Review of Limits of Language
|AUTHOR(S): Parkvall, Mikael
TITLE: Limits of Language
SUBTITLE: Almost everything you didn't know you didn't know about language
Alejandrina Cristia, Linguistics, Purdue University.
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 as a legal matter
Using more than one language
Languages in contact
Language death and revival
Big and small languages
Language in alternate history
Learning your first language
Non-humans and language
The subjective approach
Language and identity
Language and gender
How many words are there?
Long and short words
Having a word for it
Coining new words
Vowels and diphthongs
Architecture of languages
Parts of speech
Gender and noun classes
Tense, mood and aspect
Linguists and their discipline
Most studied languages
Experimentation in linguistics
Some work that didn't stand the test of time
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.