A Year in Reading: Languagehat

December 1, 2007 | 5 books mentioned 4 min read

Languagehat is a freelance editor in Hadley, Massachusetts.

This year I have two pairs of books to recommend, one pair on language and one on history.

coverThe subject I blog about, of course, is language, and this year I’ve read two books I can strongly recommend to anyone, The first is almost a decade old: Language Myths, by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. The format is simple and brilliant: have a bunch of linguists take a bunch of popular myths about language and deconstruct them, explaining why linguists look at the issue differently and what the facts of the matter are. Some of the myths discussed are “the meanings of words should not be allowed to vary or change,” “some languages are just not good enough,” “women talk too much,” “some languages are harder than others,” “some languages have no grammar,” “double negatives are illogical,” and “Aborigines speak a primitive language.” Obviously some sections are better written than others, but anyone who reads the whole book will have not a grounding in linguistic science but something more important for the average citizen: a basic grasp of how linguists think about language, and an understanding of why the silly ideas that irritate linguists so much are silly.

coverThe second book came out just this year: Michael Erard’s Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. Erard got a master’s degree in linguistics before going into journalism, and it shows; he’s one of the few reporters who consistently gets it right. He writes knowledgeably and with verve, packing in fascinating bits of information on each page; for instance, in talking about the “Freudian slip” he provides a detailed dissection of one of Freud’s most famous examples, the case of the young man who tried to quote a line from The Aeneid but left out a word – for Freud, an extremely significant slip that stemmed from the man’s fear that his lover was pregnant. Erard cites other researchers who point out that it can be analyzed as a perfectly normal speech error, and that if you take the Freudian attitude you could provide “insightful” interpretations no matter which word was left out. In Chapter 5 he gives “A Brief History of ‘Um’,” explaining that he started by assuming that the condemnation of “filler words” went all the way back to the ancients but found that it didn’t really begin until the 19th century (Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “Don’t strew the pathway with those dreadful urs” in 1846) and didn’t become popular until the 20th. He talks about Reverend Spooner (he who toasted Queen Victoria by asking for “three cheers for our queer old dean” and greeted a group of farmers as “noble tons of soil”), Thomas Edison (a recording of one of his public exhibitions of the phonograph is full of “uh”s), linguist Victoria Fromkin and her insistence on the importance of slips of the tongue, and all manner of other tidbits. If you’re looking for a present for someone who loves language, I can’t think of a more enjoyable one.

The other topic is Russian history, which has been obsessing me for a few years now. Having worked my way through World War One and the Revolution, I’ve gotten up to the Civil War, and two books I’ve recently read, taken together, provide a nicely stereoscopic view of that terrible period. The first is Vladimir N. Brovkin’s Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War: Political Parties and Social Movements in Russia, 1918-1922. I bought it a few years ago, but held off reading it until I had a basic overall picture (which I got from W. Bruce Lincoln’s Red Victory), because Brovkin goes into considerable detail. Other histories of the period tell you about armies sweeping back and forth over much of Russia, giving you a good sense of the destruction that was wrought but leaving you wondering why exactly it was happening and what it was like for the people caught in the middle. These are Brovkin’s questions, and his focus on the changing political climate in the cities and provinces, resulting from and contributing to the often viciously counterproductive policies of the occupying regimes, Communist and anti-Communist, gives convincing answers and provides a framework that helps the reader understand the war as something other than one damn massacre after another.

Like any historian, of course, Brovkin is trying to give an overall picture, no matter how many details he provides; furthermore, he looks primarily at the regions overrun by competing armies, pretty much ignoring life in Petrograd (which of course remained in Communist hands). This gap was filled for me by a remarkable memoir I happened on in a bookstore, having never seen a reference to it: E.M. Almedingen’s Tomorrow Will Come, originally published in 1941 and reissued in 1968. Miss Almedingen, who became a children’s book author after she moved to England in 1922, spent the period of revolution and war in Petrograd, increasingly preoccupied with simple survival and ignorant, like almost everyone, of what was going on outside their immediate neighborhood. One striking result of this is that she doesn’t even mention the October Revolution; she skips directly from the revolution of February 1917 (after which “never again in Russia was I to see water running from a tap in any house I lived in”) to the spring and summer of 1918 and rumors of the peace of Brest-Litovsk. Her account of being driven from one shelter to another, increasingly shabby and tenuous, of the deaths of people she loved, of appalling cruelty from some strangers and courageous aid from others, is riveting. Her family is odder than most (her father was a famous professor who deserted the family when she was a child, her mother considered herself an Englishwoman and wanted her daughter to go to Oxford, her aunt lived in Paris and considered herself French) and as a result she takes an oddly outsider view of what was happening, but that in itself makes it easier for an outsider to see it through her eyes, and her infallible eye for the telling detail and vivid memories of childhood experiences (like the annual Lenten fair on the Horse Guards Boulevard) make it an unforgettable read.

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is a retired freelance editor in Hadley, Mass.; he is coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, a collection of international curses and insults, and sole proprietor of the blog languagehat.com.

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