Don’t Believe a Word
By David Shariatmadari Widenfeld and Nicolson, 336pp, £16.99/$26.95
Linguistics is a fascinating area of study, but an enormously challenging one to bring to a general readership, especially given how many British and American readers will be monoglots.
Then there’s the further complication that, for most native speakers, learning English is not something we do via intricate study of the inner workings of our language, but something we pick up first from our parents, and then (if we are lucky) have our understanding developed by teachers at school and university.
But David Shariatmadari’s new book, subtitled The Surprising Truth About Language, addresses this task with aplomb. As with all the best linguists, he is not a finger-wagger, but instead, alert to the latest developments in language and socio-linguistics, draws examples from current usage, as well as displaying a thorough knowledge of the work of his predecessors, most notably Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. His credentials are beyond question: this book is informed by his study of not only the inner workings of English, but also Arabic, Persian, Greek, phonology, semantics and general linguistics.
Shariatmadari wears his learning lightly, having sympathy for those who struggle with second languages. As he eloquently explains, the reason for this is that we learn our first languages even before we are born, picking up on sounds and words while we are still in the womb. Although he doesn’t go into this in any great detail, it is partly because we learn language in this way that most of us have insufficient understanding of how our own languages work.
Presenting examples of sentences spoken by children at various stages of early development, he explains how the rapid development of language skills has puzzled scientists and prompted theorists such as Chomsky to come up with the notion of “universal grammar”. Troubled by Chomsky’s more abstruse theories, Shariatmadari focuses instead on usage, wary of prejudice, folklore and received wisdom.
This is a necessary book, one that uses research to expand our understanding, and will be of particular interest to those who, like me, feel underexposed to this sort of analysis.
Throughout my comprehensive school education, there was very little attention paid to grammar or syntax, and it wasn’t until I took the history of the English language paper at Cambridge and later taught English as a foreign language that I got to grips with modal verbs and subject-auxiliary inversions.
Since then, there has been a swing back in the other direction and today’s students are far better versed in the building blocks of language. The almost superstitious worry that too much knowledge about the structure of sentences might inhibit natural creativity has thankfully been swept away, and while it’s easy to feel sympathy for the teachers forced to drill some of these ideas into students’ heads, few would now see inhibiting understanding as a positive choice.
Unusually, Shariatmadari is also alert to the theological dimension of language study, and the most fascinating parts of the book touch on religious questions. He notes that “the uniqueness of human language is so startling that it has been marshalled as an argument for the existence of God, and for our status as favoured beings”, and quotes from the Gospel of St John and Genesis. While you get the sense that he doesn’t necessarily agree with this argument, he treats it respectfully, as he does the larger mysteries that are hard to resolve by empirical analysis alone.
He also regards the Hebrew Bible as the starting point for Western understanding of language, exploring the implications of the story of the Tower of Babel across different cultures.
This approach clearly informs his ambivalence towards some of his predecessors. While he lightly chastises Chomsky for occasionally making assertions that merely seem true rather than being backed up by evidence, he presents the case of linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, seemingly as a warning about the potential dangers of getting too attached to the idea that studying language can help with theological questions. Whorf, he explains, was an “American fire-insurance engineer and sometime mystic who became interested in the structure of language because he thought linguists might be able to decode the Scriptures and reveal their hidden message.”
Shariatmadari is gently mocking about Whorf’s quest, suggesting that ultimately his romanticism, like that of other linguists, led him to absurdly grandiose conclusions.
The author is sceptical of “mysterious codes”, and while this occasionally makes his work a little simplistic in places, it’s clear this is a book for the general reader; in a final act of graciousness, he guides his readers to a large amount of additional reading, identifying his own work as a starting point for the curious.
Likely to be as successful as Lynne Truss’s Eat, Shoots and Leaves, this is the perfect gift for the lexophile in your life.