Reading. We all do it at some point in our language learning. But what about reading about language? In this post, I’m sharing 10 inspiring books about language and linguistics that I’ve loved and I think you will too.
The most recent language book I’ve finished at the time of writing, The Etymologicon is a wonderfully flowing book. So often with books about a topic that can take you in all sorts of directions (I’m looking at you etymology), they do just that: takes you in all directions. That’s not the case with this book.
Each short chapter leads intriguingly into the next. At times it’s a little like listening to someone you just met at a party talk about something they’re passionate about and just letting them keep talking.
However, those moments are rare and generally, it is an enjoyable book.
One of my absolutely favourite books ever. I remember buying this many years ago and it deepening a budding curiosity into languages beyond what my school had to offer me.
It’s one of those books that you can dip in and out of easily with short chapters made up of already short expressions, idioms and words that have sometimes bizarre meanings when translated back into English.
If you love this as much as I do, the good news is that there’s also a second book called Toujours Tingo.
It’s amazing how many times I find myself saying to people “Have you read Through The Language Glass?”.
That goes some way to credit just how well Guy Deutscher covers the commonly asked language queries we never knew we talked about so often in this book.
Queries such as ‘do people speaking different languages see colour differently?’, ‘how about direction?’, ‘and how is gender perception affected by language, if at all?’.
It’s a really interesting and relatively engaging book, and although it is a tad on the academic side, it’s more accessible than most.
I purchased this roughly around the same time as Tingo. The only difference is that rather than intentionally buying this one, I stumbled upon an old version of it in a charity book shop.
This is another you can dip in and out of. Although it does have a slight (read: not so slight) academic edge on Tingo, it is still easy to open on a new page each time and find something new to enjoy and learn about.
I referenced this a lot during my English linguistics course I did as part of my language degree.
You know what they say about New York, right? So good they named it twice.
Well this book must be so good I got gifted it twice. Either that or people just know me very well.
Lingo is a great voyage across the languages of Europe, known and not so known. From Karaim to Catalan and Swedish to Shelta you’re bound to learn something new…and want to learn a whole new bunch of languages when you’re done.
This is a curious book! I didn’t actually buy this one – Ashley did. When you become a primary school teacher here in the UK, Michel Rosen basically becomes your go-to guy for all things English and SPAG (that’s Spelling Punctuation and Grammar to the rest of us). So when Ashley became a teacher, he got this. And then I read it first.
Michel Rosen takes a fresh approach here and focuses on one letter of the English alphabet per chapter. Of course, by default, that does mean that from time to time it ventures towards other languages, and the A-z alphabet isn’t just used for English so it’s a worthy read if you have even a smidgen of curiosity about why we write and read the letters we do.
I picked this one up in a second-hand bookshop in Montreal after NAPS. If you’re curious about threatened languages, you’ll love this as much as I did.
This one is written as more of a travelogue, which makes for a break from the sometimes dry writing on such an important topic. Mark Abley, the author shares stories from his travels learning about languages such as Manx, Yiddish and languages in Northern Australia.
If you’re a sucker for a short chapter (like me), you’ll also love that the main chapters alternate with shorter chapters too.
No doubt you’ve seen some images from this book online already. Ella Frances Sanders has combined them all in her first book, Lost in Translation. It’s what you might call a coffee table book – ideal for showing visitors just how cool (and beautifully illustrated) language can be.
Ella Frances Sanders has also written a second book, Speaking in Tongues – Curious Expressions from Around the World. Whereas Lost in Translation focuses on being ‘An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words’, the second is (as you might have guessed from the title) about expressions.
Another one for your coffee table to show off just how much you love language, you’re also likely to have seen James Chapman’s work online. He’s the guy behind those too cute to boot images of how we say odd little words in different languages, as is demonstrated in the title of one of his books: How to Sneeze in Japanese.
He’s also the author of Soundimals, an illustrated guide to the sounds animals make in other languages, and When Frogs Grow Hair, a collection of doubtful phrases. So you can stop saying ‘when pigs might fly’ and get a little more creative taking some inspiration from how other languages do it.
The best deal here is to buy the 3 book bundle, which also gets you a free set of postcards and a wax seal.
I tried. I really tried to have just one book by David Crystal on this list but when you could fill the list with 10 books by one guy, I think 2 isn’t so bad.
How Language Works is a book I keep coming back to over the years to read a little more each time. David Crystal has a wonderful way of talking about language. He makes you feel included in the conversation, and if you’ve never read anything by him before, How Language Works is a great starting point.
So there we go. 10 inspiring books about language and linguistics. If you’re feeling a little like this language malarkey is all way too crazy right now, take some time away from your textbook and re-inspire yourself with one of these gems. Enjoy!
Have you read any of these? What did you think? Any favourites you’d include on your list? Share in the comments!