It was their idea, not mine. Polity Press had the concept, and talked me into it. They told me they were starting a book series called “Why It Matters” in which academics would explain why their discipline held significance or value for the world — why it was important that there should be such a subject. Books on anthropology, classics, history, and geography, they said, were already commissioned. (Notice, not nuclear engineering or marine toxicology. Nobody doubts that they matter. It’s always the humanities and the social sciences that have to justify their existence.) Their next pick was linguistics.
Soon you will be able to examine the book that resulted: Linguistics: Why It Matters will be published in the USA on November 5.
Producing this book was unlike any other writing work I have ever done. Polity set the title, the series, the timetable, the size, the style, and aspects of the content. There was to be no explaining of theoretical concepts or introducing of technical terms in boldface. I was not to provide an introduction to the subject, but rather to say why it should exist at all. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block was that the entire book had be no longer than 25,000 words. That’s really very terse.
At first I couldn’t visualize what a book for lay readers on this topic would be like. I saw one major problem in the paucity of linguistic discoveries that simultaneously meet three conditions: (i) solidly confirmed by replicable research, (ii) uncontroversial across the whole spectrum of warring theoretical allegiances, and (iii) sufficiently independent of technicalities to be explained to a lay audience.
I hemmed and hawed and hesitated, but Polity pressed. Pascal Porcheron, the commissioning editor, bought me lunch in a pleasant Italian restaurant in Cambridge, and after an hour or so, pleasantly full from a seafood linguini with hot chili peppers (they know what they’re doing when they buy you food and drink, don’t they?), I agreed to accept the commission.
It was pretty much decided for me that there should be about five chapters in this little book. I decided that their main themes should be:
- the key role of language as a hallmark of our species;
- the crucial relevance of syntax — not just words, but sentences;
- the intimate relations between language and thought;
- the role that language plays in shaping our social life; and
- the promise of machines that can use human language, or at least simulate such use.
If linguistics matters at all, as I think it does, it is mainly for reasons bound up with those five general topics. So over a few weeks during a busy fall semester, I wrote four or five thousand words on each, and that was the draft of the book.
I stared at it for a while, and decided I didn’t like it at all. But the deadline for submission had arrived, so I turned it in as promised. (The alternative would have been to reimburse Pascal for the seafood linguini, and that would have been humiliating.) But I thought (even hoped) they would just look over what I had written, shaking their heads sadly, and decide not to publish. Instead they chose two anonymous referees who read it and reported that it was lovely and they had enjoyed it.
I was aghast. Where is the penetrating eye of the harshly critical referee when you need it? I craved advice. I wanted to be told which were the boring bits I should cut out, and which were the passages where my enthusiasm had run away with me and I had rambled on entertainingly for far too long. The unwelcome prospect of two favorable referee reports left me feeling completely alone and deprived of counsel.
I sat down and rewrote it all, using the judgment of that harshest but most biased of referees, the one inside my head. I tried to spot the places where I had become dull, and sought out more interesting material to inject — always keeping an eye on the total word count, deleting as many words as I added. To achieve the deletions, I forced myself to decide which were the paragraphs that had benefited too much from being my darlings, and I murdered them. And after that they just went straight into production. Proof copies were manufactured by mid June.
So now, if someone asks what on earth is the point of linguistics given that we can all talk, there is a book to point them to. I hope it proves useful. There’s no going back now; I ate the linguini, and Pascal picked up the check.