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Essential books about linguistics

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 Message 9 of 23
27 April 2015 at 12:46am | IP Logged 
Is there a good summary somewhere of the various schools of grammar, written for someone who's taken basic intro linguistics courses but not any specific "theory" of grammar? I got a minor in linguistics, but I really don't know what's up with "generative" grammar vs whatever else is out there competing with it.
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 Message 10 of 23
27 April 2015 at 6:58am | IP Logged 
I guess I should have been more clear: I'm more interested in linguistics historically. For instance, if you had to lay out the most important works/linguists through out history in a chronological order. Where would one begin?

Edited by fortheo on 27 April 2015 at 7:29am

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 Message 11 of 23
01 May 2015 at 12:46am | IP Logged 
I think we're failing to give what the OP asked for, which was influential works, no
summations of influential works in linguistics textbooks. I am no expert, but I can
recommend what I've read and think correct (unfortunately there are far more books I've read
in linguistics which should go "into the flames" for their sophistry and illusion):

A Course in General Linguistics - Ferdinand de Saussure

Though this was originally a set of undergraduate lectures, essentially an old fashioned
text book, it has been influential to experts in itself. The examples he uses (from mostly
major european languages) lay out the tools of the historical linguist, and how perspectives
on language can be subtled altered to see the workings of a sound-meaning system underneath.
It reads as something that a scholar and lover of language, a philologist, wrote, rather
than an analytic mind like Chomsky turning his eye to the same sorts of questions.

Language, Thought and Reality - Benjamin Lee Whorf

Whorf's name carries a great deal of slander these days. He is always the straw man set up
to smash down in some way or another. But the man was a great old-school, Indiana Jones
style linguist: leaving comfortable surroundings to live with alien cultures (alive, with
Hopi, and dead, with Nahuatl) and decode their way of seeing things. What today is taken to
be his "theory" of language is in truth only the lattice of his consistent wisdom in
observing the puzzlingly unlimited potentialities of language and his frustrations with the
narrowly Europe-centric, "know it all" academy of grammarians.

Syntactic Structures - Noam Chomsky

This is a small, but hard-going read. but it's worth it. The knowledge gleamed from ore
developed forms of the same approach are still today the best account we have of what
language, as a scientific object of inquiry, is. This foundation is a work of heroic clear
thinking, and it brought questions to light that had been stepped over for generations.

New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind - Chomsky

A fairly nontechnical book that outlines how Linguistics can be viewed as a natural domain
of rational inquiry, and how a scientific view of it can show up how ignorant we are about
our own cognitive capacities. Very rewarding to read.

How Children Learn the Meaning of Words - Paul Bloom

This is a scholarly but fairly approachable collection of insights into the question of how
inferences are made between situations and appropriate language use. It has it's other foot
in the science of cognitive development in children, which Bloom is a renowned expert in.

Language Truth and Logic - A J Ayer

This is a work of philosophy but is of interest to linguists too, since it discusses the
legitimate boundaries of what can be called "meaningful" questions, insofar as they
interlock with non-mental things-in-themselves. At the end of this book they seem to be much
more restricted than we "get by" with everyday, and even more restrictive than most
philosophers would have us believe.
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 Message 12 of 23
01 May 2015 at 3:29am | IP Logged 
If French post-modern philosophy doesn't scare you, then some significant authors to explore include Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. All of them have their own theories on linguistics.

I had to read them all in college. I didn't understand any of them, at all, though I aced the course by throwing around phrases like phenomenology of perception and paradigmatic shifts in consciousness... which makes me suspect that my professors didn't understand the French either.


It's not essential, but I really enjoyed John McWhorter's audio book The Story of Human Language (part of the "Great Courses" series). It combines linguistic theory with the history of language, with a major focus on how languages evolve and change over time.

Most of the episodes have a nice balance of anecdote and theory, though some of the latter episodes were a bit light on theory. And it's definitely an 'overview' course; someone who's read a lot of the core works might find this course light weight. For myself, I find it much easier to read about Chomsky et al. than to actually read any of them in the original.

The lectures are:

1 WhatIs Language?
2 When Language Began
3 How Language Changes—Sound Change
4 How Language Changes—Building New Material
5 How Language Changes—Meaning and Order
6 How Language Changes—Many Directions
7 How Language Changes—Modern English
8 Language Families—Indo-European
9 Language Families—Tracing Indo-European
10 Language Families—Diversity of Structures         
11 Language Families—Clues to the Past
12 The Case Against the World’s First Language
13 The Case For the World’s First Language
14 Dialects—Subspecies of Species
15 Dialects—Where Do You Draw the   Line?
16 Dialects—Two Tongues in One Mouth
17 Dialects—The Standard as Token of the Past
18 Dialects—Spoken Style, Written Style
19 Dialects—The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar
20 Language Mixture—Words
21 Language Mixture— Grammar
22 Language Mixture—Language Areas
23 Language Develops Beyond the Call of Duty
24 Language Interrupted
25 A New Perspective on the Story of English
26 Does Culture Drive Language Change?
27 Language Starts Over—Pidgins
28 Language Starts Over—Creoles I
29 Language Starts Over—Creoles II
30 Language Starts Over—Signs of the New
31 Language Starts Over—The Creole Continuum
32 What Is Black English?
33 Language Death—The Problem
34 Language Death—Prognosis
35 Artificial Languages
36 Finale—Master Class

Edited by kanewai on 01 May 2015 at 3:41am

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 Message 13 of 23
01 May 2015 at 4:00am | IP Logged 
Thanks Retinend and Kanewai! those are all along the lines of what I was looking for. I've got a good summer reading list now :)
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 Message 14 of 23
01 May 2015 at 10:00am | IP Logged 
Sorry Kanewai, but however useful Post-Structuralist "philosophy" may be to literary
critics or feminists, it is emphatically of no use whatsoever to people interested in
understanding what language is. It's true that Lacan and Derrida took Saussure as a point
of departure, but in ways that de Saussure himself would never have recognized, and which
linguists themselves have never revisited. At the very least, one should read "A Course
in General Linguistics" before going to any sort of post-structuralist account of it. One
will see quickly that the latter is a very strange and preoccupied reading of it.

Edited by Retinend on 01 May 2015 at 12:37pm

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 Message 15 of 23
09 May 2015 at 12:01pm | IP Logged 
Lyle Campbell - Introduction to Historical Linguistics
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 Message 16 of 23
14 May 2015 at 1:36am | IP Logged 
A couple of books before Chomsky are: The Story of Language by Mario Pei (2nd ed. 1965), and A Course in Modern Linguistics by Charles F. Hockett (1958, many printings). These may serve as a couple of black-and-white landscape photographs before the immanent transformation.

Edited by kensor on 14 May 2015 at 1:43am

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