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11 Best Books on Linguistics in 2021 (Explained Why!)

Updated: November 25, 2021
7 min read

Language is complex. It can teach you a lot about history, human knowledge, and behavior.

If you have recently acquired a casual interest in linguistics, or you have a more formal goal in mind, there are plenty of excellent books to inspire you.

The following will take you on a fascinating journey through the history and evolution of languages, how they work, how they are acquired, and how best to learn/teach them.

At A Glance: The TOP 4 Books on Linguistics

1. Top pick: The Resilience of Language
2. Runner up: Language and Experience
3. Best Introductory Book: How Language Works
4. Also great: Language Myths

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Top pick
The Resilience of Language: What Gesture Creation in Deaf Children Can Tell Us About How All Children Learn Language (Essays in Developmental Psychology)
The Resilience of Language

“The Resilience of Language: What Gesture Creation in Deaf Children Can Tell Us About How All Children Learn Language” by Susan Goldin-Meadow is a first-rate resource for anyone interested in linguistics, language acquisition, and early childhood development.

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The book reflects Goldin-Meadow’s more than thirty years of research on language development on deaf children, shedding light on how they develop linguistic gesture systems without input from their parents.

In the book, Goldin-Meadow investigates how a variation in the linguistic input and environment influences the development of language.

She posits that all children, hearing or deaf, are equipped to learn a language, even if they have no exposure to any conventional language model.

The extensive reference list at the end of the book provides a more detailed description of her theoretical assessments and methodologies.

Highly accessible and well-written, “The Resilience of Language” is an informative reading material that contributes massively to understanding language and communication.

Runner up
Language and Experience: Evidence from the Blind Child (Cognitive Science, 8)
Language and Experience

Barbara Landau and Lila R. Gleitman’s “Language and Experience: Evidence from the Blind Child” is another excellent book that covers the basics of linguistics, language learning, and acquisition.

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It documents the competencies of blind children in learning the language, investigating their speech development, specifically how they process sighted verbs and color terms. 

Landau and Gleitman examine the role of experience in language acquisition and conclude that blind children are not linguistically deficient, even if they have limited sensory experiences.

The book states that language learners are naturally gifted with lexicon conceptual and perceptual principles, making language acquisition possible under varied circumstances. 

“Language and Experience” includes the following contents:

·       the development of speech in blind children

·       the meaning of sighted verbs

·       syntactic and ostensive supports for verb learning

·       a blind child’s understanding of color terms

·       speculations on the concept “natural concept”

Insightful and informative, it is a must-read for anyone interested in linguistics and language.

Best Introductory Book
How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die
How Language Works”

If your fascination with linguistics is just taking off, “How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die” by David Crystal is a superb place to start.

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The book will answer all your questions on the origins of languages, how children learn to speak, and more.

Crystal will take you on an enjoyable tour on the intricate workings of language, covering broad topics to small, detailed ones. At the same time, he includes anecdotes and examples that make understanding concepts easy.  

You will gain fascinating insights on how children acquire language, how conservations work, how words are considered polite or rude, and how language relates to a person’s social status.

The book also covers topics such as the significant differences between the spoken and written word and how sign languages work.

With short chapters – all cross-referenced – on a variety of languages, from sounds and physiology to grammar and translations, “How Language Works” is the crash course in linguistics that is all you will ever need.

Also great
Language Myths
Language Myths

Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill’s “Language Myths” is a unique and engaging introduction to how language works.

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The book is an accessible collection of 21 original essays written by some of the world’s leading linguists. 

It sets the record straight on a variety of language topics, particularly myths, common stereotypes, and misconceptions, as well as misunderstandings.

Some of the issues discussed are:

·       how the media are ruining the English language

·       why children can’t speak or write correctly anymore

·       why women talk too much

·       how some languages are more complex than others

·       why double negatives are illogical

The book will let you see language as various forms of expression with different maturity levels and that social prejudice can influence perceptions of language use.

Bauer and Trudgill’s friendly tone and absence of jargon make it an easy read. There are even cartoons included to help illustrate some of the points.

Packed with thought-provoking arguments, “Language Myths” will help reshape how you view the world.

#5
The Language of Thought (The Language and Thought Series)
The Language of Thought

“The Language of Thought” by Jerry A. Fodor is an in-depth, classical book that continues to be a go-to resource for linguists across the globe.

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Fodor provides a compelling discussion on the philosophy of mind and how a “language of thought” is required by our best psychology.

The book explains that thinking occurs in a mental language, resembling spoken language in many vital aspects. 

Just like spoken words, mental language contains meaningful words that can be combined into meaningful sentences. How you form meaning depends in a systematic way that these component words are used and combined.

The book covers the following topics:

·       Introduction: Two Kinds of Reductionism

·       First Approximations

·       Private Language, Public Languages

·       The Structure of the Internal Code: Some Linguistic Evidence

·       The Structure of the Internal Code: Some Psychological Evidence

“The Language of Thought” deserves much credit on why internal mental processes are considered significant in language and psychology. 

 It deserves to be on your bookshelf of the best linguistic books.

#6
On Nature and Language
On Nature and Language

Another classic, “On Nature and Language” by Noam Chomsky and Adriana Belletti, et al. offers a powerful introduction to the minimalist approach to linguistics.

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The book is Chomsky’s attempt to integrate current linguistics research into neuroscience, cementing the relationship between language, mind, and brain.

In a collection of essays, it explains how language optimally enables the brain to express thoughts. 

The book covers the following topics:

·       Editors’ introduction: some concepts and issues in linguistic theory 

·       Perspectives on language and mind

·       Language and the brain 

·       An interview on minimalism 

·       The secular priesthood and the perils of democracy

“On Nature and Language” concludes with an article on the intellectual’s role in government and society. 

An important landmark in linguistic theory development, it has much to offer students and researchers in theoretical and neurolinguistics, even cognitive science and politics.

Without a doubt, this is a must-read for anyone interested in language and communication.

#7
The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
The Power of Babel

John McWhorter’s “The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language” is another excellent book on the basics of linguistics but from a historical point of view.

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The book emphasizes how language is not a stagnant entity but a dynamic one that can adapt to an ever-changing human environment.

It will take you on a journey through the history of languages, showcasing how they mix and mutate over time.

McWhorter draws illustrative examples from the world languages, including Creoles, pidgins, and nonstandard dialects. 

He explains how the six thousand languages on Earth today come from a shared root language and how some branched out, and some disappeared and died. 

The accessible style in which the book is written makes it an easy read for both language students to casual readers alike.

The anecdotes sprinkled in the book, usually found in the footnote, serve to illustrate McWhorter’s points and lighten up the reading.

Humorous and insightful, “The Power of Babel” is a fantastic read about language and human experience.

#8
Stories of English
Stories of English

“Stories of English” by David Crystal is a wonderfully entertaining book on the history of the English language and its many complexities.

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It shows how the many linguistic strands of English (from Standard English and unusual dialects to slang) developed to create the rich and varied language we use today.

Crystal traces the whole chronological story without sounding like a textbook, from the Celtic beginnings and linguistic invasions to the modern-day variety. 

Page after page, examples and explanations are provided, unfolding the mysteries of English – its richness, creativity, and diversity. 

The book puts regional speech and writing on center stage, providing a refreshingly original view of the nonstandard and marginalized voices in language and its importance. 

The reflections in the inter-chapters also do not gloss over history problems but confront them head-on.

The casual style of “Stories of English” makes it reader-friendly. Crystal will make you feel like you are a part of the conversation.

It is definitely a must-have if you are looking to pursue an interest in language evolution.

#9
Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
Through the Language Glass

Guy Deutscher’s “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages” is a fascinating book that demonstrates how language, nature, and culture have intertwined throughout history.

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Deutscher tackles the controversial question of how (and whether) culture shapes language and vice versa.

He discusses how language influences our thoughts and how color words shape our perception of the world. 

The book includes the following topics:

·       language, culture, and thought

·       the rude populations inhabiting foreign lands

·       Plato and the Macedonian swineherd

·       where the sun doesn’t rise in the east

·       Russian blues

·       and more

“Through the Language Glass” will guide you through two centuries ’ worth of experiments illustrating the relationship between words and the mind. 

Thought-provoking and entertaining, it reads like a gripping adventure instead of a prescriptive, scientific history. Deutscher’s scholarly and eloquent style of writing makes it an enjoyable book to read.

It makes an excellent introduction to the relationship between language, thought, and culture.

#10
Summary and Analysis of The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language By Steven Pinker
Summary and Analysis of The Language Instinct

“Summary and Analysis of The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language” by Steven Pinker is an in-depth account of the origins of language.

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In the book, Pinker discusses how humans are born with an innate capacity for language. 

The book delves deep into how this inclination for language learning is hardwired to our brain, citing wide-ranging examples and evidence to back the theory.

It also touches on the evolution of language, tracing its ebb and flow through time. 

Some of the topics discussed in the book are:

·       why written languages are a relatively recent technological innovation

·       why languages are “acquired” from exposure and practice

·       how the brain decodes, computes, and produces language

Pinker makes sure that his discussions are understood without needing a linguistics degree, translating scholarly writing into something fun and engaging.

He challenges your perception as he walks through his explanations patiently and painstakingly.

A сrаѕh соurѕe іn lіnguіѕtісѕ and lіnguіѕtіс аnthrороlоgу, “Summary and Analysis of The Language Instinct” is an essential book for your collection.

#11
The Unfolding of Language
The Unfolding of Language

Another work of Guy Deutscher, “The Unfolding of Language” is a superb examination of the development of mankind’s best invention – language.

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The book explores how languages developed over the years, from the rudimentary utterances to the highly complex structures we know today.

It examines the evolution of our most sophisticated grammar concepts, vast vocabularies, and elaborately nuanced shades of meaning. 

Deutscher delivers compelling insights on how languages are formed, evolve, then decay and die. 

He argues that creation and destruction in the language go hand in hand, then shows how these processes generate new words, structures, and meanings.

From ancient Babylonian, medieval French to present English, the journey through history is also fascinating.

By using an easy-to-digest format, “The Unfolding of Language” will keep you engaged throughout. 

More importantly, it allows you to discover the brilliance behind an exceptional human faculty.

For this reason, it deserves to be on the list of the best of the best language-related books.

Sources:

Quora

Linguistic Society of America

Written by
Jamey Muller
I'm the head-writer @ Knowledge Eager (or, in plain English, I'm the guy writing the majority of the content here). Addicted to the stock market, football, sushi and tacos.
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