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The Five-Minute Linguist

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The Five-Minute Linguist provides a lively, reader-friendly introduction to the subject of language suitable for the general reader and beginning students. The book offers brief essays on more than 60 intriguing questions such as “What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?” Can animals understand us?” “What causes foreign accents?” and “How is language used on social media?” These are conveniently organized into 12 topical areas that include What is Linguistics, Language and Thought, Language and Society, and Language and Technology, among others.

Each essay is written by a leading authority in the specialization who offers succinct, insightful answers to questions that most of us have wondered about, with follow-up references to more in-depth reading on each question. The third edition adds new topics now at the forefront of linguistics and updates others, serving as an unrivaled introduction to the mysteries and intrigue of language. The third edition of this book was produced under the sponsorship of the Linguistic Society of America.

Published: Jul 9, 2019

Book Contributors

Section Chapter Authors
Foreword Ben Zimmer
Introduction Caroline Myrick, Walt Wolfram
What is Linguistics?
1. Why Learn about Language? Robert Rodman†
2. You're a Linguist? How Many Languages do You Speak? Paul Chapin†
3. What's the Difference between Dialects and Languages? G. Tucker Childs
4. Do All Languages have the Same Grammar? Mark C. Baker
5. How Many Languages are there in the World? M. Paul Lewis
6. Why is Chomsky Such a Big Deal in Linguistics? Greg Carlson
Language Structure
7. How are the Sounds of a Language Made? Peter Ladefoged†
8. Is there a Right Way to Put Words Together? Dennis Preston
9. What Makes a Word 'Real'? Anne Curzan
10. What is Grammatical Gender? Caroline Myrick
11. What is an Artificial Language? Christopher Moseley
12. Do Animals Use Language? Donna Jo Napoli
Language and Communication
13. What Happens if You are Raised without Language? Susan Curtiss
14. Can Animals Understand Us? Robin Queen
15. What is 'Speaking in Tongues'? Walt Wolfram
16. How Many Kinds of Writing Systems are there? Peter Daniels
17. What Ever Happened to Esperanto? Arika Okrent, E. M. Rickerson
Language and Thought
18. Why Do Linguists Study Brains? Lise Menn
19. Does our Language Affect the Way We Think? Geoffrey K. Pullum
20. How does the Brain Handle Multiple Languages? Judith Kroll, Kinsey Bice
21. Can You Lose Language? Daniel Kempler, Mira Goral
History of Language
22. What was the Original Language? Barry Hilton
23. Do All Languages Come from the Same Source? Allan R. Bomhard
24. What Language did Adam and Eve Speak? E. M. Rickerson
25. Where Does Grammar Come From? Joan Bybee
26. Where did Writing Come From? Peter Daniels
27. Where did English Come From? John Algeo
28. Is Latin Really Dead? Frank Morris
Language Variation and Change
29. Do Languages Have to Change? John McWhorter
30. Aren't Pidgins and Creoles Just Bad English? John Lipski
31. Do Deaf People Everywhere Use the Same Sign Language? Leila Monaghan
32. Do Men and Women Talk Differently? Deborah Cameron
33. Can Someone 'Sound Gay'? Rusty Barrett
34. Why Do Languages Die? Christopher Moseley
Language Learning
35. How Do Babies Learn Their Mother Tongue? Lauren Stites, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek
36. How Many Languages Can a Person Learn? Richard Hudson
37. What Causes Foreign Accents? Steven H. Weinberger
38. What Does it Mean to be Bilingual? Agnes Bolonyai
39. What Makes Some Languages Harder to Learn than Others? Barry Hilton
40. Can Monolingualism be Cured? Katherine Sprang
41. How Have Our Ideas about Language Learning Changed through the Years? June K. Phillips
Language and Society
42. What is the Connection between Language and Society? Jon Forrest
43. What are Lingua Francas? Nicholas Ostler
44. How Can a Country Function with More than One Official Language? Vijay Gambhir
45. Why Do People Fight Over Language? Paul B. Garrett
46. What is Gendered Language? Caroline Myrick
Language in the U.S.
47. What is the Language of the United States? David Goldberg
48. Is there a Language Crisis in the United States? Julie Tetel-Andresen
49. Are American Dialects Dying? Walt Wolfram
50. How Many Native American Languages are there? Marianne Mithun
51. What is African American English? Nicole Holliday
52. What is the Future of Spanish in the United States? Maria Carreira
Language and Technology
53. How is Language Used on Social Media? Lauren Squires
54. Can Computers Teach Languages Faster and Better? Trude Heift
55. How Good is Machine Translation? Kevin Knight
56. Is Text Messaging Changing How I Write and Speak? Joel Schneier
Language and Education
57. Why Should Teachers Care about Linguistics? Anne Charity Hudley, Christine Mallinson
58. Should Schools Teach Grammar? Richard Hudson
59. Is Elementary School too Early to Teach Foreign Languages? Gladys C. Lipton
60. Why Study Languages Abroad? Sheri Spaine Long
61. What is Bilingual Education? Phillip Carter
62. How are Dictionaries Made? Erin McKean
63. Why Do We Need Translators if We Have Dictionaries? Kevin Hendzel
64. How are Endangered and Sleeping Languages Being Revitalized? Tracy Hirata-Edds, Mary Linn, Marcellino Berardo, Lizette Peter, Gloria Sly, Tracy Williams
65. Can You Use Languages to Solve Crimes? Natalie Schilling
66. How Can You Keep Languages in a Museum? Jill Robbins, Pat Barr-Harrison, Gregory Nedved
End Matter
Index Caroline Myrick, Walt Wolfram


Everyone knows at least one language, but not everyone has in-depth knowledge of linguistics-i.e., the study of various aspects of human language. Sponsored by the Linguistic Society of America, this informative, entertaining book-a handy introduction for anyone curious about linguistics-is an excellent example of how experts in a specialized discipline can transmit their scholarship to the public sphere. The collection comprises 66 brief essays, grouped into 12 categories, and works like an FAQ on all things language related. Writing in a tone that is casual and occasionally funny, the contributors, recognized authorities on their topics, explain facets of linguistics in an easy-to-understand way. Readers will learn about, for example, where foreign accents originate, how babies learn language, whether texting is affecting English, and why Noam Chomsky is such a big name in the field. (The last of these does an excellent job of summarizing Chomsky's major contributions to linguistics in basic, nontechnical terms.) Originating as a radio series in 2005, The Five-Minute Linguist was first published in 2006, ed. by E. M. Rickerson and Barry Hilton (CH, Jul'07, 44-6071). This latest edition updates essays in the second edition (2012) and adds new entries on social media, gender issues, and other contemporary topics. Each entry includes suggestions for further reading.
Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers.

Reviews of Previous Editions
An excellent, very accessible, and extremely easy- and fun-to-read introduction to some of the basic questions (and misconceptions) regarding language, language learning, and linguistics. The book clearly meets the editors’ intended goals; with each essay, the reader is engaged in a five-minute, light and informal conversation about the passionate topic of language.
Linguist List

This book is for anyone who has a question about languages or the nature of language—which means just about all of us. But it’s not just a musty academic text for specialists. While written by leading experts on the subject of language,The Five-Minute Linguist is a user-friendly exploration of the basics, a linguistic start-up kit for general readers. It assumes nothing on your part except interest in the subject. Its bite-sized chapters (no more than 3-4 pages each) give authoritative answers to the most frequently asked questions people have about language, and tell the story in a lively and colloquial style. It is a delightful read.
From the Foreword by Bret Lovejoy, Executive Director, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language

What a gift to those who love language and those who are simply curious about it. Leading experts each tackle an intriguing question, and explain it in straightforward, delightful prose. Read it from cover to cover or keep it by your bed to dip into for endless fascination.
Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University, and author of You Just Don't Understand

This is a marvellous collection of informative, provocative and stimulating essays. The topics that were selected are both timely, and timeless, and the essays are sure to pique the curiosity of a broad range of readers. The material is accessible and the suggestions for further reading are wonderful pointers to additional exploration. This collection certainly has my five-star recommendation.
G. Richard Tucker, Paul Mellon University Professor of Applied Linguistics, Carnegie Mellon University

...recommended for language majors, and attractive to language afficionados and mavens. Essential.

Each of the 66 chapters of the book contributes to the overall praiseworthiness of the book. While individual chapters were selected to illustrate particular strengths of the book above, there is no implication that the other chapters contribute less to the end product. There are no weak links in the chain, and that is an impressive feat considering the number of chapters in the book. There is every reason to believe that this book will be well received by a wide audience of non-linguists. It is hoped (and expected) that the readership includes interested individuals in the general public as well as students in basic social science or humanities classes where the curriculum has a unit (or units) calling for an introductory knowledge of language/linguistics.
A very solid work, one which sets out to achieve a very worthy goal and indisputably succeeds in that effort.

Every Chapter here is a good read. The price of the paperback edition works out at about 25p per chapter. Well worth the money for any language practitioner who is involved in professional development – their own or that of others.
Language Issues