With a subtitle like Why Language Can’t Be Tamed how could I possibly pass up on reading Talk on the Wild Side by Lane Greene? The linguist in me simply couldn’t resist, and my present self is particularly glad that I didn’t. Greene confesses in the text that he himself is not a professional linguist, and in fact has a few prescriptivist quirks of his own, and yet gives a compelling argument as to why language cannot be tamed, and how strict prescriptivism is not simply impractical, but impossible in the long run.
Within this text, Greene covers a multitude of topics concerning language, including the production of constructed languages, the incredible limits, but also successes of computational understandings of language, as well as touching on historical linguistics, linguistic typology, psychology, and even tackling politics in what I believe to be a relatively bipartisan manner. All of these topics, however, are inextricably connected to the impact that language has on the human condition.
Greene manages to produce a powerful argument for the acceptance of language change, while also catering to the idea that language, in particular English language, does have a need for traditional structure. He acknowledges that prescriptivism does have its place, but that many of the so-called rules of language are actually guidelines, and others are simply wrong. Greene advocates for a descriptive form of prescriptivism, meaning that he holds people accountable for using proper English grammar while recognizing that depending on register and the constant shift of languages over time what “proper grammar” means can, does, and will change. His firm and slightly snarky rebukes against the persistence of certain prescriptive practices, especially against those who insist that English follow the rules of older languages such as Greek and Latin were a delight to read, and simple in their truth. The fact of the matter is that — and this may be shocking — English is not just an extension of Latin, and imposing the rules of an Italic language onto a Germanic one is laughable when thought of from an objective standpoint, for all that they are both Indo-European languages.
One great aspect of the book is Greene’s use of popular culture in equal measure with established linguistic and psychological sources to paint a picture of what language looks like today alongside what has happened to language over the millenia that we can observe since the invention of the written word. The book opens with an example from BBC’s Sherlock, which I myself appreciated, and includes among other professional examples a breakdown of the Great Vowel Shift, an account of current and past experiments in machine learning, child language acquisition, and individual shifts in word meanings such as “buxom” “nice” and “silly”. The text also includes a passionate and source-cited defense of the singular “they” which only adds to an already excellent book. Greene is critical, professional, and categorical in the evidence he presents, while nevertheless keeping a lighthearted tone throughout the text, which I appreciate. As a linguist, I was already familiar with many of the terms and theories discussed throughout Talk on the Wild Side, and yet I could easily imagine myself enjoying and understanding this book even without the linguistics training I went through as an undergrad.
Even with said training and experience, I still feel that I learned from this text, as it explored some themes that I was not as familiar with. For instance, one chapter covered machine learning, which, not being a computational linguist like my partner, I only had a passing familiarity with. Multiple sections of the text also included the manipulation of language, particularly as it pertains to register, in political discourse.
Overall, I found Talk on the Wild Side to be a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it as both an educational and a recreational read for all those with even a passing interest in how language works in our world. I read an advanced reading copy for this title, but the general publication date is November 6th, so keep a lookout for it when it hits the shelves!