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Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (Vienna)

Believe it or not: one more book on language and language history

In summer, I discussed the book ‘Like’, ‘Literally’, ‘Dude’: Arguing for Good in Bad English by Valerie Fridland, and the posts on it attracted some attention. Studies on the history of language and the development of Modern English appear in a steady stream, but they rarely address the general public (the uninitiated). That is why, when a colleague alerted me to the 2020 publication of Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth about Language by David Shariatmadari, I followed his advice and read the book. It may not be too late to cast a glance at that “surprising truth” even three years later.

Originally, the book was published in Great Britain by Orion as From Myths to Misunderstandings: How Language Really Works. It contained 288 pages. The American edition runs to 324 pages, but the text, I assume, remained intact. Among other things, the pragmatic Americans probably decided that the path “from myths to misunderstandings” looks uninviting as a commercial ploy and changed the title. Even so, Don’t Believe a Word (probably with the implication: “of what ignorant people say about language”) sounds rather puzzling. Not everybody may know that it is sometimes easier to write a book than to give it a good name. Think of such paltry titles as Maupassant’s Une vie or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The Idiot and À la recherche du temps perdu are certainly more memorable. Another difficulty is that when finally, a good title suggests itself, you may discover that a book bearing it already exists. Don’t Believe a Word also has at least one namesake!

The author is a professional linguist. As of 2020, he was a writer and editor at the Guardian. What little I know about him comes from the Internet and from what he chose to tell the reader about his life and education. I made no attempts to find reviews of his book, in order to compare my notes with those by other people. The author’s goal was to debunk numerous misconceptions about language. Therefore, the nine chapters are titled in a such a way as to suggest the opposite.

  1. “Language is Going to the Dogs” (read: “Language, though Always in a State of Flux, is Fine: Don’t Worry”)
  2. “A Word’s Origin is its True Meaning” (= “Nothing can be Farther from the Truth”)
  3. “I Control What Comes out of my Mouth” (= “Phonetic and Phonemic Change, Accent, and Aphasia”)
  4. “We Can’t Talk to the Animals” (= “Of Course we Can. However, Don’t Expect them to Talk Back”)
  5. “You Can’t Translate this Word” (= “Yes, You Can, but Every Language Creates its Own Context”)
  6. “Italian is a Language” (“On Languages and Dialects”)
  7. “What You Say is What You Mean” (= “Indeed, as Long as We Agree on the Meaning of ‘Meaning’”)
  8. “Some Languages are Better than Others” (= “Don’t Fool Yourself: Your Native Language is Always the Best”)
  9. “Language is an Instinct” (= “No, It is Not!”).

As we can see, there are misconceptions galore.

A most profitable discussion.
Photo via Pexels (public domain)

Shariatmadari faced the difficulties familiar to all the authors of books on language for the so-called popular audience. Such an audience does not seem to exist. At least in the United States, young people finishing school know practically nothing about grammar, phonetics, or the structure of the English vocabulary, let alone language history. Whatever you say to college students about those things is new to them. I doubt that even their teachers have been taught the history of English words, while grammar, as everybody has heard, is not “fun.” Neither is phonetics. Shariatmadari is of course aware of his potential readers’ level of expertise. Hence his occasional footnotes, explaining the meaning of some basic terms. I am saying all these things, not to criticize but to make clear that the book is for a prepared reader.

Chapter one shows that what most people take for decline in language is simply change (development), an unavoidable process, but it would have been useful to stress the fact that culture plays not an insignificant role in language history, because it often tends to slow down or even reverse change. Additionally, the smaller and the more isolated a speech community is, the more stable its language is. Chapter seven will be the most challenging one to an unprepared reader. To my regret, etymology is not among the topics that interested the author: chapter two is only about how drastically and unpredictably words change their meaning over the centuries.

Sheer delight, instinct or no instinct.
Photo via Pexels (public domain)

The book contains a lot of interesting and useful information, even though Shariatmadari’s conclusions do not depend on his independent research (they are rather the fruit of his extensive reading). In principle, the same holds for chapter nine on whether our capacity to acquire language is inborn (an instinct), but it is the only one in which the author faced a real opponent (Noam Chomsky), rather than a group of benighted amateurs. Chomsky believes in the existence of the language instinct, while Shariatmadari thinks differently. There are two problems here.

First: the existence of such an instinct cannot be demonstrated experimentally. It can be only postulated: if such an instinct does not exist, we (apparently) have no way to account for children’s ability to learn to speak and speak well at a surprisingly early age. This is of course begging the question (petitio principii).

Second: as mentioned above, the main proponent of the language instinct is Noam Chomsky, and according to the prevalent view, whatever Chomsky says must be correct. Objections and counterevidence do not matter, because most of today’s linguists are Chomskyans, and only their teacher is allowed to modify his views, which he, from time to time, does.

For decades, Chomsky’s followers have been counting angels on the head of this pin. With time, the number of angels has diminished (some of them have merged), but the pin and quite a few of its dreamed-up inhabitants remain. I advise those who will read Shariatmadari’s book to begin with chapters four (talking to the animals) and nine. Incidentally, Chomsky has always insisted that animals cannot speak (without this conclusion the idea of the inborn language instinct collapses), and here I am on his side: indeed, if animals could speak, they would have learned to do it long ago. I may add that the origin of language (why and when did people begin to speak, and what did they say to one another in the beginning?) remains one of the most controversial issues in the history of homo sapiens.

Otto Jespersen and Roman Jakobson: two great linguists not to be overlooked.
Left and right via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The book is definitely worth reading. Perhaps college students will gain most from it. They will learn a lot about language and come across many important names. I only resent countless phrases like “as the linguist Elizabeth Closs Traugott explains…” (p. 57: we do not need the reference to Traugott’s profession, especially because she was by far not the first to explain that the word toilet came to English from French) and regret that in the book, which discusses Wittgenstein in detail and once mentions Freud, neither Otto Jespersen nor Roman Jakobson appeared a single time. Reviewers are irksome people. Yet more important than finding fault is the fact that in this case, the proverbial ointment is in full view, and flies, well, flies are unavoidable and when not too pesky, should be overlooked.

Featured image: “The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Graham Elliott

    I read Don’t Believe A Word. It was not all bad. The section on the development of English/Anglish was entertaining; his account of Chomsky and Universal Grammar seemed even-handed. He likes his straw men, but not ‘exoticising’ language. In which case, better to stay at home and sort out the sock drawer.

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