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Languages: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) [Paperback]

Stephen Anderson

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Book Description

28 Jun 2012 Very Short Introductions
How many languages are there? What differentiates one language from another? Are new languages still being discovered? Why are so many languages disappearing?

The diversity of languages today is varied, but it is steadily declining. In this Very Short Introduction, Stephen Anderson answers the above questions by looking at the science behind languages. Considering a wide range of different languages and linguistic examples, he demonstrates how languages are not uniformly distributed around the world; just as some places are more diverse than others in terms of plants and animal species, the same goes for the distribution of languages.

Exploring the basis for linguistic classification and raising questions about how we identify a language, as well as considering signed languages as well as spoken, Anderson examines the wider social issues of losing languages, and their impact in terms of the endangerment of cultures and peoples.

ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

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About the Author

Stephen Anderson has been the Dorothy R. Diebold Professor of Linguistics at Yale University for the last 15 years. He has written or co-authored six books in Linguistics, including Doctor Dolittle's Delusion (Yale University Press, 2004) a book on animal communication and its relation to human language intended for the educated general reader that was chosen as the Best Book in Psychology for 2004 by the Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Linguistic Society of America, and the Association for Psychological Science. He was also President of the Linguistic Society of America in 2007.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good for a very short introduction... 20 Dec 2012
By James Ross - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I don't know much about languages or linguistics, but his caught my eye after reading a few pages online. Just being able to answer the questions "how many lanuages are there" served as a good launching point for the text.

I was hoping for more examples of language differences; what is it that varies most between languages, perhaps more specifics. But, that's jsut me. The writing about "signed" languages was really fascinating. I gues I wanted a little more depth, but then, this cacn only be a very short introduction. I'll need to look into some of the references for more detail.
7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars About worth the reading time and cost 22 Jan 2013
By Lemas Mitchell - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
One thing that I have found about books that are written by linguists (on whatever topic) is that they tend to be just a bit too long. (I have John McWhorter in mind. I've read two of his books-- Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America and Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation Of Language And Music And Why We Should, Like, Care) and have found that they were at least twice as long as they needed to be.


1. If this book had been permitted to be expanded into a full length book, it would have joined the pantheon of Bloviating Books Written By Linguists. Even as I read it, I could see where the editor had to go through with his/ her blue pen and cut out a lot of the waffle. When the author started with his biological metaphors, he really did get quite wordy and a lot of what he said could have been truncated to 2 or 3 paragraphs.

2. Since the author used biological metaphors (with which he went WAY TOO FAR), it made me wonder: "Is there even an issue here?" We all know that more species have existed and have died out than currently exist (1) and that it is perfectly natural that species died out in the churn of evolution (2). So if these same things happen in the context of languages, then *so what*?

3. The author talked about the loss of knowledge that goes with the extinction of languages. But then the question comes up: "If 50% of languages are on their way out, does that mean that 50% of knowledge is on the way out with them?" Also: If knowledge is really good and useful, then it does not depend on language. Did it matter that Il Principia was written in Latin and that no one speaks it anymore? The concepts have been translated into as many different languages as are useful.

4. The author also has a very rosy picture of multilingualism (in a book that I thought was supposed to be about some of the technical details of languages). He gives examples of where groups of people can get along speaking multiple different languages, but it's *not always that easy*. (French Canada. Africa. Sri Lanka [!]). And what was the point of getting into a series of value judgments in a book that was supposed to be descriptive (and not prescriptive)?

5. The book fell apart toward the end. It just got.....babbly. About midway through, the author promised to take up the age-old "Is Chinese a language or a dialect?" question at some length, but he just didn't. His discussion of "internal" vs. "external" concepts of a language was not very clear. The book could have lost about 25% of its length with no diminishment.

In spite of all that, there were some good take away messages.

1. We got an idea of how many languages there are in the world--along with some slightly strained analogies to Biology. (6,909 is a reasonable working number.)

2. We got a taste of the techniques that are used in studying the divergence of languages.

3. There were some answers as to why languages diverge over time-- no matter how much effort any academy/ government might make to keep them intact.

4. 25% of the 6909 languages have less than 1,000 speakers and over half of them are headed for very likely extinction within the century.

5. We were introduced to some basic concepts, such as "phonology"/"morphology"/"syntax."

Verdict: (Barely) worth the time (3 hours/ 1-2 afternoons) and worth the money ($6).
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