Recommended Books on why langauges are so different.
April 22, 2012 2:34 AM   Subscribe

What are some recommended books for the general reader on why languages are so different. How come languages such as Thai, Mandarin, Hebrew or the Indo-European langauges have such hugely different alphabets, let alone such vast differences in pronunciation? Given that human societies share many common characteristics, how come we ended up speaking so differently from each other. As I say, I'd prefer books aimed at the general reader, rather than, say, linguistics specialists.
posted by vac2003 to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
One of the best books I"ve read on language and languages was "Empires of the Word: A Language History" of the World by Nicholas Ostler.

Its quite a tome but is really very interesting and covers a really wide range of issues and material on the how languages and writing systems have developed and changed over history and the factors that can influence the rise of a particular language.
posted by mary8nne at 3:08 AM on April 22, 2012

I think you might find just bouncing around Wikipedia and following citation links, and maybe dipping into Google Books on specific topics, quite rewarding.
posted by XMLicious at 3:42 AM on April 22, 2012

I think it would be difficult to go past David Crystal's How Language Works for this one. Penguin publish a classic edition of it that I picked up quite cheaply.
posted by smoke at 4:25 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nick Evans' Dying Words is a very readable and fascinating introduction to language diversity and endangerment.
posted by nomis at 7:45 AM on April 22, 2012

I think the book you want is The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention, by Guy Deutscher; also, I second Ostler and Crystal.
posted by languagehat at 8:54 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct asks essentially the opposite question, but obviously then must discuss the differences, too. It's quite readable, and it's Pinker on linguistics which is closer to his actual field of study than some of his more recent popular books.

There is some heavy criticism of its central thesis, though; I'm not familiar with all of it, but you can find places to start just by looking at Wikipedia.
posted by nat at 9:44 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

A couple of supplementary non-book recommendations:

English Wikipedia's coverage of the history of writing and writing systems is generally excellent. A few starting points: Brahmi script (the ancestor of a large family of scripts used in South Asia, South East Asia and Central Asia), the invention of Hangul (the Korean writing system), hiragana (Japanese phonetic characters), the Phoenician alphabet (the ancestor of our own alphabet, and a bunch of other ones), abugidas (a class of scripts), Canadian syllabics.

For variation in languages, see The World Atlas of Language Structures (table of contents.). It's intended for linguists, but actually fairly accessible. For example, here's one of three articles on types of gender systems.

(I haven't read any of the book recommendations here, but anything that languagehat recommends is probably awesome. I'd read them.)
posted by nangar at 10:22 AM on April 22, 2012

languagehat I think the book you want is The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention, by Guy Deutscher; also, I second Ostler and Crystal.

Thank you for this. I have read Deutscher's "Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages" and thoroughly enjoyed that, so I am sure I will also enjoy this work.

Thank you also for the other recommendations. I'll give "Empires of the Word: A Language History" a go as well.

As an aside, in trying to find suitable books before posting here, I looked at various sites including Wikipedia and did find some useful material. The trouble was I keep jumping from link to link, as you do, and quickly had over a dozen tabs open in my browser. Got quite confusing and a little overwhelming, I must say. Hence the desire for a book which I hope unfolds the story in a more orderly fashion than my web-browsing.
posted by vac2003 at 2:48 PM on April 22, 2012

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