Loom of Language?
June 6, 2009 11:08 AM   Subscribe

How to best use (or not) Bodmer's The Loom of Language?

So I've had a copy of this book for a few years, since I found it in a Barnes & Noble. It seems like an interesting book, and the eight languages it embraces (German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) are all languages I would like to learn or go further in. So I'd like some commentary on the book, specifically:

1. How useful is it, as an overview? I have 3 years of high school Spanish with intermittent self-study thereafter, and a semester each of college French and Italian, and the only Germanic language I've done some self-study on is Swedish. Is this a good book for expanding on those skills in general and picking up a basis in the other languages? Has anyone ever done so?

2. How badly dated is this book? It was written around the time of WWII, and for instance the grammar seems to imply that Swedish conjugates verbs by number, which it no longer does. Would anyone be able to point out any other such outdated grammatical bits?

3. If I do get a good chunk of each of these languages from the book, where can I move to next? What's a good next step for each language? (Or if not, what method would be best for getting further in all these crazy related languages?)
posted by graymouser to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's a terrible book. Leonard Bloomfield's review of the first edition says it all; I'll quote a paragraph that serves as a good summary:
The book here under review intends to inform the general reader about language. Its author is evidently an educated man with some knowledge of several European languages. His book is recommended and prefaced by an eminent man of science (in another field, of course), it is being energetically distributed by a reputable publisher, and it has been praised by critics who know nothing about its subject. If one were willing to ignore the tiresome, sciolistically facetious, and repetitious style of this book, its total lack of clarity and structure, and the errors and misunderstandings in which it abounds, there would remain the fact that in the state of its information it lies some decades behind Whitney's excellent popular books, Language and the Study of Language (1867) and The Life and Growth of Language (1874).
It clearly strikes a chord with people, because it's still in print and getting enthusiastic reviews on Amazon, and if it fires you with enthusiasm to learn languages, that's great, but please don't take it as any kind of trustworthy source.
posted by languagehat at 1:59 PM on June 6, 2009

Response by poster: Wow. Thanks, that clears up a lot about the book.

I am intrigued by it because, a, I want to learn German and more Swedish; and b, I am still working on my Spanish (being intermediate with a language can be very frustrating) and with time I want to parlay this into better French, Italian and also some Portuguese. Any recommendations of better sources for doing this would be much appreciated.
posted by graymouser at 2:24 PM on June 6, 2009

Learning a language is a pretty big commitment, and if you want to master six languages, you're going to need at least six good textbooks, chunky dictionaries, and a lot of time.

But at least those six languages fall into just two families, and can reinforce each other. It might help to browse some Latin-- one of my favorite books is Humez & Humez, Latin for People-- and a book or two on historical linguistics. Once you know some of the patterns in the Romance languages, you can note that words like ch√Ęteau and castillo are not only related, but regularly so, in a way that you can often guess the word in one Romance language knowing what it is in another.

I rely on this a lot-- I learned French in college, and used that to help learn Spanish and Portuguese. Even if you don't worry about Latin and historical linguistics at all, the similarities will help you-- e.g. once you've struggled through one language's subjunctive you pretty much know how it works in the others.

(The patterns exist in Germanic too, but Proto-Germanic isn't so easy to study!)
posted by zompist at 7:51 PM on June 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Historical Linguistics books. I would suggest a Linguistics 101 book too. Understanding grammatical concepts will make learning these systems easier. You'll start to see the languages as overlapping sets of fairly predictable patterns, rather than lists of things to memorize.

Helpful concepts/processes to understand are case, gender, voiced vs. unvoiced sounds, allophones of phonemes, conditioning environments, assimilation, referents, agreements, pro-drop. Wikipedia is also a surprisingly good resource for language and linguistics information.

Of course, you could do all this without learning any underlying structure, but take a peek at some linguistics books and if it works for you, yay. If not, no biggie.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:52 PM on June 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

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