Books of the year

… in the Economist‘s 12/1 issue,”Books of the year: The big read”, (p. 76), in the Culture category: 6 books selected, including:

The Prodigal Tongue. By Lynne Murphy. Penguin Books; 368 pages; $17. Oneworld, £16.99.

The first and perhaps only book on the merits of American and British English that is dominated by facts and analysis rather than nationalistic prejudice. For all its scholarship, this is also a funny and rollicking read.

And in “The Economist’s journalists unbound: A short hstory of moonlighting: Here are the books our writers published in 2008” (p. 77):

Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language. By Lane Greene. Economist Books/Hachette; 240 pages; $26. Profile Books: £14.99.

Our Johnson columnist argues that English is a living organism; language rules are often preferences in disguise. “He is open-minded and discerning,” the Spectator said; “no zealot and no snob.”

To these I add the very recently published:

Linguistics: Why It Matters. By Geoffrey K. Pullum; Polity, 2018.

[publisher’s description:]  Language is the medium in which we humans compose our thoughts, explain our thinking, construct our arguments, and create works of literature. Without language, societies as complex as ours could not exist.

Geoffrey Pullum offers a stimulating introduction to the many ways in which linguistics, as the scientific study of language, matters. With its close relationships to psychology, education, philosophy, and computer science, the subject has a compelling human story to tell about the ways in which different societies see and describe the world, and its far-reaching applications range from law to medicine and from developmental psychology to artificial intelligence.

I’ve posted here about Lynne Murphy’s book (with images of the covers of both the American and the British editions): on 4/13/18 in “The Prodigal Tongue”; the book is about “the fiction and reality of the special relationship between British and American English” (publisher’s description).

More detailed reviews of Greene and Pullum to come in later postings, but here are the covers:



Each of these books has an expository purpose, to make sense of some aspects of language and how it’s used. But each also has a corrective purpose, to dispel signficant misunderstandings about these matters — to counteract baleful concomitants of naive, or folk, linguistics.

They are then part of a considerable tradition of corrective literature on language, especially English, especially in its sociocultural contexts — among others,

Robert A. Hall, Jr., Linguistics and your language.  (original title, the more aggressive: Leave your language alone!), 1950

Dwight L. Bolinger, Language — The loaded weapon, 1980

Deborah Cameron, Verbal hygiene, 1995

writings by public intellectuals on language matters, among them Steve Pinker, Geoff Nunberg, John McWhorter, and Ben Zimmer (Murphy’s book has jacket blurbs from Zimmer and language columnist Pat O’Conner; Greene’s has Pinker and McWhorter; Pullum’s has McWhorter and Pinker)

Edwin L. Battistella, Bad language: Are some words better than others?,  2005.

(#4) Battistella’s cover

And some reviews of his book:

“Battistella has indeed identified issues central both to our society at large and to the American educational system. He shows us that all too often, what citizens and teachers believe about language, grammar, and so-called proper English reflects folk-beliefs from deep in centuries past. These common myths about the nature of language carry vast ripple effects in how we treat people and educate our young. In user-friendly and lively terms, linguist Ed Battistella explores bad language — a topic both timely and crucial to our nation.” –Rebecca S. Wheeler, Department of English, Christopher Newport University

“The beauty of this book is that it responds to widely held beliefs about the nature of language–that there exist fairly monolithic language standards that people ought to aim for. … The author of Bad Language astutely recognizes that these beliefs provide fertile ground for introducing fundamental perspectives and findings from linguistic research to students, scholars in other fields, and the general public.” –Carolyn Adger, Center for Applied Linguistics

On Chicago Tribune‘s Top 10 books on language in 2005: “This book reminds us that language is the basis of the last acceptable prejudice: There is no snobbery as safe as looking down your nose at people for their grammar, vocabulary or accent. As Battistella shows, this kind of condescension often comes from misunderstandings and myths about the way language works.” —Nathan Bierma, Chicago Tribune

On Ed’s website, he characterizes the book as “a cultural history of language attitudes — why we consider some uses and words better than others”. The publisher’s description:

Is today’s language at an all-time low? Are pronunciations like cawfee and chawklit bad English? Is slang like my bador hook up improper? Is it incorrect to mix English and Spanish, as in Yo quiero Taco Bell? Can you write Who do you trust? rather than Whom do you trust? Linguist Edwin Battistella takes a hard look at traditional notions of bad language, arguing that they are often based in sterile conventionality.

Examining grammar and style, cursing, slang, and political correctness, regional and ethnic dialects, and foreign accents and language mixing, Battistella discusses the strong feelings evoked by language variation, from objections to the pronunciation NU-cu-lar to complaints about bilingual education. He explains the natural desire for uniformity in writing and speaking and traces the association of mainstream norms to ideas about refinement, intelligence, education, character, national unity and political values. Battistella argues that none of these qualities is inherently connected to language.

It is tempting but wrong, Battistella argues, to think of slang, dialects and nonstandard grammar as simply breaking the rules of good English. Instead, we should view language as made up of alternative forms of orderliness adopted by speakers depending on their purpose. Thus we can study the structure and context of nonstandard language in order to illuminate and enrich traditional forms of language, and make policy decisions based on an informed engagement.

Re-examining longstanding and heated debates, Bad Language will appeal to a wide spectrum of readers engaged and interested in the debate over what constitutes proper language.

I quote these accounts at such length because at the time Ed’s book was coming out, I was engaged in a different piece of exposition yoked with correction, a book project proposed for the year 2005-06 at the Stanford Humanities Center (the SHS). The brief version of my January 2005 proposal (the whole thing available here):

“Adventures in the Advice Trade”: I propose a book recounting my experiences with and responses to the advice literature on English [grammar, style, and usage]. The audience for this book is essentially the audience for the high-end advice books, like the [Bryan] Garner dictionaries: people who are curious about the way the language works and want advice about how to use it. Readers should come away from the book with a healthy skepticism about instruction on grammar and usage, an appreciation of the complexity and systematicity of their language, and a willingness to look at and listen to the way English is actually used. My aim is not merely to critique the advice literature, but to expose widespread unexamined assumptions about language, to demonstrate how these reflect and incorporate aspects of the wider culture, and to show how traditional approaches to language advice can be improved by an infusion of ideas from various branches of linguistics (syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, lexicography, historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics).

All of these projects, mine included, involve telling people — perhaps cautiously and indirectly, sympathetically and with humor, but still telling people — that some things they believe are just wrong (or, at best, seriously confused). People do not want to hear that; they resist the bad news, defensively shore up their beliefs, resent the hell out of the teller. If they’re students in a class, they might treat the teacher’s arguments and evidence merely as something they have to learn to mimic to pass the course, but then discard as soon as it’s over — and might well find their original beliefs strengthened by the experience. Or they just lapse back into their original beliefs, because those are familiar and seem simpler.

Worse, this is hardly just about what people believe about language. It’s also about what people believe about how society is organized, how people think, and so on; language is bound up inextricably with everything else in human life, and people have passionately held beliefs — some of them inaccurate or confused — about all of it.

The question then is whether any of what linguists do to try to set things right — the courses, the postings on the net, the books, the public appearances, the documentary movies, the pieces in magazines and newspapers — has an effect. Do we win any hearts and minds?

Surely not in proportion to the effort we put into the exercise. Over 70 years of demonstrations that non-standard varieties (especially African American Vernacular English, because of its immense social significance in the US) are fully complex and systematic forms of language seem to have led to a small but real shift in public opinion, but not so much that (just on AAVE alone) we no longer need the constant vigorous efforts of Labov, Wolfram, Rickford, McWhorter, and many others, including the authors of the books above. What’s crucial in reception of our work is that the audience must be open to us, willing to listen.

Back in 2005-06, I’d been engaged for years in friendly but focused discussions about grammar, style, and usage on the net, mostly on the Usenet newsgroup soc.motss (for lgbt folk and their friends), where I believe I genuinely changed a fair number of minds. And I believe I’d occasionally moved a few students in my undergraduate courses on language, culture, and society; and a few readers of my postings on Language Log. Now, at the SHS I was faced with an audience of highly accomplished academics, most of them, however, with attitudes and beliefs about language not much different from other people.

I discovered this when I gave a presentation, very early in the year, on dangling modifiers in English (handout available here). Parts of the discussion were thick with talk of correctness, rules, lazy and ignorant speakers, and the like. Fairly tough going for me.

Now, I was there as an authority on arcane matters of linguistics, and everyone recognized my standing. But most of them — equally, authorities on their own arcane matters, of literature, history, culture, art history, and so on — pretty much instantly fell back on their own systems of naive, or folk, linguistics, which significantly fogged over their ability to take in what was saying.

But things improved as the year drew on. What changed? I think it was that I became more than an authority; I became an acquaintance, even a friend, who engaged with them personally on a daily basis. These personal connections made it easy for them to entertain my ideas, presumably because they no longer saw me as contesting over beliefs with them.

Something similar seems to have happened on the net. My impression is that my writing about language on soc.motss was hugely more influential in changing minds than my postings to Language Log. Again, the difference was almost surely the personal connections, established on soc.motss (people posted there at length about their personal lives and offered each other both advice and support).

Then Ed Battistella’s Bad Language book came along, and I admired it, but realized that it did many of the things I was proposing to do in my book — and also that it didn’t seem to be having any visible effect on people’s attitudes about language. So I lost heart in the book project, and eventually developed a much more personal way of writing about language, on this blog, leaving the heavy public lifting to Pinker, Nunberg, Murphy, Pullum, Greene, Zimmer, and others who are good at it.

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