Lingusitics texts?
July 26, 2005 10:43 AM   Subscribe

What book do I want? In the interest of self-improvement, I have decided to study linguistics and I am trying to find a book that would provide a good overview of the subject. I would like something a bit more enjoyable/readable than a typical textbook, but I would also like to get a fairly broad structural overview including references to other sources. I know so little about the science that I am unsure if "linguistics" is too broad of a term; if it is any help I was a huge fan of the Wittgensteinian school of philosophy back in my college days.
posted by rtimmel to Education (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Something like Steven Pinker's the language instinct would probably be a good place to start. There are a bunch of more recent "popular science" type books about linguistics but I have the impression that that book is still the best for these purposes.
posted by advil at 10:49 AM on July 26, 2005

not exactly what you're asking for, but i recently spent some happy/intresting free time reading kripke's "on rules and private language" - you might find it an interesting revision of your college days.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:51 AM on July 26, 2005

Also, for a more general overview (the language instinct leaves out some topics) fromkin et al's Linguistics: An Introduction to Linguistic Theory is probably the best textbook.

If you want to follow up on the wittgenstein connection the best way to do it that I know of is to find a reader in philosophy of language and dive in. Here's one that is pretty extensive.
posted by advil at 10:57 AM on July 26, 2005

If you want something that is not super acadamicky and fun to read, you might enjoy The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language which is a collection of columns written for Natural Language and Linguistic Theory. Language and Thought and Action by SI Hayakawa is more about the semantics aspect of linguistics but shares some of the wordplay aspects that makes reading Wittgenstein enjoyable.
posted by jessamyn at 11:03 AM on July 26, 2005

I'm not sure what book to recommend, but I have to disagree about The Language Instinct. Although Pinker is nominally a linguist, he's much more a cognitive psychologist, and he doesn't really like languages all that much. I don't think his book fits the needs you describe at all. Here's more on Pinker.
posted by OmieWise at 12:42 PM on July 26, 2005

I was also going to vote for Pinker, but IANAL so happily defer to OmieWise - it's an interesting, accessible book about language, rather than linguistics per se. Worth a flick through if you see it in a book store to see if it catches your imagination.
posted by penguin pie at 12:47 PM on July 26, 2005

The Last Word on Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin includes a number of results from linguistics of general interest to people who want to communicate better. It's not a linguistics text, but might provide inspiration for further reading.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:45 PM on July 26, 2005

I'm not sure what book to recommend, but I have to disagree about The Language Instinct. Although Pinker is nominally a linguist, he's much more a cognitive psychologist, and he doesn't really like languages all that much.

While I basically agree with this point, I still think (speaking as a graduate student in theoretical linguistics) that the language instinct is the best single book to give to non-linguists to give them some idea what linguistics is. It's been marvelously effective for e.g. my family. I think what OmieWise is talking about shows itself much more in his more recent popular science books.
posted by advil at 1:54 PM on July 26, 2005

Also, I should have added - IMO most of the issues linguists have with Pinker simply won't be obvious or interesting to non-linguists/non-cognitive scientists.
posted by advil at 1:56 PM on July 26, 2005

Pinker is polemically opposed to (a caricatured account of) sociolinguistics and anthropological linguistics, but aside from that *The Language Instinct* is a marvelous book to introduce a general reader to cognitive linguistics and evolutionary psychology. Another amazing read is Derek Bickerton's *Language and Species.* He gets speculative, but he's brilliant on the evolutionary pressure for language specialization. The best overarching introduction to various sociolinguistic approaches is Deborah Schiffrin's *Approaches to Discourse,* which is a little textbooky, but covers four major paradigms in parallel presentations. Alessandro Duranti's *Linguistic Anthropology,* also a textbook, is an excellent antidote to Pinker's blind spots. If it's still in print, Jennifer Coates' little paperback *Women, Men, and Language* is the best general introduction to feminist sociolinguistics I've taught with. To read something straightforward by the man himself, Chomsky's collected set of introductory lectures in *Language and Problems of Human Knowledge* is fascinating, especially if you know Spanish grammar at all, since he uses Spanish examples (the lectures were given in Nicaragua).
posted by realcountrymusic at 2:18 PM on July 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

There's a list of language/linguistics books here; I agree with most of it (except that I think Mario Pei's books are complete crap), and I particularly recommend Jim Quinn's American Tongue and Cheek (see my encomium here). I would also add Robert A. Hall's Linguistics and Your Language (aka Leave Your Language Alone!) if you can find a copy; he does an excellent job of explaining why much of what we think we know about language is wrong and how we go about remedying that. As for Pinker, I agree with OmieWise; as I said here, you can read "even that damn Pinker book if you promise to take the 'innate' stuff with a grain of salt."
posted by languagehat at 2:21 PM on July 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

PS -- I would be loathe to recommend Hayakawa as the first thing you read about semantic theory. His General Semantics has been widely rejected by linguists and has developed something of a lunatic fringe following. It's still fascinating work, but not central to contemporary semantic theory.

And while I am thinking about it, Chomsky's famous 1959 review of Skinner's *Verbal Behavior* is a locus classicus of a major cleavage in modern linguistic thought, often cited as the moment cognitive science took the flag from behaviorist theory in language science, still provocative and amazing 46 years later. Plus you can read it online for free.
posted by realcountrymusic at 2:28 PM on July 26, 2005

I would be truly remiss if I did not mention The forthcoming 2d edition of the Elsevier Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, a formidable reference work which has just come out in hard copy (or is about to any day) and will be online (for a fee, or via a university with a subscription) early next year. This massive work truly does try to span the entire field of many disciplines. Even looking at its structure (volume structure and individual volume ToCs) will be very useful for a sense of the terrain. And somewhere, deep within, on a subject I will not name, your humble realcountrymusic's voice is heard speaking a very esoteric dialect of academese. (Hint: I mention "digiticity," or digital literacy, in passing.) Seriously giant project, with all the flaws thereof, but a landmark and the most current and comprehensive overview there is.
posted by realcountrymusic at 3:42 PM on July 26, 2005

Personally, I think Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction by O'Grady and Archibald is a very accessible general linguistics text for non-linguistics. It's quite well-presented. I think it used to be published by Pearson, don't know who's picked it up since.
posted by greatgefilte at 4:23 PM on July 26, 2005

It may be of interest to note that nearly everything you read will discuss Chomsky's theory of generativity as if it were as obvious and noncontroversial and immutably true as the theory of gravity. I've never read a book on linguistics that discussed alternative theories, like functional grammar. Just so you'll know of the biases.

Language-related but not linguistic is Spoken Here: Travels Among Endangered Languages.

You'd think my linguistics degree would be handier here. But has it ever been handy for anything?
posted by joeclark at 3:36 PM on July 27, 2005

I've just finished reading "The Unfolding of Language" by Guy Deutscher and found it very interesting. Probably worth adding to your list.
posted by booksprite at 9:47 AM on June 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

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