Review: Linguistics: why it matters by Geoffrey Pullum

It's National Writing Day (for another 48 minutes) and I've reali{s/z}ed that I haven't written anything but emails and tweets today. So a blog post is needed. But a short one. Luckily, I have a very short book to review.

The book is the linguistic installation of Polity Press's 'why it matters' series, and it's by the exceptionally clear Geoff Pullum. Here come the full disclosures: I know Geoff and I got this book for free. But I wouldn't say nice things about the book if I didn't mean them. (I'd just save myself the trouble of writing a blog post about it.)

So, since it's by the exceptionally clear Geoff Pullum, this is an exceptionally clear book. It's just 120-something pages, divided into five themed chapters on why linguistics matters: for what it tells us about what makes us human, about how sentences work, how meaning, thought and language intertwine, how it uncovers social relations, and how it might help machines understand humans. I particularly admire Geoff's ability to write short sentences about complex topics. (That's lesson 1 in making things exceptionally clear—complex topics aren't helped by grammatically complex sentences!) The real value of the book is in the examples that show how linguistics does matter—for expanding human understanding, for uncovering and undoing prejudices, and in applications that can help people.

Here's the bit that I most enthusiastically underlined:
[T]o a large extent the importance of linguistics has turned out to lie not so much in the results it has achieved (those evolve over time and are often overturned or contradicted) but in the change in the general view of what's important enough to study. It lies in our moral evolution of our perception of what we should be looking at and what we should value. 
That leads into a discussion of the shift from thinking of signed languages as gesticulations to their recognition as complex languages that are as languagey as any other human languages. But I think it could have introduced many of the sections. I do believe that linguistics has done a lot of good in the world in the past 50 or so years, and a lot of that is about valuing people and their languages. Though the book is only long enough for a few examples of that, they're great examples.

The ideal audience for this book? I think it would make an excellent present from any students studying (or planning to study) linguistics to their parents. When your parents' friends ask them "What's your kid up to?" and they say "Studying Linguistics", the conversation usually DIES. Give them the gift of knowing how to talk up your fascinating studies! It'd also be great for anyone considering studying linguistics, or who just thinks: "That sounds like an interesting subject, but I don't quite know what it's for." (It's mostly not about translation or language teaching, by the way.)

Geoff blogged about writing the book, which you can read here.
Here's a link to the publisher's site. It's only giving me the UK buying links, but I hope that if you approach it from another country you'll get the appropriate page!


  1. I thought I recognised Geoffrey Pullum's name as a blogger on Language Log, but I'm not sure about that now; maybe an occasional guest blogger there? I notice from Pullum's notes about his book that he was a regular blogger on Lingua Franca, but that that is now defunct. I never followed Lingua Franca, but maybe I have been linked to posts by Pullum from other linguistics sites.

    1. Yes, you can find his Lingua Franca and Language Log posts at his website. (Or by clicking those links.)

    2. @Zouk Geoff used to post on Language Log fairly regularly (though he usually disabled comments). The last post I can find from him is this: from July 2017.

    3. Thanks for that, vp. Interesting post that, too. Ms Morris may have made an unfortunate choice of words, but the remark was on the money otherwise. Although GP didn't allow comments, there were plenty on the spin-off post.

  2. I imagine that a book like this would be of great value to students still at [high-]school who are fascinated by languages but have little or no idea of what linguistics involves and why it might be a good thing to study. I was such a student, long long ago, but didn't know what university study of languages might lead to, except (as you say) teaching or translation. I studied sciences instead because I knew that people could make a living as a scientist. Having said that, I don't think academic study of linguistics would necessarily have appealed to me, but sometimes I wonder idly about the road not taken.

    1. David, when I was at (the equivalent of) High School, I was interested in both languages and science. At the point (aged 16) when I had to choose three subjects to specialise in for Advanced Level General Certificate of Education (as was), I was advised by a teacher that I should go for sciences as it would be a lot easier to study languages independently later if I wished. I ended up going the science route, taking my BSc in Physics, which I never used, but soon after graduating went into Teaching English as a Foreign Language. I often wonder whether I would have done better to study Linguistics, a subject I had no idea even existed when I had to make the crucial decision.

    2. Zouk, my experience was very similar. I grew up in the UK and tried to include A-level German along with my A-levels in Physics, Maths and Chemistry. But it was not a combination the curriculum planners ever imagined anyone would try, and the scheduling was impossible.

  3. "It's only giving me the UK buying links, but I hope that if you approach it from another country you'll get the appropriate page!"

    Lynne: I clicked the link you supplied and I see the publisher is (the U.S.-based) John Wiley. When I clicked the Buy Now link it took me to a page that displays the U.S. price as $45 for the hardcover, $12.95 for the paperback, and a mere $8.99 for the ebook.

    1. BTW: Wiley appears not to be the U.S. publisher ... I'm guessing it's the U.S. distributor.

  4. I just ordered 3 copies through my local bookstore.

  5. When I checked out the ebook version on Amazon UK my attention was drawn to

    Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Won't Do as it's Told by Lane Greene (Author)

    Short, lively and thoroughly researched (TLS)


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