When you want to decide on what to read in language and linguistics, it is never easy to pick a reading list; there are just so many books out there under the label of linguistics, especially that publications in linguistics have been growing like wildfire in the last couple of decades. So with your limited time and the unlimited number of books, it is always wise to make some research beforehand on what exactly you want to read. There is a lot to choose from, and the best book will depend on what you are specifically interested in. This is why we at The Language Nerds compiled a list of linguistics books that will entertain the novice and the expert alike. Here are some places to start:
1. The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
This is a book for general science readers, it is very accessible whether you have a background in linguistics or not. It is considered by many as a landmark in linguistics. It is a great introduction and primer to some of the more basic problems and questions in linguistics. It is entertaining, sarcasm-loaded, and man so anti-prescriptivist! Here are some quotes to tease your appetite:
“Humans are so innately hardwired for language that they can no more suppress their ability to learn and use language than they can suppress the instinct to pull a hand back from a hot surface.”
“Language is obviously as different from other animals’ communication systems as the elephant’s trunk is different from other animals’ nostrils.”
“We can shape events in each others’ heads with exquisite precision.”
If you would like to give the book a read, find it in the link [here].
2. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff
This book is a great and accessible primer for Cognitive Linguistics and can be seen as an alternative way of doing research in language. It explores the effects of cognitive metaphors, both universal and culturally-specific, on the grammar of several languages, and it also delves to explore how we classify things in our minds. I think general audiences find this book more interesting because it’s a bit more fantastical in its approach and the ideas introduced within it.
If you are interested in reading Lakoff’s historical landmark, find the book [here].
3. The Symbolic Species by Terry Deacon
For those intrigued by the question of the evolution of language, this is the book for you. It covers the evolution of language in a more comprehensive way than any other book written on the subject. As it progresses, it gets a little technical, both in terms of discussing evolution and in terms of discussing the notion of symbol, but Deacon’s work is amazingly comprehensive and I think he deserves to be shelved next to Pinker and Lakoff.
The link to get this book is [here].
4. What Language Is by John McWhorter
Well written, with lots of interesting pop tidbits about language, this book offers a fascinating new perspective on the way humans communicate. From vanishing languages spoken by a few hundred people to major tongues like Chinese, with copious revelations about the hodgepodge nature of English. You don’t have to be a linguist or even a student in linguistics to cozy up with this book, all you need to do is turn on your passion for language and enjoy what’s between the covers.
Find the book [here].
5. On Language: Language and Responsibility and Reflections on Language by Noam Chomsky
It’s very difficult to choose which book of Chomsky to suggest for a newbie because his stuff is dense and technical. But then again, if you haven’t read Chomsky, you haven’t read linguistics. I picked this volume because it has political stuff mixed in, which might make it easier to read, and some of it is done in an interview style, also making it easier to digest. If you’re ambitious and have a high tolerance for technical details, go for his early works, like Syntactic Structures. On Language is one of Chomsky’s most informal and accessible works to date, making it an ideal introduction to his thought.
Get this book [here].
6. The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris
If you’re on the verge of linguistics graduate school, this book gives a great behind-the-scenes look at how linguistics is done and some of the personalities of the original generative grammarian generation.
“Sound is the hard currency; meaning is the network of cultural and formal conventions that turns it into a stick of gum at the candy store.”
“Noam Chomsky, in particular, says flatly and often that he has very little concern for language in and of itself; never has, never will. His driving concern is with mental structure, and language is the most revealing tool he has for getting at the mind. Most linguists these days follow Chomsky’s lead here.”
The link to the book is [here].
7. David Crystal
David Crystal has a number of textbook-style introductions to linguistics which are great to use for a 101 class. The most notable introductory book of his remains The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language because it’s very accessible and has a lot of great info throughout. I advise anyone interested in linguistics to read this encyclopedia.
If you want a link to the encyclopedia, find it [here].
8. Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log
This book is a great option if you like more of a blog-y style of writing. This is a collection of some of the posts from Language Log, so it’s not comprehensive and doesn’t really have a narrative arc, but it’s got lots of great short pieces, as does the blog itself, which is a good one to bookmark or RSS.
A link to the book is [here].
Feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section. Don’t forget to share these books with other people who might want to read them.