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Originally published April 27, 2011 at 10:02 PM | Page modified April 28, 2011 at 6:09 AM

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Jerry Large

Book on words has a lot to say

If you like language, and aren't a snob about it, you might want to read Robert Lane Greene's new book. It's titled "You Are What You Speak."

Seattle Times staff columnist

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If you like language, and aren't a snob about it, you might want to read Robert Lane Greene's new book.

It's titled "You Are What You Speak." I read it last month and get reminded of it every day by examples of one of his recurring themes, how strident we can be in constructing and protecting our identities.

Greene dedicated the book to his father, a white Southerner, who some would look down on because of his accent and grammar. Greene writes that his father was the best talker he ever knew.

Greene's maternal grandfather was one of those sticklers for standard English. Greene grew up appreciating good language usage and questioning language snobbery.

Greene, a correspondent for The Economist, speaks nine languages, and in the book he often contrasts the way linguists understand language with the way lay people see it.

For one thing linguists see valid ways of speaking all over, while lay people tend toward language chauvinism.

The book is subtitled, "Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity." It is a celebration of language filled with insights: Why Hebrew not Yiddish became Israel's language, why Japan won't switch to the convenient Roman alphabet, why the word "whom" will disappear. He kept coming back to identity.

Greene's father was a masterful storyteller with a keen language sense. The objections people had to his father's usage were rooted in identity, not language facility.

He cites the treatment of Gaelic, Catalan, Black English as speech varieties held in disdain for reasons that have nothing to do with linguistics.

As a positive example, he points to the Swiss, who embrace their regional varieties of German, even as they use one official variety for formal exchanges. The standard version is a convenience, not a mark of status.

He revisits centuries of warnings of the decline of English. Languages constantly change and there is nothing artificial rules can do to stop that, but change isn't decline.

Was Shakespeare debased because his was not the language of Chaucer? Of course not.

Greene also makes a distinction between writing, which few are good at, and speaking, which comes naturally.

A good portion of Americans worry that immigrants will refuse to learn English and turn the country into a multilingual mess. All of the evidence says otherwise.

Greene points out that an earlier wave of immigrants, Germans, held on to their language longer than most immigrants do now. Lots of schools offered bilingual education in English and German once.

He uses charts to show the decline of original immigrant languages past and present in the second and third generations.

And he notes that given the dominance of English around the world, it is amazing that people fear it is in decline.

Of course, what people fear really is outsiders, people who are in some way different. There is an idea that a country should consist of one kind of people, speaking one language (and only one variety of that language). It is a recent idea, because the world has never operated that way. The rise of nation-states makes it seem like the natural way of things, if you forget the thousands of years before.

Nation-states spend a lot of effort promoting a national language to increase loyalty to the state, but the bigger the state, the more diversity there tends to be.

Linguistic unity is easier to maintain in a small place. In a column last week I mistakenly included Finland in Scandinavia. Several readers gently reminded me that it is not. As evidence, most offered the language. Finnish is not related to its neighbors.

The distinction is important to a people who were ruled by their neighbors for centuries before declaring their independence in 1917.

In most places around the world words don't stay put any more than people do. They flow around and resist most efforts at controlling them and churn up a lot of interesting language in the process.

Greene may not stir up a new appreciation of linguistic variety. But he does make it clear that how you judge says as much about you as how you speak.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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