning, in that the reader has to participate in creating that meaning through interpreting unfamiliar words. A partial glossary deciphers some words, but many are left for the reader to define via context clues and, yes, guessing. Some readers will be turned away. But those who persist will find the language easier to follow after 20-40 pages, and will be rewarded by Buccmaster’s riveting narrative.

Buccmaster is a follower of the eald (old) gods, as was his grandfather, the gods of wilde places on the earth and its wihts (creatures). His father was not. “I will not spec of my father,” he says, but the story of his father is only one of the details that this unreliable narrator leaves out. As Buccmaster travels overland on foot, gathering companions who also wish to drive out the French, he journeys as well into the myths and traditions of his elders, and envisions a grand role for himself. The fate of his band of green men is as tenuous as that of England, as their leader struggles with reality.

The Wake is an ambitious novel in its themes and scope, in addition to its unusual linguistic decisions. As the English folc in his story become disconnected from their land, they lose their freedom: “if the frenc cums and tacs this land and gifs these treows [trees] sum frenc name they will not be the same treows no mor.” As an impassioned defense of the natural world and people’s responsibilities toward it, the novel acts as a metaphor for modern times. Buccmaster’s personal narrative is a lesson in pride and its dangers, a glimpse of another culture in its own language. Kingsnorth’s captivating first novel is thought provoking, multi-faceted and intriguingly rendered.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 fugols.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Full disclosure: I got this tattoo, below, after reading this piece by Kingsnorth. (It’s more complicated than that, and Kingsnorth did not supply my first exposure to the green man, for the record; IMG_5964but he was a significant inspiration.) If you poke around his website, and his larger presence as a writer, you’ll see that he’s written a good deal about the Norman invasion of 1066; and now, a novel (released last year in Kingsnorth’s native Britain). But there is something different about this book: it is written in a “pseudo-language,” a hybrid between the Old English of the time in question, and the language we speak and understand today. Somewhat in the spirit of the “Landspeak” article I recently posted, Kingsnorth feels that the language in which we express a thing changes the thing being expressed: in other words, it matters.


wake

I am on board with the concept, but I confess, it would be a mistake to underestimate it. The Old English-ish language is a challenge, and casual readers will be dissuaded. It is worth the effort, however. The story inside is riveting and, yes, improved in tone by the impassioned voice of the narrator in his native tongue (or a slightly more readable version thereof). Pro tip: try reading aloud to get the full flavor, and to hear cognates come clear.

I have a few lines for you today that struck me especially, and which are almost understandable.

the fugols that sang here was the fugols i cnawan and the heofon was the heofon of my cildehood and for a small time i felt that my heorte had cum baec to where it sceolde always be. the mist cum round the secg cold as we walced saen lytel and sounds colde be hierde that was lic the sounds of my eald lands when i was still a man

Or, in my own translation,

The birds that sang here were the birds I knew, and the heaven was the heaven of my childhood, and for a small time I felt that my heart had come back to where it should always be. The mist came round the sedge, cold, as we walked saying little, and sounds could be heard that were like the sounds of my old lands, when I was still a man.

I love the sense of place and of belonging to a place – which is one of the losses of the Norman Invasion, in Kingsnorth’s telling – and the tone of mourning. Try it again in the original text. Go ahead. I know I threw you into it in the middle, but a full book of this actually comes to be quite compelling, if you can put in the effort.

Stay tuned for my positive review to come.

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