The best linguistics books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about linguistics and why they recommend each book.

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By Constance Reid,

Book cover of Hilbert

David Hilbert was the most important mathematician at the dawn of the 20th century. In 1900, he gave the mathematical community its homework for the next 100 years setting out the list of open problems that had to be solved by 2000. While to the rest of the mathematicians, he may have appeared as their professor, he was also the class clown. As colorful and funny as he was brilliant, you cannot but come away loving this great mathematical genius.

Who am I?

As a professor, I see students fascinated by science, but petrified to take a science class. This is in part because we have dehumanized science, removed the story, edited out the human, deleted the parts that allow people to connect with it. Science does not get delivered by gods, but is created by people: smart, quirky, sometimes immoral people. As a writer, my hope is to be able to reinsert life into readers’ understanding of our greatest advances. As a reader myself, I am deeply appreciative when other authors do it too.

I wrote...

Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

By Steven Gimbel,

Book cover of Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

What is my book about?

The Nazis tried to denigrate Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity as “Jewish science,” as opposed to the superior “Aryan science.” We rightly reject this as ideological nonsense, but it raises the interesting question of the cultural influences on Einstein’s thought. Plenty of other scientists were working around the ideas that Einstein published at the time he was thinking them. Why was it Einstein who put them down in print? When we learn science in school, it is taught as if laws of nature magically appeared in the brains of brilliant scientists fully formed. But scientists are people who lived at places at times and they way they thought was influenced by the world they lived in. We cannot separate science from history, politics, or religion. 

Syntactic Structures

By Noam Chomsky,

Book cover of Syntactic Structures

In the history of science, fields of studies have evolved from empirical to principled. In linguistics, field linguists had understood the need to construct grammars of languages they encountered. Noam Chomsky understood the need to place grammars into a mathematical hierarchy of formalisms, showing through brilliant counter-examples which grammatical constructs could be handled by each formalism. For example, Chomsky showed that finite state automata model noun phrases beautifully but fail with if-then sentences. He showed that context-free grammars handle if-then, but fail at passive constructions. The book offered a new way to think about language.

Who am I?

I became a scientist because I enjoyed the puzzles in Scientific American. I loved the notion that through mere thought, one could solve a question that at first glance seemed impossible to solve. When I had to design methods to detect ephemeral failures in electronic circuits underlying a mainframe computer, I created a puzzle having occasional liars. When I thought about ways to understand global wars, I constructed a puzzle about bullies in a playground. Some of my puzzles have been very computational, some purely paper and pencil. Over the years, my puzzles have appeared in Scientific American, Dr. Dobb’s Journal, and the Communications of the ACM.

I wrote...

The Puzzling Adventures of Dr. Ecco

By Dennis E. Shasha,

Book cover of The Puzzling Adventures of Dr. Ecco

What is my book about?

Dr. Ecco is a mathematical detective. People come to him from all over the planet and pose questions that require logic and/or mathematics to solve, some of which involve danger. Unlike other detective novels, the reader has exactly the information that Dr. Ecco has, so you can match wits with the Greenwich Village detective.

Saussure For Beginners

By W. Terrence Gordon, Abbe Lubell (illustrator),

Book cover of Saussure For Beginners

In Saussure for Beginners, by Terrence Gordon and Abbe Lubell, we discover another linguist like Wittgenstein. While the latter talked about it being a tool for communication (social, there is no private language he famously said), the former just said that they were more simply signs, indicators of something in the real world, or subjective truth (look here). This for me beautifully simplified what language is, rather than the over-intellectualising of the subject by most academics like Chomsky and even Wittgenstein himself, whose later work acknowledged this. Saussure is famous for never writing anything down so the only knowledge we have of his work comes from former students of his, who did take notes of what he said.

Who am I?

What qualifies me to compile this list of books, probably goes back to my childhood and the confusion I felt about human society and its conflict in word usage, compared to actual meaning. This fascination with psychology and linguistics, culminated in me reading perhaps hundreds of books, some of which are included here. My mother described me as a quiet baby and a child who would only say something, if they thought it was important, possible indicators of autism and the little professor syndrome of silent observation and study.

I wrote...

Logic List English: Rhyming Word etc. - Vol 1 A

By Tony Sandy,

Book cover of Logic List English: Rhyming Word etc. - Vol 1 A

What is my book about?

Logic Lists English as a series of eight books, strips language naked, pointing out it is a simplified code, made obvious in the film Windtalkers, starring Nicolas Cage. The native speakers used their own language to relay military secrets, which the enemy couldn’t understand as they didn’t know the linguistic rules being used.

The first volume, Rhyming Words, uses a vertical grid, to show common combinations of consonants (Br- / Bl- ) and vowel sounds horizontally (A / E / I / O / U). It is set out in this way as columns for teaching purposes in the classroom, repeating the sounds firstly, then later writing out the patterns shown. This format ensures changes in language are accommodated over the years as sounds won’t really alter, even if the spelling does.


By Amanda Montell,

Book cover of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language

Ok sure, she had me at the title. But Montell dives deep into the language we use every day that, yes, often demeans women. Many of our body parts were taken from Latin words that dudes used to describe them. And the meanings weren’t always flattering. She also explains the positives of Valley Girl-Speak such as “like” and of vocal fry, and women are so fast to say “sorry.” Did you know that “hussy” used to mean housewife and “slut” meant a messy person that could be a man? Or that “bitch” used to be a gender-neutral name that had nothing to do with dogs? And why are some words considered feminine and others, male? Read this book to find out. 

Who am I?

From Lehr’s prize-winning fiction to her viral New York Times Modern Love essay, exploring the challenges facing contemporary women has been Lehr’s life-long passion. A Boob’s Life, her first project since breast cancer treatment, continues this mission, taking all who will join her on a wildly informative, deeply personal, and utterly relatable journey.  And that’s exactly the kind of books she likes to read – the ones that make her laugh, nod in recognition, and understand a little more about life. She recommends these five books to everyone who asks.

I wrote...

A Boob's Life: How America's Obsession Shaped Me--And You

By Leslie Lehr,

Book cover of A Boob's Life: How America's Obsession Shaped Me--And You

What is my book about?

A Boob’s Life explores the surprising truth about women’s most popular body part with vulnerable, witty frankness and true nuggets of American culture that will resonate with everyone who has breasts – or loves them.

Author Leslie Lehr has gone from size AA to DDDDD and everything between, from puberty to motherhood, enhancement to cancer, and beyond. And she’s not alone—these are classic life stages for women. At turns funny and heartbreaking, A Boob’s Life explores both the joys and hazards inherent to living in a woman’s body. Lehr deftly blends her personal narrative with national history, starting in the 1960s with the women’s liberation movement and moving to the current feminist dialogue and what it means to be a woman. Her insightful and clever writing analyzes how America’s obsession with the female form has affected her own life’s journey and the psyche of all women today.

Frames of Mind

By Howard E. Gardner,

Book cover of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Hailed by educators throughout the world, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has been applied to hundreds of classrooms and schools. It shatters the theory that being smart is only measured by math and English skills. Through scientific and unquestionable documented historical research. Goodbye to SATs. Now we can acknowledge that geniuses can also be measured by linguistics, music, mathematical, spatial, body, and personal intelligence. A politician, athlete, architect, dancer, or musician can be brilliant in what they do but may not be able to write, speak, or do mathematics. We have known this to be our experience but now Gardner’s research makes it a fact. Now it’s time to change those old, outdated, and irrelevant SAT exams!

Who am I?

I am the former Principal bassist with the Cincinnati Symphony and am currently active as a soloist, educator, and author of three books on the mind, body, and spirit of music. My first book is about the mind, The Inner Game of Music, followed by The Mastery of Music on the human spirit of over 120 great musicians and Bringing Music to Life exploring physical skills of communication of all artists, actors, and dancers. I hope to inspire artists of all disciplines, that our performances come from our hearts and souls and not the technical form of dance, music, or words. Performers express feelings and use this gift to spread inspiration and joy to the world.

I wrote...

The Inner Game of Music

By Barry Green, W. Timothy Gallwey,

Book cover of The Inner Game of Music

What is my book about?

Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, the popular author of the Inner Game of Tennis, Inner Skiing, Golf, and Work. Together they have taken the same principles which proved so successful when used in sports and applied them to music. The Inner Game is designed to help every musician overcome obstacles, improve concentration, reduce nervousness, and paving the way for heightened performance.

Green explains how innate skills can be enhanced by focusing on the music rather than outer games of technique and awards. The technique can be summarized in 4 words: turn up the music and are used for the purpose of drowning out the shouts...that come from the interfering voices of doubt, fear, and judgment. Instead of listening to the inner voices, the musician focuses only on musical sounds that include their awareness, commitment, and trust skills.

The Scar

By China Miéville,

Book cover of The Scar

Armada is a pirate city, populated by both mundane and outlandish citizens, and built on decommissioned vessels connected to each other by bridges. The politics of the city are fascinating as are its enigmatic rulers, the scarred Lovers. Mieville’s densely poetic prose brings the city to life and while most of the populous are background figures, there are some notable exceptions, including the Remade Tanner Sack who takes us beneath the surface of the ocean.

Magic exists as a resource, fuelling political intrigue as countries and empires battle for supremacy. The quest to control a particular form of magic drives Armada across the oceans and underpins much of the novel’s intrigue.

Unlike the other books on my list. The Scar does not deal explicitly with gender. Although the main protagonist, Bellis, is female, the world of Bas-Lag feels like a place where gender has little relevance. Bellis is an unusual…

Who am I?

I'm an anarcho-feminist who has a special interest in magic; I consider it my guilty pleasure. I write dark and gritty stories that delve into gender, trauma, and mental illness, yet discover hope and freedom in the pit of darkness. I'm best known as a horror writer, but it’s more accurate to say that I create dark-fantasy and speculative fiction. My themes reflect the darkness which feels ubiquitous in the world, especially now in this age of extremes and pandemics, but I always search for the glimmer of light, the flame of hope that we can make a better future. I've always been fascinated by the Goth aesthetic and enchanted by post-punk threnodies.

I wrote...

Starblood: The Graphic Novel

By Carmilla Voiez,

Book cover of Starblood: The Graphic Novel

What is my book about?

Satori, an arrogant yet alluring Chaos Magician, is heartbroken when Star tells him it is over. He performs a magical ritual to win her back, but accidentally brings Lilith, Mother of Demons, to Earth. How can Satori survive the demon’s wrath and reclaim the heart of his beloved?

Beautiful and vulnerable, Star has yet to discover her own power and strength. When she falls in love with the enchanting Lilith, her world descends into madness and violence. Satori’s strange world threatened her sanity, what then of Lilith’s? A sensuous story, full of dark fantasy and horror, that offers readers a glimpse into the seedier side of the Gothic subculture in Britain.

Words and Rules

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

I’ve always loved observing children as they learn to speak. But I never understood what a triumph that is until I read Stephen Pinker’s book. He explores a huge range of topics, including what we can learn from the mistakes children make, how languages develop, brain imaging, major ideas in philosophy, computer speech simulation, Noam Chomsky’s ideas about linguistics, and genetic research. And he does all that by focusing on regular and irregular verbs. Sounds dull? Think again. It’s a fascinating book.

Who am I?

I’ve been writing children’s books all my adult life. That means trying to find ways to communicate exactly what I’m imagining. I love words and stories. As a teenager, I wrote down my favourite words and carried them around with me. When I had children, I was fascinated by how fast they learned to make themselves understood, with and without words. The words we choose are important – but they’re only one way to communicate. What about pictures? Body language? Online media? Pheromones? The signals animals and plants give out? The more I learn about communication, the more fascinating it becomes.

I wrote...

After Tomorrow

By Gillian Cross,

Book cover of After Tomorrow

What is my book about?

Could I manage as well as they do? That’s the question that made me write After Tomorrow. I’d been learning about refugees in Chad, and how they cope with living in camps. Suddenly I thought, Suppose it was me? And then (because I’m a storyteller) Suppose it was a boy called Matt, who’s good at mending bikes…?

What if the pound collapsed and money stopped working? What if people started fighting over food? Would Matt and his family escape through the Channel Tunnel? What would happen when they arrived in France as refugees? I researched hard, to make sure the story was as realistic as possible. And the more I learned, the more scarily plausible it seemed…

Learn to Write Badly

By Michael Billig,

Book cover of Learn to Write Badly

This is a must for any aspiring social scientist. Ironically entitled, the book offers a brilliant account of how many researchers in the social sciences resort to esoteric jargon and abstruse arguments to promote themselves in their academic micro-fiefdoms, defend their areas of expertise from outsiders but also to obfuscate and conceal their own ignorance. The book, however, can also be read on how to write well and get published in the social sciences.

Who am I?

I am a Greek social psychologist and have spent much of my academic career studying myths and stories in social life - stories, even when inaccurate or wrong, serve to create meaning, a fragile and valuable resource, especially in these post-truth times. At the same time, I believe that we must not lose sight of the distinctions between story and fact, fantasy and reality, truth and fiction. I am greatly concerned that the social sciences today, as shaped by the academic publishing game, are preoccupied with trivia and act as black holes into which meaning disappears. I strongly believe that it is our responsibility to restore the meaningfulness of academic research.

I wrote...

Return to Meaning: A Social Science with Something to Say

By Yiannis Gabriel, Mats Alvesson, Roland Paulsen

Book cover of Return to Meaning: A Social Science with Something to Say

What is my book about?

This book argues that we are currently witnessing a proliferation of meaningless research in the social sciences of no value to society. The explosion of published outputs creates a noisy, cluttered environment which makes meaningful research difficult, as different voices compete to capture the limelight even briefly. The result is a widespread cynicism among academics on the value of academic research, sometimes including their own. Publishing comes to be seen as a game of hits and misses, devoid of intrinsic meaning and value and of no wider social uses whatsoever. The book’s second part offers a range of proposals aimed at restoring meaning at the heart of social science research, and drawing social science back, addressing the major problems and issues that face our societies.

Argument Culture Moving From Debate to Dialogue

By Deborah Tannen,

Book cover of Argument Culture Moving From Debate to Dialogue

I teach and write on critical thinking, and a branch of this discipline is interested in the role of dialogue in the process of truth-seeking. Discovering this book was huge for me because it discusses in depth so many of the impediments to constructive dialogue that I (and most of us) have encountered. Its subject is the motivational and cultural bases of disagreements and how we value and manage them, and there are of course some sound recommendations for how we can do better by shifting from what has become an automatic adversarial approach to one of ‘meaningful dialogue’.

Who am I?

I am an academic at the University of Glasgow with a background in philosophy and psychology. My approach to critical thinking is broad and informed by several other teaching and research interests: emotional intelligence, the psychology of influence, interpersonal communication, and virtue ethics. Motivating much of what I do is the question: How are we to live well? With respect to critical thinking I don’t just deal with the nature and structure of arguments, but also with the role they play in constructive dialogues, and how poor reasoning is linked to psychological biases and the absence of certain virtues. The books I have chosen here are representative of these concerns.

I wrote...

Critical Thinking: The Basics

By Stuart Hanscomb,

Book cover of Critical Thinking: The Basics

What is my book about?

Critical Thinking: The Basics is an accessible and engaging introduction to the field of critical thinking, drawing on philosophy, communication, and psychology. Emphasising its relevance to decision making (in personal, professional, and civic life), academic literacy, and personal development, this book supports the reader in understanding and developing the knowledge and skills needed to identify poor reasoning, construct strong arguments, and engage critically in dialogues.

With discussion questions/exercises and suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter, this book is an essential read for students approaching the field of critical thinking for the first time, and for the general reader wanting to improve their thinking skills and decision-making abilities.

Forgotten Ruin

By Jason Anspach, Nick Cole,

Book cover of Forgotten Ruin: An Epic Military Fantasy Thriller

Looking at the cover of this book, you might be scratching your head wondering, "just what the hell is that?" It's a delicious, genre-bending twist on Fantasy and Military SF that is a must-read, I assure you. Army Rangers, as part of a top-secret DARPA program, travel a few years into the find out they're accidentally 10,000 years in the future, and the world they knew is now a Forgotten Ruin (see what I did there?) filled with monsters, magic, and mayhem. Navigating these disastrous circumstances takes some serious ranger grit and a lot of firepower. The story is told from the perspective of a young ranger who is a linguist, and his communication skills are essential to the ranger's survival. But more than that...the Ruin changes people.

Who am I?

I've been writing since I was 7 years old. Star Wars had a big influence on me, but as I got older I gravitated toward Halo: Combat Evolved and Starship Troopers. Modern stories by the likes of Jason Anspach and Nick Cole, JN Chaney, and Rick Partlow...these are the stories that keep me up at night, my mind reeling with the insanity of what I've just read, pondering how close we are as a society to achieving the outlandish adventures contained in these books. I was in the Air Force for 14 years as an F-16 mechanic. I found my voice by combining my experiences and my passion for Science Fiction.

I wrote...


By Tyler E. C. Burnworth,

Book cover of Redshift

What is my book about?

Humanity's manifest destiny to control the galaxy was thwarted by a devastating event known as The Collision—an attack that left millions of humans dead and a young boy named Abraham burning with a lust for revenge. The veneer of an ecumenical interstellar society begins to crack as the revenge campaign against the Riskar, perpetrators of the Collision, leads to the discovery of an ancient war between two factions of humanity vying for control of the galaxy's most powerful military—with Abraham mysteriously at the center of it all. Abraham's future, and the future of the galaxy itself, depends on uncovering the origins of his mysterious heritage.

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