Monday, August 3, 2009

Language about language

Somehow or other, I seem to have come by a small collection of books about language. All have been sitting on my shelves unread for quite some time, but I feel it's time for a bit of nonfiction and so I have decided to read one of them.

I love historical linguistics. I would be seriously considering studying linguistics in college, except that I hate the bits of it that sound like science. Mostly language interests me on a historical and societal level. Three of these books are about historical linguistics, though for the most part treated in a less academic-sounding way. Two are about English, one about French.

The Story of French, by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, I bought last year on sale in the bookstore of Reed College in Portland. I started reading it, though I didn't get very far and stopped, but it was certainly interesting. The authors are Canadian, one of them French Canadian and the other having learned French in college in Montreal. The book begins with the origins of French in Latin, and will no doubt be fascinating to me when I get around to it.

The next two books in this collection have amusingly similar titles, though from what I can tell, slightly different topics. They are Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling, by David Wolman and The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way, by Bill Bryson. The first of these I have in uncorrected proof form, which suggests that my mother brought it home from work, but I have no idea where the other one came from. Righting the Mother Tongue seems to focus mostly on the various quirks of English spelling (which admittedly form rather a large topic, being very quirky). The Mother Tongue looks more comprehensive (and has frighteningly tiny print), but similarly fun.

The last book of this collection (though I have a suspicion I have more floating around which could be added) is The Ode Less Travelled, by, interestingly, Stephen Fry. This is a bit different from the other books, as it is not about linguistics, but poetry. It is a guide to understanding poetry and its various forms and terms, though given the author I suspect it's rather funny. I like poetry and read it somewhat regularly, but I do confess myself fairly unfamiliar with the names for things.

You are reading this, so evidently you like reading about reading, but do you read about language? I find it fascinating, and have read several books on the subject. Simon Winchester's Oxford English Dictionary-related books come to mind, and I once read a thick textbook-like thing all about historical linguistics. One often doesn't stop to thing of the individual parts of a word, or what it means more literally than its accepted meaning, so I like being reminded of this, and learning new facts about it. And I'd definitely be on the lookout for new books on linguistics, if anyone has any to recommend.

I need a new bus book (requirements: smallish paperback, need not keep itself open as the house book must to be read at meals), and one of these is destined to be it. I'm afraid The Story of French and The Ode Less Travelled are both ruled out as being too large and heavy, so it's between the mother tongue duo. I'm thinking it'll be Bill Bryson's take on the matter.

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