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The best books on Linguistics

recommended by David Adger

Language Unlimited: The Science Behind Our Most Creative Power by David Adger


Language Unlimited: The Science Behind Our Most Creative Power
by David Adger


Which linguistics books give a good sense of what the field is about? David Adger, Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University of London and the current president of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain, recommends some of his own favourite books on the science of language, including a sci-fi novel.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Language Unlimited: The Science Behind Our Most Creative Power by David Adger


Language Unlimited: The Science Behind Our Most Creative Power
by David Adger

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I’m slightly nervous talking to you about linguistics, as I feel I’m stepping into a bit of a minefield. As a subject, it’s often very technical and people seem to have very strong opinions. Before we get to the books, I wondered if you could provide a bit of context about linguistics as a field and how best to approach it if, like me, you’re a layperson who’s interested but also a bit frightened?

I think there are a lot of strong opinions because language is something that we all feel is an intimate part of us. Human beings are linguistic animals and we live in a sea of language. We all feel we know about it, because we use it every day. And I think then, when people come up with a scientific approach to what language is, it’s a natural reaction to say, ‘Hang on! I know this thing already. I use it every day. What do you mean it’s not what I think it is?’

People tend to be very interested in questions of what’s okay to say and what’s not okay to say. For example, ‘Don’t end sentences with prepositions!’ Or: ‘What do you mean you’re abbreviating words in your texts?’ People don’t like language to change; they don’t like it to be different from what they expect it to be. Whereas linguists are interested in describing what’s going on and explaining it. So we get really excited when we see language changing or rules being broken. Linguists just have a very different attitude towards language than many people who are not professionally involved in thinking about it.

Why is linguistics technical and difficult to get into? I think that’s connected to what I just said. People think they know how language works, so the moment you get a bit technical about it, people turn off. People feel that they can use language fine and they know how it works. So why have all these funny mathematical symbols or complicated statistics?

“The big thing I wanted to get across—which is at the heart of linguistics, but we don’t really talk about very much—is the astounding, creative use we can make of language”

But what modern linguistics has shown us is that language can be studied through the normal methods of science. You form hypotheses. You test them. You do experiments. You observe stuff. That means it’s technical, because science is technical.

And that’s actually quite a challenge. I found Language Unlimited the hardest thing I’ve ever written, because it’s really difficult to take this abstract stuff and turn it into something that is accessible. Our arguments in linguistics get very—not convoluted—but they are involved. They involve lots of steps. You’re saying, ‘Okay remember this and now remember that and now we’re establishing this and then you put those two things together and combine it with the first thing and then you get x.’ And most people, by that point, are like, ‘I’m bored.’ That’s another reason why people find linguistics intimidating sometimes, because it has that abstractness to it. Abstractness also leads to technical terminology, which is impenetrable jargon to people who don’t know it.

In your book, Language Unlimited, you write about when you were asked to invent a language for an ITV Beowulf series and how Parseltongue was developed for the Harry Potter movies. Also, you analyze an effort to write Moby Dick entirely in emojis, and whether emojis can be a universal language. What was the aim of the book? Was it to introduce people to linguistics for the first time?

That’s what I had in mind when I started writing it. But then I realized that the big thing I wanted to get across—which is at the heart of linguistics, but we don’t really talk about very much—is the astounding, creative use we can make of language. I started the book with an invitation to type a whole sentence into Google in inverted commas and see if anyone else had written exactly the same thing. No one has come back to me yet saying someone had written the same sentence. Virtually everything we say is novel. We just have this incredible capacity to use language creatively.

Animals don’t do this. Machines, like the kind of AIs we build, don’t do this. But we do it, as part of what we are about. How do we do it? What is it about us that allows us to have this amazing creative use of language?

Is the field divided into for and against Noam Chomsky?

It’s way more complex than that. That’s what seeps out into the wider world, because Chomsky is a well-known figure for his politics. And he has been a controversial figure within linguistics. But a lot of things he was controversial about in the 1950s and 1960s, everyone agrees with now.

People in psychology, for example, used to think that if you had one word, the frequency with which that word is followed by other words will tell what the next one is going to be. That will then tell you what the next one is going to be and so on. No one really thinks that language works like that now. In terms of those kinds of models of how humans think and process language, Chomsky basically won that battle.

There were other polarizing moments in the field. It’s also just that Chomsky is such a huge intellectual figure that people get really annoyed if he is dismissive about something.

“Modern linguistics has shown us…that language can be studied through the normal methods of science ”

But the way I see the field now, it’s much less like that. It’s much less polarized. Younger generations of researchers have grown up with less of this bitter infighting. They’re more excited about bringing things together from different perspectives and trying to have a more holistic view.

I have strong opinions, but my interactions with people, even on Twitter, are pretty respectful in both directions, I think. People listen to each other, even when they disagree. It feels to me that the field is in a much better place from that perspective than it used to be.

But there are parts of your book that people really disagree with?

Yes, absolutely. There are two perspectives on language, both interesting. One is that language is this specifically human thing that gives us this creative power and is really quite distinct from other species. The other is a more evolutionary perspective which says, there isn’t something really distinct, it’s just that we’re really clever and our general intelligence is the thing that allows us to use language. If apes were as intelligent as us, they would have language.

My view is that it’s just a different thing. Apes are really good at some things and we’re really good at other things. We’re really good at language and apes are not. That’s because they don’t have this particular mental capacity that we have. There’s no species superiority there—it’s just that we’re different.

That is a big argument. What it then comes down to is: what aspects of our general intelligence can be used to learn language? I make a bunch of arguments in the book that there aren’t aspects of a general intelligence we can use to learn language. Language is too sub-specialized.

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So that will be controversial. People will disagree, but I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to disagree about. We can work on it and try and figure out which arguments are the strongest and maybe I’ll be wrong. I’ve been wrong many times. That’s normal science and we don’t need to be grumpy with each other about it.

Let’s look at some of the books you’ve chosen to get a further sense of what studying linguistics is all about. The first is The Resilience of Language by Susan Goldin-Meadow, who runs a lab in the psychology department at the University of Chicago. The book’s subtitle is “what gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language.” Tell me about the book and why you’ve chosen it.

I’ve been a fan of Susan Goldin-Meadow’s work for a long, long time. She has been working with profoundly deaf kids for about 40 years now. What she’s interested in figuring out is the kind of language you get when there is nothing in the way of linguistic input early on. All these children can see is their hearing parents’ gestures and they obviously have this deep need to communicate that all humans have.

What kind of language do they end up with? Are the properties of those language like the properties of language in general? And if so, could those properties have been learned from the parents’ gestures?

Over and over again, she’s shown, pretty convincingly, that there are properties in the kids’ signings that are very language-like, but which are not in the parents’ gestures. Where does that come from? If it’s not ‘out there,’ what the kids are experiencing, where does it come from? Goldin-Meadow’s idea is that it comes from the mind of the children.

This, of course, is an idea that fits very well with the general Chomskyan perspective that I take, which is that there’s something about us, that’s common to all humans, which is this capacity to combine meaningful elements and create larger meanings out of them in a very systematic way.

In The Resilience of Language she takes 20 or 30 years of her experimental work and shows her journey in exploring that. The book is beautifully written and it does have some complex linguistics in it, but it’s a really interesting question it’s asking. You have to nuance what it comes out with in the end—we have to be careful, because you don’t want to draw too strong conclusions—but it’s a fascinating book.

Can you give an example of something a deaf child will do which you wouldn’t expect them to do unless it’s coming from inside their mind?

In English, and many other languages, if we use a word like ‘that’ or ‘this,’ we combine it with a noun. So you say ‘this cup’ or ‘that banana’ or ‘those books’ and they create what linguists call a ‘constituent’—a little unit of language built out of two smaller units. Each of those small units has its own meaning and the larger unit then puts those meanings together to give you something new.

So if you look at the gestures of the hearing parents of profoundly deaf children, they certainly use pointing to do something like the word ‘this’ or ‘that’ in English. So they’ll go, ‘This is white’ or ‘That’s tasty’ and point at stuff. And they might make symbols for things: they might make a love heart for ‘I love you’. But what they don’t do, according to Goldin-Meadow’s data, is put them together. If you’re gesturing and pointing at that cup, it’s weird to say that you have two separate units: ‘that’ as well as ‘cup,’ because you’re just pointing at that one thing. The hearing parents don’t do that in their gesturing. They might make a cup gesture, and they might point, but they don’t combine them.

But the children Susan Goldin-Meadow was studying do put the two together, just like you would in English. They do the ‘that’ signal and the cup signal. So you get these two things, which are not found together in the gestures of the parents, but are found together in other languages. The kids put those two things with their independent meanings together into a single unit.

Where are they learning to do that from? They can’t be learning it from what they’re seeing, because that’s not what their parents or caregivers are doing. So why are they doing it? That’s one really fascinating example, and her book is full of them.

So presumably these are very young kids who haven’t read the phrase ‘this cup’ or ‘that banana’ somewhere?

Right. At the point when they’re doing this, they don’t have English at all. These are kids who will normally learn through signing and later on, when they have the skills, they might be taught English as a purely written language.

Let’s move on to the next book you’ve chosen, which is Language and Experience: Evidence from the Blind Child by Barbara Landau and Leila Gleitman. Why is this on your list of linguistics books?

This is another book about the acquisition of language by young kids who have some kind of sensory input issue. My own work tends to be on adult speakers of different spoken languages, so you’re probably wondering why I’ve chosen these two books about children. It’s because they both address really deep, almost philosophical, questions. Where does knowledge of language come from when you can’t hear it? That’s the question Susan Goldin-Meadow is asking in her book.

Landau and Gleitman’s book, Language and Experience, I read first when I was a student, a long, long time ago. I’d read some philosophy, and learned that at one point John Locke raised a question in a letter to another philosopher: ‘What kinds of meanings of words, connected to sight, would a blind person have?’ They were interested in how much you know from experience, because Locke had this notion that everything in your mind comes through experience. I don’t know if this book goes against Locke or not, but it raises the fascinating question: how do kids learn which words connect with which meanings?

What Landau and Gleitman did was they looked at blind kids’ knowledge of the meanings of words connected to sight. Since they don’t have sight, how much knowledge of the meanings of words connected to that sense—words like ‘see’ or ‘look’ or colour words—do they have? It’s raising the same interesting question: how do we have knowledge of language? Where does it come from?

“I have strong opinions, but my interactions with people, even on Twitter, are pretty respectful in both directions, I think”

And what they showed in that book is very different from Susan Goldin-Meadow’s book in some ways, but very similar in others. What they showed is that blind kids have an understanding of aspects of word meanings to do with sight that they don’t seem to have any obvious evidence for, in terms of their experience.

They argue in the book that it’s the language that surrounds those kids that gives them some inkling, some understanding, of what those kinds of words like ‘see’ or ‘look’ or colour words, end up meaning. But they also say it can’t just be the language that does this. There must be more than that. There needs to be some kind of predisposition to go in certain directions and not others.

For example, they talk about one child acquiring the meaning of the word ‘to look’—and understanding what it means not just for her, but also for other people. She ends up figuring out that ‘to look at something’ means that the thing can be at a distance, but it needs to be in the line of sight of the person who’s looking. There can’t be a barrier in between. She understands all that ‘to look’ means.

Since she isn’t observing any of this, where does she get that information from? And why is it that precise information that she gets? They argue she picks some of it up from language—from what she hears being used around her in a very particular way. Grammar is key to that. This is an argument that the grammar of language is a way of ascertaining knowledge of its meaning, which is really fascinating.

The other thing the authors argue is that this child needs some kind of internal predisposition to make those generalizations about the word ‘look’ as opposed to other ones. What the child does is she learns what ‘look’ means for sighted people, but when someone asks her to look at something, she will look at it with her hands. If you said to her, ‘Look at this cup,’ she would take a cup and feel it all over, to get a sense of what it is. She’s transferred the visual modality into a tactile modality, but the gaining of information through this particular sense still has the same kind of meaning.

I remember reading the book when I was much younger, and it was a weird revelation. It seems obvious to me now, but when we learn meanings, we learn them not just from the word plus its environment, but from the word and all the other words around it and how we use them in sentences. They all feed back into each other in a really complex way, and that partly gives us the meanings of words. That’s not obvious, but this book really shows you that that had to be the case, that actually part of our knowledge of meaning, even in situations where we have no evidence of the thing sensually or experientially, has to come from the grammar of the language itself.

What does the book say about colours?

These kids don’t see colours, and when they’re really young they use colours randomly. They’ll say, this is a green card, this is a red card and this is a blue card, even though they have no idea and they get it wrong. But they know that colour words are adjectives, that they modify nouns and they end up knowing things about them which are really interesting.

So in the book they did an experiment where they gave kids objects. They tell them that the objects have certain colours and those colours always correlate with some other aspect of the objects. So, for example, all the big objects might be red and all the rough ones might be blue and all the small ones might be green. Then they see whether the kids naturally get the meaning of ‘red,’ ‘blue’ and ‘green’ to be ‘large’, ‘rough’ and ‘small’ and they don’t. They totally know that colour is independent of those other aspects of the object.

That’s really intriguing, isn’t it? So they don’t know colours, but they know things can be coloured, and the fact that colour is different from other properties—even though they don’t have any evidence of that. They have evidence that all the big things are red, but then they know that red and size are different things. They end up having quite a rich knowledge of the meaning of colour words.

So that’s the same thing again. Landau and Gleitman say it’s partly the language that you hear these words being used in and it’s partly what our human brains do with that language that ends up giving you a certain amount of information about something that you otherwise have no sensory information about whatsoever.

Now we’re changing gear and looking at a philosophy book. This is The Language of Thought by Jerry Fodor. It starts with a quote from Brecht, “The man who laughs is the one who has not yet heard the terrible news”, and there are also lots of references to Wittgenstein. Tell me about why it’s on your list of linguistics books.

The Language of Thought is a really famous book in the philosophy of mind and it’s really important for linguistics as well. Fodor was a brilliant writer. He died a couple years ago. He writes really difficult stuff, but it’s actually funny. (Though this is not his funniest book, by any means—I think he was just getting started.)

This book does many things, but the reason I chose it is that it’s the first articulation of an idea he then took further and further in his career: that you can be very creative not only with language, but also with thought. That’s been very interesting for my own research.

Language is very systematic. If I say to you the sentence, ‘Anson bit Lilly’, you know what that means. And if I say ‘Lilly bit Anson’, you know what that means. The bits you’ve got come together to create certain meanings in a systematic way. If A did something to B, then it could be the case that B did something to A. There’s a system to it.

What Fodor does in that book is argue that thought is productive. It’s got this creative capacity. You can think all sorts of crazy thoughts you’ve never had before and it’s highly systematic. So thought must work like language works.

At the time it was written, Chomsky had recently been saying, ‘The way that language works is that you’ve got basic bits of language and then you’ve got a general set of rules that combine them to create larger bits of language in a systematic way. That’s what gives us this free capacity to build sentences in a way where we understand the meaning of new sentences that people say to us and we can create new sentences as we need them.’

“Apes are really good at some things and we’re really good at other things. We’re really good at language and apes are not”

That was Chomsky’s idea for language and what Fodor said is, ‘Thought has the same properties’. That means that basically our minds are working along the same lines as Chomsky said language works. At the heart of human psychology is what Chomsky calls—and Fodor calls as well—something like a computational machine. It takes things and puts them together and creates new things out of it. That’s what gives us this ability to be systematic and productive.

For Fodor and Chomsky, all this emerges from the work done on the theory of computation by mathematicians like Turing in the 1930s. Even though he was working on other stuff, Turing had one of the best ideas in psychology, which is that you can treat aspects of the human mind like a computer. We can explain that systematicness and productivity of thought by appealing to what Turing did when he figured out how to make computers work. I’ve overly simplified this, but that’s the basic idea.

There are lots of other things in the book that philosophers will be struck by more than I will, but as a linguist that’s what struck me: the notion that this approach to computation is fundamental not just to language but to our general psychology as well.

Has this book being overturned?

No and yes. This is an area where there is quite a lot of controversy, similar to what there might be in linguistics. You can make a computer look like what you think a brain looks like, with computational neurons in it. And they all just connect to each other and then what you do is you feed information into this collection of neurons and you tell them what you want out of it. And they just shoogle—‘shoogle’ is a Scottish word meaning to shake around—until they match the input with what you want the output to be. That idea underpins most AIs these days.

So if you have Siri or Alexa—which can do these incredible things—the way you get speech synthesis to work is that they have these artificial neurons and you play them ‘the dog jumped over the fox’ and they then shoogle their neurons around until they get aligned to give you the right results. Again, it’s more complex than that, but that’s the basic idea.

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That’s very different from the computational view that Fodor was pushing in this book. That view says that you get to the dog jumped over the fox by saying ‘the’ and ‘dog’ and ‘jump’ and ‘over’ and ‘the’ and ‘fox’ and you’ve got ‘the’ twice and it’s combined with dog once and fox once. It’s the systematic building up of meaning through rules.

So those are two different ways that people think about the mind. There’s Fodor’s way, which is called the computational theory of mind, and then there is this other way, which is the neural network theory of mind. That’s still a big fight.

Am I getting the sense that to study linguistics you also have you have to be quite science-y and philosophical?

It’s one brand of linguistics; it’s definitely my brand. But there are masses of other really interesting areas in linguistics, which are not like that. Over the last 10-15 years, I’ve been working quite a lot with sociolinguists who are interested in how language is used socially, how language changes, how your identity is expressed by the kind of language you choose to use. You collect all the data and you do statistics on the data, but it’s a very different kind of science. That’s also philosophical in that you’re thinking about issues of identity, of class and gender and sexuality, but it’s different from the questions of cognition and meaning that I’ve been talking about.

These are two quite distinct areas of linguistics and you can do either of them. Not that many people do both. That actually goes back to one of your earlier questions, about whether there is a bit of a fight going on in linguistics. Certainly these two areas of linguistics pulled apart in the 1970s, and didn’t talk to each other through the 80s and 90s. But they have now started to talk to each other again, over the last 20 years.

There have been a number of people involved in trying to make this work. I ended up sharing a flat with a sociolinguist when I was a lecturer in York. We used to have arguments about stuff but we ended up working together. So I’ve ended up being a weird crossover between the Chomskyan linguistics stuff that is my heartland and the sociolinguistic stuff, which is very different kind of set of ideas, that I also find totally fascinating. I write about them in the last chapter of my book.

So now we’re at book number 4 on your list, which is by Noam Chomsky. I get the sense from the titles of his books that he’s not a great one for writing highly accessible, popular linguistics books. You’ve chosen a book which is based on a set of lectures he gave in 1999 in Siena and it’s called On Nature and Language.

I needed to have a Chomsky. I chose it because I looked at which books were in the Five Books archive, and wanted to choose something different and maybe a bit more readable. This is the best I could do. Chomsky’s linguistics work is technical, and where it’s not technical, it’s highly philosophical.

There are three other books by Chomsky I could have chosen. Syntactic Structures (1957) was the first book of his I read and it was totally the thing that made me go, ‘Oh, this is cool. I want to do this.’ In my second year of university I read Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965) and thought, ‘My God this is fascinating.’ Then there’s Knowledge of Language (1986) which I read as a graduate student and made me go, ‘Oh! This is how it all works.’

I chose On Nature and Language because it’s more modern. It’s quite speculative and a bit rhetorical, it must be said. I like it because it does two things. It poses, very clearly, a general question. Chomsky focuses on the cognitive-psychological side of linguistics and has always said that language has a biological part to it, that’s it part of our being as humans and other animals don’t have it.

If you focus on that, what is it? If it’s really like a piece of biology, should we study it like the liver or the heart? Or is it more like a computer, like Fodor is saying, in which case we should study it as we do the natural laws of physical things?

On Language and Nature asks the question, ‘What is it that makes language like language and lightning like lightning and ferns like ferns?’ ”

One of the things I argued in my book, Language Unlimited, is that language works through a principle of self-similarity. If you have a fern leaf, it’s built up out of smaller fern leaves and each of those is built out of yet smaller fern leaves and each of those has got a tiny, tiny little fern leaf in it. Or if you think about the way that lightning forks when it comes from the sky: It forks in this very binary way, it comes down and goes into 2 goes into 2 goes into 2 and you end up with the classic forked lightning pattern. Many, many other things are also organized through this principle of self-similarity: X is similar to part of X.

Chomsky’s point is that language works like that as well. As I said earlier, you take two things and put them together—you have ‘that’ and ‘cup’ and you put it together and get a new thing ‘that cup.’ When I say, ‘I broke that cup’ I’ve taken ‘that cup’ and put it together with ‘broke’ to make a bigger thing, ‘broke that cup.’ That’s the same notion, that the larger thing has got a similar shape to the things inside it. All languages we know of, all human languages that we’ve ever studied, are organized around this principle of hierarchical structure.

On Language and Nature asks the question, ‘What is it that makes language like language and lightning like lightning and ferns like ferns?’ He doesn’t put it as simply as that, but one of the lectures in the book is basically asking that question. How can you understand language as a purely natural, physical type of object? Does it have the same principles governing it as ferns and lightning and the turning of galaxies and the horns of narwhals and nautilus shells, this self-similarity principle?

This book is from the late 1990s. There was still a technical problem in it. It looked to Chomsky at the time as if this idea of a hierarchical structure of sentences required two separate mechanisms to build up, two separate things. Later on, Chomsky came up with another idea. It’s in a technical paper and I think it’s his best idea for a long time, which is that you can actually combine these two different sources of the hierarchy in human language into one, if you understand it from a particular perspective.

So it’s interesting to look at this book as a snapshot of where we were. 20 years later, we’re in an improved place. We have a deeper understanding of how that set of questions can be answered and that’s a really neat thing. Everyone’s always saying, ‘Chomsky said this, he’s wrong.’ That’s fine. But he always poses totally fascinating questions. Now, we can look back and say, ‘It didn’t work out this way, but actually we’ve now got a good answer or a better answer to that question.’

People often don’t like reading Chomsky’s more rhetorical, more speculative stuff. I quite like it because I always find in it a perspective on something which is very helpful for me in thinking about what issues I want to investigate or I want to push.

So finally on your list of linguistics books we have a work of fiction. This is Embassytown by China Miéville. He’s won a number of prizes for his books, including the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction on three separate occasions, which is unheard of. So is this a highly readable novel about linguistics?

There are a weirdly large number of novels about linguistics and they’re almost all sci-fi. Most of them are about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is the idea that the language you speak controls the way you think. You might think of Newspeak in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as being like that. There’s also a linguist called Suzette Haden Elgin who wrote a fascinating novel where she developed a language which was meant to remove all sexism. And one of my favourite authors ever, Ursula Le Guin, developed a language for a colony of anarchists she put on a moon, which didn’t have any way of expressing possession. I’m a big fan of this kind of speculative novel. It’s another way of philosophizing. I tend to read everything that looks like it might be that sort of book.

I really enjoyed Embassytown because it wasn’t about Sapir-Whorf, but about the relationship between language and reality. While I was reading it, I tweeted, ‘It’s Chomsky versus Quine in outer space.’ Quine is a famous philosopher who said that the meaning of the word cup is a cup, an actual thing in the world. Chomsky’s view is, ‘No, no, no, the meaning of the word ‘cup’ is a concept in your mind. We all just live in our minds and communicate with each other by trying to get our minds into some kind of synch through language.’

Embassytown is about who is right. Is it Quine—and most philosophers—who say that words connect directly to things? That seems commonsensical. Or is it Chomsky and others, who argue that we build these models of the world in our minds, and that when we speak or when we act we connect those mental models to the world? And [spoiler alert] Chomsky wins.

“There are a weirdly large number of novels about linguistics and they’re almost all sci-fi. ”

Miéville has got a brilliant imagination, and in the book he develops these aliens who have two mouths. They have two speaking organs and you’d think that’s like a forked tongue but, ironically, they can’t lie because their language must connect directly to the actual reality.

They want to lie, though. They find lying totally fascinating, but they can’t. Even if they want to use a simile, they have to get someone to act it out. So they get humans to act out weird stuff for them. The heroine of the novel ends up having to eat some food in the dark in a restaurant. Then they can say, ‘Ah this is like the girl who eats food in the dark’ and that means whatever it means for the aliens, some weird simile, but they have to make it real in order to use it.

Then of course what happens is that the humans mess it all up. They end up introducing, into the ecosystem of these aliens, the capacity to lie. They get these telepathic twins who will speak with the two voices, but who can lie because they’re human. The aliens get addicted to that and it’s going to totally destroy the alien society and kill all the humans. Then the heroine basically solves it by more or less teaching the aliens to lie. Which is kind of an awful comment about how we humans randomly wander around blundering into things and making a mess of what was a perfectly good ecosystem.

But at the same time, it’s fascinating because of the whole issue of how does language really work? Could you have a language like these aliens? It’s a really well written book. A lot of Miéville’s work is very elegantly thoughtful.

So this is a good fifth book because it’s one of the many fiction books I’ve read throughout my life that tell us something really interesting or ask us really interesting questions about language. If people haven’t read Embassytown and they want to read something about linguistics, it’s fascinating. There’s also the film Arrival, which is sci-fi and very language-based. I always show it to my first years. It was great for linguistics because people saw it and thought it was amazing. This book is similar. If you like science fiction and you’re interested in languages, this is a great book to read.

What do you normally suggest to students as a good introductory text on linguistics?

I will absolutely be suggesting my own book! The original reason I wrote it is because I felt there wasn’t a book that did that. I wrote it with my nephew in mind, who was 17 at the time. It’s aimed at people who have no linguistics or even a university degree but are interested in the topic.

Another book to recommend is Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (1994), but it’s a bit out of date now. Things have changed quite a lot since then.

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There are lots of other fascinating books on language out there. For example, there’s Gretchen McCulloch’s book on internet linguistics, Because Internet. It’s totally brilliant and you learn a lot about sociolinguistics. It’s interesting for people who spend their lives on the internet. I definitely recommend that to people as a good introduction to the socio side—while my book is probably a good introduction to the more cognitive side of linguistics.

The other books that are around at the moment tend to be focused on this notion that linguists are descriptive about language rather than prescriptive. Lane Greene’s book, Talk on the Wild Side, is like that. That’s a pretty good book as well.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

November 11, 2019

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David Adger

David Adger

David Adger is Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University of London and currently President of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (the LAGB). His book, Language Unlimited, "tries to explain the kind of linguistics I do in a popular science type format."

David Adger

David Adger

David Adger is Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University of London and currently President of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (the LAGB). His book, Language Unlimited, "tries to explain the kind of linguistics I do in a popular science type format."