Book of the Month: The 5-Minute Linguist

A few months ago, a wonderful little book found its way to our mailbox. Now, we receive many books from authors who request reviews of their work for this blog as well as our German-language book review blog, but this particular package contained no note. We called the usual suspects. They are friends and family who have the fantastic habit of buying books for us when they find something they think we would like. But no, it was not them. Intrigued, we started reading The 5-Minute Linguist: Bite-sized Essays on Language and Languages, edited by E.M. Rickerson and Barry Hilton (second edition). After the first essay, we were hooked.

A few weeks later, the mystery was solved with Kevin Hendzel, a well-known veteran of the translation industry and the author of one of the essays, revealed that he was the mysterious sender. Kevin has held a number of high-profile positions in our industry, including the one of spokesperson for the American Translators Association and chief Russian translator for the White House (US-Russia Presidential Hotline). Impressive credentials indeed. By the way: have a look at his interesting blog.

Originally conceived as a series of five-minute segments on language and everything related to language on venerable NPR (National Public Radio), this book gives you bite-sized and easy-to-read information on a variety of topics that would take you hours to look up elsewhere. Most essays are no longer than three pages, and each is written by an undisputed expert in the field. It is quite a feat that this book manages to unite the world's foremost experts on so many relatively narrow topics, and what they all share is the (quite rare) ability to clearly explain complex subject in a way that non-linguistics doctoral students can understand and remember. While we are voracious readers of fiction in our four languages, we read significantly less non-fiction, because much of it can be a drag, even though there are, of course, some gems. Many writers on language do come across as terribly pedantic bores who constantly try to outsmart and impress the reader with their knowledge and expertise, which are not attractive traits. Rest assured that this book is the opposite. While it's clear that the 5-Minute Linguist is written by high-level experts, it's accessible,  fun to read, and more then anything: it's addictive. The book's own description is quite accurate:  it's more fireside chats than college textbook.

We both read the book within a matter of days, and we'd initially started marking our favorite essays my drawing  a star next to the name of the essay in the table of contents. We soon stopped this practice, as essentially every essay has a star next to it. However, here is a brief overview of some of our favorites:

  • How many languages are there in the world? This is a good question that, for some reason, comes up quite frequently in conversation when we get asked what we do for a living. Now we have a truly intelligent (and short!) answer.
  • What are lingua francas?
  • How many kinds of writing systems are there?
  • What causes foreign accents?
  • Did German almost become the language of the United States?
  • What happens if you are raised without language?
  • Where did English come from?
  • Is Latin really dead?
  • What's Gullah?
  • Whatever happened to Esperanto?
  • Do you have to be a masochist to study Chinese? Short answer for native speakers of English: yes.
  • Can you make a living loving languages? This is should be required reading at translation programs.
  • Why do we need translators if we have dictionaries? Written by Kevin Hendzel, this insightful essay might be our favorite. Try to memorize it and recite it the next time you get this question at a cocktail party. 
This book might make for good reading material for Judy's Intro to Translation class at UC-San Diego, and there's no doubt that the 5-Minute Linguist makes for a great gift for friends, family, clients and colleagues. We had originally planned on keeping the book next to our desks and thought about reading one essay a week or so, but we devoured the entire book in a few days, and almost fought about it (we only had one copy). This might very well be our second favorite book of the year about language (first place: Found in Translation), as it covers a wide variety of topics, is superbly written and highly insightful. We learned something on every page, and so will you. It was also great to see that we actually retained some of the new information we learned quite well. When asked about creoles and pidgins at a recent party, we think we gave a coherent answer. If this book is not yet on your Christmas list, it's time to add it now. Happy reading!


Sadie Scapillato on December 19, 2012 at 12:16 PM said...

Thank you for sharing this review! The 5-Minute Linguist has officially shot to the top of my reading wishlist. (Also, now I'm looking at my "Chinese in 10 Minutes a Day" workbook and feeling a little apprehensive!)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on December 20, 2012 at 1:48 PM said...

@Sadie: Our pleasure. It really is a terrific book. Don't be apprehensive about Chinese. Go for it! It is quite possible to learn the language, from what we hear. It just take a lot of time and dedication. Judy spent a day in Chinatown this week with an American friend who's become completely fluent in Mandarin! Impressive stuff indeed.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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