New Books in Language
Summary: Discussions with Scholars of Language about their New Books
John Durham PetersView on Amazon[Cross-posted from the NBN Seminar] John Durham Peters' wonderful new book is a brilliant and beautifully-written consideration of natural environments as subjects for media studies. Accessible and informative for a broad readership. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (University of Chicago Press, 2015) is structured as a series of meditations on and explorations of water, fire, air, earth, and ether media. After a chapter that sets out some of the foundational ideas shaping the book and charts an intellectual landscape for rethinking media, each of the following chapters offers a carefully curated series of studies of particulars – dolphin jaws, candles, towers, watches, clouds, feet, bells, weathermen, Google, and more – as a means of examining the significance of infrastructure, forgetting, technicity, and other modes of understanding media. Peters asks us to come with a fresh perspective to notions that we otherwise take for granted, and the result is a thoughtful and inspiring account that brings together media studies, theology, philosophy, and the natural sciences in thoroughly compelling ways. Among other things, the book is a call for a "greener media studies" that "appreciates our long natural history of shaping and being shaped by our habitats as a process of mediation." What if, Peters asks, we took nature instead of the mind as the "epitome of meaning"? What are the stakes of doing so? The result is among the most exciting and enjoyable books that I've read in some time.
View on AmazonIt's not always been clear how the study of written language fits into linguistics. As a relatively recent historical development, it's tempting to see it as a sideshow in terms of questions about the innateness of language. But at the same time, humans' aptitude for literacy seems remarkable and could be said to merit study in its own right as a window into the mind. It's easy to enjoy Geoffrey Sampson's Writing Systems, 2nd edition (Equinox, 2015) without getting into these questions, because the social and historical story that unfolds over its pages is itself fascinating. This new edition benefits from advances in classical and anthropological scholarship, and offers a meticulous and elegantly explained account of the emergence of some of the world's predominant writing systems. But the author also continues to make a strong case for the relevance of written language to linguistic study, and draws substantially upon psycholinguistic research (which itself has motivated a reappraisal of how reading 'works', since the first edition was published in 1985). In this interview we touch upon some of the recurring themes of the book: how writing systems are elaborated and combined; how historical processes have resulted in some degree of mismatch between languages and the writing systems used to record them; and how technology mediates the way these systems are used.
Kate PahlView on AmazonLiterary practices are often associated with specific social groups in particular social settings. Kate Pahl's Materializing Literacies in Communities: The Uses of Literacy Revisited (Bloomsbury, 2014) challenges these assumptions by showing the varieties of literary practice in Rotherham, England. The book engages with the locally particular to draw out a variety of general findings, relevant to methodological reflection and material culture debates. The book draws on a wealth of projects from the AHRC funded Connected Communities programme, including Fishing as Wisdom, The Imagine Project, and Language as Talisman. The book represents an important intervention into how we understand community, literacy and identity.
Leonard CassutoView on AmazonThe discontented graduate student is something of a cultural fixture in the U.S. Indeed theirs is a sorry lot. They work very hard, earn very little, and have very poor prospects. Nearly all of them want to become professors, but most of them won't. Indeed a disturbingly large minority of them won't even finish their degrees. It's little wonder graduate students are, as a group, somewhat depressed. In his thought-provoking book The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It (Harvard University Press, 2015), Leonard Cassuto tries to figure out why graduate education in the U.S. is in such a sad state. More importantly, he offers a host of fascinating proposals to "fix" American graduate schools. Listen in.
Liora R. HalperinView on AmazonIn Babel in Zion: Jews, Nationalism, and Language Diversity in Palestine, 1920-1948 (Yale University Press, 2015), Liora R. Halperin, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, argues that multilingualism persisted in Palestine after World War I despite the traditional narrative of the swift victory of Hebrew. Halperin looks at the intertwined nature of language, identity, and nationalism, and how language was a key factor in Jews' relationships with Palestinian Arabs, the British, and others.
Chad EngellandView on AmazonHow do we learn our first words? What is it that makes the linguistic intentions of others manifest to us, when our eyes follow a pointing finger to an object and associate that object with a word? Chad Engelland addresses these and related questions in Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind (MIT Press, 2015). Engelland, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas, explores the way in which ostension crosses the Cartesian boundary between body and mind. Drawing on historical and contemporary figures and continental and analytical traditions, he defends an embodied view of ostension in which we directly perceive intentions in ostension rather than infer to them, and gives an account of how we are able to disambiguate gestures through the joint presence of objects in a shared environment.
James TurnerView on AmazonJames Turner is Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at Notre Dame University. His book Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2014) recovers the significance of philology, the study of language, that for centuries was synonymous with humanistic intellectual life. Turner provides a detailed and fascinating study that traces philology's beginning in Greek and Roman speculation about language and follows it to the early twentieth century. At the library in Alexandria, Greeks speculated about language, invented rhetoric, analyzed texts and created grammar. Roman diffusion and Christian adaptation spread the influence of philology. The medieval scholars kept it alive until the Renaissance when humanist gave it new life only to escape the most toxic aspects of the Reformation. By the nineteenth century, philology covered three distinct modes of inquiry: textual philology included the study of ancient and biblical literature, language theories of origin, and comparative historical studies of structure and language systems. All philologists held to the belief that history was key to understanding the diversity and change in language. Comparative methods and genealogical understanding accompanied historical analysis. These methods applied not only to texts but also to material objects, structures, art, people groups, and eventually became the foundation for the modern disciplines of anthropology, history, art history, linguistics, literary and religious studies we know today. Turner points to the need to reintegrate scholarly erudition away from insular disciplines and recover the expansive and humanistic reach of philology.
View on AmazonWho were the Indo-Europeans? Were they all-conquering heroes? Aggressive patriarchal Kurgan horsemen, sweeping aside the peaceful civilizations of Old Europe? Weed-smoking drug dealers rolling across Eurasia in a cannabis-induced haze? Or slow-moving but inexorable farmers from Anatolia? These are just some of the many possibilities discussed in the scholarly literature. But in 2012, a New York Times article announced that the problem had been solved, by a team of innovative biologists applying computational tools to language change. In an article published in Science, they claimed to have found decisive support for the Anatolian hypothesis. In their book, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Asya Pereltsvaig and Martin Lewis make the case that this conclusion is premature, and based on unwarranted assumptions. In this interview, Asya and Martin talk to me about the history of the Indo-European homeland question, the problems they see in the Science article, and the form that a good theory of Indo-European origins needs to take.
Colin McGinnView on AmazonI must admit that my relationship to philosophy of language is a bit like my relationship to classic literature: I tend to admire it from afar, and rely on the opinions of people who have read it. The danger is that the received wisdom can sometimes be unreliable, for one reason or another, either making something accessible sound rarefied, or making something subtle and elusive sound banal, or both. In his book, Philosophy of Language: the Classics Explained (MIT Press, 2015), Colin McGinn sets out to demystify some of the classic and much-cited texts in philosophy of language, and in doing so, also opens up some interesting new angles that tend to get overlooked. In this interview, we talk about the works, their historical context and their (ongoing) reception, and consider how the field has developed and might develop in the future.
Naomi S. BaronView on AmazonScreens are ubiquitous. From the screen on a mobile, to that on a tablet, or laptop, or desktop computer, screens appear all around us, full of content both visual and text. But it is not necessarily the ubiquity of screens that has societal implications. The significance is in how screens fundamentally change how we ingest information. In her new book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press, 2015), Naomi S. Baron, professor of linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University, asserts that despite the benefits of convenience and monetary savings, reading onscreen has many drawbacks. Using surveys of millennials in the United States, Japan and Germany, combined with anecdotes, and information from writers, Baron provides evidence of the impact of technology on reading, and thinking, in society. Just listen.
Jason StanleyView on AmazonPropaganda names a familiar collection of phenomena, and examples of propaganda are easy to identify, especially when one examines the output of totalitarian states. In those cases, language and imagery are employed for the purpose of shaping mass opinion, forming group allegiances, constructing worldviews, and securing compliance. It is undeniable that propaganda is employed by liberal democratic states. But it is also undeniable that the use of propaganda is especially problematic in liberal democracies, as it looks incompatible with the democratic ideals of equality and autonomous self-government. It's surprising, then, that the topic of propaganda has gone relatively unexplored in contemporary political philosophy. In How Propaganda Works (Princeton University Press, 2015), Jason Stanley develops an original theory of propaganda according to which propaganda is the deployment of an ideal against itself. Along the way, Stanley distinguishes various kinds of propaganda and explores the connections between propaganda, ideology, stereotypes, and group identities. Stanley's central thesis is that propaganda poses an epistemological problem for democracy, as propaganda is the vehicle by which false beliefs are disseminated and opportunities for knowledge are closed.
Pieter SeurenView on AmazonA colleague once told me that people in linguistics could be divided into two groups: sheep and snipers. I'm not sure whether this is a proper dichotomy – it's certainly not quite canonical – but whether it is or not, Pieter Seuren is an example of a linguist who is most emphatically not a sheep. His book From Whorf to Montague: Explorations in the Theory of Language (Oxford UP, 2013) develops a number of themes concerning aspects of language that are problematic for existing theories, and yet have been accidentally (he stresses) overlooked in the recent intellectual history of the field. Adopting a broadly universalist standpoint, he is critical of approaches that reject the idea of even looking for generalisations and unity, but he is also critical of many aspects of the programmes that have attempted to find order in language. This is not a book that many people will agree with from cover to cover, but it is one that persuasively challenges much of the accumulated "wisdom" of any given school of linguistic thought. I hope this interview gives some idea of the breadth and depth of the undertaking.
Terence CuneoView on Amazon[Cross-posted from New Books in Philosophy] It is widely accepted that in uttering sentences we sometimes perform distinctive kinds of acts. We declare, assert, challenge, question, corroborate by means of speech; sometimes we also use speech to perform acts such as promising, commanding, judging, pronouncing, and christening. Yet it seems that in order to perform an act of, say, promising, one must have a certain kind of normative status; at the very least, one must be accountable. Similarly, in order to issue a command, one must, in some sense, have the authority to do so. It seems, then, that the power to perform acts by means of speech depends upon the normative status and standing of speakers. In Speech and Morality: On the Metaethical Implications of Speaking (Oxford University Press, 2014), Terence Cuneo appeals to this fact in devising an original and compelling argument for moral realism. He claims that were it not for the existence of moral facts, we would not be able to perform ordinary speech acts such as promising. As we clearly do perform such acts, there must be moral facts. That's the simple argument that lies at the heart of Cuneo's fascinating book.
Daniel CloudView on Amazon[Cross-posted from New Books in Big Ideas] One of the most puzzling things about humans is their ability to manipulate symbols and create artifacts. Our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom–apes–have only the rudiments of these abilities: chimps don't have language and, if they have culture, it's extraordinarily primitive in comparison to the human form. What we have between apes and humans is not really a continuum; it's a break. So how did this break occur? The answer, of course, is evolutionarily. It stands to Darwinian reason that our distant ancestors must have been selected for symbolic use and cultural production, and it was in this natural selective way that they became human. That's fine as far as it goes, but it presents us with another puzzle: why is human language and culture so astoundingly complex? In order to prosper in the so-called "era of evolutionary adaptation," neither needed to have been complex at all. A Hominin with a smallish fraction of the symbolic and cultural abilities of Homo sapiens would easily have emerged (and maybe did emerge) as a completely dominant alpha predator. Imagine, if you will, a chimp that could talk a bit and produce reasonably effective missile weapons. How much selection pressure would such a talking, armed chimp face? Not much, at least from other animals. Such an Hominin would not, ceteris paribus, need to evolve new and more complex linguistic and cultural abilities and forms. But complex linguistic and cultural abilities and forms did evolve. So, we have to ask, where do Shakespeare and Large Hadron Colliders come from? Daniel Cloud has an answer: domestication. In his fascinating and thought-provoking new book The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal (Columbia University Press, 2014), Cloud argues that over the millennia proto-humans and humans have been selecting mates who were good with symbols and selecting symbols themselves. This process–a kind of runaway sexual selection and domestication–rapidly (in evolutionary time-scales) produced both a huge expensive brain and an ornate culture to match. Listen in.
Thom Scott-PhillipsView on AmazonI hope I'm not being species-centric when I say that the emergence of human language is a big deal. John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry rate it as one of the "major transitions in evolution", placing it in exalted company alongside the evolution of multicellularity, sociality, sexual reproduction, and various other preoccupations of ours. But the nature of the transition is hotly disputed: is there a sudden shift involving the emergence of complex syntax, or is the process more gradual and socially driven? In his entertaining and approachable volume Speaking Our Minds (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Thom Scott-Phillips argues for a different approach. On his view, there is a categorical difference between human language and its precursors, but the critical ingredient is ostensive-inferential communication – that is, the ability to express and recognise intentions – and this underlies the expressive power of language. His view calls for a reappraisal of the role of pragmatics in linguistics, from being a communicatively useful add-on to being much nearer the heart of the enterprise. In this interview, we discuss the motivations and implications of this idea, for both evolutionary and more traditional approaches to linguistics, and we look at how comparative studies of other species – not only great apes, but even bacteria – might tell us something useful about the nature of human communication.