07 May 2020

Common Sense about Language

Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can't be Tamed
Lane Greene
PublicAffairs, 2018
232 pages

For all you word people, this is a fantastic book! I loved it, plain and simple. Greene covers various topics, each showing, in a different way, why language can't be tamed, why it can't be put in a neat little perfectly logical box, with Rules. The range of topics can be deduced from the front blurb:

Samuel Johnson one said that "to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride." Nevertheless, many have tried: from sticklers for supposedly correct grammar to inventors of supposedly perfect languages; from software engineers working on machine translation to governments that see language management as politics by another means. But when you enter the lair of a wild beast, you may be lucky to escape with your wits intact. Join Lane Greene on a journey of discovery into the deep strangeness of language.

I'd heard of something called The Great Vowel Shift, but never could get my mind around the scant explanations I saw. He has a terrific explanation of how English vowel sounds moved away from the sounds in the rest of Europe. He shows this process using some examples from recent English.

 Another favorite chapter talks about how words start sticking together and changing over time. Again, I'd read that this has happened in the past, but never understood the process. He shows how we write things like "ought to work", "got to sleep", "have to run", and "going to try". But when we speak "the TO gets glommed on to the previous word": "oughta work", "gotta sleep", "hafta run", and "gonna try". If we had only spoken language, the actual words might start to change. Wow!

In a chapter entitled "Whom in a biker bar", Greene covers a large set of related topics such as various English dialects, Normal English vs. Formal English, how children learn their native language, and rules vs. preferences in grammar. There's an awful lot of information packed into that chapter, but I think the important ideas can be summed up by this paragraph:

The tricky cases that need to be taught explicitly to children in school belong almost exclusively to Formal. Normal is, by definition, what comes naturally to a native speaker. But Formal English includes all of the grammatical bits and pieces like whom, word order like the man about whom I was talking, and nominative case after the copula like it was she. These form part of the literary language that is a critical part of English-speakers' cultural heritage. Students need to learn Formal. But they should learn it for what it is: a specific kind of language for certain important purposes, and not the One Right Way. p. 173

This book is enlightening, funny, and wise, and I learned a lot about how we humans try to communicate. He also tweets out interesting tidbits, so you might want to follow him on Twitter, too: @lanegreene .

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