The author of Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math (2013, etc.) shows us that language is a far more ornately feathered fowl than casual consideration can conceive.
Tammet begins with probably the most engaging and revealing section of his entire text: an account of how he, born with “high-functioning autism,” learned language, a process involving numbers, colors, poems, and a most fecund imagination. He also shows us—more or less indirectly—the fatuousness of teaching methods that assume and presume that everyone learns in the same way (think: our current obsession with standardized testing). Tammet’s directly autobiographical accounts slip into the background as he encourages us to follow him on a kind of intellectual circumnavigation of Planet Language. These chapters cover such subjects as the status of Esperanto, people who write in disappearing languages, political attempts to prevent the language from altering too much, sign language, translation, and conversations with computers. A particularly moving segment involves the study of telephone language—the grammar, the protocols, the unexpected intimacies—a study that led, in one case, to a staged reading of When Cancer Calls, a performance of transcripts of cancer-related calls among family members. The author sometimes tells us more than we may want to know: the section on Esperanto, are overlong, and some of his fascinations with the details of translation will delight, well, translators. It seems he is often determined to tell us the histories of things at the expense of our patience. But there are many moments of delightful and surprising luminescence. In his section about the telephone, he notes how ordinary words and deep emotion are “the freight of every family’s telephone line.”
“Words, words, words,” said Hamlet—that brilliant, verbose Dane would find in these pages a most welcome elaboration.