How do you pronounce biopic, synod, and Breughel? - and why? Do our cake and archaic sound the same? Where does the stress go in stalagmite? What's odd about the word epergne? As a finale, the author writes a letter to his 16-year-old self.
Limits of Language comprises a collection of facts, comments and speculations on nearly every aspect of language, from morphology to sociolinguistics. Instead of attempting an impossible summary, I have included the detailed index, which provides a sense of the variety of topics discussed, as an appendix to this review.
In each section at least a dozen examples of language-related uses and stories, as well as odd characteristics of particular languages are put forth. For instance, the diverse subsections of 'Language learning' comprise notes on how feral children have (not) learned to speak; surprising (and sometimes unsettling) sentences from phrasebooks, such as 'Put your hands over your head!' (from a Somali phrasebook) (p. 113); and short biographies of famous polyglots.
The book also abounds in tables, maps and graphs. For example, the 17 pages of 'big and small languages' include 15 tables (for instance, detailing an estimation of the total number of first- and second-language speakers of languages that have a high proportion of second-language users), five graphs (such as one representing the top ten languages used in films), and two maps schematizing the geographic spread of some languages. There are also numerous pictures, including one of the three degrees of lip rounding in Scandinavian languages, as demonstrated by a native speaker (p. 211).
Limits of Language was intended as a ''Guinness Book'' of languages and linguistics, with the dual aim of showing some fascinating aspects of languages to a wider readership as well as serving as a reference book for linguists where they can determine the limits of language. Having shared some of the book with a few non-linguists, I trust the first goal was met. Limits of Language is an enjoyable and informative cruise around the world's languages. But for the linguistic audience, the question remains -- has the second objective been met?
First of all, it should be noted that -- as Parkvall himself acknowledges -- a book containing data on over a thousand languages is bound to contain some mistakes. However, if readers should be skeptical of or curious about any one statement, they can follow up on the carefully detailed sources at the end of each section.
Nevertheless, I believe it is not as much the particular facts presented that will mesmerize the linguistic audience. In fact, one could argue that, within each linguistic subdiscipline, what is considered extreme depends on one's theoretical viewpoint. The author takes note of this, pointing out when a particular statement is the matter of debate (e.g. whether Marshallese has 3 or 24 vowels; p. 211). Thus, one may happily exercise one's linguistic dogmatism by dissecting such assertions, with a view to reducing the kaleidoscopic complexity sometimes attributed to particular language systems. While one can disagree with some of the statements made in the book, it is impossible to ignore the richness of languages, of Language perhaps, reflected in this text.
This richness and diversity emerges, page after page, illuminating the multifaceted nature of Language, which is subject to the pressures of history, society, the human body and mind. Linguists, each working on a tiny portion of this fabulously intricate construct, have only begun to unravel it. Limits of Language should serve as a reminder of all those aspects we necessarily disregard in our daily work. Fortunately, the reminder comes in the form of a great book.
APPENDIX: Table of Contents
Language in society Language variation and registers for special occasions Language geography Language as a legal matter Language planning Using more than one language Languages in contact Language death and revival Big and small languages Language history Language change Language families Spectacular spread Language in alternate history Written language Signed languages Language learning Learning your first language Second-language learning Polyglots Non-humans and language Artificial languages Forensic linguistics Popular conceptions The subjective approach Language myths Language and identity Pragmatics Language and gender Lexicon How many words are there? Long and short words Having a word for it Dictionaries Common words Coining new words Colour terms Personal names Place names Glossonyms Speech sounds Consonants Vowels and diphthongs Syllable structure Suprasegmentals Architecture of languages Parts of speech Verbs Nouns Adjectives Adverbs Adpositions Articles Demonstratives Personal pronouns Numerals Negation Case Gender and noun classes Number Tense, mood and aspect Voice Morphology Suppletion Sentences Linguists and their discipline Linguistics departments Most studied languages Experimentation in linguistics Some work that didn't stand the test of time Linguists Linguistic terminology Classic example sentences The linguist's guide to the galaxy The Linguist's calendar
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Alejandrina Cristia is a Ph.D. student of linguistics at Purdue University. Her research interests include the contribution of universal grammar to language acquisition, especially in the area of phonology.