Back in September, Michael Erard approached his Facebook friends with this query:
The UK publisher that’s putting out Babel No More [: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners] doesn’t like the title, “Babel No More,” so they want to change it, and “Superlinguists” is their suggestion. This presents a slight problem, as science-of-language linguists (to whom I have more than a small allegiance) often resent the other sense of the word (a person who speaks many languages, often professionally) because it muddies laypeople’s perceptions of what they do. What do you think?
The technical term Michael uses in his book is hyperpolyglots. I gather that the UK publisher found the American title too opaque (fully comprehensible only through the subtitle) and balked at Hyperpolyglots because of its technicality. Michael’s friends gave advice that was all over the map.
As of this morning, no decision had been made. Michael gave them alternatives and was concerned that they would try to get Superlinguists into the business somehow.
Alternative names for British and American editions of books are not especially uncommon, but are usually chosen because one of the audiences wouldn’t “get” vocabulary or allusions in the title intended for the other. So, in language-related books, we find Michael Quinion’s book on myths of phrase and word origins appearing in the UK (Penguin) with a British-oriented title, Port Out, Starboard Home, and in the US (Smithsonian) with a distinctly American-oriented title, Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds; both appeared in 2004. And then Larry Trask’s guide to usage appeared first in the UK (Penguin, 2001) with the British-oriented main title Mind the Gaffe, then in the US (Godine, 2005) with a more neutral main title, Say What You Mean!
Still, changes in title lead to confusion over just how many books there are here, but the UK and US versions, though not identical (at the very least, British vs. American spellings will appear in the texts, and often other audience-related changes may be made), are essentially the same book — really just different editions of the book. In any case, titles shouldn’t be changed lightly.
Advice about Michael’s title went in several directions. Linguist-linguists objected to Superlinguists, just as Michael expected they would:
Ben Zimmer: Blecch. Reminds me of Lynne Murphy’s old line, “Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a doctor how many diseases they have.”
Arnold Zwicky: And yes, like Ben Zimmer, I say “Blecch” to “Superlinguists” (pardon me while I adjust my cape and tights).
Michał B. Paradowski: This linguist wouldn’t have reached for ‘Babel no more’ had he not noticed your name on its cover. I’m not a native speaker, though. But ‘Superlinguists’ is bad. BAD. <choking> Not least because of the semantics; also because it’s a very clumsy four-syllable word (try approaching people in the street asking them ‘Would you like to be a superlinguist?’ and watch their reaction). Why not try giving it a pithy title + explanatory subtitle?
Geoffrey Nunberg: [The publishers] may be right from a marketing point of view, but it puts you in the position of having to qualify the title in every interview you do. Or worse, in the position of having to hold your tongue about it. I certainly don’t think this is the only way to go…
And from George Schorn:
“Superlinguists” makes me picture a team of crime-fighting language professors in capes. Which would make a great book, but people who thought they were buying it might be surprised to get yours instead.
A number of the commenters stressed the virtue of having a one-word main title. For instance:
Jennifer McAndrew: As a former book publicist, I agree with your UK publisher — a simple, catchy one-word title that distills the essence of the book can really help market non-fiction, especially when catching the eye of a casual book store/amazon browser. Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” comes to mind. With the current title, you need the subtitle to make sense of it. But with “Superlinguists” you don’t even need the subtitle. That’s a good thing. And you can always address any personal reservations about the term superlinguist in the foreword. That would be an interesting discussion in itself.
The commenters disagreed about whose opinion should take precedence here: the author’s, or the publisher’s marketing staff. (Here I am dubious that marketing staffs know as much about marketing prospects as they think they do.) For instance:
Michael Reese: This former linguist would defer to the advice of the marketing professionals on what to call the thing one hopes will sell well.
Several commenters advised working tongues into the title (as a single main title, or part of a longer expression), and a number were fond of Babel. For instance:
Roger Gathman: Superlinguists is less intriguing a title. Babel no more is much better – if it must be changed, I’d work around the image of Babel, which frames the book in appropriately mythic terms. Climbing the tower of Babel, checking into the tower of Babel, Breaking Babel, Slouching towards Babel, Babel or bust, Speaking in Babel, etc.
Chris P. Pearce: Babelicious. Why not that?
I went back to Michael’s technical term:
Arnold Zwicky: Well, the term you use in the book is “hyperpolyglots”, and I’m fond of it. “Superpolyglots” might be more easily understood (but you have to be willing to put up with Latin + Greek). Otherwise, I like “Breaking Babel”.
Felicia Steele: I like Hyperpolygots too and second [George Schorn's] description. If that fails what about Supercommunicators, since you argue perfect fluency isn’t always the goal.
And then there’s advice not to change the title:
Rick McGowan: Publishers shouldn’t change titles on you. It’s confusing (and stupid) to have a book published under two different titles.
We’ll see how things turn out.
A few words about the content of the book, which looks at hyperpolyglots of several different types: there’s rapid learning of languages vs. the accumulation of many languages, there are many different types and levels of ability — note especially, from p. 82, “saying things is totally different from conversing” — and hyperpolyglots rarely attempt to achieve the full abilities of native speakers.
As with Michael’s previous book Um …: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, this book gets at its topic through the stories of specific people (I was one of those people in the earlier book). In this book, one linguist-linguist, Ken Hale, figures especially prominently, but some others (with abilities and histories very different from Ken’s) might have appeared: Jim McCawley, Ilse Lehiste, Mary Haas, Ken Pike, David Perlmutter. The stories are more textured and detailed as we get to recent times.
Fascinating stuff, in any case.