I’ve got a confession to make. I love pop science books. Sometimes, as an academicky type, I wonder whether I should, as there are so many interesting hard-core research articles and weighty tomes to read, and so little time. But actually, there are some good reasons to read pop linguistics books, even if you are a linguist. I’m talking here mostly about books written by academics for a general audience, rather than those sometimes poorly researched compendiums that adorn bookshop tables in the run-up to Christmas. Here are my top 3 reasons to read linguistics books aimed at a general audience, and top book recommendations for this week.
1. Broaden your horizons. Poking your head out from your own research nook and finding what’s going on in other crannies is not only interesting but can spark new ideas and make you aware of connections you hadn’t previously seen. And what better way of doing that than with a book you can relax with on the beach, in the bath, or under the bedsheets.
2. Get the bigger picture. At least in my neck of the linguistic woods, developments tend to be announced in journal articles and conference papers rather than books, and therefore are often very tightly focussed. It’s so easy to get bogged down in experiment methodology, stimuli, or statistics. A book helps you to see the wood for the trees, especially one that’s written for non-specialists and so has a strong narrative thread or polemic stance.
3. Be inspired. Some academics I’ve met seem to find the idea of public engagement ridiculous or unnecessary. I wonder whether it’s because there’s an implicit threat that ‘your research isn’t worth anything, unless you package it up so it’s useful to some other community, right now!’ But reading great pop science books makes it so clear that that’s not the case at all. Of course, research work has its own value, and this goes hand-in-hand with communicating it far and wide.
On my bookshelf:
1. The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker
Every linguistics undergrad comes up to university equipped with some Steven Pinker. Usually it’s The Language Instinct that transforms every young reader from an intuitive Sapir-Whorfian to a fully-formed nativist. But, being a pragmatician myself, I would commend this later work, which unpacks some key themes in semantics and pragmatics, while being full of delightful and witty examples.
2. Neurotribes, Steve Silberman
This isn’t strictly about language per se, but it still makes the cut. It’s a history of thinking and research on autistic spectrum disorder – which of course can profoundly affect communication and language – and for those of a younger generation for whom the condition is now common parlance, this book is truly eye-opening. I would never have thought that a whole chapter on the development of a diagnostic tool could be a page-turner, but this book kept me up late on several occasions.
3. Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough
Another not-quite-language offering: this book is about memory. And of course, without memory we have no language. Written by a psychologist-cum-author, it’s a beautiful introduction to the wonderful, mysterious world of our memory, and the tragedy of losing it. Psycholinguistics classes are often filled with mysterious initials, like ‘JBR’ and ‘MD’ – famous case studies of aphasia, where the person has lost some aspect of language (which can be as broad as productive syntax, or as narrow as words for particular categories like vegetables), often as the results of a stroke or other brain damage. But the focus on the – admittedly fascinating – insights this gives us into language itself can make us forget the tragic consequences for these people’s lives. This book is a moving reminder.
4. Speaking Our Minds, Thomas Scott-Phillips
This is a beautifully – and forcefully – argued treaty on how human communication is so special. Scott-Phillips explains how when we talk with one another, we’re not just doing encoding and decoding, like a machine, but a complex process of inferencing about each other’s intentions. These kind of observations have been very influential in one of the main areas of linguistic study – pragmatics – over the last half century, and this book also adds an evolutionary perspective (though disclaimer: I haven’t read those chapters yet).
5. Wordsmiths & Warriors, David and Hilary Crystal
There had to be something from our British resident celebrity linguist on the list. There are too many books to choose from here, but a fun recent(ish) addition is this linguistic guide to UK, complete with photos. The entries are varied – they could be about a place with some significant connection to the history of English, the location of an important historical linguistic source, the home of some important linguistic work – and complete with photographs.