Books on Language and Linguistics

Since I’ve started teaching continuing studies courses in linguistics, I’ve been on a prowl. A search. A quest. A hunt. For good books about language, linguistics and other related subjects. By a good book I mean a book that is: (a) informative, logically sound and technically accurate, and (b) accessible to a layman with no background in linguistics, just what one would know from school classes on the English grammar, foreign languages etc. It turned out to be extremely hard to find such books. Linguists just don’t write for the general public. They bemoan the public’s understanding (or lack thereof) of their discipline, but do precious little to change it. (Maybe I shouldn’t say “they” but “we”, but at least I have tried to write what I hope will be a “good book on language for laymen”, so we’ll see how that goes).

The paucity of good books on language creates a gap that is often filled by books that are not very good. The problem is that an average reader (a non-linguist) will not be able to tell such a bad book apart from a truly good one. The main problem is the expectation that linguistics should be “fuzzy”, “chatty”, a humanities-like subject in the old sense of “humanities” (even history is done in a more scientific way nowadays). So many authors sacrifice informativity, logic and technical accuracy for the sake of accessibility.

One example of such a book is McCrum’s Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language. This book is uninformative (it rehashes a lot of well-known — and often mistaken, see below — factoids without providing any novel information to an intelligent reader); it’s illogical (the main argument that English became the de facto global language because of its inherent simplicity and “directness” does not hold muster); and it’s technically inaccurate (see John McWhorter’s excellent review of McCrum’s book).

Which brings me to good books on language and first and foremost several books by John McWhorter himself. You might not like his at times overly chatty style, but you will certainly benefit from reading his books: The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English. His newest book, What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be) is an excellent read too. I am still laughing at his Saint Bernard joke…


Another linguist who writes well — whether for the specialist audience or for the general reading public — is Mark C. Baker. I highly recommend his The Atoms of Language: The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar, which is probably the only book on the market explaining the exciting advances of the cutting-edge linguistic research done in the Chomskian Principles and Parameters framework.


Of course, Steven Pinker‘s The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language is a classic and still a must for anyone trying to understand the workings of human language and how languages makes us uniquely human. His Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language is quite good too.


Among other books that fit my definition of a good book above are Guy Deutscher‘s The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention and Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.


Another interesting language-related book is Donna Jo Napoli‘s (in collaboration with Vera Lee-Schoenfeld for the second edition) Language Matters: A Guide to Everyday Questions About Language. It provides a comprehensive and well-informed answers to such questions as whether language equals thought, whether men and women talk differently, and whether exposure to and use of offensive langauge harms children, and much more.

Finally, I strongly recommend Joel Hoffman‘s And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning. Without presupposing any knowledge of contemporary linguistics, translation theory or Biblical studies, Joel Hoffman uses all three to illuminate cases where King James Version and other widely-used English translations of the Bible got it wrong. In addition to learning much about language, linguistics and translation, the reader will also find out what the ancients knew (and we are only rediscovering) about the mind-body connection, who in present-day American society has the status of the Biblical shepherds and why the famous line from the Song of Songs “My sister, my bride” does not imply an incestuous relationship. A cleverly, accessibly written book and a definite must read!

Happy reading!