Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book Review -- Limits of Language

Another one of our occasional MOTP reviews (a positive one, this time). Obviously, it was written some time ago. But my delight in this book remains unabated:

Limits of Language

by Mikael Parkvall

"Limits of Language" arrived today from Amazon. I've never smoked crack, but reading this book approximates what I imagine it would feel like -- an initial rush of pure pleasure, followed by the irresistible craving for just one more bump, yielding to that craving over and over until - six hours later - you find yourself surrounded by cats not fed, laundry not done, unwashed dishes, unpaid bills, and yet you still can't stop yourself. You want more. You want it to last forever. Damn you, Mikael Parkvall! How could you write a book that caters so brilliantly to my utter fascination with words and all things language-related? And be so smart and funny too?

I just tore myself away to feed the cats and pass this message along to goodreads members. There are still three shopping weeks until Christmas. Nobody else appears to be listing this book. So - if you know anyone with an interest in words or language - buy them a copy. Their puppy-like gratitude will last all year. Heck, now that it's out in paperback, you can get your own copy for less than twenty bucks.

A pdf preview of the detailed table of contents and the first 19 pages is here:

The table of contents at the link above is very detailed, but fails to capture the author's wit, and the sheer geekish zaniness of some of the topics. Some highlights -

A 30-page "linguist's calendar", marking the anniversary of various linguistic milestones (e.g. 'birth of Kanzi, the most talking ape there is';'the Dalmatian language becomes extinct, when the last surviving speaker accidentally steps on a landmine') giving linguists an excuse to celebrate throughout the year.

Habla Usted Phrase-Bookish? A side-splitting selection of useless phrases culled from phrasebooks around the world. For instance -

"At what time were these branches eaten by the rhinoceros?"
"I have my own syringe".
"The beast had a human body, the feet of a buck, and a horn on its head".
"I don't play the violin, but I love cheese".

Untranslatable Words: e.g. the Kuot word aFone "to drink from a bottle in such a fashion that drool trickles from the mouth back into the bottle", the Czech umudrovat se "to philosophize oneself into the madhouse", or the Ciluba word ilunga "a person who is willing to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time".

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to reading about the word's most dadaistic verb morphology*.

I don't play the violin, but I LOVE this book!

* Oh, OK. Here is the paragraph in question:

Linguists are supposed to take languages seriously. We are not supposed to laugh at them. So, apologies to all Kobon speakers out there, but I just can't help it. The prize for the language with the verb morphology most looking like it had been thought up by Tristan Tzara must go to Kobon. If there are any sceptics among the readers, here follows the suffixal paradigm for the counterfactual mood in Kobon:

1sg -- bnep 1du -- blop 1pl -- bnop
2sg -- bnap 2du -- blep 2pl -- bep
3sg -- böp 3du -- blep 3pl -- blap

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