We use language every day to explain how we’re feeling, make friends, lie to each other, and even try to communicate with aliens. Arguably, it’s one of our most defining qualities that separates us from the animals, and the science of language – how we use it and why – can tell us a lot about ourselves. Here is our pick of the best science books on linguistics.
Discover more great science books in our reading lists:
Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch
Scroll through Facebook or Twitter and you’ll notice that many people type in a particular style: full of lols and emoji, and rarely using punctuation or capital letters.
Does this mean that we’re losing the ability to use our language correctly? Gretchen McCulloch says absolutely not: in fact, internet users have collaboratively developed a style of language that makes communication much richer.
If you’ve ever wondered why young people panic when their boss texts them “Ok.” or how you can tell how old someone is by whether they use “LOL” or “lol”, Because Internet is the book for you.
Plus, find out what sort of “Internet Person” you are (I’m a Full Internet Person, which will tell you almost exactly how old I am!), learn about why humour and sarcasm drive our use of language, and take a tour through the history of lol.
Listen to Gretchen McCulloch talk about the book in the Science Focus Podcast:
The Art of the Lie by Marcel Danesi
How can you tell when a politician is lying? Their lips are moving, or so the old joke goes.
But why do politicians lie? To make promises, to cover up mistakes, to make a bad situation seem good – in other words, to gain and hold onto power.
The first ever playbook of lying was The Prince by Renaissance diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, describing how a manipulative, scheming leader could twist and rearrange the reality until it served their needs, cementing their position in the process.
More recently, the showman PT Barnum pioneered the use of hyperbole and exaggerated language to sell tickets to his circus – “The Greatest Show on Earth”.
In The Art of the Lie, Marcel Danesi explores the facets of the language of lying, and how it has entered common political discourse. Next time you’re listening to a politician, look out for exaggeration (“unbelievable”, “great”, “tremendous”), gaslighting (“No, what I actually said was…”), and vague, unprovable claims (“Somebody told me…”).
Language Unlimited by David Adger
When you’re first learning French at school, learning the grammar as well as the vocabulary might seem difficult and confusing – why do the French say an apple red instead of a red apple or I am gone to the cinema instead of I have gone to the cinema?
But, as it turns out, the syntaxes of French and English have much more in common than they have differences. In fact, all 7,000 human language share some fundamental common features.
So why is this? Is the human brain set up to understand language, as long as it fits certain rules? How can we find out?
One way is through constructed languages, or conlangs. Conlangs are artificial languages, sometimes made up for fun, or sometimes for creative or artistic purposes. One famous ‘conlanger’ was JRR Tolkien, who developed several languages for his The Lord of the Rings series, most notably Elvish.
In Language Unlimited, David Adger explains how to create a conlang, how they can probe at the origins of language in our brains, and how children communicate when they grow up without a language.
Extraterrestrial Languages by Daniel Oberhaus
Searching for aliens is all well and good, but what do we do if we find them? How will we talk to them? Most human languages rely on sounds or written words, so we could send a recording or a note for them to decipher.
But what if this hypothetical species communicates in a completely different way entirely? The difficulty with leaving a message for our cosmic neighbours is that we have to make it understandable to any type of being that could possibly encounter it.
Daniel Oberhaus’s Extraterrestrial Languages discusses all the ideas that people have had for creating a message for the aliens, from the Voyager Golden Record to SETI and even Morse code.
Read more about contacting aliens:
Changing Minds by Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts
Grandparents have a reputation for telling long, rambling stories. Where does this come from? Is it just that, as you get older, you have more stories to tell? Or is it something deeper?
Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts explain in Changing Minds how our language abilities change as we get older, and not just for the worse. As we age, our working memory may decline, but our vocabulary and writing ability might even grow.
So, when your older relatives start telling the same old family stories at Christmas, listen up. You might learn something.
Read more about ageing:
Don’t Believe A Word by David Shariatmadari
You know those fun language facts that you sometimes see on the internet? The ones about the long German words which can’t be translated into English, or about how you’re using a word like ‘decimate’ wrong, because of what it originally was created to describe?
Well, those might not be quite as true as true as those tweets led you to believe. In Don’t Believe A Word, David Shariatmadari debunks 9 common misconceptions about language, and explains why the truth is actually far more interesting.
Read more on debunking common misconceptions:
Animal Languages by Eva Meijer
Maybe I spoke too soon, because according to Eva Meijer, languages isn’t such a uniquely human power after all. Clearly, animals can communicate. My dog, for example, lets me know when he wants to go outside (he once said something that sounded like the word ‘walk’, but that may have been coincidence). But can what animals do really be classed as language?
Actually, yes. Chimps, for example, use gestures that follow the same mathematical patterns as human language. Dolphins use distinctive whistles as names to identify each other, parrots can learn to use human words and understand what they mean, and squid talk in colour patterns with grammar rules. And yes, your dog does understand lots of what you say to them.
We’re a long way from Dr Dolittle just yet, but what we know so far is fascinating.