Linguists at work
Reading Anatoly Liberman's Word
Origins ...and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone
University Press, 2005) has brought me back to some unfinished Language
Log business from long ago, a 2004
about books that "could give a potential linguist some sense
of what it's like to be a linguist, to do linguistics".
Back then I said:
I found this a surprisingly difficult
question. Not-bad introductions to linguistics aren't hard to come by,
and there are some pretty good surveys of what has (or, actually, had)
been done in the field: some of the chapters in Shopen's set Language Typology and Syntactic Description
and in Newmeyer's Cambridge Survey
of Linguistics, for example. But such works present the product
of doing linguistics, not the activity.
For a feel for what it's like to do syntax, maybe Green & Morgan's Practical Guide to Syntactic Analysis.
For a sense of what it's like to do fieldwork and to discover something
about the structure of a language, the two Shopen volumes Languages and Their Speakers and Languages and Their Status.
And for thought-provoking reasonably brief essays, the two books that I
most often give to non-linguist friends who are interested in language:
Bauer & Trudgill's Language Myths
and, especially, Pullum's Great
Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.
Then some weeks ago a correspondent who was working his way through the
Language Log archives from the very beginning wrote to ask if I had
ever answered the question (alas, no), and right after that my copy of
Liberman's etymology book arrived.
So let's start with the Liberman book, which I think is wonderful at
showing, in detail, how word histories are uncovered (or, as is often
the case, not). Along the way you get a lot of fascinating
etymologies, plus accounts of sound symbolism, borrowing, sound change,
semantic change, comparative reconstruction, and much more. You
should carry away an appreciation of just how HARD
etymology is, what an immense store of background knowlege is required
to do it well, how provisional many of the histories are, and how much
of history is probably not recoverable at all.
The whole book might be a bit much for some readers, but chapter 13 ("A
Retrospect: The Methods of Etymology") gives a nice summary, and the
two chapters that follow, on sound change and semantic change,
illustrate well the etymologist in action. The enormously
entertaining chapter 16 ("The Origin of the Earliest Words and Ancient
Roots") could, I think, be read on its own.
Now back to the 2004 question and replies to it. Several people
seconded my nomination of The Great
Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax
. But two suggestions dominated the
responses I got: Steven Pinker's The
(which won Pinker the first Linguistics,
Language, and the Public Award from the LSA in 1997) -- I can't imagine
how I could have left this book off my list -- and Language Log
itself. (Remember: unlike Steve, we offer a full money-back
policy to anyone who's dissatisfied with the services we provide.)
And now some of our stuff has been published in Far from the Madding Gerund
on front page, and buy the book!).
Adam Parrish nominated Thomas Payne's Describing
, saying: "It provides an outline for a
morphosyntactic description of a language and instructions on how to
fill in the details. It's billed as a guide for fieldworkers, but
I just like to read it and marvel at how languages are simultaneously
diverse and similar."
And Matt Post suggested, for computational approaches to language, the
first few chapters of Daniel Jurafsky & James Martin, Speech and Language Processing: An
Introduction to Natural Language Processing, Computational Linguistics,
and Speech Recognition
Some further suggestions that have occurred to me: Pinker's 1999 book Words and Rules: The Ingredients of
, which shows an experimental psycholinguist grappling
with a lot of messy details about language, in particular about
inflectional morphology; George Miller's 1977 Spontaneous Apprentices: Children and
, in which you get to watch Miller and Phil
Johnson-Laird struggle to do research on child language acquisition;
and Miller's 1991 The Science of
, about all things having to do with words, with much
discussion of experimental work. Miller is an especially engaging
writer, by the way.
Finally, Mark Liberman recommended a very different sort of writing,
fiction with linguist characters:
None of these are by linguists. All of
them involve sympathetic central characters who turn out to be better
at analyzing the structure and content of exotic languages than the
structure and content of their own lives.
Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life
, discussed here
Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow
, discussed here
Malcolm Bradbury's Rates of Exchange
, discussed here
(There's quite a lot of fiction with linguists in it, but these are
works in which you get to see some actual linguistic analysis being
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 8, 2006 01:26 PM