With the holidays just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to curl up by the fire and catch up on some reading. For that purpose, we’ve compiled this list of the best new books on language that came out this year. They also make great last-minute Christmas gifts for every sort of linguist in your life!
Rather than turn our noses up at emoji and lolcats as “bad English,” Gretchen McCulloch encourages us to explore this revolutionary period in linguistic history from a place of excitement and curiosity. She shows us how the explosion of informal writing brought about by the internet provides new insight into “the parts of language that we don’t even know we’re so good at, the patterns that merge spontaneously, whe we aren’t really thinking about them.” A book that’s sure to change your perspective.
Wordslut examines the ways that the English language and our attitudes to it are shaped by patriarchal power structures. That might sound a bit heavy for a holiday read, but it’s not! Amanda Montell manages to pack a tonne of research and profound insight into a sharp-witted page turner that will change the way you see typically “feminine” speech patterns, give you lots of fun facts to share at Christmas parties, and inspire you to take back the English language.
Part memoire, part travel book, part ode to the Greek language, Greek to Me is the perfect gift for the Classics lover on your list. New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris (aka the “Comma Queen”) recounts her decades-long journey into learning ancient and modern Greek, reading Homer and exploring the land of the rosy-fingered dawn and the wine-dark sea. Her passion is absolutely infectious, and her sharp wit and irreverent tone make it a delightful read. You’ll be booking a ticket to Athens and dusting off your old copy of Sophocles before you’re done.
The semicolon gets a bad rap. It’s often seen as pretentious, and many writers and teachers argue that it’s so frequently misused we’re better off avoiding it altogether. But Cecelia Watson has a different view. She charts the rise and fall of this infamous punctuation mark through history and—with examples from great literary passages—mounts a case for its defence. Semicolon reveals the power of punctuation to give music and meaning to our writing, beyond restrictive grammar rules.
The history of American English is more dramatic than you thought. The Dictionary Wars recounts the patriotic fervor in the early American republic to produce a national dictionary that would reflect the United States’ independence from Britain. What was meant to be a unifying project soon devolved into an intense rivalry between America’s first lexicographers, Noah Webster and Joseph Emerson Worcester, who fought over who could best represent the soul and identity of American culture.
The Grammarians is a novel about a set of identical twins, Laurel and Daphne, who share an obsession with words. As toddlers, they speak a secret “twin” tongue that binds them together, but when they grow up their infatuation with language begins to push them apart. Daphne is a copyeditor, devoted to preserving the dignity and elegance of Standard English. Laurel is a poet, drawn to the polymorphous, chameleon nature of the written and spoken word. Their fraying twinship finally shreds completely when the sisters go to war, absurdly but passionately, over custody of their most prized family heirloom: Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition.