Brain Pickings

Words on Words: Five Timelessly Stimulating Books About Language

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What single Chinese men have to do with evolution and insults from Virginia Woolf.

We love, love, love words and language. And what better way to celebrate them than through the written word itself? Today, we turn to five of our favorite books on language, spanning the entire spectrum from serious science to serious entertainment value.

THE STUFF OF THOUGHT

Harvard’s Steven Pinker is easily the world’s most prominent and prolific psycholinguist, whose multi-faceted work draws on visual cognition, evolutionary science, developmental psychology and computational theory of mind to explain the origin and function of language. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature reverse-engineers our relationship with language, exploring what the words we use reveal about the way we think. The book is structured into different chapters, each looking at a different tool we use to manage information flow, from naming to swearing and politeness to metaphor and euphemism. From Shakespeare to pop songs, Pinker uses a potent blend of digestible examples and empirical evidence to distill the fundamental fascination of language: What we mean when we say.

Sample The Stuff of Thought with Pinker’s fantastic 2007 TED talk:

THE SNARK HANDBOOK

In 2009, The Snark Handbook: A Reference Guide to Verbal Sparring became an instant favorite with its enlightening and entertaining compendium of history’s greatest masterpieces in the art of mockery, contextualizing today’s era of snark-humor and equipping us with the shiniest verbal armor to thrive as victor knights in it. Last year, author Lawrence Dorfman released a worthy sequel: The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition: Comebacks, Taunts, and Effronteries — a linguistic arsenal full of strategic instructions on how and when to throw the jabs of well-timed snark alongside a well-curated collection of history’s most skilled literary insult-maestros.

Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” ~ Mark Twain on Jane Austen

It’s a new low for actresses when you have to wonder what’s between her ears instead of her legs.” ~ Katherine Hepburn on Sharon Stone

I am reading Henry James… and feel myself as one entombed in a block of smooth amber.” ~ Virginia Woolf on Henry James

He was a great friend of mine. Well, as much as you could be a friend of his, unless you were a fourteen-year-old nymphet.” ~ Capote on Faulkner

Ultimately, the book is the yellow brick road to what, deep down, you know you always knew you were: Better than everybody else. (Read our full review here.)

KEYWORDS

Originally published in 1976 by legendary Welsh novelist and critic Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society offers a fascinating and timeless lens on language from a cultural rather than etymological standpoint, examining the history of over 100 familiar yet misunderstood or ambiguous words, from ‘art’ to ‘nature’ to ‘welfare’ to ‘originality.’

The book begins with an essay on ‘culture’ itself, dissecting the historical development and social appropriation of this ubiquitous and far-reaching semantic construct. It paints a living portrait of the constant transformation of culture as reflected in natural language. So seminal was Williams’ work that in 2005, Blackwell attempted an ambitious update to his text in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society.

IN OTHER WORDS

As beautiful as the English language may be, it isn’t without insufficiencies. C. J. Moore’s curates the most poetic of them — rich words and phrases from other langauges that don’t have an exact translation in English, but convey powerful, deeply human concepts, often unique to the experience of the culture from which they came. (For instance, in Tierra del Fuego there is a specific word — mamihlapinatapei — for that an expressive, meaningful romantic silence between two people. And in China, gagung literally means “bare sticks” but signifies the growing population of men who will will remain unmarried because China’s one-child policy and unabashed preference for male progeny has reduced the proportion of women.)

Witty and illuminating, the book covers 10 different types of languages spanning across various eras and locales, from ancient and classical to indigenous to African to Scandinavian, digging to find the precious meanings lost in translation.

I’M NOT HANGING NOODLES ON YOUR EARS

From researcher Jag Bhalla comes I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World — an entertaining piece of linguistic tourism, exploring how different cultures construct their worldview through the nuances of language.

The book is divided into different themes, from food to love to just about everything in between, that reveal specific cultural dispositions towards these subjects through the language in which they are framed.

And on a semi-aside, @hangingnoodles is a must-follow on Twitter, a treasure trove of interestingness at the intersection of science and culture.

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