Book Review: Don’t Believe A Word

Don’t Believe A Word: The Surprising Truth About Language, by David Shariatmadari

It would be best, in fact, to believe very little from this author about language. This book basically consists of various attempts on the part of the author to provide truths about language and to explode language myths. As is frequently the case, though, the author’s efforts to do so are hindered by the fact that his political agendas get in the way. And like all people of his ilk when it comes to languages, there are clear contradictions that the author is not honest enough to address. For example, like many contemporary linguists, the author appears highly sensitive to the idea presented by some that some languages are better than others, which has caused a problem when one deals with pidgins or creole languages and with various vernacular dialects. On the other hand, the author also notes that some languages do appear to be more unsafe than others, like Finnish relative to Swedish, in part because of the way that certain languages draw attention to various matters of process that others do not, which would indicate that in essential and important areas some languages are in fact better than others, which would undercut the political aims of the writer, something he could have thought more seriously and more honestly about.

This book is between 250 and 300 pages and it is divided into nine chapters. The book begins with an introduction. After that the author visits various cliches and seeks to dispatch several straw men of his choosing, beginning with the long history of English going to the dogs and the desire to recover a supposed period when English was more pure and less messy (1). After that the author looks at the problem of the history of words and how they clash with usage (here the handy word decimate comes to mind) (2). After that the author questions the idea that we can fully control what comes out of our mouth, pointing out that there are indeed some cases and examples where we cannot (3). There is a discussion of the communication we can have with animals (4). The author comments that all words can be translated, even while conceding that this cannot always be done easily (5). There is a discussion about language continua that denies that Italian is a language, pointing out rather that it is a set of related and mutually intelligible dialects, some of which have done better than others (6). Then there is a discussion of sarcasm to prove that what we say is not (always) what we mean, at which point the straw man has been beaten up pretty badly (7). After this there is a discussion about how languages are not better than others (8) and that language, rather than an instinct, requires learning (9). This is followed by acknowledgements, a glossary, references, and an index.

It is no great surprise that our understanding of language is frequently muddled and not very precise. There are a great many ways in which we can exaggerate about language to the point of thinking that archaic or obscure languages cannot deal with certain aspects of the world. It is more correct to say that all languages possess the ability to coin or borrow new words to express aspects of reality if the speakers and writers of those languages choose to. Some of us, myself included, have coined words or sought for their inclusion from other languages because we did not find anything in our own language that suited our purposes in talking about a given subject [1]. And this ought not to be seen as a strange thing. Whether or not such words catch on with other people, we can at least define them well enough for our own purposes in the hope that they may be understood by others. If the author helps in this task, despite his biases and lamentable double standards, then this work will not be entirely in vain.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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