I fulfilled a long-time promise to myself in 2020. I went back to university to do the linguistics masters I never had the chance to do years ago. It’s been a journey (and still is!).
That said, as a long-time language nerd, I wasn’t going in completely blind. Like most linguaphiles, I love reading about languages, as well as learning them. Over the years, I’ve happened across a few pop linguistics titles that prepared the ground (little did I know then) for my return to uni. They’re accessible, fun reads, and nobody needs a formal linguistics background to enjoy them. Just a healthy interest will do. And whether or not you plan to take the same step as I did, they’ll all get you thinking about how languages work, and change, in whole new ways.
Without further ado, here are a few of my favourite pop ling books.
Nicholas Evans is an Australian linguist specialising in endangered languages. Dying Words is first and foremost his empassioned cry to recognise the value of every language to the library of human knowledge.
To drive the point home, he builds his arguments on solid research and extensive field experience; his expertise on Australian languages is worth the price of the book alone.
But it’s all written so accessibly, with each technical term or methodological aspect so carefully explained, that the book doubles as a kind of gentle introduction to historical linguistics. Linguistics primer gold.
This book is pretty special to me. It was the one that first got me thinking language change is cool!
In it, Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher tells the most fascinating stories about how words and grammar develop. The most lasting insight from this, for me, was that of the great churn of language change. It’s truly never-ending, as the results of yesterday’s changes provide the material for tomorrow’s. It’s quite the revelation how French has iterated and iterated from Latin hodie (today) to aujourd’hui – tautologically, on the day of this day.
If you like this one, it’s also worth checking out his Through the Language Glass.
Author Christine Kenneally takes perhaps the most speculative of linguistics topics – the evolution of language – and provides an exciting and compelling tour of scholarship in the field. A trained linguist herself, she now works as a journalist, and the combination of the two makes this a compelling pleasure to read. Even if you find the concept of language evolution too woolly and conjectural, the book is fantastic for simply prompting thoughts on what language is.
Despite being the only book on this list by a non-linguist (at least professionally), the author of The Adventure of English is nonetheless a sharp tool and very well informed – of course, none other than the legendary broadcaster and cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg. His book on the history of the English language, and the emergence of many different global Englishes, made a decent splash in the right circles, in any case. I’ve seen it recommended as pre-reading for a few different English linguistics courses, including a former Open Uni module. As you’d expect from a broadcast journalist, it’s pacy and entertaining – so much so that you might well finish it in a couple of sittings.
Books for Prep or Pleasure
So there you go – a handful of tips for some light linguistics reading. That goes for anyone interested in the field, whether for personal interest or uni prep. Also note that there’s not a Language Instinct in sight, although I do love that one, too. It’s just a bit too obvious as it remains ubiquitously recommended here, there and everywhere!
None of these are really academic texts, of course. Most are written in that chipper, journalistic style familiar from that close cousin to the field, pop science. But for that reason, they’re all a bit of a joy to read. I hope you enjoy them too.