DON'T BELIEVE A WORD by David Shariatmadari


The Surprising Truth About Language
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The beauty and intrigue of language.

Shariatmadari, a linguist and Guardian editor, is anxious to remove linguistics from its ivory-tower encampment and make it understandable for general readers. He cuts “through the fallacies and folklore that cloud our understanding” of this social science and provides some entertainment along the way. The author begins with the age-old myth that “language is going to the dogs.” On the contrary, language is “constantly evolving….It’s the speed of change, within our own short lives, that creates the illusion of decline.” A history of the word “toilet” helps Shariatmadari shatter the myth that the origin of a word, its etymology, is a guide to its true meaning. How a word sounds when spoken, the “very fount of our self-expression,” is largely unconscious. The shapes of our vowels and consonants, as well as accents, can change “whether you know it or not.” Can animals speak? Meet Alex, an African grey parrot that could respond to complicated questions and even create a metaphorical compound. He said “rock corn” to describe dried corn. Using a specially designed board of symbols, Kanzi, a bonobo, can respond to around 3,000 words. The author also delves into where dialects come from, how to decide where a language begins and ends, and African American Vernacular English. AAVE has been branded slang or ghetto language, but using it “to help students acquire standard English actually speeds up that process.” Are some languages better than others? Korean is held up by some as a “superior” language while German is a “time-honoured whipping boy.” Mandarin is “slow but dense, Spanish quick but light.” Shariatmadari enters into the fray over the noted linguist Noam Chomsky’s controversial belief that language is instinctual. He votes no. Inquiring minds curious about epenthesis backronyms and heteronymy will find answers here.

An at-times quite challenging but agile and lively introduction to language.

Pub Date: Jan. 7th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-324-00425-7
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2019