Some of the Most Insightful Books on Language and the Mind
These titles represent the twists and turns on the way to what we know now.
Posted Mar 25, 2019
The enigma of language is that we humans can master it without having any idea how it works. Everyone learns to speak. Everyone communicates with the people around them. Everyone has an internal monologue running along in their head throughout the day. Yet how language works or why it is such a powerful tool for thinking and communicating are tough questions to answer. We have some ideas, but there’s still a lot we don’t know. These are the books that have given us the most insightful looks into what we do know about language and its relation to the human mind:
12. How to do Things with Words
By John Austin (1962)
In this book, philosopher John Austin relates his theory of “speech acts.” What his theory comes down to is that language is fundamentally about getting other people to do things. Before Austin, linguists were primarily concerned with the abstract properties of language (they still are, to some extent). But Austin was one of the first to notice that most of what we humans use language for is action—and not just our own actions, but convincing, requesting, or compelling others to do something for us. Language might be all talk, but that doesn’t make it no action.
11. Sense and Reference
By Gottlob Frege (1948)
This is a classic work in the vein, mentioned above, of linguists interested in abstract properties. In particular, Frege—or good ole Gottlob, as I prefer to call him—discusses how words come to mean something. Why does the word "cow" refer to an object out in the world? What exactly is this process of "picking out" an idea with a linguistic utterance? Gottlob’s theory and what precisely he means by “sense” and “reference” are nuanced. But suffice to say he was among the first philosophers to try to establish a relationship between the words we use and how they connect to things in the outside world.
10. The Language Instinct
By Steven Pinker (1994)
This book is beloved by linguists, but mostly because they can give it to their family members for Christmas and say, “Here, this is what I do.” It was a major triumph in the study of language. That being said, this book, while more widely read than almost anything else on this list, wasn’t particularly insightful for the theory of language it espoused. It’s the difference between Linguistics 101 and a graduate seminar—this book is meant to give you a landscape of ideas, not to inspire a significant advance in the field.
9. Language: The Cultural Tool
By Daniel Everett (2012)
A linguistic contemporary of Pinker’s, Dan Everett writes fascinating books about language. His most engaging is Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, which is less an exposition about how language works and more a memoir of his time as a linguistic anthropologist deep in the Amazon. If you were to be plopped down in an unfamiliar jungle with anyone on this list, trust me, you’d pick Everett. This is Everett’s general audience book that most directly relates his theory of language, which essentially says that language is like a tool that we use to navigate our social environment, much as a machete is a tool that is helpful in navigating a hostile and densely tropical environment.
8. The Language and Thought of the Child
By Jean Piaget (1926)
By way of introduction, Piaget writes “This book is for anyone who has ever wondered how a child develops language, thought, and knowledge.” Indeed, Piaget has proved one of the central historical figures of developmental psychology, and this is the work in which he most directly deals with how children acquire language. How do children go from babbling to expressing something coherent? How do children’s utterances get more sophisticated over time? Piaget probably isn’t the most influential theorist in terms of the solutions he proposed, but he certainly set the stage for many of the problems child psychologists would consider for the next hundred years.
7. Sociolinguistic Patterns
By William Labov (1972)
Labov was a progenitor of the field of sociolinguistics, which means that he was one of the first linguists to notice that if you want to fully understand someone’s language, you have to understand the greater community in which they use that language. For example, many linguists of Labov’s day looked down on the way English was used by certain communities, such as inner-city African Americans. Those linguists thought that such language was somehow incomplete or inadequate. Labov, in perhaps his most famous essay, put that notion to rest, step-by-step and in scintillating technical detail.
6. The Language of Thought
By Jerry Fodor (1975)
This book is the most famous exposition of a classic hypothesis in cognitive science: the language we “think” in (whatever lends structure to depths of our unconscious mind) is probably not the same one we speak in. That is, all of the information in your brain isn’t stored as English sentences, even if that's the primary way you communicate them to others. Fodor calls whatever this mysterious inner language is the “language of thought.” What form this “mentalese” takes is a matter of significant controversy among cognitive scientists still today.
5. Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language
By Adele Goldberg (2005)
This book represents a significant attempt to synthesize many of the ideas of the other books on this list. In particular, it’s concerned with the problem of generalization. Many problems in linguistics come down to understanding the scope in which a word or sentence applies. Take deixis: when a word means different things in different contexts. For instance, the word “me” applies to one person when I say it, but another person when you say it. In this book, Goldberg addresses longstanding problems in the struggle to understanding language and how we use it.
4. Metaphors We Live By
By George Lakoff, Mark Johnson (1980)
This book essentially argues that the core faculty of cognition and language is metaphor. We use metaphors to understanding that one thing is like another—that they have the same structural relationships. Metaphors allow us to understand abstract things as if they were concrete. For example, we use space (something concrete) to understand time (something intangible, abstract). We speak of going backward or forward in time as if it’s a car in a driveway. Lakoff and Johnson argue that this is the cornerstone of our ability to use language to describe the intricacies of the world around us.
3. Verbal Behavior
By BF Skinner (1957)
This is perhaps the most reviled book in all of linguistics. Skinner is often described as having been the “arch Behaviorist,” as if he were a movie villain rather than the most influential figure in a school of thought. This was Skinner’s most ambitious project—to apply the principles of Behaviorism (the stimulus and response psychology with pigeons and dogs you may remember from Psych 101) in service of explaining how language works. Famously, he failed. And that failure leads us to our next selection, which was the work that made everyone realize just how wrong Skinner was.
2. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax
By Noam Chomsky (1965)
This is perhaps the most influential tract ever published on language. The history of linguistics is, in large part, the history of the work and influence of one man: Noam Chomsky. No person is more influential in their field as Chomsky is in linguistics; imagine if George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and Martin Luther King were combined into one uber-American-historical figure and you'd still come up short. In this work, Chomsky gives his most direct outline of his famous theory of generative grammar. It is essentially a hypothesis about how words combine to form sentences, which is what allows us to take a finite set of ideas (all the words we know) and use them to express anything we could possibly imagine. Chomsky’s proposed theory was so devastating as a response to Verbal Behavior that Skinner never issued a public response, and instead shrank into the shadowy recesses of the academic world.
1. Constructing a Language
By Michael Tomasello (2003)
While Chomsky has enjoyed immense influence on linguistics, his theories are perhaps more compelling than they are true. It’s such a complete and brilliant theory that people at first didn’t concern themselves much with whether it actually described reality. Simply put, Chomsky’s theory is all about the formal properties of language, reducing it to an equation: plug and chug. But we don’t use language to make fancy statements about “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” (one of Chompsky’s famous examples of a sentence that is syntactically correct, but doesn’t mean anything). Rather, we use words to do things, as John Austin said. And if you want to understand how that works, then there’s no better book to explain it than Constructing a Language by Michael Tomasello.