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You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches,…

You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics…

by Robert Lane Greene

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I started reading this book because of my delight in having someone defend split infinitives and ending sentences with a preposition and taking issue with Lynne Trusse (“Eats, Shoots and Leaves). I kept reading for the interesting experiments in linguistics and the efforts of various governments to control language, particularly that of Ataturk in the early 1900’s. Favorite quote is from Max Weinreich: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” I give it four stars for content (accent on the first syllable). ( )
  Jeannine504 | Jan 23, 2016 |
You Are What You Speak

Although I anticipated an interesting and informative reading of You Are What You Speak, I found the ironically close-minded, autocratic approach of the author to be off-putting. He argues for an openness to language diversity but then negatively stereotypes those who espouse a more "standards based" approach ("sticklers" in his terminology). He acknowledges that, "Not all sticklers are political conservatives or nationalists. But the rigid thinking behind sticklerism—'You must speak and write this way, and only this way'—dovetails with a rigid thinking about group belonging. (p. xvii-xviii). He segues to nationalism, discrimination, and war. Such extremism in defense of the position that language diversity is desirable undercuts his credibility as an advocate.

Greene acknowledges that the purpose of language is communication (p. xx), but seems to not grasp the basic principle that clear communication is, in part, dependent on shared conventions and precision. Communicating creatively and ambiguously in ways that invite or allow multiple interpretations is an art form. As such, it is to be prized when that is the purpose of the passage. However, in many instances the goal is to communicate clearly and unambiguously. The efforts of those he condescendingly dismisses as "sticklers" is to articulate principles that advance that goal. Each form of communication has its place.

If Green were merely suggesting that everyday language, with it's disregard of the "rules" of formal language, should be respected he would be on solid ground. We all speak a colloquial patois in our everyday affairs. However, Green seems unable or unwilling to limit himself to that more moderate position. He equates an effort to encourage a common language with dictatorship and cites examples from Franco, Stalin, and China in buttressing his argument. Even the United States, Ireland, and France come in for criticism for their efforts to promote a common language. Ignored is the reality that we will all have to become conversant in multiple languages—not a bad situation if you have the aptitude and time to become multilingual—in order to conduct our everyday business. Green's arguments might have come across as more of a scholarly consideration of a complex issue if he had given equal consideration to the benefits of a common language.

It is easy to understand that a person who has devoted his life to the study of language and speaks nine languages can be an enthusiastic advocate of language diversity. An essay rhapsodizing about the beauty of language, written by a language enthusiast, would have a certain charm. However, as a scholarly work by a "professional" this book fails to provide an impartial, nuanced consideration of this complex issue.

I recommend that those who are searching for an interesting book on language consider Rosemarie Ostler's Founding Grammars: how Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's language. ( )
  Tatoosh | Dec 15, 2015 |
Fun. ( )
  pilarflores | May 20, 2011 |
The subtitle of this book is: “Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity.” That is actually a pretty good summary of this book, which is a series of essays emphasizing linguists’ (including the author) views of language and some of the issues surrounding it.

I once heard a speaker say that the best kind of learning is learning about one’s self. If that’s true, You Are What You Speak provides the best kind of learning. An example: In my reviews, I can be quick to criticize professional writers who make silly mistakes in print when they should know better. I cringe every time I see “who” used when “whom” is correct (but seeing such mistakes doesn’t ruin my day). Reading Robert Lane Greene’s book has liberated me from being overly concerned about grammar. Even if the distinction between who and whom goes away, that’s just the way language has always evolved. Unless we want English to become a dead language, it will change and the world will go on spinning and orbiting around the sun. So, I’m going to lighten up and find something else to worry about.

I love the author’s writing style, his informed view of the politics of language, and all that he gives readers to think about. Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by language and writing, and when I read the New York Times review of this book, I knew I had to buy this book. I got much more from You Are What You Speak than I could have expected or even imagined.

I also like that the author takes on some very popular writers on language including Lynne Truss (of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame) in the chapter “A Brief History of Sticklers,” and Bill Bryson (who wrote The Mother Tongue) in the chapter “Babel and the Damage Done.” And he chides the English teachers who preached about not splitting infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition as if those were really rules of English grammar. Shame on them!

(An aside: I once wrote a letter to an in-law who was an English teacher. She returned it with corrections in red. Most of the “mistakes” were simply stylistic differences (I majored in journalism and she didn’t) not grammatical errors. I never wrote her another letter. Now I know she was afflicted with stickler-ism, poor woman!) ( )
2 vote NewsieQ | Apr 22, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553807870, Hardcover)

"An insightful, accessible examination of the way in which day-to-day speech is tangled in a complicated web of history, politics, race, economics and power." - Kirkus

What is it about other people’s language that moves some of us to anxiety or even rage? For centuries, sticklers the world over have donned the cloak of authority to control the way people use words. Now this sensational new book strikes back to defend the fascinating, real-life diversity of this most basic human faculty.

With the erudite yet accessible style that marks his work as a journalist, Robert Lane Greene takes readers on a rollicking tour around the world, illustrating with vivid anecdotes the role language beliefs play in shaping our identities, for good and ill. Beginning with literal myths, from the Tower of Babel to the bloody origins of the word “shibboleth,” Greene shows how language “experts” went from myth-making to rule-making and from building cohesive communities to building modern nations. From the notion of one language’s superiority to the common perception that phrases like “It’s me” are “bad English,” linguistic beliefs too often define “us” and distance “them,” supporting class, ethnic, or national prejudices. In short: What we hear about language is often really about the politics of identity.

Governments foolishly try to police language development (the French Academy), nationalism leads to the violent suppression of minority languages (Kurdish and Basque), and even Americans fear that the most successful language in world history (English) may be threatened by increased immigration. These false language beliefs are often tied to harmful political ends and can lead to the violation of basic human rights. Conversely, political involvement in language can sometimes prove beneficial, as with the Zionist  revival of Hebrew or our present-day efforts to provide education in foreign languages essential to business, diplomacy, and intelligence. And yes, standardized languages play a crucial role in uniting modern societies.

As this fascinating book shows, everything we’ve been taught to think about language may not be wrong—but it is often about something more than language alone. You Are What You Speak will certainly get people talking.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:42 -0400)

An international correspondent for "The Economist" draws on his years of experience to analyze the symbiotic relationship between language and politics, providing insight into inherent tendencies toward prejudice.

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