Book Week 2019: David Shariatmadari's Don't Believe a Word

Welcome to the third review post of Book Week 2019. In the intro to Book Week 2019, I explain what I'm doing this week. In the end, there will be four posts. I thought there would be five, but one of the books has (orig. BrE) gone missing. Having had a day off yesterday, I will also have a day off tomorrow, so the final review will appear during the weekend. Probably.

Anyhow, today's book is:

Don't believe a word
the surprising truth about language

by David Shariatmadari
Norton, 2019 (N America)
W&N, 2019 (UK/RoW)


David Shariatmadari writes for the Guardian, often about language, and is one of the sensible journalists on the topic. The number of sensible journalists writing about language has really shot up in the past decade, and judging from reading their books, this is in part because of increasingly clear, public-facing work by academic linguists. (Yay, academic linguists!) But in Shariatmadari's case, the journalist is a linguist: he has a BA and MA in the subject. And it shows—in the best possible way. 

The book is a familiar genre: busting widely held language myths. If you've read books in this genre before, you probably don't need these myths busted. You probably know that linguistic change is natural, that the border between language and dialect is unfindable, that apes haven't really learned sign languages, and that no form of language is inherently superior to another. Nevertheless, you may learn something new, since Shariatmadari's tastes for linguistic research and theories is not always on the same wavelength as some other books directed at such a general audience.

Once again, I'm reviewing with a partial view of the book (this is the practical law of Book Week 2019). In this case, I've read chapters 1, 5, and 9 and skimmed through other bits. The introductory chapter gives us a bit of insight into Shariatmadari's conversion to full-blown linguist, as a reluctant student of Arabic who was quickly converted to admiration for the language and to the study of language as an insight into humanity. "It's not hyperbole to say that linguistics is the universal social science", he writes. "It intrudes into almost every area of knowledge."
UK cover

I chose to read chapter 5 because I'd had the pleasure of hearing him talk about its topic at a student conference recently: the popularity of "untranslatable word" lists. Goodness knows, I've contributed to them. What I liked about the talk was his detective work on the words themselves—some of the words and definitions presented in lists of 'untranslatables' are practically fictional. And yet, those of us who don't speak the language in question often eat up these lists because of our ethnocentric need to exotici{s/z}e others. This leads inevitably to discussion of linguistic relativism—the notion that the language you speak affects the way you think—and the bad, old (so-called) evidence for it and the newer evidence for something much subtler. The chapter then goes in a direction I wasn't expecting: introducing Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM), an interesting (but far from universally taught) approach to meaning that uses about 65 semantic building blocks to represent and compare meanings across languages. NSM adherents make the case that few, if any, words are truly equivalent across languages. But while any word in one language may have no single-word equivalent in another language, that doesn't mean those words are untranslatable. It just means that translating them can be a delicate and complicated thing.

US cover
The final chapter (9) takes the opposite view to David Adger's Language Unlimited (in my last review), and argues that the hierarchical (and human-specific) nature of linguistic structure need not be the product of an innate Universal Grammar, but instead could arise from the complexity of the system involved and humans' advanced social cognition. While Adger had a whole book for his argument, Shariatmadari has 30-odd pages, and so it's not really fair to compare them in terms of the depth of their argumentation, but still worth reading the latter to get a sense of how linguists and psychologists are arguing about these things.

Shariatmadari is a clear and engaging writer, and includes a good range of references and a glossary of linguistic terminology. If you know someone who still believes some language myths, this might be a good present for them. (Though in my experience, people don't actually like getting presents that threaten their worldview. I still do it, because I care more about myth-busting writers earning royalties than I care about linguistic chauvinists getting presents they want.) It would also make an excellent gift for A-level English and language students (and teachers) and others who might be future linguists. After they read it, send them my way. I love having myth-busted students.

2 comments

  1. I love your final comment about presenting myth-busting books to people who believe the myths - I'd never really thought about the fact that it's probably those of us who are more open-minded and flexible that devour these books! I will certainly keep an eye out for this one. What a lovely series this has been - thank you!

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AmE = American English
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