Monday, December 31, 2018

Books read 2018

My main resolution for 2018 was to read more books, as this is something that had lapsed a bit in previous years. And I certainly kept to that, with 58 read this year (if I'm counting correctly). So that I remember what I've read, and in case it's vaguely of interest to anyone else, I'm posting some mini-reviews here.

Lucy Hounsom, Heartland, and Firestorm

Heartland was a worthy continuation but didn't work as well as a standalone book, and the denouement - while still clever - wasn't quite as explosively intricate as the one in Starborn. As for Firestorm, the time-travelling part of the plot was fun - and it's great to read a book that hinges on time travel without paradoxes - but the present-day part of the plot felt rather procedural. We're going to Parakat to free the aberrations: done. We're going to stop Iresonté: done. The weakest part was the storyline with Gareth and the gauntlets, which just didn't feel well integrated, and the resolution was pretty unsatisfying too - both in terms of his identity and his relationship with his mother. My other complaint is the Khronostian eldest as Big Bad: we just don't know enough about him or his motivations for him to be a really engaging villain. Still, good world-building, and especially good character development for the core “party” (Kyndra, Char, Ma, Nediah, Bregenne, Kait, Medavle). Also nice to see Old Norse making an appearance.

Penelope Eckert & Sally McConnell-Ginet, Language and gender

I learned a huge amount from this book, and it made me think about teaching a course based on it. At the same time I had concerns about the way the material is presented, based, I'm afraid, on “ arlier me”, the non-feminist version. While current me found almost everything convincing, I don't think earlier me would have. First off, the performative theory of gender is presupposed, rather than really argued for. This is so alien to the common or garden conception of gender that some less enlightened readers might be switched off immediately. It would be interesting to see a textbook that actually used the linguistic evidence to make the case for this theory rather than building it in at the outset. Secondly, the use of evidence varies dramatically. The authors criticize others for insufficient rigour, on occasion, and for the “ all of mirrors” problem, yet their own presentation shifts from page to page between well-researched studies and anecdote, with a seasoning of rhetoric. I'd love to be able to recommend a similar book, but written in order to convince the unbelievers (people in the Steven Pinker mould, say).

Guy Deutscher, Syntactic Change in Akkadian: the evolution of finite complementation

Good book, well written (for a linguistics PhD thesis), with an iconoclastic twist: languages aren't equally complex, and more complex societies need more complex linguistic structures. My main complaint would be that no quantitative evidence is presented at any point: this really seems to me to be incumbent on people making claims about relative complexity (where quantitative implications are almost always present).

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

Everything I hoped it would be. Creepy, dystopian, thought-provoking, and frustratingly ambiguous in its ending. Especially visually evocative at several points.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

I polished this off in a day, flipped to the front, and was astonished to find that this book was written in 1953. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that captures the problematic side of our media use so well. Very readable, very powerful.

Sam Wolfe, Verb Second in Romance

This book is likely to be a reference point on Old Romance V2 for many years to come. Some details of the precise analysis will no doubt be rejected, and there is plenty of scope for more work on the lesser-studied varieties, but the systematic and thorough nature of the empirical component, and its comparative nature, gives it a clear USP.

Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology

Fun to read, but there are some jarring turns of phrase, and the book's really not very long. I find it hard to see this as anything other than a money-spinner, since there are other treatments of Norse mythology out there, albeit by people not as famous as Neil Gaiman. (Disclaimer: I'm not much of a fan of Gaiman in general.)

Sten Vikner, Verb movement and expletive subjects in the Germanic languages

Embarrassing to relate, this is the first time I’ve read this seminal book in its entirety. Like many books in the GB mould, it veers (to my mind) between genuine brilliant insight and mechanical implementation. I find the section on verb-second (chapters 3 and 4) remarkable, while the section on expletives (chapters 6 and 7) doesn’t excite me much. But then again I’m not invested in expletives the same way I am with verb-second.

Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas

This is a wonderful book: rich and informative, and also very engagingly written. It deals with the extent to which medieval Scandinavians explored the rest of the world: from Newfoundland in the west to Russia and Byzantium in the east; from Africa in the south to, well, pretty much as far north as it goes. I do wonder who this book is supposed to be for: it’s currently a bit pricey at £24.99 from OUP, though a paperback will be coming out later this year. The colour plates and high production values make it worth getting if you can afford it, but I wonder if there is enough of a market for people who are just interested in Vikings and moderately well informed. I hope so!

Andrew Caldecott, Rotherweird

Stylistically this is an unholy blend of Terry Pratchett and Mervyn Peake - a curious, inspiring mystery. It's the author's first novel, which kinda shows: some awkward lurches in narratorial perspective. There's also at least one historically dubious moment when Saxons are described as fleeing an invading Roman army. But on the whole this was a good read. And the author is also a specialist in libel law, so it behooves me to not be too negative. ;)

Julia Bacskai-Atkari, Deletion phenomena in comparative constructions: English comparatives in a cross-linguistic perspective

I came to this book with the prejudice that the syntax of comparatives is really hard, and I was not disabused of this notion. Still, Julia Bacskai-Atkari does a good job of demystifying the literature, which seems in the past to have been very Anglocentric. Though the book only brings in Hungarian and a bit of Slavic, that's already enough to start getting a handle on what might (not) be universal about comparative constructions. At the heart of the book is an Overtness Requirement stating that phonologically visible lexical XPs can only appear in operator positions if the operator itself is overt. This seems like a pretty weird requirement, as it requires PF to know at the point of deletion what the phonological content of the operator is going to be. It would be nice to see evidence from beyond comparative constructions. The book also makes use of ellipsis as a repair operation, which has been criticized in recent years. Anyhow, I expect that this book will become the essential reference in the formal study of comparatives over the next few decades.

Anonymous, The Saga of Burnt Njal (Njáls saga, trans. 1861, George DaSent)

The classic among the Sagas of Icelanders, this is a hefty work, with the eponymous Njal not appearing in roughly the first or last twenty chapters. Typical saga style: short sections, little on people's appearance or emotions, occasional versecraft, and plenty of people getting their limbs hacked off unceremoniously. There's also quite a lot of legal wrangling, and it features the wholesale conversion of Iceland to Christianity. Despite the impersonal nature of the narration, you do find yourself rooting for the protagonists, particularly Gunnar and later Kari. I still find this saga style eerily similar to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms... perhaps I'll do another PhD on that one of these days.

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (3rd edition)

A wonderful and frustrating read. Assuming the historical account of Copernicus and Galileo is accurate, Feyerabend makes a persuasive case that a series of principles that have been proposed as universal features of scientific method would in this instance have retarded progress. Chapter 20 is autobiographical, and refreshingly honest. Feyerabend’s own proposal is irritatingly slippery: he himself emphasizes that “anything goes” is not a methodological prescription per se, but is not hostile to the concept of scientific progress itself, nor to science and reason as valuable entities. The matter is not helped by the rather loose appeal to Whorf in chapter 16. But still I find myself persuaded that methodological pluralism is tremendously valuable (though in fairness this is something I’ve believed for a while anyway).

Anonymous, Saga of the Ere-Dwellers (Eyrbyggja saga, trans. 1892, William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson)

This saga has everything, and not in a good way. It reads like a compilation of random happenings, and not even the appearance of lots of angry undead can save it from a rather dismal incoherence. It can't hold a candle to Njáls saga.

Joseph Voyles, Early Germanic grammar: pre-, proto- and post-Germanic languages

I've dipped into this several times, but this is the first time I've tried to read it cover-to-cover. A page-turner it ain't, consisting largely of rules and lists of words to which they apply. But I remember being awed by it when I first encountered it as an undergraduate and that feeling persists. It's much, much more formally explicit than anything else I've seen in its vein, so that the predictions are almost always crystal clear. Also, compared to other works, even more recent ones such as Ringe's Linguistic History of English, this one gives detailed consideration to the synchronic phonological structures of the languages in question, and is careful to state when phonological rules persist and are lost. For the individual languages a lot seems to me to be left out: one needs quite a lot more changes to account for the full range of forms actually found in Old Saxon, for instance. But this is still a very impressive overview.

Anonymous, Grettis saga (trans. 1900, William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson)

This is really an astonishing piece of literature. Grettir is a fascinating character: lovable and detestable, and you’re never sure whether to boo him or to cheer him, or (as a modern reader) whether he’s been hard done by or not. Because of its focus on one individual, it’s a much easier read than Njáls saga or Eyrbyggya saga.

Tristram Hunt, The Frock-Coated Communist

Despite its silly title, this biography of Friedrich Engels is much more sympathetic to him than one might imagine. Hunt argues vehemently against the charge that the atrocities committed in the 20th century in the name of Marxism can be laid at Engels's door. He's also not afraid to offer other judgements of his own, the most memorable being his depiction of Edward Aveling as “a shit”. But this is a dense and challenging read, and I say that as someone who ploughs through formal linguistics monographs on a regular basis. It presupposes familiarity with various things, such as Hegelian philosophy, that aren't exactly common knowledge. I can hardly recommend it as bedtime reading.

Idan Landau, Control in generative grammar: a research companion

I’ve studiously avoided reading about control for many years as a linguist, for the simple reason that it always seemed fiendishly complicated. As with Bacskai-Atkari’s book above, reading this book has done nothing to dispel this impression. It’s a work of great erudition, and likely a useful resource for looking things up in. But it’s hard going as a book to read cover-to-cover.

Cixin Liu, The Wandering Earth

A collection of magisterial, mostly physics-driven, sci-fi stories in the classic style. To me they’re more convincing when dealing with hard-science themes rather than social ones: The Wandering Earth itself, For the Benefit of Mankind, and Taking Care of God seemed weaker. But there were some moments of real empathy, as in Sun of China and With Her Eyes. Either way, a pleasure to let oneself be carried away.

Noam Chomsky, Aspects of the theory of syntax

Another one in the genre of “it’s actually embarrassing I haven’t previously read this cover-to-cover”. Many things to remark upon. First, “Aspects” is a thoroughly appropriate word for the title: the book doesn’t really present a unified syntactic framework in the same way as e.g. Syntactic Structures. Second, “of the Theory of Syntax” is more debatable! The book ranges from the lexicon (most of chapter 2) to the division of labour between syntax and semantics (4.1) and how to cope with morphology using the same or similar tools (4.2). Transformations take a back seat, only cropping up in the slender chapter 3. The first chapter is a great resource because it’s arguably the first systematic presentation of the whole generative enterprise in one place: Syntactic Structures focuses on the formal tools, and eschews psychologizing. The book also deals in interesting ways with the structure of the lexicon; in other generative works one often gets the impression that this is a contradiction in terms. Finally, it’s striking, especially at the time of writing, how much the argumentation owes to Morris Halle. He’s mentioned throughout, and inspiration is taken directly from his work at several points. It wouldn’t seem crazy for him to be a co-author, in fact. And what eventually appeared as Chomsky & Halle (1968) is referred to here as Halle & Chomsky to appear!

Shirley Jackson, We have always lived in the castle

Dreamlike and, despite the “fairytale” ending, desperately depressing as a story about human behaviour. Easy to see why the book has been described as a masterpiece. The afterword by Joyce Carol Oates is painful: descriptions of what happens in the book coupled with some anodyne observations about Shirley Jackson’s life and peers. But that’s a commonplace in literary fiction culture, sadly. At least it’s not a foreword.

Georg Kaiser, Romanische Sprachgeschichte

Round 1 of “books written by my new colleagues”. This is a tremendously erudite book and I learned a lot from it (though inevitably I will forget almost all of it). It’s also clearly written and very well referenced. Chapter 5, dealing in detail with the development of Vulgar Latin as the crucial stage bridging the Roman Empire and the modern Romance languages, was probably the highlight, and certainly filled a gap in my own knowledge, since our History of French at university basically started in the 9th century with the Strasbourg Oaths. The attestation isn’t super huge, but the chapter nevertheless manages to be comprehensive and responsible in dealing with it, as far as I can tell.

David Lagercrantz, The Girl who Takes an Eye for an Eye

This series is a guilty pleasure for me, and so I was pissed off that I actually didn’t enjoy this one much at all. It seems like three largely unconnected storylines. The one focusing on Faria Kazi is both the most interesting (though generic) and the least well integrated. The central plot dealing with Mannheimer and Brody I could really take or leave, with little to get me invested in the characters. Meanwhile Salander and Blomkvist do a lot of moving around and talking to people. It doesn’t help that the writing contains gems like the following: “It was as if Salander was drawn in through a wormhole into cyber worlds belonging to another time, a time long before the internet” and, in the following paragraph (worse), “It was as if she had turned the computer into a snake which moved soundlessly through secret archives and sealed vaults.” Yep, soundless snake. After the previous book I thought Lagercrantz was doing a good job keeping the series alive. Now I’m not so sure.

Martin Findell, Runes

A little gem of a book: well written, wide-ranging, and beautifully illustrated. I’ll definitely be recommending it to my students in place of Page’s introduction to English runes, which is overkill in that context.

David Anthony, The horse, the wheel, and language

A heartfelt defence of the steppe hypothesis for Indo-European origins, synthesizing linguistics and archaeology. Though it’s written in an accessible style, I wouldn’t really recommend this book as bedtime reading, as it’s just too hefty (over 500 pages including notes), and there are some odd tangents. More worryingly, the first chapter contains some points (the description of Gothic as “the oldest literary form of German”; the traditional William Jones narrative; the uncritical adoption of Sapir-Whorf) that leads me to doubt the accuracy of the rest of the book. He also gets Tandy Warnow’s name wrong in chapter 3 (“Wendy Tarnow”), and says “the mutation for longer wool might have appeared as an adaptation”, which is a clear misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Daniel Nettle is also referred to here and there as Nettles. A further problem is that some of the archaeological aspects of the book, e.g. chapter 9, are desperately dull for someone like me who has no interest in pottery shards. By contrast, other chapters, like chapter 10 which describes the origins of domesticated horses, are fascinating, written in a lively style which reflects the author’s personal involvement in the debate. It also doesn’t help that he uses a lot of unexplained archaeological terminology (e.g. “tells”, “gracile”) that are far from what an educated layperson could be expected to understand. If I were an archaeologist I’d probably think that this is an impressive historical narrative; as a layperson in most relevant respects I can see that a lot of thought and an incredibly wide range of material has gone into it.

Max Adams, Ælfred’s Britain

Quite a contrast with the above. Adams is a consummate storyteller, but also scrupulous about making reference to the latest literature, and the book is both wide-ranging and deeply immersive. This is a follow-up to his previous book, The King in the North, which deals with Northumbria and the northern British kingdoms from the mid-6th to mid-8th century. That one focuses on Oswald; this one focuses on Alfred “the Great”, his clashes with the Vikings, and his dynasty, from 789 (the first recorded appearance of the Vikings in Britain) to 955. The ending is somewhat loose and unexpected, but that doesn’t detract much from the general excellence of this book. I learned a thing or two - for instance, that London was much more important during the Old English period than I thought, even if not a capital city or a major religious centre.

Andrew Fowler, The Railway Pocket Bible

A cute little book with all kinds of nerdy facts about trains.

Bettelou Los & Pieter de Haan (eds.), Word order change in acquisition and language contact

I’ve reviewed this one for Language, so check out my review there to find out what I think of it!

Carlo Rovelli, The order of time

Not just a nice coffee-table book (though it would look good on one). The book is beautifully written and powerful, with a good mix of the personal and the universal. Rovelli annihilates our common-sense perception of time. He’s not the first to do so, but it’d be good if this knowledge were more widespread. The one thing that irked me somewhat was his presentation of the history of science as a succession of European white male geniuses. He admits in a footnote that he’s been criticized for this, but he brushes it off because he says his aim is not to write a history of science. To me that doesn’t entirely exonerate him, and the references sometimes come across as pretentious rather than insightful.

Ross Bradshaw (ed.), Maps

A collection of short meditations on the general topic of maps. At worst, this devolves into maudlin reminiscence, or just general tedium: one of the contributions is basically a list of all the places featured in Gissing’s writings, which is especially unexciting if you haven’t read Gissing. This sort of piece hardly does the “radical” Five Leaves Press any credit. At best, though, the content is personal and powerful, with a real sense of place: the essay on the Guga Men of the outer Hebrides is breathtaking, and closer to “home”, the observations on modern Leeds struck a chord with me. The book came out in 2011 and so the discussion of borders and immigration in the chapter on Walter Benjamin at Portbou comes across as prescient.

Elaine Treharne, Living through conquest: the politics of early English, 1020-1220

An eye-opening book, and one that should be read by anyone working on the transition from Old to Middle English. It certainly puts to bed the widespread idea that Old English died after 1066 and then rose phoenix-like from the flames as Middle English after 1200. I regret that English historical linguistics and Old English literary/philological studies have grown so far apart as to render this book virtually unknown to people in the former camp despite its evident significance.

Peter Ackema & Ad Neeleman, Features of person

This is really two books in one. Chapters 2-4 and 7 are about person and syncretisms, and chapters 5-6 are about agreement. Both sections are extremely well argued, and much better than the “phi-hacking” one often sees in this domain. As a fat book that departs from conventional Minimalist wisdom it’ll probably be largely ignored, which is a shame.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I learned things about slavery-era America from this book, but ultimately it left me wanting. The protagonist meanders around the States for a while on the run from the “law”. There’s a secret underground railway, but it’s not in it enough to really capture the imagination. I never really felt engaged by the narrative. But I really hope that’s not just me being too white.

Gillian Ramchand, Situations and Syntactic Structures

As a syntactician I’m not really the target audience for this book. It presents itself as an analysis of the English auxiliary system, but it’s really about a whole new situation-based way of doing semantics. The syntactic analysis is pretty conventional, other than the use of spanning for morphology. By contrast, the semantic proposal seems pretty radical, even iconoclastic. Chapter 2, on the progressive, and chapters 5 and 6 on modality seem to me to be the most dramatic departures from conventional wisdom; but I’m not really clued up enough on the semantics literature to judge that. Syntactically my main quibble is that the book is not very formally explicit about the mechanisms of spellout. What’s genuinely laudable, though, is the use of syntactic evidence to inform semantic analysis; all too often the conversation seems to be expected to flow entirely the other way.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The buried giant

A fantasy novel, set in a mythical version of early Britain, with dragons, ogres, pixies and King Arthur. It’s thought-provoking and powerful, and hopefully goes some way towards dispelling the unhelpful firewall between literary and genre fiction. Other than tapping into the current fad of collective memory research in literature departments, and its allusory, ambiguous ending, this work has a lot in common with many of the (better) fantasy novels I’ve read. A minor gripe is the obsessive omission of “that” in relative clauses and clefts in the speech of almost all the characters. If it’s supposed to have an archaizing flavour, it nevertheless left me cold. Still, would recommend.

Eric Hobsbawm, On history

A collection of loosely-connected historiographical reflections from a giant of the field. I read this as a source for the claim that nation states are a modern invention, but it hardly discusses that at all. On the other hand, I learned a lot about historical enquiry and its relations to other disciplines and theories, including issues of prediction, which are particularly fascinating to me at present. The book closes with a powerful tirade against “identity history” (i.e. purely postmodern, relativistic history) on its own, which is interesting especially given that the man who wrote this book jumps off every page.

Michael Kater, Weimar

Again, I’m not sure who this is for. It is (unfortunately) too boring to pass as a popular history, but surely too laden with value judgements and Great Men to be considered a work of academic history. The grassroots perspective is almost entirely absent, and the focus is mostly on Goethe, Schiller, Liszt et al. and their legacies, with a solid chunk on Buchenwald during and after the Nazi era. In fairness, these are the things that set Weimar apart from any other German town, probably why the book was written, and why I read it. I learned the most about the later appropriation (or lack thereof) of Goethe and friends by later ideologues of various stripes. Should go back and visit again some time.

Ruth King, The lexical basis of grammatical borrowing

This really is a remarkable book. It’s a case study of Prince Edward Island French, a variety very heavily influenced by English. The author skilfully interweaves sociolinguistics, language contact and historical linguistics, and current syntactic theory into a case for a particular type of contact that it’s very hard to argue against. I’m always surprised it’s as little cited (comparatively) as it seems to be.

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Book of Joan

This is a brilliant book - inspired, sexually deviant, violent and heartfelt. It’s a modern eco-warrior parable drawing on the story of Joan of Arc and meditating on the role of power and death in the order of things. It reads like it’s been written by an angry but stupendously gifted teenager. Surely not for everyone, but I enjoyed it tremendously.

Robin Fleming, Britain after Rome: the fall and rise, 400 to 1070

A complete contrast with the books by Max Adams mentioned above. While Adams sets out to tell the story of Alfred and his family, Fleming’s goal, in keeping with modern academic history, is to explore how life was for the common folk of late antiquity and early medieval Britain. By taking the archaeological record as a starting point, Fleming is convincingly able to explain not only how accounts based on the textual records - Gildas, Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - were able to get things so wrong, but also why, as part of a process of retroactive justification of the later political status quo. Erudite and convincing.

John McWhorter, Our magnificent bastard tongue: the untold history of English

The aim of this book is to convince a popular audience that contact (with Celtic, Norse, and Semitic) has shaped the grammar of English to a great extent, though it also has two tangential chapters out of five (“prescriptivism is stupid” and “Whorf was wrong”). It’s entertainingly written and I’ll recommend it to my students, despite it being a bit sketchy on some of the details, and demonstrably wrong on at least one point (claiming that eth and thorn represented voiced and voiceless sounds respectively in Old English). The tone of “traditional scholars are all dumbass conservatives and I’m right” gets a bit grating after a while, especially as the dichotomy between McWhorter and the traditionalists is by no means as clear-cut as he claims, and nor is the evidence, but since I’m closer in my affiliations to those traditional scholars it’s probably not surprising that I think that.

Anne McElvoy, The saddled cow

A well-written and meticulously researched biography of the GDR, complete with interviews, personal anecdotes, and big-picture overviews - as well as some depressingly prescient observations (the book was written in the early 90s, and essentially predicts the rise of the AfD in the former East).

Sebastian Barry, A long long way

The story of an Irish soldier in the First World War. As depressing as that sounds, though beautifully written.

Roger Lass, Historical linguistics and language change

A re-read. Lass’s 1980 book is still my favourite linguistics book of all time. This one is good but doesn’t come close, perhaps because it’s unclear what it’s trying to do, as Lass actually acknowledges at the start: chapters 2-5 in particular read like a textbook, though a rather opinionated and at times pompous one; chapters 6-7 are (a setup for) a grand vision of language, Platonist or “realist” rather than individualist. What I appreciate the most about Lass, even more than his erudition and willingness to make connections to other disciplines, is his attempt to boil down arguments that often come across as loose or waffly in the literature into a clear, explicit form. That way, even when you fundamentally disagree with his assessment (as I do with his claim that individualism erases the individual, for instance), it’s easy to figure out where the wedge is driven and what could potentially be done to evade certain objections. Having been seduced (perhaps through conservatism, perhaps partly through reading Lass) into fluctuating between individualism and Platonism in the past, I’ve now come down firmly on the side of the individualists. I simply don’t believe that we don’t gain anything by invoking the individual, as Lass claims (here and less forcefully in chapter 4 of his 1980 book). Work by people like Andersen, Lightfoot, Ohala, Traugott and others is the proof of the pudding, for me. Lass’s repeated accusations of mysticism are also annoying given that he literally believes in languages as abstract objects detached from their speakers and floating around in the Platonic realm of the forms; for the same reason I don’t buy his claim of commitment to ontological minimalism. Another weakness of this book perhaps is its focus on philosophizing at the expense of concrete examples, and hence undue attention given to people like Anttila who have (to my mind) very little that’s actually insightful to say about specific changes. (The same could be said of many linguists, almost all male: Coseriu and Croft both spring to mind.) But that’s also what I love about it, so I can’t complain too much. I also love the plea for methodological pluralism and self-reflective modesty in the envoi. Still a hero of mine despite disagreements.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, The lies that bind: rethinking identity

Recommended for anyone wanting to discover what all the fuss is about identity politics. Eloquent, erudite and sharp, this book is basically a philosophical takedown of identity essentialism in all its guises: class, race, culture, gender, religion. I particularly enjoyed the arguments against the notion of cultural appropriation: basically, culture can’t be stolen, as it isn’t property. A similar argument has been brewing in my own head for some time, although not nearly as articulate as this one.

Olga Fischer, Hendrik De Smet & Wim van der Wurff, A brief history of English syntax

I’m reviewing this one, so read the review (when it comes out) for the lowdown!

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

This book wasn’t as bad as I feared it might be. I came to it with some serious negative bias, having read and hated Foucault’s Pendulum and read and hated bits of what Eco writes about language. Fortunately, different sets of people I respect independently suggested I give this one a go. If you can ignore (or perhaps even appreciate?) the parts that I consider to be self-indulgent erudition-fests, it’s a nice little murder mystery. So I no longer think ill of the dead to quite the same extent as I did before. If, in addition, you’re a fan of books that contain unglossed, untranslated Middle High German and fewer women than Lord of the Rings, you should definitely give this book a go.

Talmy Givón, On understanding grammar

A weird and depressing book. Chapter 1 is a worthy contribution to Chomsky hate-lit, full of vitriol. Chapters 2-4 mostly seem to contain sensible linguistics, if not earth-shattering; chapters 5 and 6 are diachronic, and perhaps the most interesting and innovative bits; and chapters 7 and 8 go fully off the rails. 7 contains a long discussion of the evidence that Givón’s dog provides for the evolution of language. As if that wasn’t bad enough, 8 is full-on batshit: a manic juxtaposition of Wittgenstein quotes, Taoist philosophy, the fundamental of the universe, and a beautiful passage about the perceptual abilities of trees. Only a supremely arrogant man could write a book like this - clever, to be sure, but above all trying to establish himself as a sort of anti-Chomsky (like many before and after, and with no more success). I have little desire to read more by him.

Edgar Cantero, Meddling Kids

Enid Blyton meets H. P. Lovecraft meets B-movie. Energetic and silly, and occasionally thought-provoking. The style jumps sometimes to script dialogue, which I found a bit jarring. The opening is quite a slow-burner, but contains some nice character development. The second half of the book is hard to put down. A classic it ain’t, but enjoyable for sure.

Raúl Ibáñez, The dream of the perfect map

A potted history of world maps and the different projections that are used. A bit mathematically heavy even for someone with my background, although I probably shouldn’t have used it as bedtime reading in the first place. I learned a lot, and had fun with the cool diagrams.

Mary Hayes & Allison Burkette (eds.), Approaches to teaching the history of the English language

Again, see my review when it comes out. Handy if you’re teaching a History of English course, in any case!

William Labov, Principles of linguistic change, vol. 1: Internal factors

I might get lynched for saying this, but this is really the most disappointing book of the year so far. It certainly took me the longest, at 600 densely-packed pages. I have no doubt that this is fantastic linguistics, but Labov has never been easy to read (for me at least), and the book is horrifically mistitled: “Principles of vowel change, mostly in American English” would be more appropriate. I just can’t get excited about mergers or chain shifts (or at least not very excited). On the plus side, the short sections D and E at the end of the book are of much wider interest. Labov does take lexical diffusionists seriously, unlike most people in the traditional historical linguistics literature – even the Chinese ones like Wang and Shen, who are very widely ignored.

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust, vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage

Not a very good book. In the first half, not much happens; the second half is monster-of-the-chapter adventure-by-numbers. I find it hard to imagine that a child or young adult would get more out of it than I did. A shame, since Northern Lights (as well as, to an extent, the sequels) was so good.

Reijer Hooykaas, The principle of uniformity in geology, biology and theology

Fascinating intellectual history.

Nicholas Howe, Migration and mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England

More in the direction of literary studies than I usually venture, but this is wonderful. Howe argues that virtually everyone writing in Britain during the Old English period was influenced by the myth of the Anglo-Saxon migration: Gildas and Bede play a key role in constructing it (chapter 2), while parallels are seen by Wulfstan in the advances of the Vikings (chapter 1), by the Exodus poet in the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea (chapter 3), by the missions of Augustine and Boniface to Christianize the island and later the continental Saxons (chapter 4). And all of this leads into a discussion of the role of place in Beowulf (chapter 5). It’s hard not to see echoes of the myth in today’s Brexit discussions - and the book was written in 1989.

Martin Rudwick, The meaning of fossils (2nd edition)

Overview of the development of palaeontology from the 16th to the mid-19th centuries. Nicely written and scholarly, but since I’m not that interested in the subject matter and it overlapped with Hooykaas, I didn’t get so much our of it. (I was hoping for more uniformitarianism.)

N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

A cerebral, beautifully-written fantasy novel, well worth a read. The only quibble I had was with the pacing, which didn’t exactly follow the usual “dramatic build-up” model; rather, it’d jump from 0 to AARGH within about a page and then back again. Keeps you on your toes, anyhow.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great idea! Thanks for this blog, George, which I got to via Facebook. On the linguistics of English side it was helpful to me, especially since I have to do quite a bit of undergraduate teaching on the English bachelor programme here in Tromsø (although not so far on anything historical). You and I also have two books in common for the year: Buried Giant, and The Fifth Season. I loved the former, and I thought the latter was pretty good too. My only gripe with The Fifth Season is that I was a little underwhelmed by the emotional (lack of) intelligence and unsubtlety of the main characters. Mostly Syenite. But then again I usually read high brow fiction, so this was a rare foray for me into science fiction/fantasy. I was tempted into the genre by having read the first four Earthsea books by Le Guin. I thought those were brilliant! No lack of subtlety there. I actually had no idea that my own book was on your list until I got to it. Thanks for reading it, and thanks for the word iconoclastic. That was the intention.