How You Say It: Why You Talk The Way You Do–And What It Says About You, by Katherine D. Kinzler
Unfortunately, the study of linguistics is all too deeply tied with questions of identity and politics, and those are issues in which it is easy for writers to make mistakes. That is clearly the case here, as the author makes predictable if lamentable leftist mistakes when it comes to drawing certain conclusions from linguistics and provides evidence (if any was necessary) that the value of one’s writing is deeply tied in with worldview. Where worldview is mistaken and politics are dodgy, as is the case here, the result is that the work will predictably be written with lamentable and mistaken political biases and that it will serve only to further the tribal divisions that people feel based on issues of language, politics, morality, and identity. Instead of bringing people together, a book like this only divides them further based on whether the author is a part of “us” or “them.” And for this reader, at least, the author is clearly part of “them” with all that entails about the way that the other is seen, even when the other is seeking to write about language and the way that it identifies people, which I agree with in general even if the author’s particular effort falls short.
This book is a bit less than 200 pages and is divided into seven chapters. The book opens with a statement about life being not so much about what is said so much as how one says it (a point which is subtly contradicted, as one would expect from a writer of this ilk, at the end). After that introduction comes a discussion in one’s dialect and language being one’s tribe (1), and that this has fundamental importance in identity and the way it is seen. There is a discussion about native tongues (2) as well as the ways that language divides us (3), and even the sort of insecurity that leads people to be hostile to other languages and other dialects. There is a chapter that discusses deep talk, the question of how we think about people when we divide them up into certain ways, and the author’s speculations about the origins of language (4). The author discusses how it is that languages divide us and the accent of Disney movies and what the author views to be bigotry during childhood (5). This leads to a hilarious discussion of some rights the author believes should be enshrined in law to protect people whose English is not up to par (6) as well as the author’s praise of multilingualism (7), after which there is an afterword that contradicts her introduction after a fashion, acknowledgements, notes, and an index.
Even if there was a lot I disagreed with in this book, especially the author’s perspective and the conclusions she drew based on her worldview, it was not as if this book was one that was devoid of anything worthwhile. The author’s general praise of learning languages as a means of gaining a greater understanding of the world and a greater empathy of others is by no means terrible advice. And even when the author is laughably wrong, such as trying to enshrine a right to demand equal treatment regardless of one’s speech, it is at least telling that the author recognizes the relationship between respect and one’s register even if she predictably draws the wrong conclusion from it (to praise nonstandard registers and demand equal treatment for them in typical leftist fashion rather than to encourage the development of better respected registers). Even the author’s commentary on RBG’s terrible accent is funny because like many people I happen to despise the New York accent that she has and find it grating and off-putting, thus furthering my own dislike of someone whose views I would already greatly dislike, which is an aspect of linguistics which is at least interesting to me personally.