The best books on language

Who am I?

As a child I moved from England to Alberta – from a country where the English language seems only natural to a province with unfamiliar place-names like Wetaskiwin, Okotoks, Kananaskis, and Lac la Biche. The vast prairies and harsh light in western Canada were equally disorienting to a boy accustomed to the watercolour green of hedgerows under a soft grey sky. Perhaps that’s why, as an aspiring poet and journalist, I became so fascinated by the relationship between languages and the natural world. Today, in an era when lands, seas, and words are routinely abused and degraded, I continue to care deeply about both nature and language.

I wrote...

Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages

By Mark Abley, Mark Abley,

Book cover of Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages

What is my book about?

In Spoken Here, Mark Abley travels from the Arctic Circle to the south of France, Oklahoma to northern Australia, in a passionate quest to document some of the world's most endangered languages. His mission is urgent: of the six thousand or so languages spoken in the world today, only six hundred may survive beyond the present century. Abley visits places that are home to fading languages and paints engaging portraits of some of their remaining speakers. Throughout this literary travelogue, he points out that the same forces that put biological species at risk – development, globalization, technological change – are also threatening human languages, and with them, something very basic about their speakers' cultures.

Yet Abley also demonstrates how endangered languages can survive and even be revived. The determination and creativity that speakers of Welsh, Mohawk, Hebrew, and other tongues have shown in maintaining their language can serve as a beacon of hope to people elsewhere.

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The books I picked & why


By Robert Macfarlane,

Book cover of Landmarks

Why did I love this book?

Any book by Robert Macfarlane is a delight to read. In Landmarks, he turns his attention to the profound and ancient ties between the English language and the landscapes of the British Isles. Always an evocative writer about place, he shows in this book a loving attention to the words that emerge from particular sites and traditions in Britain and Ireland: words like “eylebourne” (an intermittent spring that overflows at the end of winter), “cruach” (a rugged peak with pinnacled tops), “glaur” (a muddy mess) and “wonty-tump” (a molehill). He also demonstrates the lasting importance of such words – if we lose the ability to describe a landscape, we also lose the power to understand it.

By Robert Macfarlane,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Landmarks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



From the bestselling author of UNDERLAND, THE OLD WAYS and THE LOST WORDS

'Few books give such a sense of enchantment; it is a book to give to many, and to return to repeatedly' Independent

Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes are grained into our words. Landmarks is about the power of language to shape our sense of place. It is a field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales to describe land,…

Book cover of Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self

Why did I love this book?

Julia Sedivy has taught linguistics at two universities. Fortunately, she also knows how to write about language without lapsing into academic jargon. In Memory Speaks, she mixes recent findings about bilingualism and multilingualism with a forceful, nuanced exploration of her own life. A native speaker of Czech, Sedivy almost lost her language after emigrating with her family to a North American continent where Czech has no place and English has extinguished most Indigenous tongues. Her prose is infused with a rare mixture of scholarship and intimacy.

By Julie Sedivy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Memory Speaks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From an award-winning writer and linguist, a scientific and personal meditation on the phenomenon of language loss and the possibility of renewal.

As a child Julie Sedivy left Czechoslovakia for Canada, and English soon took over her life. By early adulthood she spoke Czech rarely and badly, and when her father died unexpectedly, she lost not only a beloved parent but also her firmest point of connection to her native language. As Sedivy realized, more is at stake here than the loss of language: there is also the loss of identity.

Language is an important part of adaptation to a…


By Sadiqa de Meijer,

Book cover of Alfabet/Alphabet

Why did I love this book?

Any book about language should be well-written, and this brief work of prose displays the luminous skill of a gifted poet. Sadiqa de Meijer moved to Canada as a child, yet the words, sounds, and cadences of Dutch remain deeply embedded in her imagination. Her succinct, elegant investigations of Dutch and English, family and home, resound far beyond her personal history. “Mother tongue,” she asks, “is this when you’ll surface, under cover of night, in the mind’s somnolent dark?”

By Sadiqa de Meijer,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Alfabet/Alphabet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

alfabet / alphabet is the record of Sadiqa de Meijer?s transition from speaking Dutch to English. Exploring questions of identity, landscape, family, and translation, the essays navigate the shifting cultural currents of language by using an eclectic approach to storytelling. As such, fellow linguistic migrants to anglophone Canada will recognize elements of their experience in alfabet / alphabet, while lifelong English speakers will perceive their mother tongue in a new light.

Book cover of Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

Why did I love this book?

The authors of books about language don’t always have great stories to tell. But Dan Everett does. His riveting account of the language and culture of the Pirahã people of the Amazonian rainforest is astonishing on many levels: the personal (Everett arrived in Brazil as a Protestant missionary, but in losing his faith he gained a new vision of life), the linguistic (Pirahã breaks so many rules, it gives traditional linguists nightmares), the philosophical, even the political. Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is an exhilarating intellectual adventure. 

By Daniel L. Everett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Part passionate memoir, part scientific exploration, a life-changing tale set among a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in Brazil that offers a riveting look into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.

"Immensely interesting and deeply moving.... One of the best books I have read."—Lucy Dodwell, New Scientist

A riveting account of the astonishing experiences and discoveries made by linguist Daniel Everett while he lived with the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in central Brazil.

Daniel Everett arrived among the Pirahã with his wife and three young children hoping to convert the tribe to Christianity. Everett quickly…

Book cover of Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache

Why did I love this book?

Keith Basso argues with a quiet authority that a sensing of place is a cultural activity unlike any other. His book relies on a deep understanding of Arizona land as well as a familiarity with Apache culture and naming traditions. In translation, Apache place-names often require entire phrases like “White rocks lie above in a compact cluster” or “Coyote pisses in the water.” To learn the meanings and stories behind those names is to experience the land itself in a powerful way – new and perplexing for English speakers, ancient and vibrant for the Apache people.

By Keith H. Basso,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Wisdom Sits in Places as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This remarkable book introduces us to four unforgettable Apache people, each of whom offers a different take on the significance of places in their culture. Apache conceptions of wisdom, manners and morals, and of their own history are inextricably intertwined with place, and by allowing us to overhear his conversations with Apaches on these subjects Basso expands our awareness of what place can mean to people.

Most of us use the term sense of place often and rather carelessly when we think of nature or home or literature. Our senses of place, however, come not only from our individual experiences…

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Interested in human geography, nature, and language?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about human geography, nature, and language.

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