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YOU ARE WHAT YOU SPEAK by Robert Lane Greene


Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity

by Robert Lane Greene

Pub Date: March 8th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-553-80787-5
Publisher: Delacorte

A wide-ranging study of language, including the various political dimensions involved in how and why certain languages gain prestige while others become extinct.

How have industrialization and nationalism shaped language variation worldwide? Is the writing system a natural outgrowth of speech, or can it simply be changed by government edict? Is there really one correct way of speaking English? Is the French language being threatened? Are Chinese characters really based on pictographs? These are just a handful of the many intriguing questions, issues and “linguistic myths” that Economist contributor Greene investigates in this fascinating glimpse at the global politics of language variation. Essentially, the book is a course in sociolinguistics and modern international language politics for the layperson. The author, who speaks nine languages, begins by dispelling a variety of language myths that are pervasive and, to the chagrin of many linguists, seemingly unshakeable—that some languages are more primitive than others, that the Qur’an cannot be translated from Arabic, or that the Maori of New Zealand have 35 words for dung. Greene also exposes grammar sticklers—people who are obsessively determined to “purify” language and who are nostalgic for a linguistic utopia that never existed—for the persnickety and curmudgeonly group they really are. The author blends personal narrative, reportage and humor with linguistic analysis, historical research and political punditry, and he surveys some of the most significant issues concerning language today, including the ethnocentrism involved in some English-only activism in America, as well as the draconian—and largely unsuccessful—measures of the French Academy to keep French free of English words. Greene correctly demonstrates that language change, language variety and cross-language borrowing are “highly regular” and, in fact, part of the natural evolution of all languages.

An insightful, accessible examination of the way in which day-to-day speech is tangled in a complicated web of history, politics, race, economics and power.