A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Highly Entertaining and Informative
The world of language lovers doesn't have many household names but Arika Okrent is surely one of them. She writes for Mental Floss, Slate, and Aeon, among other publications, and now she has a new book: Highly Irregular. It consolidates her place in the small group of erudite linguists who can talk about language to the general public in a way that leaves us better off and better informed.
The book has so many virtues it's hard to know where to start. I think its greatest claim to accessibility is the division into very short chapters: few are more than five pages long and each one tackles a narrow-defined subject or answers a pointed question. Okrent is expert at looking beyond our conventional radar screens for features of language that bear deeper investigation. There are in fact many aspects of English that are highly irregular but we get so used to hearing and using them that we don't pick up on what is odd. The book takes on questions such as "What is the Egg doing in Egg On?" "Why is it Without Fail and not Failure or Failing?"; and "Why Can You Say 'This Won't Take Long' but not 'This Will Take Long?'" These may be questions you haven't thought about. But can you answer any of them? I couldn't, before reading this book.
Lest it seem that a book of many very short chapters is sketchy or dilettantish, there is a larger organizational scheme: the short chapters are classified under thematic sections that identify general themes in the ways that English behaves unpredictably. These include the pervasive influence of French, the revolution brought about by printing, and the language policing industry, consisting of dictionaries and writers on grammar. Even with this larger scheme, however, each small chapter in Highly Irregular is self-contained and accessible to readers, without their having to start at the beginning of the book. I do, however, recommend starting at the beginning and reading all the way through. You'll learn a lot.
Okrent's analyses of linguistic peculiarities go in at the lexical, syntactic, or grammatical level, depending on which lens will provide the best insight. She is an expert at gathering several examples of a phenomenon and grouping them under an umbrella that explains what's going on, always in a way that the general reader can grasp. As one who is regularly steeped in linguistic terminology, I wished at some points that Okrent would give us a bit more of it: sometimes when you learn a new concept it's great to have new terminology to remember it by and I found myself thinking, e.g., But this is just lexicalization! or Can we talk about construction grammar for a minute? But I don't think most readers will have this problem, and the index to the book is happily free of trade jargon.
As you read through Highly Irregular (from start to finish, as I recommend), some overall themes emerge that are even larger than the organizational scheme outlined above, and this aspect of the book is part of Okrent's genius, educating the reader in ways that are so engaging you hardly notice that it's happening. One thing you can't help taking away from this book is that language is a living, growing thing; it has its own life completely independent of what you might like it to do, though not at all independent of what speakers in the aggregate like it to do. Because in fact language settles into its peculiar preferred patterns by consensus. When speakers and writers decide, through usage, that something will be expressed in a certain way, even if it breaks some rules, that's the way it is.
But of course there are constraints. The constraint exerting the greatest force is surely that English is a Germanic language, and because of that, it does not escape its foundational structure, even when particular expressions seem to be at odds with the Germanic way of saying things. Another dominant constraint is the influence of French, beginning with the Norman Conquest (1066), that came at a crucial time when English was not codified in any significant way, owing to the fact that the printing press had not yet arrived on the scene.
A reviewer is supposed to have a couple of quibbles with a book and so I have, but I put them down to copyediting rather than authorship. Okrent makes the observation on page 88 that "Often it can be hard to tell whether a word in English came through French or through French speakers using Latin." It's an interesting observation, but in fact she just said once before, only two pages earlier, so it doesn't quite bear repeating at this point. On page 15 we are told that "Italian cavalleria became French cavalerie became English calvary." Actually, no. It became English cavalry. But that's not a hill I'm willing to die on, it's just a quibble. A copy-editor should know that Calvary is the hill to die on, and that cavalry is soldiers on horses.
I hope that Okrent's book will enjoy use in the classroom. Its short, informative chapters in easy-to-understand language would make great material for high school students to become acquainted with linguistics at the shallow end, but with open water before them, where they may wade in as deep as they like.