Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Books read 2019

At the start of 2018 I resolved to read more books, and I’ve more or less kept it up in 2019. Purely quantitatively I’m trailing a bit (45 this year as opposed to 58 last year), but in my defence there were some very hefty tomes in there this year. Anyhow, on with the mini-reviews!

T. Craig Christy, Uniformitarianism in linguistics

A fine work of William Dwight Whitney fan fiction. I finally understand why everyone is so negative about this book. Christy is set on showing how Lyell’s uniformitarianism made its way into linguistics, that it was Whitney who was responsible, and that this was a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense. In so doing he first presents then ignores evidence that uniformitarianism had antecedents long before Lyell, and that Müller and others were using the idea before Whitney. He’s also unclear on what uniformitarianism is: at one point it boils down to “long timescale”, but this is then ignored in the second half, where the focus is on method. And he’s mean about Müller while at the same time asserting on no grounds that he’s wrong about things. Someone needs to write a better history of uniformitarianism in linguistics (and no, it won’t be me).

Miriam Butt, Theories of Case

A clear and accessible overview of the development of different theories of case. The focus is on GB/Minimalist-style structural approaches and “linking” approaches (Kiparsky, Wunderlich, LFG), with these two families each receiving a hefty chapter of their own. There’s also some historical context, from the ancient grammarians to Relational Grammar, and some considerations of other approaches (RRG, OT). The “ergative dragon” also gets anatomized. Very useful for me from the perspective of seeing why things are viewed the way they are today, even if I don’t particularly intend to become a case and argument structure pro any time soon.

Nicole Dehé, Parentheticals in spoken English: the syntax-prosody relation

At once an inspiring and a frustrating read. Inspiring because methodologically it’s pretty much breaking new ground (corpus prosody) and relates its findings to a ton of previous research. Frustrating because over every page I was expecting to see “here’s the theory of the prosody-syntax interface that actually allows you to make sense of this data”, which the author would certainly be capable of delivering. But even the predictions of existing theories (i.e. Match) which aren’t borne out are mentioned quite briefly. Well, I look forward to the sequel presenting the one true theory of prosody, anyway!

Noam Chomsky, Cartesian linguistics, 3rd edition

Here Chomsky meditates on some of his rationalist forebears – particularly Descartes himself, the Port-Royal grammarians, and Humboldt. Regardless of its merits as intellectual history (which it isn’t really supposed to be) or lack thereof, it’s certainly interesting, and contains some of Chomsky’s most explicit discussion of linguistic creativity. Even the nauseatingly hagiographic introduction by McGilvray contains some good discussion, e.g. as regards “common sense” and empiricist methodological dualism. (At 52 pages, this intro is almost as long as the rest of the book, and can easily be skipped by the reader in a hurry.)

Jun Terasawa, Old English metre: an introduction

I read this mainly to check whether it’d be good for students, but it’s also good for people like me who can never remember which of Sievers’ types is which. Chapters 1-3 are very introductory and very clear. Chapters 4-7 are more advanced, and provide up-to-date references on these more in-depth topics. And it’s nice and slender, too.

Steven Erikson, Forge of Darkness

Worst book I’ve read in years. Nothing happens for 660 pages while a host of characters with stupid names and no personality mouth ominous platitudes at one another. Only my completionist tendency got me through this one.

Güliz Günes, Deriving prosodic structures

An eye-opening, clearly written study. It’s hard to believe this is only a PhD thesis. First half presents a new way of thinking about prosody, based loosely on Match Theory but cashed out derivationally. Second half demonstrates very clearly the link between intonation phrases and illocutionary force in Turkish. Excellent.

Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest

Sci-fi as it should be. Daring, human, vertiginous, mind-boggling. Even better than its predecessor, I think.

Robert Fulk, A history of Old English meter

By no means an easy read, exacerbated by the author’s old-school philological style (section numbers, argument from authority, references in footnotes). In fact, it reads as if it were written in the 30s and 40s rather than 80s and 90s. And anyone who claims that generativists invented impenetrable formalisms in the study of language would do well to look at the bloated body of work on early Germanic metrics. Still, the weight of erudition behind this book is tremendous, and the conclusions are persuasive, in particular as regards the early date of Beowulf. No doubt I will be revisiting this one once I know more.

Private Eye Annual 2018


David Lightfoot, Principles of diachronic syntax

Still as stimulating and frustrating as it was on a first read. Widely known as “that book about the modals and the Transparency Principle”, there’s far more in here than most people realize (or acknowledge). Quite apart from the three whole chapters of case studies that are rarely if ever mentioned (chapters 4-6), there’s a full-blown theory of change in here. Though the tone isn’t as resolutely I-language-focused as it is in his later work (he says things like “grammars can undergo radical restructuring”, p81, presupposing that it’s grammars that change”, the seeds are there, including the famous “how could a child” passage (p391). There’s also detailed discussion of analogy, language contact, and more. People don’t, on the whole, write books like this any more, for better or for worse.

Aphra Behn, Oroonoko and other writings

Surely one of the most interesting people of the early modern period, so I was curious. This collection is a mixed bag. Oroonoko itself is a fascinating, multifaceted story, challenging preconceptions about race relations in the period. The History of the Nun is also fun to read. By contrast, Memoirs of the Court of the King of Bantam is well-nigh incomprehensible, and some of the others are forgettable. A more careful reader than me would probably be able to infer a lot about the state of being a woman in early modern England. The same goes for the poetry: some of it is fairly boring, including a lot of poems about people who’ve recently died (“So. Farewell then”), but there are more meaningful moments too, such as To the Fair Clarinda.

Rolf Bremmer, An Introduction to Old Frisian

Very useful. Someone at Benjamins probably could have seen their way clear to proofreading it, though; there are a ton of typographical errors.

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

A lot of the fiction books I read have weird and/or depressing endings, so it’s great to read something that starts from the ultimate low point and climbs steadily upwards. I don’t like using the word “life-affirming”, but this book definitely is. Only one quibble: I couldn’t really see the point of Nettie’s letters, which start out about halfway through and seem stylistically and thematically a poor fit with the rest. (Maybe that in itself is the point?) I feel like the book would have been just as good without them.

Richard Larson, Grammar as Science

Started reading this last year when teaching a course based on the first four-fifths of it, and finished it this year. I think this is pretty much the perfect book to use for introductory syntax, especially a) with students who don’t do much linguistics (like mine) and b) with students who may then go on to pick up other formal models of grammar like LFG. Not all of the arguments are equally strong (the bit about PRO is super weak, to my mind), but the general pedagogical approach seems to work well.

Deborah Harkness, Time’s Convert

A nice easy-reading vampire novel that I picked up to get away from some of the bulkier tomes that will hopefully appear later on this year’s list. I was expecting a bit more bodice-ripping and bloodspilling, but instead what I got was quite a wholesome family story in which, at the end of the day, not all that much happens. It has a nice jaunt through 18th-century revolutionary America and France, though.

Jonathan Hsy, Trading tongues: merchants, multilingualism, and medieval literature

In case you were in any doubt about the multilingual credentials of medieval writers in England, this is the book to read: Hsy clearly shows how people like Chaucer, Gower, Kempe and Charles of Orleans (as well as a range of lesser-known mercantile writers) were able and willing to skip from language to language as part of business as usual. It’s written from a literary-historical perspective, and the constant talk of challenging binaries while inhabiting translingual spaces, etc., is a bit grating for a reader like me. But there’s no doubt that this is an important contribution to our understanding of medieval multilingualism.

Susan Oosthuizen, The emergence of the English

The traditional story of swarms of warrior immigrants in the 5th century has long since been debunked. This provocative little book by Oosthuizen aims to take the debate one step further – calling into question whether the concept of “Anglo-Saxons” as an incoming ethnic group has any explanatory value at all. After briefly surveying the subject area in chapter 1, Oosthuizen discusses the empirical evidence in chapter 2, problematizes explanations based on ethnicity in chapter 3, and proposes an alternative in chapter 4, predicated on continuity (and based on a case study of common land rights throughout the supposed period of migration). She comes down particularly hard on approaches that equate Anglo-Saxon England to apartheid South Africa. Some of the argumentation is convincing to me, other bits aren’t – for instance, the treatment of Ine’s laws seems a bit loose. And the alternative explanation in chapter 4 is sketched in terms that are so broad-brush as to be difficult to evaluate (though in fairness this is just as true of traditional approaches). This will certainly stimulate debate, and I’d like to see more in this vein - especially as regards its implications for the history of the English language.

J. N. Adams, Wackernagel’s law and the placement of the copula esse in classical Latin

More of a long article than a book (at 90 pages), the key question here is whether placement of the copula esse in classical Latin obeys Wackernagel’s law. Adams argues convincingly that it doesn’t, and that it is instead generally enclitic to a focused constituent, which may or may not be in first position.

Andy Weir, Artemis

Needed some holiday easy reading, and this was just the thing. Action-packed sci-fi. Reads like it’s been written by a horny 14-year-old nerd, but still a good page-turner. Polished off in three days.

Natalie Braber & Jonnie Robinson, East Midlands English

I’m from the northwest of this area and, as the authors state in their opening chapter, the complete absence of any reference to it in most dialectological discussions is astounding. The appearance of this book was therefore very welcome to me. It gives a fairly cursory overview of all domains of the language (syntax getting very short shrift) which is nevertheless inspiring – I feel like I ought to use the oral history project from my village, Tideswell, to make a contribution along these lines at some point. That’d be particularly valuable as this book is really focused mostly on the Three Cities area of Derby, Nottingham and Leicester and the surrounding ex-coal-mining areas, and the Peak District has its own sense of identity and linguistic peculiarities.

Peter Kruschwitz, Römische Inschriften und Wackernagels Gesetz

Another slender volume. Kruschwitz basically replicates Adams’s studies on the placement of copula esse and personal pronouns in Latin, but this time in the epigraphic material. He finds that by and large Adams’s conclusions hold for this dataset too. (Major gripe: gloss and translate your damn examples, Latinists!)

William Gibson, Neuromancer

Having been immersed in cyberpunk for so long (Blade Runner, Deus Ex, Shadowrun, Altered Carbon) I was expecting to be underwhelmed by this. But no – it’s sublime beyond its prescience. I only wish my teenage self had been exposed to it. I could have done without the space Rastafarians, though.

Mike Smith, Derbyshire Dialect

This is a slim volume even compared to the other books I’ve been calling slim. And it’s not really about Derbyshire dialect, instead dealing mostly with interesting traditions and historical peculiarities of the region. I learned several things nonetheless!

Michelle Obama, Becoming

As well as shedding light on White House life, this book reveals a genuine, dedicated, brilliant woman who’s fashioned herself into a weapon against injustice. Many lessons here for anyone who wants to use their own resources and position – whatever it happens to be – to make the world better.

Lionel Davidson, Kolymsky Heights

This thriller builds like an avalanche: very slow at first, then hurtling towards the end. The nuts-and-bolts buildup we get in the first half of the book is crucial for setting out exactly what’s at stake. We don’t get much insight into any of the characters other than the protagonist, even the woman he sleeps with. It’d also be nice to know how he became so awesome at absolutely everything. But hey, lots of fun.

David Goldstein, Classical Greek Syntax

Using so-called Wackernagel clitics as a springboard, this book is a wide-ranging investigation of clause structure in Classical Greek. It is scrupulously exemplified, and information-structurally very sophisticated. The syntactic approach (e.g. in terms of adjunction to S) strikes me as somewhat dated, but the analysis seems to make clear predictions that can be tested in future work. On some points - e.g. the question of clitics as non-projecting words – I’d have liked more discussion.

Neal Snape & Tanja Kupisch, Second language acquisition

Books by colleagues n+1! While this book is packed full of interesting things, and I learned a lot from it, my overarching impression is that it’s not very successful qua book. Rather, it’s a succession of short summaries of experimental studies, organized into useful categories. Some of the meatier theoretical issues are glossed over quite briefly. To me at least it would have been handier to have a bit more of a frame narrative to glue everything together, even if that meant covering less material.

Joan Bybee, Language change

I won’t lie, I came to this textbook expecting to hate it. What I actually found was not as bad as I imagined. The three chapters on analogy and grammaticalization are really nice, and I could imagine using them in teaching. The bit on sound change is pretty taxonomic, despite Bybee’s stated desire to avoid “a disjointed laundry list of named types”. The section in syntactic change is very dated, relying heavily on work from the 70s with a gentle gesture in the direction of modern construction grammar work. The nadir is the glowing write-up of Greenbergian mass comparison. There’s an interesting theory-comparison bit at the end that I would also happily give more advanced students to read.

Simon Bradley, The Railways

It’s always an unpleasant experience to realize that you weren’t quite as passionate about something you thought you were passionate about as you thought. Sadly, this book had that effect on me. It’s 550 pages long and the anecdotes and information come thick and fast, ranging from the evolution of carriage layouts to the minutiae of the spotter’s life. I got a fair bit out of it, but most of it will have washed over me without any lasting effect, to my great shame and regret.

Adele Goldberg, Constructions: A Construction Grammar approach to argument structure

This book is way more... generative than I imagined it being. Despite the title, it’s exclusively about English. The references (of which there are many) are almost all to works written in America since 1965. Some use is made of corpus examples, but mostly only to illustrate grammatical sentences, and the judgements drawn upon strike me as sometimes being more subtle and disputed than they are reported to be. That said, this was 1995 (and it’s an updated version of a PhD submitted in 1992). Plus there’s some cracking syntactic analysis and argumentation in here. Far from being obsessed with minor idiosyncrasies (my perhaps slightly unfair assessment of a lot of CxG work, which Goldberg herself actually hints at in the conclusion), this book is about how to capture robust generalizations that otherwise don’t receive satisfying accounts. It sometimes gets a bit hand-wavey about the specific verbs that can occur with a given construction, but for the most part it’s clear and explicit about what’s going on.

Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf

An epic fantasy written by a Man Booker Prize winner and drawing on African history and mythology. Given those things, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped, and it took me a very long time to plough through it. The quest-style middle section, with a LotR-style cast of supporting characters, is great, but it was hard for me to discern any narrative progression at all towards the start and the end. And I find the style sometimes extremely disjointed: pages of direct dialogue without any indication of who’s speaking had me losing not only the plot but also the will to live. Still, at its best the book is fabulous, deviant and powerful.

Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

I’m surprised this book isn’t more widely known, especially now, given its exploration of themes surrounding gender in human society. It seems like a disservice to call this book sci-fi, but that really reflects more on the snobbishly pejorative connotations attached to the term (and ‘genre’ fiction more broadly – as if there is such a thing as non-genre fiction!) than on the book itself. Beyond gender the book addresses questions to do with nationalism, political propaganda and face-saving, prediction, and more. Plus it’s a good story.

Lourens van den Bosch, Max Müller: a life devoted to the humanities

This hefty, wide-ranging, and at points dense book is one of the reasons I didn’t read as many books in 2019 as in 2018. The protagonist, who has pretty much vanished without a trace in the popular historiography of linguistics, is an incredible thinker, bridge-builder, and activist whose ideas bear substantial similarities to some independently arrived at more recently. He was no respecter of disciplinary boundaries, making impressive contributions not only to linguistics but also to the comparative studies of mythology and religion (in these two fields there’d be some justification for calling him the founder figure). It’s hard to see why his reputation sank as much as it did after his death.

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

I’m not emotionally intelligent enough for this book, I think. It’s easy to see that this is beautiful prose, but a lot of reading between the lines is required to figure out what is going on and why, and I mostly couldn’t. One to revisit when I’m older and wiser.

Cynthia Allen, Dative External Possessors in Early English

There’s quite possibly no one who does theoretically informed, philologically reliable, corpus-based work on the syntax of early English as well as Allen. In this book, she tackles the question of dative external possessors, showing in detail that they were on the decline throughout the Old English period. A causal scenario based on the loss of dative case can be convincingly rejected, but Celtic influence (of a certain kind) remains plausible. This should pretty much be the last word on the issue. On a personal note, I’m glad to see my little HeliPaD corpus enjoying some use.

Manfred Krug, Emerging English modals: a corpus-based study of grammaticalization

This is an empirically very rich study whose theoretical side leaves something to be desired. Lots of linguists, unfortunately, especially in the philological traditions, treat their literature reviews as group identity signifiers rather than hypothesis drivers (in this case, usage-based linguistics and grammaticalization theory), and then develop particularistic post hoc explanations. It’d be unfair to single Krug out for this. There’s an important exception, though: the gravitational model developed in the final chapter, which is (or should be) genuinely predictive. The subsequent literature seems not to have picked up on this, however, which is a shame.

Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

A good dose of sci-fi intrigue. Not massively original, but intelligent and well-crafted, with the twin themes of memory and belonging running like a river through it. Better characterization of the key figures than a lot of sci-fi I’ve read. And there are enough loose ends to make me pretty keen to read the sequel, when it comes out.

Colette Moore & Chris Palmer (eds.), Teaching the history of the English language

Stay tuned for a review of this, hopefully! The tl;dr version is “useful, but too North-America-centric”.

Shadowrun Sixth World Core Rulebook

When I read books like this as a teenager I skimmed eagerly over the flavour text and images in order to get to the stats. It’s interesting to discover as I get older that I’m leaning back towards the text (not the images). Perhaps it’s part of my general personality change. Anyhow, this is supposed to be a discussion of the book, not of me, so: it’s great! If you’re into that kind of thing. Good for getting the creative juices flowing.

Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an antiracist

A punchy, clearly written book that’s part autobiography and part manifesto. A good starting point for the relatively uninitiated like me. Kendi clearly explains what the problems are with assimilationist and integrationist views on race, as well as “race-blindness” (which might work in an ideal world, but that’s very far removed from where we are now). More interesting and novel to me was Kendi’s critique of the concept of structural racism as depersonalizing. And the key take-home is probably that racism is motivated more by self-interest than by ignorance or hate.

Guangshun Cao & Hsiao-jung Yu (eds.), Language contact and change in Chinese

A collection of essays originally written in Chinese and translated into English, dealing with two contact situations in particular: Sanskrit (in the context of translated Buddhist texts) and Mongolian (in the context of Mongol rule). The papers and the translations both vary tremendously in quality. The inclusion of Lansheng Jiang’s paper on four-character state adjectives, which has nothing to do with contact, is mystifying. But I learned a lot about potential cases of syntactic transfer from Sanskrit and Mongolian, and I’m glad this material is being made more easily accessible to a Western readership.

N. K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

Not nearly as good as its predecessor – suffers from middle-of-trilogy syndrome. We get much more of a sense of what’s at stake, and lots of buildup for an epic confrontation in the next book, but ultimately not much of great import happens and we also don’t get much in the way of character development (at least not for Syenite/Essun). It’s still well-written and powerful but not as engaging, and, like the first volume, the pacing wasn’t very satisfying to me.

Diane Watt, Women, writing and religion in England and beyond, 650-1100

This book opened my eyes to the tradition of powerful and literate women in the early medieval period, which I’m sorry to say I was completely ignorant of – so it’s useful for the history of English I’m co-writing. Not all of the details were equally thrilling to me, though.

Private Eye Annual 2019

With all of its stupid, surreal awfulness on the geopolitical stage, 2019 was a hard year to satirize, so respect to everyone involved here. Except possibly the cartoonists, who seem to have dealt with the situation by going on an acid trip – I couldn’t make much sense of most of the cartoons, and even when I could they were odd rather than funny.