Monday, November 13, 2006

Language and Linguists

For the last few months I have been following a blog called Language Log. It's written by several linguists. The content is very interesting, and the writers have a good sense of humor. Now I have become so interested that I'm taking their advice on books to read. Fortunately, the libraries that I use have many of their suggestions.

First I read:
The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language
The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language by Geoffrey K. Pullum (he's one of the irreverent Language Log writers). In this book I finally learned the objection to the claim that Eskimos have X words for snow. The questionable thing about this is not whether Eskimos do or don't have a lot of words for snow -- after all, the article points out, even we English speakers have snow, sleet, blizzard, avalanche, flurry, etc. In fact, most languages have a lot of words for things their speakers need/want to talk about.

The author points out that there are many Eskimo languages; it's not trivial to "count" how many words there are for whatever; and so most of the statements are made in total ignorance and lack of any real interest in Eskimos. Or as the author says: "The tragedy is not that so many people got the facts wildly wrong; it is that in the mentally lazy and anti-intellectual world we live in today, hardly anyone cares enough to think about trying to determine what the facts are." (p. 171)

Second I read:
Language Myths edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. This book is a collection of essays by experts on things that many people wrongly or pretty wrongly believe to be true of language. Some of the essays pointed out things I knew; others were quite new to me.

The third book is:
Word Origins...and how we know them
Word Origins...and how we know them by Anatoly Liberman, which describes how word historians work, where they get their ideas, and to some extent, how to tell when someone claims to trace a word's origin but is really only blowing smoke.

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