I keep coming back to books on linguistics. It makes a certain kind of sense – linguistics was my first love in the academic world, and had I been a young person who shit was together I likely would have pursued it with some kind of sincerity. Instead, I floundered about.
But when I read John McWhorter’s What Language Is (which I enjoyed) I found myself wondering what I was reading these books for. After all, I already knew this stuff. A lot of it was old hat, and I found myself mostly reading it for traces of John McWhorter’s quirky humor (which I enjoy immensely). I started to feel a bit like a person who keeps going to church only to suddenly be struck by the thought ‘if I’ve already bought into this, why am I still coming here every week?’
Lane Greene’s book is not any kind of book on General linguistics written for lay people. It is a book, for lay people, about how language refuses to be tamed, and how all the attempts to tame language have failed. ‘Taming’ here means many things, and the topics he touches upon very from the prescriptivism, invented languages, semantic meaning shift, why computer’s struggle to learn languages, and why languages v. dialect distinction is largely in the realm of politics. These topics individually are much of the old hat I was worried about before I started reading it, but in each of them Greene tackles the subjects in a legible and interesting manner. I did find some of the chapters to be a bit on the long side, and there were a few moments where I thought he could have slimmed things down a little bit.
Here is the thing about having your own beliefs spat back at you – it makes you feel a lot less lonely. I imagine that only Greene’s himself enjoyed his takedown of Nevile Martin Gwynne’s (and his silly conservative book on Grammar, egoistically names Gwynne’s Grammar) more than I did. I could practically hear the enjoyment through the book, and possibly the laughter at those people who think that language should be spoken as they speak it, with no variation. I have had varieties of this very conversation over and over again, often with people who seem to think that their uninformed personal opinions on the topic should matter more than what I actually bothered to study, sometimes in universities. I have taken to equating these people with climate change deniers, and I have started doing it to their faces (singular ‘they’ IS older than singular ‘you’, whether you like it or not). But I have for the most part accepted that people will always think my facts on these matters are wrong (because the assumption ‘I already speak English, what do I need to learn about it’ keeps people away from learning about linguistics), and books like this one make me feel a whole lot less alone in this world.
I found the final chapter to be particularly interesting. I am a massive fan of George Lakoff – his Little Blue Book is one of those books I frequently find myself buying for other people, even though they never actually read the damn thing. Prior to reading Green’s book, I would have argued how important it is that people spend more time framing things properly, and what success we would achieve if only people did. The book makes a pretty strong argument against Lakoff’s ideas, and I have to admit that it is causing me to go back and reconsider a few things I may have previously believed.
From the same chapter there was a lot said about George Orwell which was also interesting, but it was largely more of me reaffirming my previously held beliefs. It was nice to see some criticism of ‘Politics and the English Language’, which is still bandied about like it is some kind of sacred text despite it being neither very good nor very informative. Frankly, anyone who thinks that languages or writing has ‘rules’ doesn’t know very much about either, and for people who thing good writing does, they likely need to get out and read more.
By the time I finished reading this book, I also figured out why I keep reading these types of book. I won’t bother writing that here, as it is somewhat personal. But I have several other linguistics books on the ‘to read’ stack, and I will be happy to get to them in time. And I will definitely look out for Lane Greene’s other titles. Reaffirmation is not necessarily a bad thing.