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December 13, 2021

Speedy Linguistics Book Reviews

I'm always interested in 'pop science' books that cover linguistics, because that's about the most the average person will ever know about linguistics. Some won't even get that far and will only stick to traditional language books, such as usage style guides and word histories. I like to read these books to see (a) the state of popular writing on language and (b) enjoy lighter takes on language. I can't recommend published articles to a hobbyist, but I can recommend pop books.

With that, here are my speedy reviews of language-related books I've read this year. In lieu of a star system, I'm writing 'Who should read it' - even if I personally don't enjoy a book very much, there's probably someone who might.

Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language - Amanda Montell (2020): If you've read any number of feminist blog posts on English, you've probably read most of the material in this book. Your enjoyment of it will depend on how much you enjoy Jezebel-style writing and how unfamiliar you are with the topics. Most of the material was already known to me, with the exception of some of the sections of LGBTQ language. It's an okay introduction to issues of gender and language.

Who should read it: People who know little about linguistics, know some entry-level feminism, and would like to get acquainted with common issues of feminism and linguistics.

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism - Amanda Montell (2021): By the same author as 'Wordslut'. This book is a step up in my opinion, in that the material is a little more novel. The author also appears to have come into her own voice more - it reads less like an assembly line hot take from the feminist era of blogging. The book is about how different groups perceived as cultish use language to reveal their own values and bind together members while excluding outsiders, as well as histories of the organizations and interviews with people who have joined.

I overall enjoyed this one, as a lot of the material was new to me and the author really leveled up her writing skills. I wouldn't quite call it a linguistics book, despite the subtitle 'language of fanaticism' - it's more of a review of cultish groups and personal experiences of people within them. One of the conclusions of the book is that all groups are 'cultish', and some take it to extremes. I was a little surprised the author never mentioned speech communities once - it seemed it was basically a book on speech communities, and how leaders can take advantage of speech communities to get people invested in a new religion or fitness program.

Who should read it: Anyone looking for a light, personal read about cultish communities (new religious movements, MLMs, fitness programs), how people join, how they get in, and what kind of language they use.

This Is the Voice - John Colapinto (2021): A tour through various aspects of the voice, from a genetic look to a physiological look to a cultural look. Very broad-ranging, which makes it a good introductory topic. One fun fact is that humans seem to be the only animal with sexually dimorphic voice - other male animals do not experience a change in pitch during sexual maturity.

Linguists will also enjoy the section where the author accompanies Daniel Everett (the man who claims that the Piraha language has no recursion, among another of other claims) and an unnamed Chomskyan linguist to the Amazon to test some of Everett's claims. Highlights include the Chomskyan linguist's laptop frizzing out because the humidity was so high that the components couldn't function anymore, and Everett and the linguist bickering while Everett's wife sits quietly in the corner.

Who should read it: Singers, talkers, and general voice users and enthusiasts.

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark - Cecelia Watson (2019): This lightweight book taught me that many people, including writers, hate the semicolon. It's a cute read on the history of the semicolon, typography, and the cultural importance of the semicolon. Overall it's speedy and sure to entertain and educate people who don't know much about typography or punctuation. The only real slog was a chapter on a 'legally important semicolon' that made it harder to acquire alcohol in Boston.

Who should read it: Fans of orthography; people with colorful opinions on punctuation marks; lawyers.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (US Edition) - Lynne Truss (2004): This popular book combines a guide to punctuation with strands of history and the author's commentary on the state of punctuation in England. It is absolutely intolerable. The only thing separating this from other guides to punctuation is the author's commentary, which consists of toxic, hyperbolic attacks on people who have the audacity to use punctuation in a non-standard way. This is exacerbated by the author's insistence that she is some sort of victim in the manner, and the pseudo-liberatory refrain of 'sticklers, unite!' gives a veneer to the author's undisguised loathing for people who do not share her opinion that the communication protocol will cease to function if we do not bully people into using standard orthography. It's full of the typical contrived examples to justify an obsession with punctuation.

Who should read it: Teenagers who are forming their entire identity around the fact that they understand standard English orthography and are prepared to upgrade it into a superiority complex; people who want to learn more about standard punctuation use and are prepared to suffer through the author calling them a moron, a buffoon, and sewer trash for advice you can now freely acquire online.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race (Third Edition) - Beverly Daniel Tatum (2017): This is not a linguistics book, but I found it so helpful that it merited inclusion. This book is about the psychological process whereby kids come to develop a racial identity. At what ages do kids begin to realize that 'race' exists? How do they conceptualize it? How can racial identity change? If you already know a little bit about sociolinguistics, then you can get even more from it. The writing is clear and engaging.

Who should read it: Anyone looking to understand racial identity formation.

The Linguistics Wars (first edition) - Randy Allen Harris (1993): This book is an utter rarity - a history of the subject of linguistics, aimed at a popular audience, that nevertheless manages to go sufficiently in depth to make the subject both accessible to the general public and worthwhile to the expert. The book covers multiple important paradigm shifts within linguistics - from Neogrammarianism to Bloomfieldian descriptivism to Chomskyan generativism and the ensuing battle with Generative Semantics. Though the author is a self-proclaimed fan of Chomsky, he does not make the generative semanticists look like fools or buffoons, and gives them a fair shake. It goes quite in-depth, yet it's still captivating to read.

I recently found out that there is a second edition that was released just this year that covers the 80s up until now. Once I've got time, I plan to order this one and read it as well. There aren't a lot of histories of linguistics available, and we're incredibly lucky that this one exists.

Who should read it: Anyone with an interest in linguistics or the enterprise of science.

The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics - John Pollack (2011): This book taught me that there are pun competitions. More interestingly, it is a history of the pun, and how attitudes towards it have changed over time. As someone who has always liked puns, I was surprised to find that the dislike for puns is a modern invention, and puns used to be held in higher esteem by writers.

Who should read it: Pundits seeking punderstanding of a pun subject.

And that's about that for language-related books this year! I might do some more in-depth reviews of some of these books later, but they'd mostly be elaborations of these summaries. I also have some more academic books that are less 'reading on the beach' and more 'reference works for articles.' I'd like to review those at some point as well, but I'm still thinking of how to do that, since I use them more as references and to find citations as opposed to reading them straight through. Are there any books you'd like me to review?