The best books to nourish curiosity about language

Why am I passionate about this?

Growing up with two languages, I always wondered how one ‘retrieves’ the right words. Later, I worked on how children acquire a language. I looked at when they understood words like IN and ON; BIG and LOW; FATHER, SISTER, or COUSIN; HERE, THERE; BEFORE and AFTER. I tracked when children could produce such words, too. And I found that designing experiments was fun and rewarding. I also worked on when and how children coin words to fill gaps: TO OAR = row; a CUT-GRASS = lawn-mower; a CLIMBER = ladder. I found that learning a first language is a long journey, with many steps along the way.

I wrote...

First Language Acquisition

By Eve V. Clark,

Book cover of First Language Acquisition

What is my book about?

My book shows how infants progress from listening to interacting with the adults around them to acquiring language from more expert speakers. It draws on daily diary records and experimental studies to show how children start to communicate. Initially, they attend to adult faces, gaze, and hand motions. They then use gestures, followed by words, as they progress through different stages.

These stages include mastering the sounds people use, understanding words and their various forms and meanings, and eventually combining their words into constructions. This allows them to express their meaning more precisely. It tracks their conversational skills as they learn how to make use of common ground, how they collaborate with adults in constructing utterances, and how they convey their beliefs and attitudes.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die

Eve V. Clark Why did I love this book?

Think about what we really do with language every day. This book offers a very accessible entry point into how people use language.

Crystal looks at many of the things we all can do with language and what happens to a language as it is used and then changes over time. 

Engagingly written, Crystal’s account makes a great starting point for anyone who stops to think about how much we rely on language every day to communicate and coordinate our activities with others. 

By David Crystal,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Language Works as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Steven Pinker meets Bill Bryson in this landmark exploration of language.

In the author's own words, "How Language Works is not about music, cookery, or sex. But it is about how we talk about music, cookery, and sex-or, indeed, anything at all." Language is so fundamental to everyday life that we take it for granted. But as David Crystal makes clear in this work of unprecedented scope, language is an extremely powerful tool that defines the human species.

Crystal offers general readers a personal tour of the intricate workings of language. He moves effortlessly from big subjects like the origins…

Book cover of Words of Wonder: Endangered Languages and What They Tell Us

Eve V. Clark Why did I love this book?

How and why do languages get lost and die out? In this fascinating, beautifully written account, Evans presents a highly informative story about the scores of endangered languages in the world today.

Many languages are losing speakers because they are surrounded by groups that use a different majority language, and this pressures the minority-language speakers to stop using their own language.

The tragedy is that losing a language also means losing one’s culture and one’s history. This is a book that is hard to put down. 

By Nicholas Evans,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Words of Wonder as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A gripping and moving text which explores the wealth of human language diversity, how deeply it matters, and how we can best turn the tide of language endangerment

In the new, thoroughly revised second edition of Words of Wonder: Endangered Languages and What They Tell Us, Second Edition (formerly called Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us), renowned scholar Nicholas Evans delivers an accessible and incisive text covering the impact of mass language endangerment. The distinguished author explores issues surrounding the preservation of indigenous languages, including the best and most effective ways to respond to the…

Book cover of Aspects of Language

Eve V. Clark Why did I love this book?

This is a great introduction to what linguists do when they analyze languages to see how they work.

Bolinger spent his life observing how speakers use language, making notes on how and when they hesitate as they plan what to say, common errors they make, and what all this tells us about how language functions as a tool for communication. 

And he drew on his observations to tell the story of what is involved in studying how languages work. I regularly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know what linguistics is. (It is not being a polyglot!)

By Dwight Bolinger, Donald A. Sears,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Aspects of Language as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Aspects of Language 2e

Book cover of A History of Psycholinguistics: The Pre-Chomskyan Era

Eve V. Clark Why did I love this book?

Levelt offers a wonderfully informative history of the sources of many current ideas in psycholinguistics. Levelt also shares major questions about language processing (how we understand and produce language).

He takes up ideas raised long ago, ideas that couldn’t be studied at the time without a phonetic alphabet. For example, without audio and video-recording methods or the sophisticated equipment for studying how language is stored in the brain, all available today. 

I find it salutary to recognize how much of what we think is new in today’s research was actually recognized and discussed at least a century ago or more.

By Willem Levelt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A History of Psycholinguistics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How do we manage to speak and understand language? How do children acquire these skills and how does the brain support them? These psycholinguistic issues have been studied for more than two centuries. Though many Psycholinguists tend to consider their history as beginning with the Chomskyan "cognitive revolution" of the late 1950s/1960s, the history of empirical psycholinguistics actually goes back to the end of the 18th century. This is the first book to comprehensively treat this "pre-Chomskyan" history. It tells the fascinating history of the doctors, pedagogues, linguists and psychologists who created this discipline, looking at how they made their…

Book cover of Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction

Eve V. Clark Why did I love this book?

The meanings of words allow us to convey all sorts of intentions, yet meanings change over time, get confused, or lost, or re-assigned to fit changes in society.

This book offers an accessible and thoughtful introduction to how meaning is used by speakers of a language. Lyons focuses on the relationships between the meanings of words. He examines specific semantic fields, such as terms for kin, farm animals, carpentry tools, plants, birds, and sailing.

He shows how the relations between words in a semantic field (e.g., animal, dog, spaniel; walk, stroll, run; mast, sail, tack, rig) play a critical role in terms of the meanings available when speakers combine words in their utterances. Word meanings are the basic building blocks in the constructions speakers use every day.

By John Lyons,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Linguistic Semantics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction is the successor to Sir John Lyons's important study Language, Meaning and Context (1981).While preserving the general structure of the earlier book, the author has substantially expanded its scope to introduce several topics that were not previously discussed, and to take into account developments in linguistic semantics. The resulting work is an invaluable guide to the subject, offering clarifications of its specialised terms and explaining its relationship to formal and philosophical semantics and to contemporary pragmatics. With its clear and accessible style it will appeal to a wide student readership. Sir John Lyons is one of…

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The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

Book cover of The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

Sammy Stein Author Of Fabulous Female Musicians

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been passionate about music for almost my entire life. Jazz music in particular speaks to me but not just jazz. I love music, full stop. I really discovered jazz when I attended a jazz club workshop in London and there, I had to join in or leave. I chose to join in and since then I have never looked back. I was introduced to more jazz musicians and now write about music for three major columns as well as Readers’ Digest. My Women In Jazz book won several awards. I have been International Editor for the Jazz Journalist Association and had my work commissioned by the Library of Congress. 

Sammy's book list on female musicians

What is my book about?

With input from over 100 musicians, the book discusses what exactly jazz is, and how you know you are listening to it. Do we truly know when and how jazz first originated? Who was the first jazz musician? How does jazz link to other genres? What about women in jazz? And writers and journalists? Do reviews make any difference? 

This book is a deep dive into jazz's history, impact, and future. It discusses jazz's social, cultural, and political influence and reveals areas where jazz has had an impact we may not even realize.Its influences on hip hop, the connection to…

The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

What is this book about?

This book is very different from other, more general jazz books. It is packed with information, advice, well researched and includes experiences from jazz musicians who gleefully add their rich voices to Sammy's in-depth research. All genres, from hard bop to be-bop, vocal jazz, must instrumental, free jazz, and everything between is covered in one way or another and given Sammy's forensic eye. There is social commentary and discussions of careers in jazz music. The musical background of those in the book is rich and diverse.
Critics comment:
"This new book by Sammy Stein is a highly individual take on…

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