Review: Interested in Language? You’ll Love This Book

As an English major in college, I had only one English department class that I did not do well in: I got a C in linguistics, a required class. Phonemes, bilabial fricatives—they bored me to tears. How I wish the text had been this new book by David Shariatmadari: Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language. I love this book, and I recommend it highly to anyone who is interested in language. Linguistics professors, please take note.

Each chapter in Don’t Believe a Word, in the author’s words, “takes a common claim about language and deconstructs it, using linguistic knowledge.” That’s essentially what the chapters do, but they also include rich discussions and explorations of language and culture, filled with everyday examples. And they don’t get bogged down in linguistic jargon. If you want jargon, the glossary gives generous explanations of words and phrases such as cognate, cultural transmission, diphthong, glottal stop (I remember that one from college), idiolect, and metonymy.

Here are the chapter titles and myths that Shariatmadari, a writer and editor at The Guardian, explores:

Language Is Going to the Dogs.

A Word’s Origin Is Its True Meaning.

I Control What Comes Out of My Mouth.

We Can’t Talk to the Animals.

You Can’t Translate This Word.

Italian Is a Language.

What You Say Is What You Mean.

Some Languages Are Better Than Others.

Language Is an Instinct.

My favorite chapter covers a topic that often comes up in my blog readers’ comments. Can you guess which one?

Don't Believe a Word by David Shariatmadari

My favorite chapter covers the myth “Language is going to the dogs,” which some of my readers staunchly believe. Do you? Do you cite as evidence the use of tautologies such as future plans, past history, safe havens, and new initiatives? Does reading “I’m gonna” drive you nuts? Does the use of disinterested for “uninterested” cause you to sigh sadly? (Stop sighing: Both meanings for disinterested have appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary since the 1600s, according to one of the author’s sources.) Those are all examples from Shariatmadari—who explains why they are not evidence of language going to the dogs.

He writes:

Linguistic decline is the cultural equivalent of the boy who cried wolf, except the wolf never turns up. . . .

There is no such thing as linguistic decline, so far as the expressive capacity of the spoken or written word is concerned. We need not fear a breakdown in communication. Our language will always be as flexible and sophisticated as it has been up to now. Those who warn about the deterioration of English haven’t learned about the history of the language, and don’t understand the nature of their complaints—which are simply statements of preference for the way of doing things they have become used to (p. 24).

According to Shariatmadari, complaints about the deterioration of English (and other languages) have been around for hundreds of years. He relates that in 1785 “things were so bad that the poet and philosopher James Beattie declared: ‘Our language . . . is degenerating very fast’ ” (p. 24). About 70 years before that, famed English satirist Jonathan Swift expressed similar worries, using the expression “Manglings and Abbreviations” (p. 25). Sound familiar? The language historian Gustav Wustmann wrote in German in 1891: “Language is today so quickly transformed that it has become decayed and rotten. Ineptitude and sluggishness, bombast, foppery and grammatical errors are increasing” (p. 27). 

The linguist Rudi Keller, who translated Wustmann, wrote:

For more than two thousand years, complaints about the decay of respective languages have been documented in literature, but no one has been able to name an example of a “decayed language” (p. 28).

So why are we complaining? Why do we worry? It sounds as though language will do just fine without our worrying about it.

We worry, according to Shariatmadari, because of the speed of change in our short lifetimes and because of our language preferences. Those of us who are older (and are the keepers of the language) see the norms we are used to falling by the wayside, and we aren’t comfortable with the new norms. He writes:

This cognitive difficulty doesn’t feel good, and the bad feelings are translated into criticism and complaint. We tend to find intellectual justifications for our personal preferences, whatever their motivation (p. 28).

I encourage you to read the book to learn about the many things that cause changes in language—they aren’t “ineptitude and sluggishness.” Shariatmadari explains how the words nadder, napron and numpire long ago became adder, apron, and umpire. He tells how human anatomy turned the words thuner and emty into thunder and empty and how “cognitive hiccups” changed brid to bird and hros to horse. He details the natural process of “I’m going to” becoming “I’m gonna.” He recommends keeping those ideas in mind when you hear someone “aks” for their “perscription.”

When they criticize and argue for higher standards, the language pundits from academia and journalism (including me) are expressing stylistic preferences based on what they have learned—not on fundamental truths.

This is the fundamental truth I take from Shariatmadari about language and the members of the literary establishment:

Their dialect is the dialect of power—and it means that everything else gets assigned a lower status. Deviations might be labeled cool, or creative, but because people generally fear or feel threatened by changes they don’t understand, they’re more likely to be called bad, lazy or even dangerous. This is where the “standards are slipping” narrative moves into more unpleasant territory. It’s probably OK to deviate from the norm if you’re young, as long as you’re also white and middle class. If you’re from a group with fewer social advantages, even the forms that your parents use are likely to be stigmatized. Your innovations will be doubly condemned. . . .

Pedants . . . like to maintain that their prejudices are somehow objective—that there are clear instances of language getting “less good” in a way that can be independently verified. But, as we’ve seen, that’s what pedants have said throughout history (p. 39). 

I love chewing over Shariatmadari’s ideas, especially those above from the chapter “Language Is Going to the Dogs.”

I appreciate the other chapters too. In Chapter 2, where he debunks the idea that “A Word’s Origin Is Its True Meaning,” the main idea, rendered beautifully and in detail, is “The meaning of a word is its use in the language” (a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, p. 54). Never mind that the style guide of The Economist says transpire means “to exhale.” We all know that it means “become evident” or “happen”—because that’s the way we use it.

Chapter 3, where he deconstructs the idea that “I Control What Comes Out of My Mouth,” is all about the sounds we make. It begins with a wonderful story about William Labov, a PhD student, who in 1962 studied the way employees in New York City stores said “Fourth floor” and why. He found telling differences between how the words were pronounced in Saks on Fifth Avenue, Macy’s on Herald Square, and S. Klein on Union Square. Exploring the idea of accents and social status, Shariatmadari quotes the linguist Penelope Eckert:

. . . the fact is that everyone has an accent—after all, we all have to pronounce the phonemes of our language some way or another. Some people, however, are in a position to define their own way of pronouncing those phonemes as “normal.” Indeed, part of what constitutes power in society is the ability to define normality—to get others to view one’s own style as unremarkable, as not a style at all (p. 85). 

Supporting Eckert’s thoughts above, Shariatmadari gives the example of people who speak African American vernacular English: “This way of speaking is strongly associated with middle- and working-class black people in the United States and is routinely denigrated as ‘lazy’ or ‘incorrect’ ” (p. 88). Those in power determine the proper accent. Remember that the next time you fidget through the PowerPoint presentation of someone who is different from you.

The first three chapters of Don’t Believe a Word are my favorites, along with Chapter 7, "What You Say Is What You Mean," which includes amusing, instructive examples of the limits of computers to use language as humans would. But from beginning to end my copy is filled with asterisks (my version of “Wow!”) and scribbles in the margins. The 324-page book overflows with interesting ideas about language, culture, and power. I recommend it for readers of this blog, and especially for teachers. It’s an enjoyable, almost easy read. Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language, by David Shariatmadari, is published by W. W. Norton and Company and retails for U.S. $27.95.

Have you read the book? Please share your thoughts. 

Lynn
Syntax Training

3 COMMENTS

  1. What a delicious post! I bet this book is fun to read.
    I love the fact that language is alive and constantly changing, and agree that critics are just attached to what they are used to, and comfortable with. As a strong adopter of gender-neutral language, for example, I can appreciate the need for language to adapt and evolve.

    The only thing that I see as a language requirement, is to be able to express oneself clearly. If you can understand what I mean, than I’m satisfied.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Nick, Anita, Laura, and Patty.

    Nick, I don’t read YouTube comments, but I can imagine them. I wonder whether the deterioration in the comments section is of language or of civility and the ability to debate thoughtfully.

    Anita, I hope you enjoy the book. Let me know what you think.

    Laura, thanks for your thoughts. You loved linguistics in college? You must have had an excellent text and teacher. And it sounds as though the learning stuck. Like you, I write things out and have intermittent fogey feelings.

    Patty, I appreciate your ideas. I have tripped over the singular “they” for a while, but I am getting much better at it. I think you would enjoy “Don’t Believe a Word.”

    Lynn

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