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,

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.

The books I picked & why

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Landmarks

By Robert MacFarlane,

Book cover of Landmarks

Why 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.


Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self

By Julie Sedivy,

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

Why 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.


Alfabet/Alphabet

By Sadiqa de Meijer,

Book cover of Alfabet/Alphabet

Why 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?”


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

By Daniel L. Everett,

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

Why 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. 


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

By Keith H. Basso,

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

Why 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.


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