My pop culture assignment from Kate is to delve into her world as a linguist. Linguistics has been referred to as a social science. What does that mean exactly? The first book, What Language is by John McWhorter was more of the scientific side of the linguistics, explaining what they look for when they study languages. How languages are built and how they became to be and continue to develop. The Last Speakers is the social side of linguistics by discussing why the study of languages are important to understanding who we are and the world around us. Both aspects are important to discover how we communicate to each other. K. David Harrison set out to study endangered languages because the knowledge of the natural world they contain that we have lost by no longer speaking them. He learns from indigenous people words that describes the world around us. How they can speak or sing to animals to get them do what they need them to do. Plant life that are now extinct. Medicinal methods that have vanished in the wake of modern medicine. If we lose these last speakers we lose more than just a language being spoken. We lose a great deal of our own knowledge of our world that we will never get back. The book reads like a travel memoir as he details his work around the globe but it’s also a plea to the world to not abandon these languages. He and his team document these languages and do everything then can to keep these languages alive long after the last speakers pass away but also bring to light new or remembered words of our past. I like that he isn’t to be the white savior. He goes to observe and document and help where he can. He defers to the people in how they want to documented. Not all people want their languages to be shared with outsiders and he understands their reasoning without judgment. It’s their language and culture and they should have the final say on who gets to know it and learn it. It was an interesting book, with some great stories and I’m fully support more documentation of last speakers from all over the world. We have so much more to learn.
I’m already into this book from the description of half travelogue and half journal.
This summer, I am sharing with Beth something that has been a passion and a profession for me: the study of language. At the end of the month, I will defend my dissertation. If it all goes well, I will have a PhD in linguistics. Language and its study have been a huge part of my life for a long time now, but the details of it haven’t really been something that I have shared with my family. I know that they know what I do, but I worry that they find the discussion of it way too boring. To be honest with you, coming up with this list felt a little self-indulgent and unfair. (So much so that I have a back up assignment, in case she protests and boycotts this one.) But, I love the work that I do and find it exciting, so I have decided to share a little bit of general linguistics with my sister (and anyone who wants to join the challenge!) this summer. The four books I have picked are half non-fiction and half fiction (huge hat-tip is Jessi Grieser on twitter for asking for book suggestions and Gretchen McCulloch for this blog post! It helped me pick the fiction on this list!).
- What Language Is: and What it isn’t and what it could be by John McWhorter
John McWhorter has written a number of pop science on language and I’ve found them to be quite enjoyable. I haven’t read this one, but the reviews suggest that it will be a good introduction to what linguistics is, while also providing some fun trivia about language.
2. Left hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
I couldn’t resist adding an Ursula K. Le Guin book to the list following our read along last February. Le Guin uses language in interesting ways in this novel. I look forward to hearing Beth’s thoughts on the book, after having read McWhorter’s thoughts on language.
3. The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison
Depending on how you count, there are between roughly 6,000–7,000 languages in the world. For many of them, the possibility that they will still be spoken in one hundred years is slim. This book highlights that and brings attention to speakers of some vanishing languages.
4. Embassytown by China Miéville
Language is at the center of my final selection. Living figures of speech, a unique language humans must be modified to speak. Danger! Catastrophe! Hard choices! So fun. I can’t wait for her to read this.
In fact, I can’t wait to hear what Beth thinks about all of them!