Recommend a book on linguistics/language history

I’m currently looking for a few (or many) books on linguistics, the history of language, and the like. Titles along the lines of “The Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson, though preferably with fewer errors - entry-level/dilettante-type titles, rather than dense scholarly tomes.

This is all assuming that there are more out there other than the aforementioned Bryson book. I’d imagine there are, but what do I know? After all, that’s why I’m asking youse guys. Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

The Story of English is old, was the companion to a PBS mini-series, and has failings, but is still an excellent introduction.

Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct is nicely informative.

Thank you both! Both of those titles look quite interesting.

Browse through Language, Though, and Reality by Benjamin Worf.

Board members may call me a sadist for recommending this, but I found Andrew Radford’s books very approachable. They’re about syntax, but one or two are specifically for English and give you a lot to think about.

I also enjoyed Gussenhoven & Jacobs’ Understanding Phonology.

A wonderful book with or without the companion video.

I concur fully, but some people automatically poo-poo companion books. :slight_smile:

I highly recommend The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention by Guy Deutscher. It gets referenced a lot in linguistics and language threads, and for good reason.

How about John McWhorter’s lecture series The Story of Human Language from The Teaching Company? McWhorter’s a wonderful lecturer. Plus, the course guidebook includes a bibliography with suggestions for further reading.

(Teaching Company courses can be a bit expensive, but you could see if your library it, find a used copy someplace like, or download it from if you’re a member there.)

I second The Language Instinct, along with several of Pinker’s other books:
-The Stuff of Thought examines commonalities among languages in several areas, including profanity, innuendo, and mapping of physical space, and uses these commonalities to explore what they tell us about human nature.
-Words and Rules looks at one ridiculously specific aspect of language–irregular past tense verbs–and through this example advances an argument about the acquisition of language by children.

He doesn’t do a lot with linguistic history, but it does figure into his books, and it’s very interesting stuff.

Again, thanks all! All of these recs look excellent!

And Thudlow Boink, my wallet is not thanking you for the series recommendation - I went to Audible and ended up wish-listing about half of the Great Courses collections.

Pinker is a great writer, able to convey complicated ideas to us laymen. I should probably get a copy of The Language Instinct.

To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of linguistics regards paleolinguistics and the light it can shed on archeology. (I think I got this from Jared Diamond.) For example, if we find archeological evidence of a technology in two child cultures of the same parent culture, we can figure out whether the invention of the technology preceded the split or not. If it did, most technical terms will be similar. Of course, it’s never that simple, but that gives us a starting point.

I highly recommend Word Play by Peter Farb. It’s fascinating, informative, and funny as hell.

The aforementioned John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel is my favorite. I’ve loaned it and given copies away to several friends. Brisk, thought-provoking, and in parts quite funny.

I second this; we got it from our library and listened to it on a long driving trip, and it was fascinating.

You might find ‘Language Made Plain’ and ‘A Mouthful of Air’ by Anthony Burgess of interest.

Elizabeth W barber writes books on textiles and is a linguist as well. Her book on Women’s work has an appendi on language that was quite interesting.

by Simon Winchester. This came to my mind when I read your query.

from Amazon: The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary – and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857, it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

I quite enjoyed McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.