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8 books everyone into linguistics should read.

When you want to decide on what to read in language and linguistics, it is never easy to pick a reading list; there is just so many books out there under the label of linguistics, especially that publications in linguistics have been growing like wild fire in the last couple of decades. So with your limited time and the unlimited number of books, it is always wise to make some research beforehand on what exactly you want to read. There is a lot to choose from, and the best book will depend on what you are specifically interested in. This is why we, at The Language Nerds, compiled a list of linguistics books that will entertain the novice and the expert alike. Here are some places to start: 

1. The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

This is a book for the general science readers, it is very accessible whether you have a background in linguistics or not. It is considered by many as a landmark in linguistics. It is a great introduction and primer to some of the more basic problems and questions in linguistics. It is entertaining, sarcasm-loaded, and man so anti-prescriptivist! Here are some quotes to tease your appetite:

"Humans are so innately hardwired for language that they can no more suppress their ability to learn and use language than they can suppress the instinct to pull a hand back from a hot surface."


"Language is obviously as different from other animals communication systems as the elephant's trunk is different from other animals' nostrils." 
"We can shape events in each others' heads with exquisite precision."

If you would like to give the book a read find it in the link [here].

2. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff

This book is a great and accessible primer for Cognitive Linguistics, and can be seen as an alternative way of doing research in language. It explores the effects of cognitive metaphors, both universal and culturally-specific, on the grammar of several languages, and it also delves to explore how we classify things in our minds. I think general audiences find this book more interesting because it's a bit more fantastical in its approach and the ideas introduced within it. 

If you are interested in reading this Lakoff's historical landmark, find the book [here].

3. The Symbolic Species by Terry Deacon 

For those intrigued by the question of the evolution of language, this is the book for you. It covers the evolution of language in a more comprehensive way than any other book written on the subject.  As it progresses, it gets a little technical, both in terms of discussing evolution and in terms of discussing the notion of symbol, but Deacon's work is amazingly comprehensive and I think he deserves to be shelved next to Pinker and Lakoff. 

The link to get this book is [here].   

4. What Language Is by John McWhorter

Well written, with lots of interesting pop tidbits about language, this book offers a fascinating new perspective on the way humans communicate. From vanishing languages spoken by a few hundred people to major tongues like Chinese, with copious revelations about the hodgepodge nature of English. You don't have to be a linguist or even a student in linguistics to cozy up with this book, all you need to do is turn on your passion for language and enjoy what's between the covers. 

Find the book [here]. 

5. On Language: Language and Responsibility and Reflections on Language by Noam Chomsky

It's very difficult to choose which book of Chomsky to suggest for a newbie because his stuff is dense and technical. But then again, if you haven't read Chomsky, you haven't read linguistics. I picked this volume because it has political stuff mixed in, which might make it easier to read, and some of it is done in an interview style, also making it easier to digest. If you're ambitious and have high tolerance for technical details, go for his early works, like Syntactic Structures. On Language is one of Chomsky's most informal and accessible work to date, making it an ideal introduction to his thought.

Get this book [here].

6. The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris

If you're on the verge of linguistics graduate school, this book gives an great behind-the-scenes look of how linguistics is done and some of the personalities of the original generative grammarian generation. 
“Sound is the hard currency; meaning is the network of cultural and formal conventions that turns it into a stick of gum at the
candy store.”
“Noam Chomsky, in particular, says flatly and often that he has very little concern for language in and of itself; never has, never will. His driving concern is with mental structure, and language is the most revealing tool he has for getting at the mind. Most linguists these days follow Chomsky's lead here.”

The link to the book is [here].

7. David Crystal has a number of textbook-style introductions to linguistics which are great to use for a 101 class. The most notable introductory book of his remains The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language because it's very accessible and has a lot of great info throughout. I advise anyone interested in linguistics to read in this encyclopedia.

If you want a link to the encyclopedia, find it [here].

8. Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log

This book is a great option if you like more of a blog-y style of writing. This is a collection of some of the posts from Language Log, so it's not comprehensive and doesn't really have a narrative arc, but it's got lots of great short pieces, as does the blog itself, which is a good one to bookmark or RSS.

A link to the book is [here].

 Feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section. Have a good read. Don't forget to share these books with other people who might want to read them.


  1. Replies
    1. Neither is there any non-English reference. I know it's an English page, but it's a languages' page.

    2. So I guess my reaction to these two comments above (in addition to agreeing: no women, really?) is that objecting without offering a solution is not helping anybody. I don't know a great deal about linguistics lit yet, but I want to share Beatrice Honikman's 1964 short article, "Articulatory Settings." It appears as a chapter in In Honour of Daniel Jones. Here's a link to it in standalone .pdf version. For my commenters above, your response is valid but it works best when you leave the rest of us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Exactly my thoughts Dann. Thank you for the contribution.
      Maybe the comment should be about the rarity of women in this field but I don't think that's the blog author's fault.

  2. Let's talk and about English words coming from Greek

  3. I'm not a linguist, but wondered how Bryson's book Mother Tongue fits into this category?

  4. No. 9 "
    Metaphors we live by" by Lakoff & Johnson

  5. Please name a few women writers in this field. I have a shelf of books on language and languages and not one is by a woman. I would like to know who the missing women are.

    If you're into the history of English, try the Oxford Companion to the English Language.

    If it's languages in general you want to know about, try A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter.

    1. Unfortunately the world of books about linguistics seems to be dominated by men. I only know of a few women who’ve published books (especially general audience linguistics books like Pinker and McWhorter do. Try these:

      Deborah Tannen (gender and discourse)-maybe start with “You just don’t understand”
      Arika Okrent: “In the Land of invented languages”

  6. Deborah Cameron, "The Myth of Mars and Venus" and "Verbal Hygiene"


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