Book Review: The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics

Every serious field of study deserves a satirical wing, and linguistics is blessed in this regard with Speculative Grammarian, a journal some say is now centuries old. SpecGram, as it’s known to fan and foe alike (and they often are alike), lately drew on its formidable archives to produce The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics, a copy of which I received for review.

Before we proceed, I should mention that after I wrote about the Irish word cnáimhseáil and its Hiberno-English variations, SpecGram published a brief note on the “cult of Macintosh” by a Dr. Knauv Shauling, Assistant Chief Hibernolinguistic Paleocurmudgeon. These are the sort of people we’re dealing with here.

The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics - book coverDespite the near-Dadaist style of some of SpecGram’s output, the Essential Guide is sensibly arranged into major categories of linguistics, e.g. syntax, morphology, phonology, phonetics,* fieldwork, sociolinguistics, and love poetry. Every article and chapter is introduced briefly, and this running commentary ties the book together very well.

There is a Monty Python flavour to SpecGram’s material. Normality might be given only a single decisive twist, but the results are then examined and pursued with the solemn enthusiasm that good satire requires. For example, an interview at the Phonetics Roadshow refers tantalisingly to an antique dialect whose owner found it in an attic; apparently it belonged to family ancestors who brought it from “somewhere back east”:

Guest: It’s been in the family forever. My Dad used it once in a while, mostly when he was drunk. I don’t really use it myself. I basically just keep it on the mantelpiece. . . . I had a great aunt who was supposedly interested in diction classes back in the day, but I don’t think she ever actually did anything about it.

Appraiser: That’s very fortunate. Speech training would certainly have lowered the value.

There is a personal essay on the sociolinguistic impact of hippie linguist child-naming habits, written by /ɹɒbɪn/ O’Jonesson, whose first name is spelt using the IPA. She or he usually drops the slashes, but still has trouble booking dinner over the phone because of the complications of explaining this notation to non-specialists. This trouble is described in poignant detail, while the essay also shines a light on hippie linguists

who advocated for free morphemes in the 60s and gave their children names such as Monophthongbreathstream, Pronouncopula, Rezonator, Asteriskchild, Redponymy, and Noam.

SpecGram’s is a parallel world where improbable scenarios are assumed as a given, presented with a straight(ish) face, and used as the basis for academic-theoretic fun and games, flights of furious fancy, and devilish derangement. The prodigious footnoting style out-DFWs DFW, while research insights are gleaned from such questionable sources as “posthumous personal communication”.

Though no one is likely to read this book with the expectation of learning anything, except that linguistics offers abundant stimuli for spoofery, they might be educated by stealth anyway – even if it’s only on things like how many is “umpteen”, or how to do fieldwork on Proto-Indo-European. (“Step one: Find a native speaker.” Er, that’s it.)

Your brain will also encounter disinfo on comestible morphosyntax (the effects of food intake on grammar); the laziest language on earth (its only phoneme is the schwa, but vowel length and tone are distinctive); the sentence molecules believed to be the biological basis for universal grammar; and the morphology of penguin (a language possibly descended from Proto-Dodo, unless the ingestion of krill explains its grammatical similarity to the cetacean language family).

Yet there are also passages of surprisingly straight-faced sense, such as this comment on the state of natural language processing (“the kind of ‘NLP’ that isn’t a total embarrassment to linguists”):

The trouble with NLP, as it were, is that humans have an amazing facility with language that is largely unconscious. Common sense, context, and shared experience reduce exponential ambiguity to a manageable murmur of alternate possibilities for us, but leave a computer gagging on the teeming mass of potentiality.

Special features recur throughout the book, including logical fallacies, the wisdom of linguists (“You can’t teach an old professor new theories”), Murphy’s Law for linguists, spaghetti or lasagne, language-themed quotations and proverbs from around the world, and a merrily cynical “Choose your own career in linguistics” game.

You’ll also find field trips, cartoons, songs and poems, a clever self-defining glossary, some helpful suggestions for would-be PhD students (“Do not choose a science, such as physics. These fields have objective standards by which your lack of contribution can be measured”), and an honest-to-god interrobang in a footnote on page 267. Should more books use this mark‽

I was glad to see some old favourites reappear, like the mytholingual encyclopedia boasting such fantastic beasts as Fryggyn’, the Norse goddess of minced oaths; Quetzlnhlxtzlchctlcoātl, the Mesoamerican god of difficult-to-pronounce consonant clusters; and the Abominable Synonym, a creature from Nepal and Tibet which makes people “pathologically doubt their ability to choose the right word”.

A word of warning: much of the book is very technical, with articles and references that few but a trained linguist will twig. A lot of it went over my head, and if you’re not into linguistics your mileage will vary. But some sections are generally accessible, and the motley mischief is unified by the trademark SpecGram voice – if such a thing can be said to exist – which combines condescension with flattery and arch irony with sincere delight.

If you’re a SpecGram fan, you may already have this book or have added it to a wishlist. If you’re a foe, you know what they say about keeping your enemies close. If you’re undecided, you can browse the archives or download a preview (PDF, 3 MB), or for the full experience order the book here at a reasonable price.


Here’s a trailer for the book, quoting this review:


* “Phonetics is concerned with all the hairy particulars, while phonology operates at a more rarified level where all of the messy details of flapping hunks of mouth meat have been abstracted away.”


15 Responses to Book Review: The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics

  1. Mise says:

    I normally consider spoofery to be very draining, but, based on your review, I have ordered this book like a shot. How I look forward to being condescended to and flattered.

  2. marc leavitt says:

    Great review! I love it already, and I’m going to order it before the day is out. Humo(u)r, for the most part, seems to be an unwanted guest at the linguistic table, lending credence to the rumo(u)r that the field shares the reputation of economics, as a dismal science. Let’s hope this charivari is the poster child of refreshing self-mockery.

  3. Stan says:

    Mise: Spoofery is easy to do badly, and many do. Done well, it’s invigorating. I hope you enjoy the book.

    Marc: Thank you! I wouldn’t have thought humour was out of place (or for that matter, lacking) in linguistics, but maybe we’ve been exposed to it differently. Anyway, I trust you’ll get a kick out of SpecGram’s book. And thanks for giving me a word to look up (charivari).

  4. John Cowan says:

    Well, being a cheap-jack, I’ll read it vicariously. Open the preview, which includes a complete table of contents, in Chrome; select a title with the mouse; right-click and select “Search Google for …”, click on the first entry of the result, and there it is! Not quite as simple as turning a physical page, but simple enough that I can do it without taking much thought.

    (If you for whatever reasons prefer a different search engine, you can change it within Chrome.)

  5. Roger says:

    The title reminds me of The Journal of Irreproducible Results, which I heard about long ago, and, lo, is still around. Sokal’s Social Construction hoax comes to mind too. Wiki lists a bunch of journals on humour as a field of (would-be) serious research. I should think after enough of it, it would be hard to tell the serious from the unserious and you’d be reading any text from the Koran to the Konstitution for laughs. The same might apply to national anthems: try listening to a couple of hundred of them all in a row — which is about how many nations there are, united or otherwise.

  6. Stan says:

    John: You’ll be able to access most of it that way, but not all; only the book has assorted supplementary matter (full self-defining glossary, endnotes, etc.) – and the chapter/article introductory material, “which in most cases is so informative that you can dispense with reading the articles altogether. This is a great timesaver.” (My current search engine of choice, FWIW, is Startpage, at least for straightforward searches.)

    Roger: I was reminded also of Bill Watterson, who gave some of his Calvin and Hobbes books ironic titles like “The Essential…”, “The Indispensable…”, and “The Authoritative…”, though I think some readers took them at face value. A good source of academic humour (intentional and otherwise) is Improbable Research, which recently for example brought my attention to studies on observing students’ forehead wrinkles to see if they understand a lesson.

  7. Looks too Craaazaayyy for me.. your review of it was just the right measure to be completely delightful!

  8. Trey Jones says:

    Thanks so much for the kind words, Stan! We decided we liked them so much we put some of the best ones in our new “book trailer”. (Book trailers are a thing now—who knew?)


    • Stan says:

      Trey: You’re very welcome, and thanks for telling me about the book trailer. I started seeing these a few years ago, but I never expected to be quoted in one. (I’m not cnáimhseáiling, mind.)

  9. […] Book Review: The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics […]

  10. […] a “cult punctuation mark” more books should make use of, as I said in a recent review of Speculative Grammarian’s guide to linguistics. I was also pleased to see my photo of a Tironian et (⁊) on a Galway street sign in a chapter on […]

  11. […] last thing, lest it get lost in a list of ling-lust: the Speculative Grammarian book, which I reviewed positively last year as a feast of satirical linguistics, is now available as a PDF for $5.95 – or $4.95 for […]

  12. Martha says:

    Great review!

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