“Planet Word”, J. P. Davidson: On Language

the cover image of planet word by j p davidsonJ. P. Davidson’s Planet Word maintained the reputation of books about language as highly enjoyable reads.

The first book I read on philology, Wordwatching, I finished late last year. It’s fairer to say it devoured me than vice-versa; I promptly ordered a copy for my philologically-inclined papa. Until then I hadn’t quite grasped that a casual interest in language, words, idioms, could be built in to an academic edifice, known variously as philology or linguistics. Planet Word describes itself as “the story of language” and, fair cop, it comes close. It isn’t encyclopaedic or comprehensive, but does succeed at making language and communication as fascinating as they ought to be made.

I was given the book as a gift for my 21st birthday. The giver said the first paragraph had made her think of me. This was flattering. It also began with a beautiful quote from Flaubert. All in all, I was encouraged.

Planet Word doesn’t really have a thesis:  It considers invented languages such as Klingon, the role of storytelling, how culture influences language, how languages have evolved. Thrilling stuff. Thus, the best summary I can give is that it is lots of verbal vignettes about interesting quirks of communication and language.

A few bits stood out to me and I bookmarked them:

  • In English, we put emphasis in our speech by changing our inflection. Compare “Are you going to town tomorrow?” with “Are you going to town tomorrow?”. In Irish, on the other hand, the same effect  is achieved by bringing the key word forward in the sentence: “Is it you that’s going to town tomorrow?” or “Is it tomorrow that you’re going to town?” What I dig about this is how it illustrates the subjectivity of communication methods. Irish offers us an equally valid syntax. Not only that, learning this improves my ability to impersonate an Irish accent. It’s not, after all, merely about your inflections.
  • Taarof, an Iranian/Persian code of etiquette is also discussed. This involves lots of offers and refusals where the emotion is genuine but the offer is wholly false. How bizarre! Yet, how completely familiar to even our Western society. I liked learning about this contrived system of etiquette, how it manifests itself in language, and how it applies in practice, and considering the analogues with Western etiquette. I myself am something of an etiquette sceptic, and yet I find myself politely turning down offers of grapes that I am all too keen to take advantage of. Luckily, my friends know me well and bring grapes regardless.
  • All narratives in the world are variations of seven basic plots. I mentioned this to my housemates recently and they poured scorn on the idea. Admittedly, it didn’t help that I couldn’t remember which ones they were, but I can now proudly declare: (1) Overcoming the monster, (2) Rags to riches, (3) The quest, (4) Voyage and return, (5) Rebirth, (6) Comedy, (7) Tragedy. This idea isn’t necessarily illuminating, but I find it an interesting framework for considering narratives and what they offer.

So, as I’ve suggested there is no amazing takeaway from Davidson’s Planet Word. But it’s a good read, and if you are interested in language, communication, culture, speech, idioms, semantics or etymology, you ought to get amongst it.

Rating: 4/5

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