Don’t Believe a Word!

Do you want to get a serious look at linguistics from an author who writes clearly for a general audience?

If so, read David Shariatmadari’s Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth about Language. When I say it’s for a general audience, you should still bear in mind that linguistics is the science of language, so you have to expect a certain amount of linguistic scienceIt’s not a novel.

This is a kind of “myth buster” for linguistics. The book is organized into nine chapters, each focusing on a “language myth” that Shariatmadari explains and then destroys with evidence, anecdotes, and a bit of linguistic theory:

  1. Language is going to the dogs.
  2. A word’s origin is its true meaning.
  3. I control what comes out of my mouth.
  4. We can’t talk to the animals.
  5. You can’t translate this word.
  6. Italian is a language.
  7. What you say is what you mean.
  8. Some languages are better than others.
  9. Language is an instinct.

If you’re puzzled by #5 — because you think that of course there are words you can’t translate — see my post on untranslatable words. If you’re puzzled by #6 — because you think that of course Italian is a language — see my post on whether Chinese is s a language.

The main themes that run through the book are the ways in which language changes (and it always does), the extent of “universal grammar” (basically what all languages have in common), and the interactions between language and society. There are a fair number of unobtrusive footnotes, a lot of unobtrusive references for each chapter, and a lovely glossary at the end, ranging from accommodation to vowel:

The way we alter our speech when we interact with others, changing aspects of accent, pace, volume, pitch, word choice and even syntax. Depending on context, you will either converge with the way your conversational partner speaks, diverge from it, or carry on regardless.

A sound in which the air passes unobstructed from the lungs to the mouth while the vocal cords are vibrating. The position of the tongue and the lips determine the nature of the vowel. Raising the tongue produces “close” vowels like /i/, lowering it makes sounds like /a/, and rounding the lips results in sound like /u/.

Non-linguists will want to pay attention to the first two words in the explanation of what a vowel is: a vowel is a sound, not a letter. i have suffered through endless miscommunications on this subject, such as when I say that we use “an,” not “a,” before a vowel and someone asks “What about ‘a useful tool‘?” So now I try to say “vowel sounds” even though that grates on my linguist ears. Linguistics, after all, is about speech, not writing. (Yes, that’s an oversimplification, but it’s basically true.)



Categories: Books, Linguistics