Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Limits of Language

Geoffrey Pullum recommended Limits of Language by Mikael Parkvall a few months ago and I'm passing on the recommendation. My own copy arrived safely directly from the publisher in Sri Lanka. It's a lot of fun, and, as the South Hanoi Evening Post might have said, "Â phâking gũđ rìđ."

It's "almost everything you didn't know you didn't know about language and languages." If you are ever in the position to teach a class on language or linguistics, this book will give you all the quirky facts you need to hook even the least interested student (well, maybe). Even if you're never in such a position, you can't help but be charmed by observations such as:
  • Languages with a small vowel inventory tend to be spoken more loudly than those with more vowels.
  • The Kipeá language of South America has a noun class that "is used for words denoting hills, dishes, stools and foreheads."
  • "The Peruvian language Capanahua uses multiple negators in an unusual way with demonstratives. While haa means 'he', haama, logically enough, means 'not he'. But Capanahua takes this even further, and so, haamama is 'not not he', that is, 'he indeed'. Finally, haamamama, or 'not not not he' referes to 'someone else'.
And, finally, since this is English, Jack, I'll point out the entry entitled "¿Habla usted Phrase-bookish?", which gives, as "the world's worst phrasebook" English as she is spoke (which, by the way, provides the inspiration for our tagline, Jack). This Portugese-English phrasebook instructs the naïve Brazilian on when to say:
  • Let us prick.
  • That which fell one's snotly blow blow one's nose.
  • I have mind to vomit.
Who could travel without it?

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