BEDSIDE TABLE: WORDS, WORDS, WORDS

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Robert Lane Greene, The Economist's international correspondent, picks his favourite books about language ...

From THE ECONOMIST online

Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist, currently covering American politics and foreign policy online. His book on the politics of language around the world, “You Are What You Speak”, will be published by Bantam (Random House) in the spring of 2011.

Monitors of language-usage are often seen as either scolds or geeks. Which book do you recommend to convey what is fascinating about language?

After years of reading about language for pleasure and then researching for my own book, I'd still refer anyone who asks back to the book that lit a fire for me a decade or so ago: Steven Pinker's “The Language Instinct” (written about by The Economist here). You can take or leave Mr Pinker's case that all human languages share a few common features, and that those features are wired into our grey matter (rather than, say, an extension of our general intelligence). But whatever your views on this subject, it's hard to read the book and then happily go back to seeing language as a set of iron-bound rules that are constantly being broken by the morons around you. Instead, you start seeing this human behaviour as something to be enjoyed in its fascinating variability.

Linguists study the way language works in the brain, and tend to leave condemnations of usage to grammarians. But is there a single English-language rulebook that you would prescribe?

Absolutely. It's a bit of a myth that linguists don't believe in rules (although “condemnation”, it's true, isn't really their style). But they believe in rules that are obeyed by the vast majority of speakers, writing or speaking naturally, not those invented by random rulebook writers in the 1700s. The best usage book in this spirit is Merriam-Webster's “Dictionary of English Usage”. This book is not merely an array of editorial hunches, but an empirical study of a wide range of common (and even a few uncommon) usage questions. Where there is a controversy the book is at its best, as it talks readers through the history of these rules. One learns, for example, that John Dryden used Latin as a guide when he condemned ending sentences with prepositions. But often these rules don't bear up under scrutiny; Merriam-Webster tends to cite great writers who break this or that “rule”. When ignoring the bans outlined by some cranky grammarians, it can be reassuring to be in the company of Shakespeare, the King James and George Bernard Shaw.

For a more traditional guide, try H.W. Fowler's “Dictionary of Modern English Usage”. Fowler was convincing and entertaining rather than authoritarian and angry, and a lifetime's lonely erudition (he was painfully shy) shows through on every page. Modern editions are more useful, having had some particularly grey-bearded entries removed and some additions made by subsequent editors. But older editions are fun; they show what raised the hackles a hundred years ago. For example Fowler condemned as “clichés” many phrases I'd never heard: “a curate's egg”, “neither fish, flesh nor good red herring”, and so on. I like to imagine a world in which “neither fish, flesh nor good red herring” was irritatingly common.

Half of today’s languages may be gone in a century. Is there a book that explains why we should care?

Unfortunately, I've tried and failed to find a utilitarian argument for preserving tiny languages. Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine failed to convince me with “Vanishing Voices”, which tied biodiversity to the preservation of endangered languages. They're right in that small groups that speak threatened languages often know things about plant and animal species that are lost when their lands are “developed” and they are absorbed into the larger community. But that knowledge isn't lost because the language is lost. It's lost because the way of life is lost. If a modest tribe moved to the city and took urban jobs, their knowledge of rare plants and so on would disappear even if they kept their language. By contrast, if their traditional way of life were preserved, they could start speaking the bigger metropolitan language and keep their knowledge. (Contrary to a common belief, most things are perfectly translatable.)

So the reason to keep languages alive is really just because they are an irreplaceable part of our common human heritage. Mark Abley's “Spoken Here” takes the reader on an enjoyable tour of threatened languages. It's a bit wide-eyed at times, but it's written by someone who just loves that there are so many ways to say things. The thought of a planet a thousand years from now where everyone speaks just a few languages, or just one, depresses me. It would be like replacing Angkor Wat with some new condos.

What’s next on your reading list?

I've just begun Nicholas Ostler's “Empires of the Word”. It's an omnivorous history of language and the rise and fall of civilisations. Rather than the traditional tour from Sumerian cuneiform to the Phoenician alphabet to the Greeks to the Romans to modern French and so on, it's filled with the detours and great languages of the past, now barely remembered. It reminds us that Aramaic was once the official language of the Persian empire; that Spain was once Celtic; that Cleopatra was really a Greek (though she also learned Egyptian, which was unusual), and so on. The Goths and Vandals make a mess of the Roman Empire next, but the last laugh is on them—most of them will become Romanized, eventually speaking Spanish, Italian and so on. As with any well-written history, I almost wish I didn't know how it turns out.

(Bedside table is a new weekly feature in The Economist online.)

Picture credit: misocrazy (via Flickr)