Don’t Believe A Word: The surprising truth about language

David Shariatmadari (W&N, 2019), 336pp (hardcover)
ISBN 978 1 47 460843 5

Reviewed by Kate Blackham

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In Don’t Believe A Word, David Shariatmadari seeks to show what languages actually are, how they change and evolve through time, and how we, as speakers of at least one language, learn to communicate meaningfully with others.

Shariatmadari’s central idea is that while humans are all expert linguists, the vast majority of us have very little understanding about how language actually functions. Obviously as members of the SfEP, we have a firmer grasp on language than the average person in the street, but I’m sure I’m not alone in agreeing with the author on this point. I have no recollection of learning to talk as a child and much of my knowledge of what constitutes correct usage of the English language seems to me to be, first and foremost, intuitive.

Because we find it so effortless to talk and write, we tend not to give it a lot of thought. Furthermore, according to Shariatmadari a dearth of academic linguists engaging with lay audiences has led to myths and fallacies about language being spread with little challenge from experts. In this book he takes nine common, but incorrect, beliefs and analyses them using current linguistic knowledge. Fortunately for those of us lacking a degree in the subject, the book is not overly technical, although there is good glossary at the back.

The book begins with the myth that our language is going to the dogs and we will one day soon be reduced to communicating with each other through little more than grunts according to broadcaster John Humphrys. The author deftly demonstrates that people have been bemoaning the deterioration of our language since at least the fourteenth century. For centuries those good old days of the golden age of literature have been just a few generations ago, but they are most certainly not today. The problem with this view is of course that we must regard writers of no less calibre than Shakespeare for being woefully degenerated. And English isn’t alone in this regard, around the world critics have been worrying about the state of their respective languages for over two millennia.

In the following chapter, Shariatmadari turns his attention to the etymological fallacy. He shows that a word’s origin cannot be the deciding factor in determining its true meaning. After destroying the ‘decimate’ means ‘destruction of 10%’ argument, he then hilariously shows that if we blindly adhere to the etymological fallacy we are forced to accept that the true meaning of ‘treacle’ is a ‘wild animal’.

I found the book to be an entertaining and enjoyable read. It provides a whistle-stop tour of topics as diverse as the structure of the human brain and the disorders that impact on our ability to use or interpret language, the communication skills and techniques of animals – both natural and human-trained, translation between languages, the difference between dialects and languages, and language snobbery, before wrapping the whole book up with a discussion of the latest research into how children learn to talk.

Finally, if the book whets your appetite, and it certainly did mine, there is nice and fairly chunky references section to further your linguistics journey.

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