Language variation is becoming more distinct, not less, in the United States.
So argues the 2012 book “Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change” by influential linguist and academic William Labov.
One major divergence in dialects is between African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and white dialects but differences go wider too. According to Labov, people from cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, and New York now speak more differently from each other than they did in the 1950s. This seems counterintuitive given the ubiquity of mass media, but academic linguists have shown that one-way communication does less to influence how we talk than our peers.
The book is insightful and compelling Get yourself a copy. My notes for future research are below.
Continue reading Dialect Diversity in America: notes from William Labov’s 2012 book on language change
Writing is one of humanity’s greatest inventions, and both it and language evolved in predictable ways. They are related but distinct.
That’s a theme from this year’s March 2022 book “The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts” written by Silvia Ferrera.
Below I’ve captured my notes for future reference.
Continue reading The Greatest Invention: notes on language and writing
From the Economist:
A book seems such a simple structure that it feels less invented than self-evident, the innovations behind it hard to see. Yet every chapter in its progress was slow, bound on either side by centuries of sluggishness. Turnable pages didn’t really arrive until the first century bc; the book form didn’t take off properly until the fourth century ad. The separating of words with spaces didn’t get going until the seventh—verylateforsomethingsouseful. Finally things accelerated: first came the index, in the 13th century, then Gutenberg, then, in 1470, the first printed page number. You can still see it in a book in the Bodleian Library.
Translation isn’t about specific word choice. It’s about meaning.
But, then, there are many different kinds of translation. The very old act of translation both creates and defends language in an interconnected world. Earlier this summer, I finished a 2011 book by translator David Bellos called “Is that a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.” [PDF] Find a review here of it. This is a different approach to understanding language, which has been an interest of mine for years.
You should read the book. For my own purposes, I’ve captured my notes below.
Continue reading Is that a Fish in Your Ear? notes on the 2011 book by David Bellos on translation
Language is a manifestation of human thought. So it’s an effective tool to understanding how we perceive the world.
That’s the premise of the 2007 bestselling book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature by experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. His prodigious collection of popular books blending linguistics, thought and human nature have made him both a celebrity academic and a frequent source of scorn.
I appreciate his contributions and regardless of popular perception, I’ve enjoyed working through his catalogue. Below I capture some notes from finally getting through this one. Find 2007 reviews from the New York Times and the Guardian.
Continue reading Notes on ‘Stuff of Thought’ by Steven Pinker
Our species, Homo sapiens, first grew powerful by banding together through myth-making. That self-deception is our strength and our curse.
That is something like the thesis of Sapiens, a kind of pop anthropology anthology that has — like all books that generalize heady issues — caught both praise and derision. Written by Yuval Noah Harari, it was first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 and in English in 2014. I was gifted a copy by a collaborator of mine, Deborah Diamond and I ready it in a couple weeks. I’m sharing here some of what I got from reading it.
Public intellectuals seem to face a harrowing choice. Either dive deeply into their subject matter to influence their peers but risk their ideas remaining obscure, or focus on translating and synthesizing for a broader audience, and attract scorn from those deeper situated in the academic. Harari is squarely in the latter category, garnering a 2018 New York Times profile focused on the adulation he’s received from tech executives, despite his criticism of their work.
Like a breakout hit in linguistics that I read, I approach these books with neither extreme. I find them fun, discover ideas to dive deeper into and often get inspiration. That was my experience with Harari’s book — even though I found myself ignoring extended passages of his extrapolation. I enjoyed it.
Continue reading Notes from reading ‘Sapiens,’ a brief history of humankind
Language and the stories we tell about its origins are highly political. To understand one, you need to be mindful of the other.
That’s the main thesis of the 2011 book You Are What You Speak by Robert Lane Greene, who also writes a twice-monthly column on language in The Economist that I adore as a subscriber. I finished the book earlier this year as part of my continued assault on better understanding language’s history — read other reading notes of mine on language here.
This book helped cement my understanding that my favorite part of linguistics is philology, or the historical and comparative elements that seem quite cultural.
Below I share pieces of the book that stood out to me. But as always I encourage you to buy your own copy and read it; I only write nerdy posts like this when a book has really added to my worldview. So I strongly recommend it.
Continue reading How we speak signals education. But it is not the same thing as education: Robert Lane Greene
Modern linguistics is based largely on a descriptivist view of language, describing common usage. Many grammarians follow a more prescriptivist view: if we don’t prescribe, language will falter.
I read a host of pop linguistics books this year, challenging my prescriptivist publishing origins with a small library of descriptivist perspective. I also consumed podcasts, articles and other interviews with experts on the matter. (Most recently this conversation.)
Along this exploration, I was familiar with several of the most-cited grammar classics (King’s English and Elements of Style among them). But I hadn’t read Eats, Shoots and Leaves, published by Lynne Truss in 2006. So I changed that late last year.
I wanted to share a few notes below.
Continue reading Punctuation today: notes from the 2006 bestseller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”
We get it wrong: language is always in motion, more like fashion, than science or math. This changes how we treat language and its uses.
We don’t quite say someone is wrong for wearing bell-bottom jeans today. It might feel outdated. We also might think they could return someday in some form if fashion and culture moves in the right way. It’s just not what most of us would consider common today. That is a pretty good approximation of language.
This concept is the big idea from linguistics that John McWhorter most gets at in his sublimely readable and thoughtful Words on the Move book from 2016. (Read the New York Times review here)
I first read this book earlier this summer, part of a binge on McWhorter’s books and linguistics generally. I finally wanted to share my notes from reading this. But if it interests you, you really should buy it, because there’s so much more.
Below I share my notes.
Continue reading Language is more like fashion than math: “Words on the Move” by John McWhorter
English is a (relatively) simple language to learn enough of to communicate (rather than to master) because it’s had so many non-native adults learning and using it.
The rules are relatively flexible, so — as you’ve likely experienced — we can often understand someone speaking in simple “broken” English. Try that with Russian. But — as you also likely know — it can take a lifetime to have some kind of English mastery, and even that’s no promise. If you want to understand why, you need to look into the secret corners of the 1,500 years of English language development.
That’s among the big ideas from “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue,” a 2009 book from linguist John McWhorter. I picked this up after devouring his 2016 book, both of which I read earlier this summer. (Read the laudatory New York Times review of this book. For context, this Economist story is a nice recap of what makes language difficult.)
I have a bunch of posts about linguistics.
This book’s focus on English is distinct from other linguistics books I’ve read recently about language generally. Find my favorite lessons from the book and a few related videos below.
Continue reading Why English actually is relatively easy to learn (but not to master)