While we all have language and use it, there is widespread misunderstanding of just what it is and how it operates. It is, David Shariatmadari writes, “a medium that is formed as it is used, a structure that is built by feedback effects, a road that is paved at the same time as we walk it.”

One remedy for misunderstanding—and outright ignorance—is to pick up Mr. Shariatmadari’s Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language (W.W. Norton, $27.95, 336 pages). It’s just out, and it covers an impressive span of territory, including myth, folklore, and theory. Each chapter “takes a common claim about language and deconstructs it.”


Mr. Shariatmadari, a student of linguistics and an editor at the Guardian, opens up with a stimulating chapter, “Language is going to the dogs,” in which he examines the widespread but false assertion that the English language is deteriorating. (If you want a sampling, a version of that chapter was published in the Guardian as “Why it’s time to stop worrying about the decay of the English language.”)

That worry typically rises from a generational anxiety, in which people, comfortable with the kind of language they are used to, believe that the speech and writing of the generation before theirs must be “correct” English, so that changes plunge them into “linguistic disorientation.” But the bedrock truth about changes in language is that “words can’t really be said to have an existence beyond their common use.”

Getting at the complexities of language involves understanding that it is “both a cognitive and cultural system, with contributions from at least four areas: our brains, the rules of interaction, patterns of collective behaviour and the idiosyncrasies of particular cultures.”

The cultural element comes out strongly in his chapter “Some languages are better than others,” in which nationalist and cultural attitudes are exposed. Classicists thought that Latin and Greek were superior, “pure” languages, their “purity” rising from their being dead, frozen, and immutable. Sanskrit serves the same purpose in India. The French like to imagine that their language is inherently logical. British and American speakers of English think that it became a world language because of its inherent superiority, rather than from a series of historical and cultural circumstances—and despite its disastrous orthography.

Those of us who were not students of linguistics can be grateful to Mr. Shariatmadari for explaining concepts and principles clearly and readably. For example, he explains how effective communication requires more than the mere literal words and syntax, because what is said is not necessarily what is meant. Interpreting what is implied beyond what is literally said requires “knowledge about human behaviour” to recognize and interpret implications. His example is the greeting “Hi there” and the response “Look, I’m just about to catch a train.” The reply is not a non sequitur but rather a statement that could be interpreted as meaning “I was hinting that I was in a hurry and that we would have to make the chat brief.”

“When we speak,” he says, “we utilize our entire intellectual capacity: not just the dictionary and the rules about word order, but all our knowledge of the world, of society, of analogy-making, of humor, irony, teasing, sadness and ambition, deception and kindness.”

His discussion of language as an instinct—the assertion by Noam Chomsky that language rises from a mechanism in the brain, an issue that has occupied linguists for half a century—leads to a conclusion that while there is clearly a genetic component for the human capacity for language, there are other systems involved, such as social and cultural evolution. One suggestion is that language develops hierarchically, with the origin of language recapitulated every time a child learns a language, combining building blocks into progressively more elaborate structures.

Grammar, then, can be understood as “less a blueprint in the brain than a historical record of all communicative strategies employed in a particular language: the imprint of millions of past speakers and the ways they’ve tried to get things across to one another.”

We have taken, since the Enlightenment, enormous pains to understand how our bodies work. But our schooling in how language works has not gotten much beyond the four humors. Don’t Believe a Word offers an opportunity to become much better informed.

Language is indeed a plane that we are building as we fly it, and Mr. Shariatmadari is an astute and helpful flight attendant.