the best language books I read in 2021

I am an inveterate life-logger. At the end of a calendar year, I like to review what I've done, what I've liked, what I've been grateful for, etc. This includes reviewing the books I've read. This year I've had the thought: why not do the languagey bits of that on this blog? So here we are.

In keeping with the life-logging, I take new year's resolutions very seriously. In 2021, I (uncharacteristically) made only one resolution: to read more books than I acquired. This was an attempt to counter two problems:
  • I have to do so much reading at work, I can lose sight of reading as a leisure activity.
  • I accidentally acquire a lot of books. 
It took active concentration to ensure I didn't acquire more books than I could read. I was careful not to mention any books to my loved ones, so as to not get any as birthday/Christmas presents (it almost worked). I (almost) only allowed myself to buy books that related to my current writing project. I only picked up books from neighbo(u)rhood giveaways (our neighbo(u)rs got very into sharing over lockdown) if they were books I could have imagined myself paying money for. 
I got a little serious about finding time for reading by (re)instituting 'family reading time' for 20 minutes after dinner each night and by having a two-person reading group with a friend as we slowly made it through one book together. (My friend is named Friend and we read a book called Friends together. It had to be done.) Family reading time went through better and worse patches. It got harder the later we had dinner—and the more 'normal' 2021 became, the later dinner got pushed by work and other activities. But the 20-minutes-per-day works well when it's working. 

In the end, I acquired 22 books: two that I count as 'reference' books (i.e. you wouldn't try to read them front-to-back), thirteen others about language, and the rest assorted non-fiction. Eight were free from publishers (for review, for inspection, or as payment for services), two were gifts and three were neighbo(u)hood (orig. AmE) freebies. So I bought 10 books. And kept myself from buying 100.
I read 21 books (not necessarily ones I acquired in 2021) and used both the reference books, so I'm cheatingly counting my 'read' count as 23. It's not the resounding success I wanted it to be, but I'm counting it as success. I'm renewing the resolution for 2022. 
I did more refereeing (peer-reviewing) this year than usual (including some for book manuscripts) and tons of article-reading for my book-in-progress and for a related new class I taught ("Small Words"). So, though my pile of to-be-read books has not shrunk, I've more than justified the investment in varifocal reading glasses.

That's the end of the accounting (BrE accountancy).

I'm going to start out with the best three books about language that I read in actual book form. Then I'll say something about two 2021 books that I read in manuscript and appreciated enough to provide a blurb for. Then I might tell you a bit about writing.

My best language reads of 2021

1. Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self Julie Sedivy (Harvard UP, 2021)

Let's start at the end of my year, with the book I've just finished. Julie Sedivy's Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self. Sedivy, a Czech-born and (mostly) Canada-raised linguist,  uses her personal experience as the starting point for exploring the psychological, social, and emotional aspects of being multilingual and of losing one's childhood language to attrition (then recovering it). 

I found this book absolutely perfect. The six long chapters (Death, Dreams, Duality, Conflict, Revival, Home) have none of the furniture that academic writers tend to lean on—like titled subsections,  blocks of quotation, and clunky referencing (though for those of us who want to see the research basis, the notes section is a treasure trove). Instead, the paragraphs just flow, phrase by gorgeous phrase. At one point, she's discussing her relationship with her Czech-speaking father or her French-speaking schoolmates, at another she's explaining fascinating studies on such subjects as how bilingual immigrants' languages interact with personality and memory. This includes the research supporting her observation that "it is healthy to be as hyphenated a citizen as possible, hazardous to be a cultural amputee." By the end, she's learning an indigenous language of Canada and witnessing firsthand the efforts made to revive dying languages, but only after returning to her father's home village to rekindle the language that had retreated from her as she grew up (with the help of relatives who were "about as fluent in spoken English as they were in spoken algebra"). Sedivy proposes the term homelanguage as a sister to homeland, since we live in our languages even when we or they have moved geographically.

The book is written with an empathy that never dumbs the subject down, but that constantly made (mostly monolingual) me think "I never thought of that. Of course it must feel that way." People who grew up with more than one language are likely to value the insights into the psychology of their multilingualism and the kinship across languages with other multilingual folk. But it's got to be even more valuable for those of us who grew up monolingual as part of a linguistic majority, letting us in on the meanings, consequences, and feelings of multilingualism and potentially complicating our views of what it means to know a language.

As I read Memory Speaks, I was surprised that it was a book from a university press. That probably means it's not going to be on as many bookshop or public library shelves as it should be. Please seek it out and read it. (I hope it's being translated into other languages. Especially Czech! I'm sure that would be an interesting challenge.)

Full disclosure: the publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book.

2. A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed my Brain and my Life by Lauren Marks (Simon and Schuster, 2017)

I bought Lauren Marks' A Stitch of Time in the hope that it would give me some interesting facts and (someone else's) anecdotes for the book I'm writing on now. And it did. But like Sedivy's book, it also gave me some inkling of what it would be like to have a different mind/brain than I have (and by extension, it gave me a greater awareness of how my own mind/brain shapes my experience). And like Sedivy's book, it is a tale and exploration of language loss and recovery.
The author was the subject of probably my favo(u)rite episode of The Allusionist podcast—which was how I learned about the book. Marks was 27 when a burst aneurysm deprived her of almost all language. The book tells the story of her linguistic (and personal) recovery—though perhaps rediscovery is a better word than recovery. The book is so well written that you might at times doubt that she still has aphasia (certainly, not to the same extent that she did at first), but then it might occur to you: perhaps her distance from English contributes to her vivid language, just as it contributes to her appreciation for its complexity and (related) silliness.

Months later, I'm still thinking about her description of her time without language or inner monologue. She calls it The Quiet and presents it in such appreciative detail that I had to fight feeling jealous of a brain injury.

Marks' website includes some of the journals she wrote in the early stages of recovery and shows how they were translated into the prose of the book. But read the book. It's wonderful.

3. Lingo: A Language Spotter's Guide to Europe by Gaston Dorren (Profile Books, 2015) 

In 2020, I bought, read, and loved Gaston Dorren's book Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, so when his Lingo showed up in a book-rehousing post on our neighbo(u)rhood Facebook page, I became the thorn in the poster's side, checking up repeatedly on when I could come collect it from her. (Thank you, dear book-rehousing person!) 
Dorren's two books have similar structures. Each chapter magnifies a corner of a particular language—a corner that makes that language particular. Babel counted down the 20 most spoken languages in the world, while Lingo tours 60 languages of Europe, including the big (English), the little (Gagauz), and the made-up (Esperanto). It also connects the languages to English, giving for each (where possible) an example or two of words English has borrowed from the language and words that English might do well to borrow—because it lacks such a word. I'll share here (from the publisher's website's sample) the Lithuanian links (PIE = Proto-Indo-European, the focus of the Lithuanian chapter):

Dorren is a polyglot who knows his way around a language but also knows how to describe the most abstruse grammatical issues in clear, engaging language for those without his language gifts. While great as a cover-to-cover read, Lingo (like Babel) is a book you could dip into now and again when you need a little lift. (I spent a lot of time in [BrE] car parks/[AmE] parking lots while medical waiting rooms were closed over during lockdowns. Served me well!)

Books I blurbed

I read manuscript versions of these very good books for which I was happy to provide a quote. I'm getting tuckered out at this point in this blog post, so I'm mostly just going to give the blurbs!


Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever by John McWhorter (Penguin, 2021)

“Call me old-fashioned, but goshdarnit this book has an in-freaking-credible shipload of fizzy information. McWhorter’s delicate linguistic ear is put to indelicate and delectable use in this deep dive into the linguistic muck.”

McWhorter's book covers some classic 'swearwords' (I particularly enjoyed the demonstration of taboo words becoming pronouns), but also the N-word, whose taboo status is soundly demonstrated by the necessity to circumlocute it.

Jumping Sharks and Dropping Mics: Modern Idioms and Where They Come From by Gareth Carrol (John Hunt, 2021)

"Gareth Carrol gives us an expert's tour of the hotspots where popular culture meets etymology. A rich dive into the wheres, whys, and hows of linguistic memes."

You'd be surprised how deep the stories go for very recent idioms. Great research!


Enough about reading. What about writing?

The blog has been rather silent for much of the year. This little burst of writing (Two posts in one week! Another planned soon!) is courtesy of a holiday/vacation made much less social/busy by the Covid in the air.

My writing energies these days are concentrated on the aforementioned book about 'small words'. I decided to write it as a challenge to myself, which is either a very good or a very stupid reason to write a book. I am enjoying it (as much as one can enjoy the very painful process of writing), but it is going much more slowly than the last book, since it's not on a topic I'd been blogging about for years.

The other main thing I accomplished in 2021(besides being head of department in crisis time, teaching new and old modules, living in a building site, and having a family life) was acclimating to my new (voluntary) job of editing Dictionaries: The Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America and getting two issues into publication.

Because of all that I've done little other writing—but for a few commissions:

One big help in 2021 was the opportunity to supervise students in work-placement positions in our department (a way of dealing with work placements while many businesses were shut down). I'm grateful to Tess Blakeway, for her help with book-related fact-checking and editorial work, and Summer Raselma for largely taking over my Difference of the Day posts on Twitter for a few months.


So that's my year in reading and writing. I do hope this post might direct some readers to the excellent books I've mentioned!


  1. Happy New Year! I do hope you will be able to blog a bit more next year, but obviously there are only 24 hours in a day!

    1. Happy New Year to you, Mrs Redboots! I'm hoping I'll be able to blog a bit more in spring/summer, as it's a much lighter teaching/admin time for me than autumn. Some other resolutions I'm reinvigorating for 2021 are: computer-free Saturdays and an hour of blogging on Sundays. Posts usually take me 2–4 hours these days, so that might mean a monthly post for a while—fingers crossed.

      This vacation/holiday has me thinking about how regularly I'd be blogging if I were retired. Let's hope blogs are still around in 11 years...

  2. This is my comment-catching comment!

    If you read any great language books in 2021, do let us know about them!

  3. There seem to have been no nominees for Word of the Year in the cake blog, so here's a late UK>US: "Full stop" which I've heard a lot in US media this year - note that it only applies to the sense of "This is how it is, no quibbling" and not to the dot at the end of a sentence, which is still a period - one of those semi-migrations that can happen sometimes.

    1. Thanks—I wrote in The Prodigal Tongue about Obama's fondness for it during his presidency and its use in US media, so I'm not sure that this is its year!

    2. Drat, I suggested that one last year. How quickly I forget.

  4. Happy New Year! Hope you will carve out some time to blog this year. Thanks for mentioning Sedivy's book. Looks like a must read for someone like me who's a terrible trilingual person. I speak, read and write three languages (English, Hindi and Tamil), all of them imperfectly. LoL

  5. The best language book I read last year was The Word Detective by John Simpson (published 2016), a memoir of his time as Chief Editor of the OED as it made the transition from the patched-up Second Edition to the Third Edition in progress, which is the first real revision since the beginning. I found myself having to read it with a supply of paper to hand so I could keep tearing off bits for bookmarks, as I kept exclaiming "Yes! Yes! Yes!" He's a great one for dry humor: "We find it's not unusual for the gentle reader to assume that the OED's first recorded quotation is the very first use of a term ever: to imagine that the expression AIDS was actually coined on 8 August 1982. If you ever find yourself thinking that, give yourself a sharp rap on the back of the head to return yourself to reality. In real life, that is just the earliest reference we have been able to find."

    Some of my favorite parts:

    * The magic of searchability: when the dictionary was first computerized, they discovered that they could find hundreds of new first uses of words within the dictionary itself, buried in quotations that were already there!

    * Simpson's celebration of democratisation: the broadening of source collection from not just canonized literature to everyday sources like newspapers, Plow Snowboarding Magazine, and Melody Maker. The great writers didn't create words out of nothing, they drew from the world around them.

    * Simpson's unending scorn for what he calls "petting-zoo" words, i.e., rare or strange words that appear only on lists of rare or strange words, not in actual use in the language. "Lexicographers are not people who 'love words'—at least, not in a schmaltzy, sentimental way," he says. (Lynne's "small words" are the opposite of petting-zoo words. Petting-zoo words are trivial to a lexicographer, small words like prepositions are challenging.)

    A must-read if you use the OED.

    1. That was on my 2020 list (which I published on my personal blog, not here). :) Great book!

      Here are my fave from last year's reading:

      Gaston Dorren's Babel. Beautifully structured tour of the 20 most-spoken languages of the world.
      Gretchen McCulloch's Because Internet. Really insightful on the everyday details of internet communication.
      John Simpson's The Word Detective. Autobiography by the former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Especially fun to read an autobiography in which I've met some of the 'characters'.
      Helen Sword's Stylish Academic Writing. Will be recommending it to postgrad students.

      Plus, in fiction: The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine


The book!

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)