The Linguist

The Linguist 58,2-June/July 2019

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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Page 26 of 35

@Linguist_CIOL APRIL/MAY The Linguist 27 REVIEWS Geoffrey Pullum begins with an operational definition of natural human languages and then sets out reasons why the scientific study of them matters. Each language consists of "structured systems for making articulated thoughts fully explicit". Linguistics is the study of "all components of such systems, together with the ways in which they are used". The Professor of General Linguistics at Edinburgh University worked early in his career with Desmond Derbyshire, a field linguist and missionary, who discovered an Amazonian language, Hixkaryana, that used object-verb-subject as the default in transitive clauses. This order was not believed to exist and we now know that object-initial languages are found almost entirely in the remotest parts of South America. Discoveries such as these enrich our knowledge of language typology, and benefit human geography, anthropology and cognitive neuroscience. Language specialists and linguists also bring clarity to the legal domain. In 2018, a US court awarded $5 million to 127 drivers in a claim that rested on the assertion that the last item in a list of exemptions for entitlement to overtime did not apply to them. Linguistics: Why it matters Geoffrey K Pullum Polity 2018, 140 pp; ISBN 978- 1509530786 Paperback, £9.99 The company counterclaimed that this element was separate to the preceding items in the list. The absence of the asyndetic 'and' before the last item, as well as the ambiguous 'or', created a confusion that kept many lawyers in work for a long time. Readers who use Alexa (other virtual assistants are available) may wonder to what extent, if any, it understands requests. Such devices are proficient at recalling keywords from previous commands and searches, thus enabling the appropriate machine response to be produced. Difficult conversational gambits can be dealt with by an 'Easter egg' (e.g. Q. 'Do you believe in God?' A. 'I eschew theological disquisition'). Limitations aside, voice- recognition technology benefits from phonetic and phonological data, progressing in a way that grammar-checking technology has not. For example, Microsoft Word often mistakenly 'corrects' the verb form following an extended subject because its parsing algorithm is inadequate, leading Pullum to comment: "I find it an almost completely useless tool." Hear, hear! In Linguistics: Why it matters, he has delivered an entertaining and justificatory stocking filler. Strong on machines, meaning, the mechanics of grammar and translatability, it is less good on black urban slang, and I detected a slight tendency to create a strawman argument when it suited. Graham Elliott MCIL The central thesis of Talk on the Wild Side: The untameable nature of language is that language, by its very nature, is an erratic and volatile creature and any attempt to tame it will be doomed to failure. The author therefore sets out to rebut the efforts that have been made over the centuries by 'language tamers' to place a straightjacket on human speech: prescriptive grammar, logical languages, rules-based computer processing, politically controlled prose and so on. He provides concise explanations of these and other matters together with examples of the specific issues they involve. Concerning the age-old dispute over prescriptive versus descriptive grammar, for instance, the author discusses whether or not 'whom' is still worth clinging on to and whether there is any sense in respecting outdated rules prohibiting the 'split infinitive', 'singular they' etc. In a fascinating chapter on language change he uses the examples of 'buxom' and 'nice' to illustrate how meaning can be transformed in completely unpredictable ways through a process of linguistic evolution which, despite the misgivings of language purists, is both natural Profile Books 2018, 240 pp; ISBN 978- 1781258064 Hardback, £14.99 and unstoppable. Greene also challenges traditional ideas about right and wrong usage, arguing that instead of focusing on rigid notions of correctness we should take the question of register into account when judging whether a given phrase or term is appropriate (the 'normal' versus 'formal' approach). He readily acknowledges that to ensure mutual comprehension it is necessary to have a standard version of a language (e.g. US English) and that children should be taught its specific rules. However, it is equally important for children to know that this standard version is not intrinsically superior to their own dialect, but is just more appropriate and useful in certain contexts. In lively and incisive prose, Lane Greene covers an extraordinary range of topics in a relatively compact volume and illustrates his arguments with references to illustrious thinkers, both past and present, ranging from Samuel Johnson to Steven Pinker. He even finds time for a few quotes from Donald Trump in a chapter on the manipulation of speech for political purposes. As an editor and columnist at The Economist, this is an area on which he is particularly well informed. "This book is a love-letter to language," Greene tells us in the introduction. It certainly is, and the author's passion for his subject shines through on every page of this entertaining and informative work. Ross Smith MCIL Talk on the Wild Side Lane Greene

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