11 Sep

Linguistics: Why it Matters

Posted By Politybooks

By Geoffrey K. Pullum

When Polity Press suggested I do a book on linguistics for their “Why It Matters” series, I didn’t quite realize how difficult it would be. I’m used to explaining things within my academic subject, not explaining why there should be such a discipline in the first place.

But Polity was clear on the nature of the book. Each time my first draft wandered off into expounding theoretical linguistic concepts or introduced a technical term in boldface, they gently nudged me back on the right track.

They also specified a hard maximum length limit that would keep it to being quite a short book: 25,000 words. Painful. I don’t know if this is true of other writers (some report that writing is hard), but I find that the shorter a piece of writing has to be, the harder it gets. If you’ll allow me three or four thousand words to explain something, I’ll start after breakfast and have it ready before lunch. But if you insist that it must be under 800 words, it’ll take me many hours spread over a week, mostly devoted to shortening and deleting.

I know this because I write about language each week for a blog called Lingua Franca, published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly journal for professors and university administrators in America. They originally wanted 500-word posts, which I found virtually impossible. So we compromised: I’m allowed between 700 and 800 words. Even so, I find it brutal. Forcing a piece to be short does make it better for the reader, but the days of tightening and shortening and compressing and deleting are hard.

The same with Linguistics: Why It Matters. I could easily have written 100,000 words on the fascinating things that have come out of research in the linguistic sciences. But Polity Press insisted on a short book. Really short.

I managed to deliver it. A difficult job, but satisfying. The book (like all the books in the series) is short and light, and will fit in your pocket.

I know that if other linguists had been asked to do this book it would have been done in other ways, telling different stories, touching on different topics, pointing to very different kinds of impact on society. But they too would have had to leave out many more topics than they could include.

I hope my book will be ideal for people who know little about linguistics but would like to learn about the ways in which linguistic research matters for society. Polity set up the email account [email protected] to permit you to write to me about. Do that; but don’t write to tell me I should have said more about this or that — I know I should have, but Polity Press wouldn’t let me! They thought I should be reined in to give you a brief overview, and they were probably right. You decide.

Geoff Pullum is Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts, a Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America, and a Fellow of the British Academy. Linguistics: Why It Matters is now available from Polity.