18 books directly related to linguistics 📚

All 18 linguistics books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.


By Constance Reid,

Book cover of Hilbert

Why this book?

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.

Syntactic Structures

By Noam Chomsky,

Book cover of Syntactic Structures

Why this book?

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.

The Linguistics Wars: Chomsky, Lakoff, and the Battle over Deep Structure

By Randy Allen Harris,

Book cover of The Linguistics Wars: Chomsky, Lakoff, and the Battle over Deep Structure

Why this book?

Randy Harris is a colleague of mine at the University of Waterloo, and his book is a marvelous history and analysis of the decades-long intellectual battle between Noam Chomsky and George Lakoff. It provides the context and background for how Lakoff’s theory of metaphor was part of the development of alternatives to Chomsky-style linguistics, along with some trenchant criticisms of the very idea of conceptual metaphor. 

Saussure For Beginners

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

Book cover of Saussure For Beginners

Why this book?

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.

Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker

By R.M.W. Dixon,

Book cover of Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker

Why this book?

Not all adventures in lost languages involve undeciphered scripts. I know nothing about the native language of Australia, but was immediately hooked by this book’s vivid account of a specialist as he attempts to locate the last speaker or speakers of a language—and then get them to speak to him. It was great for me to see how the techniques I use to reconstruct ancient languages can also reveal the structures of modern languages where there is scarcely any evidence remaining.

Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language

By Amanda Montell,

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

Why this book?

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. 

The Proposition

By Judith Ivory,

Book cover of The Proposition

Why this book?

Judith Ivory has one of the most distinctive voices in historical romance. I wish she was still releasing new work! The Proposition is a fun take on My Fair Lady, where Henry Higgins is a down-on-her-luck duke’s daughter and Eliza Dolittle is a charming rat catcher. Yes, you heard that right. We’re a long way from the usual historical romance fare of dukes and rakes. Not only that, Mick Tremore, the rat catcher in question, has the most wonderful dog Win who threatens to steal the show every time she’s on the page. Charming, clever, witty and full of delicious sexual tension, this is a compelling read – and it has a serious message about how often the greatest barriers to our dreams are those our minds place on us. 

Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

By Howard E. Gardner,

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

Why this book?

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!

The Scar

By China Miéville,

Book cover of The Scar

Why this book?

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 and frequently unsympathetic “hero” but complex and authentic. She is antisocial, and selfish, and finds herself reluctantly drawn to the centre of the action due to her skill in translation.

Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

Why this book?

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.

Argument Culture Moving From Debate to Dialogue

By Deborah Tannen,

Book cover of Argument Culture Moving From Debate to Dialogue

Why this book?

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’.

Forgotten Ruin: An Epic Military Fantasy Thriller

By Jason Anspach, Nick Cole,

Book cover of Forgotten Ruin: An Epic Military Fantasy Thriller

Why this book?

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 future...to 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.

Deaf Sentence

By David Lodge,

Book cover of Deaf Sentence

Why this book?

Desmond, a retired teacher, is embarrassed by increasing deafness which he tries to hide. Hearing loss is a constant source of domestic friction with his busy wife and of social malaise, leading Desmond into mistakes and follies, and to find himself in incongruous situations. Comes Alex, a student whom Desmond has agreed to help after a misunderstanding at a party… Despite sensitive topics (deafness, confrontation with death), Deaf Sentence manages to be deeply entertaining with a lame love story and a disillusioned portrait of contemporary society. I recommend it to everyone, because we all feel overwhelmed from time to time. 

Metaphors We Live By

By George Lakoff, Mark Johnson,

Book cover of Metaphors We Live By

Why this book?

This book has been enormously influential with almost 80,000 citations. It inaugurated the study of metaphor as a fundamental aspect of human thinking, not just a linguistic flourish. It provides abundant examples such as Argument is War and Happy is Up that show the great extent to which metaphors pervade human thinking. Although the book exaggerates the universality of metaphor in human thought and the contribution of metaphor to reality, it survives as the classic source for modern understanding of metaphor. 

Jesus' Son

By Denis Johnson,

Book cover of Jesus' Son

Why this book?

For uptight readers like me who can barely handle a stiff drink, the Druggy Road Trip genre can feel dumb and snobbish. But Johnson’s close, lucid prose is, well, addictive. Strung out in small-town ’70s America, a young guy called F**khead navigates unreality in 11 intertwined stories. The collection is just over 100 pages, and by the end, F**khead finds himself across the country and in rehab. But sobriety isn’t even the point. Passages like this are: “Georgie and I had a terrific time driving around. For a while the day was clear and peaceful. It was one of the moments you stay in, to hell with all the troubles of before or after. The sky is blue and the dead are coming back.”

The Really Good Fun Cartoon Book of NLP: A Simple and Graphic(al) Explanation of the Life Toolbox That Is NLP

By Phillip Miller,

Book cover of The Really Good Fun Cartoon Book of NLP: A Simple and Graphic(al) Explanation of the Life Toolbox That Is NLP

Why this book?

NLP can be full of jargon and taken too seriously. Miller uses simple language with illustrative amusing cartoons to present the principles of NLP and how you can use NLP in your life. All of the basic material is covered and provides you with a good foundation for understanding and using NLP for yourself or to assist others.

You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation

By Deborah Tannen,

Book cover of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation

Why this book?

I’ve worked with thousands of heterosexual couples and witnessed them hit intense layers of emotional resistance as they practise their deepest form of lovemaking. It often seems that this stems from men and women speaking different languages. According to linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, this is actual reality. The genders have different communication styles. In her book, she presents well-researched practical examples and offers tools to understand what goes wrong when you speak with your partner, and to find a common language in which to strengthen your relationship. Without this level of trust, it’s unlikely that either of you will be able to really let go and relax into deeper tantric orgasms. 

The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word

By Allan Metcalf,

Book cover of The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word

Why this book?

Most histories of vocabulary have little to say about a lot of words. This book reverses the process: it has a lot to say about just one word, guy. You might think that there isn't enough to fill an entire book, but you’d be wrong, because what we get is an insightful blend of history and linguistics—attempted regime change leading to language change. And one of the results? A new 2nd person plural pronoun: you guys.