STARRED REVIEW
January 07, 2020

Don’t Believe a Word

By David Shariatmadari
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Remember when Madonna moved to England and her accent became quite posh? According to David Shariatmadari, we shouldn’t scoff at the pop superstar, or at anyone else whose accent changes with their location. They can’t help it, thanks to a linguistic phenomenon called accommodation.

That’s but one interesting tidbit in the information-packed Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language. Shariatmadari, a Londoner and editor at The Guardian, has crafted an intensive course for the curious novice and seasoned linguist alike. Via the book’s nine chapters, he explores and debunks common myths about language by way of history, scholarship, societal trends and his own passionate views on all of the above.

The biggest myth is one with teeth: Someone’s always complaining that language is in decline. It is not, the author says; rather, it’s just people making “statements of preference for the way of doing things they have become used to,” versus any actual damage to the way we communicate. He also argues that etymology, or the background and history of words, is not the only way to determine meaning. While those elements are fascinating, he writes, they’re largely irrelevant to what truly matters: “explaining language as it is now.”

Shariatmadari thoughtfully addresses the roles of politics, power and geography regarding how we speak, as well as which languages are considered valuable (or not)—most notably in regard to African American Vernacular English (AAVE). He also offers a history of the word toilet; explains why AI speech will never truly sound human; asserts that Italian is a dialect, not a language; ponders whether we can talk to animals; and much more.

Right now is an “exciting phase” in the study of linguistics, and Shariatmadari thinks we should be excited, too. After all, he writes, people “shouldn’t just settle for knowing how to use [language]. To understand it is to understand what it means to be human.” Don’t Believe a Word is a heartfelt and illuminating starting point on the path to that understanding.

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Don’t Believe a Word

Don’t Believe a Word

By David Shariatmadari
Norton
ISBN 9781324004257

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