What accessible, but not pop-science, linguistics book should I read?
December 23, 2015 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I majored in linguistics in undergrad and I've been hankering after a reasonably accessible and entertaining linguistics-related book for personal enjoyment -- even better if it catches me up on developments in the field in the last ~15 years, but that's not a requirement.

I'm specifically looking for books that are not TOO pop-science -- I've read all of Steven Pinker's linguistics books, and liked them, but my ideal book would be a bit more scholarly while still not being too heavy or dense. Bill Bryson is right out. I'm especially interested in syntax and morphology and would prefer a book that doesn't focus exclusively or mostly on English.
posted by Jeanne to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
All Things Linguistic has a master list going of pop-linguistic books; there might be some in there which might be hard enough for you; there are more recommendations in the comments.

What sort of syntax/morphology is your training in? Both fields have had an explosion of functional-based theories in the last 15 years or so (thanks to large corpora/faster computers). Understanding Morphology will catch you up on some of those developments, and might introduce you to some new perspectives, especially if you had mostly generative training.
posted by damayanti at 8:50 AM on December 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Languagehat has a book - Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit: Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs, and Curses from Around the World . I have not read it, but it's by Languagehat, so it is highly likely to be excellent.
posted by theora55 at 9:29 AM on December 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Have you read Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler?

Reviewers: A history of the world as seen through the spread and demise of languages... Few books bring more intellectual excitement to the study of language.
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:54 AM on December 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have you read Mark Baker's Atoms of Language? It's focused on morphology and syntax, and I think a little more technical than Pinker. Mark is also an excellent writer and works on lots of languages besides English (so I suspect the book will have lots of non-English data).
posted by deeparch at 11:26 AM on December 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

> Languagehat has a book - Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit: Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs, and Curses from Around the World . I have not read it, but it's by Languagehat, so it is highly likely to be excellent.

A nice thought, and I thank you for thinking it, but it's just a bunch of curses; I'm afraid it has nothing to do with linguistics.

I second the Ostler book, and add the following:

Mikael Parkvall, Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn't Know about Language and Languages: a superb book, not only accurate (Parkvall is a linguist) but laid out in nice readable chunks, suitable for bathroom reading if that's the way you roll.

Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (eds.), Language Myths: obviously, arranged by popular myths about language, but a handy little paperback that packs a lot of punch.

Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention: a good book about historical linguistics; I wrote about it here.

I'm afraid I haven't been keeping up with linguistics as a scholarly field, so I can't recommend any specialized books, but that doesn't seem to be what you're looking for anyway.
posted by languagehat at 11:50 AM on December 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you're interested in linguistics blogs as well as books, Language Log is probably the most comprehensive linguistics blog out there. It covers usage news, etymology, a bit of computational analysis, and it has a whole section on East Asian languages.
posted by dialMforMara at 1:06 PM on December 23, 2015

A classic text is How to Kill a Dragon: aspects of Indo European poetics. Lay accessible, but also a genuine contribution to the literature.
posted by dis_integration at 2:03 PM on December 23, 2015

Much as I love Language Log, it is by no stretch of the imagination a comprehensive linguistics blog; it's basically whatever Mark Liberman, Victor Mair, and Geoff Pullum feel like writing about, which is usually (respectively) odd usage and cartoons, Chinese and other East Asian material (often funny signs), and how stupid people and their stupid ideas are. There is almost never anything on etymology or other historical material (though they once had a superb series of guest posts by Don Ringe). It's true they're good on computational analysis, or Mark is.

> A classic text is How to Kill a Dragon

Yes, I second that.
posted by languagehat at 2:40 PM on December 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Dying Words by Nick Evans is great.
posted by flora at 4:44 PM on December 23, 2015

I don't know that Mark Baker book, but I do know he's a good linguist. So I'm sure that'd be a good place to look.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:11 AM on December 24, 2015

Norma Mendoza-Denton's Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice Among Latina Youth Gangs is an absolutely excellent read. It's informative, well-grounded and scholarly, yet reads like a novel and is accessible to laypersons and established academics alike.

I'd also recommend Samy Alim's You Know My Steez: An Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Study of Styleshifting in a Black American Speech Community.

Both of these books focus on sociolinguistics as its primary subject matter, but they would be very helpful toward anybody interested in any area of linguistics, as they are excellent models of ethnographic research practices, how to successfuly interact with research subjects, study design, and general methodological approaches. (I also personally feel that understanding at least the basics of sociolinguistic research leads to valuable insight for anybody pursuing further knowledge of the field, as social factors will always come into play at one point or another in explorations of syntax, morphology, phonology etc.)

Good luck with your learning!
posted by iamkimiam at 3:36 PM on December 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle is a memoir of a missionary who lives with the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon. A lot of the book deals with their language which is the only known human language which canNOT have an infinite number of grammatically correct sentences. It is also interesting that there are several variants of the language, one which is a which is whistling variant which is perfect for being heard in a rain forest.

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About The Mind
is a well-told and researched book about sign languages and language in general. Especially interesting is how apraxia manifests in the deaf. The book mostly centers around the study of a unique sign language that sprung up in a group of Bedouins that allows cousins to marry. In this kind of inbreeding, deafness springs up and a sign language follows on its heels out of practicality.
posted by plinth at 4:50 PM on December 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thirding Baker's Atoms of Language. He is a great lecturer (the dude can freehand draw a world map on a chalkboard and fill it in with language families!) and although the book is accessible to a non-specialist audience it is in no way dumbed down. There's enough of technical interest for someone with a linguistics background, and for linguists it has the bonus feature of giving you some ideas of interesting topics to discuss when people ask you "So what is linguistics? Do you speak a lot of languages?"
posted by tractorfeed at 5:56 AM on December 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

(posted too soon)
Also Atoms of Language fits your preference for not focussing on English -- Baker is a specialist in Native American languages and part of the book looks at how Navajo was used by US forces as a cypher for voice communication during WWII.
posted by tractorfeed at 6:01 AM on December 30, 2015

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