Language Matters: A Guide To Everyday Questions About Language, by Donna Jo Napoli and Vera Lee-Schoenfeld
As someone who reads a fair amount of material concerning the practical implications for linguistics , even if I am generally far more interested in the written language than the spoken one in my general life, this is the sort of book I am not surprised I came across. If this was a disappointing read, it was not so much for the questions that the authors dealt with but rather with their answers. Clearly, the authors and I are on opposite sides of a serious political and philosophical divide, and in our contemporary divided society I am simply not inclined to think highly of those on the other side of the line, nor to greatly value what they have to say. A lot of the social commentary of this book is simply rubbish and I lack the interest in viewing it any other way. That is not to say that this book is useless or without value, as there is always value in seeing how other people think, even when they are mistaken, but this book was not an enjoyable read and it certainly added nothing to the discussion, except for another voice on the side of descriptivist linguistics, with a sense of reverse snobbery for those who desire to maintain standards of decency within the discourse of the English language.
This mercifully short book of a little more than two hundred pages is organized in a set of socratic discussions based on fifteen questions divided into two parts. The first part deals with the human ability for language based on theorizing and studies and answers questions on language acquisition, what linguistics is, why is translation and learning a new language so difficult, the lack of one-to-one correspondence between language and thought, the legitimacy of sign languages as real languages, the limitations of language ability among animals, and the question of whether computers can learn language. The second part of the book deals with questions of language in society, looking at whether one person’s speech can be better than another’s, the differences between dialects and creoles from standard languages, the difference in speech between men and women and between people of different power relationships, the problems of spelling reforms as a way of improving literacy, the question of whether English should be the official language of the United States, the power that language has over us, the supposed lack of harm of offensive language to children, and what is lost when a language dies. The authors ask some good questions, although their answers are not particularly good.
Indeed, this book and others like it demonstrate the way that like the biblical plague of frogs political concerns enter into every facet of life, including linguistics. The authors, lacking a sound moral worldview, cannot help but parrot bogus views on language and its relationship to society because their defective worldview cannot provide them with any better ground on which to argue. One of the few creditworthy aspects of this book is the way the book speaks on behalf of the Deaf culture and its struggles with access to the knowledge and culture of the wider society. As someone with at least one Deaf friend at church who has at least a few people to talk to enthusiastically via American Sign Language, I am perhaps a bit unusual in being more interested in the deaf culture than most people would be. The authors’ thoughts on this culture are about the only worthwhile contribution they make to the question of linguistics, evidence that politics and especially the stridency of left-wing thinkers has poisoned our discourse on just about every area of discourse under the sun.
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