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Word Play: What Happens When People Talk

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Why do certain words make us blush or wince? Why do men and women really speak different languages? Why do nursery rhymes in vastly different societies possess similar rhyme and rhythm patterns? What do slang, riddles and puns secretly have in common? This erudite yet irresistibly readable book examines the game of language: its players, strategies, and hidden rules. Drawi Why do certain words make us blush or wince? Why do men and women really speak different languages? Why do nursery rhymes in vastly different societies possess similar rhyme and rhythm patterns? What do slang, riddles and puns secretly have in common? This erudite yet irresistibly readable book examines the game of language: its players, strategies, and hidden rules. Drawing on the most fascinating linguistic studies--and touching on everything from the Marx Brothers to linguistic sexism, from the phenomenon of glossolalia to Apache names for automobile parts--Word Play shows what really happens when people talk, no matter what language they happen to be using. "A captivating, almost entirely unpedantic book...solidly founded in scholarship, love of language, and an unabashed worldliness about play itself."--Washington Post "Absorbing...so curious, amusing, and enlightening...we almost inadvertently learn a great deal about linguistics. [But] it seems scarcely to matter what we've learned...we've simply had too much fun."--The New York Times


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Why do certain words make us blush or wince? Why do men and women really speak different languages? Why do nursery rhymes in vastly different societies possess similar rhyme and rhythm patterns? What do slang, riddles and puns secretly have in common? This erudite yet irresistibly readable book examines the game of language: its players, strategies, and hidden rules. Drawi Why do certain words make us blush or wince? Why do men and women really speak different languages? Why do nursery rhymes in vastly different societies possess similar rhyme and rhythm patterns? What do slang, riddles and puns secretly have in common? This erudite yet irresistibly readable book examines the game of language: its players, strategies, and hidden rules. Drawing on the most fascinating linguistic studies--and touching on everything from the Marx Brothers to linguistic sexism, from the phenomenon of glossolalia to Apache names for automobile parts--Word Play shows what really happens when people talk, no matter what language they happen to be using. "A captivating, almost entirely unpedantic book...solidly founded in scholarship, love of language, and an unabashed worldliness about play itself."--Washington Post "Absorbing...so curious, amusing, and enlightening...we almost inadvertently learn a great deal about linguistics. [But] it seems scarcely to matter what we've learned...we've simply had too much fun."--The New York Times

30 review for Word Play: What Happens When People Talk

  1. 5 out of 5

    Sylvester

    An absolutely fabulous book about language and words and the game we engage in when we use them. I would say more but there's too much to say. If you are interested in language, this is your book. An absolutely fabulous book about language and words and the game we engage in when we use them. I would say more but there's too much to say. If you are interested in language, this is your book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jennie

    I give up. This book has been on my shelf for probably 15 years, when I was still an Applied Linguistics major and I was buying random linguistics-related books all the time. I finally started this one last weekend and I'm giving up. It's just reminding me of why I changed my major: because while I am fascinated by the evolution of the English language, I really have limited patience for the science of languages in general. I'm sure the sociology of language in Burundi and Java is interesting to I give up. This book has been on my shelf for probably 15 years, when I was still an Applied Linguistics major and I was buying random linguistics-related books all the time. I finally started this one last weekend and I'm giving up. It's just reminding me of why I changed my major: because while I am fascinated by the evolution of the English language, I really have limited patience for the science of languages in general. I'm sure the sociology of language in Burundi and Java is interesting to someone, but not to me. Throw in some extremely dated language (the book was written in 1973 ), and I am lost: People from Asian countries referred to as 'Orientals.’ A passage that discusses 'black' language with a reference to white people's fear of black hyperbole, growling, and falsetto. What does that even mean? And more, but I don't care enough to go on.. Hello, Goodwill pile.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Richard Derus

    This is a fascinating look at what language DOES, what its parameters are in social terms. I thought this book was really interesting when I read it in the 1970s, and I have changed my opinion not one whit. Interesting. But not sparkling! Dry writing is, one supposes, inevitable in books on such po-faced topics as why language works the way it does. I don't really understand why the academic world has such animus towards wit in writing! It's possible to be informative and amusing, just look at B This is a fascinating look at what language DOES, what its parameters are in social terms. I thought this book was really interesting when I read it in the 1970s, and I have changed my opinion not one whit. Interesting. But not sparkling! Dry writing is, one supposes, inevitable in books on such po-faced topics as why language works the way it does. I don't really understand why the academic world has such animus towards wit in writing! It's possible to be informative and amusing, just look at Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe." Still and all, it's a recommended read for anyone who feels language is more than just sounds to fill up silence. You'll come away from reading the book with an entirely altered approach to each conversation you have.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Terry Szesny

    Excellent information on how and why humans use language. and how languages differ and are similar. Good insight into how linguists study language. Interesting section on how human infants/toddlers process and learn language skills, and why it becomes more difficult to learn a new language as we age. Originally published in the 1970s, updated in 1993, and in need of a fresh update - some of the cultural references are dated enough to be distracting.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Howard

    This is an intelligent (but still fun) look at how people talk. Basically following Chomsky's universal grammar theory, this book discusses the way that children learn languages, the similarity between all languages, and why humans are the only creatures that have a real 'language'. I particularly liked the chapter on paralanguage and the section that discusses how 'baby talk' in the majority of the world's languages is very similar. The chapter on "black" english and how it is essentially a sep This is an intelligent (but still fun) look at how people talk. Basically following Chomsky's universal grammar theory, this book discusses the way that children learn languages, the similarity between all languages, and why humans are the only creatures that have a real 'language'. I particularly liked the chapter on paralanguage and the section that discusses how 'baby talk' in the majority of the world's languages is very similar. The chapter on "black" english and how it is essentially a separate dialect from "standard" english was also very interesting. I would've given it five stars if I'd read it in 1975. But in 2009 it only gets 4 stars, because some of the examples are too dated now.

  6. 4 out of 5

    John Fredrickson

    This is a very interesting book that goes into very many aspects of language, including class distinctions, word play, translation challenges, language changes over time, grammar structures, and quite a bit more. Not all of these aspects are equally interesting, but overall, the book is very informative and even entertaining. It is interesting to consider how much has changed since the book was written (in the 70s) - we now have vast computational power that allows for translations and computer-r This is a very interesting book that goes into very many aspects of language, including class distinctions, word play, translation challenges, language changes over time, grammar structures, and quite a bit more. Not all of these aspects are equally interesting, but overall, the book is very informative and even entertaining. It is interesting to consider how much has changed since the book was written (in the 70s) - we now have vast computational power that allows for translations and computer-reactivity to spoken words in ways that would have been impossible(?) to consider when the book was written.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    This book was interesting, though very dated since it is from the early 70's. I had to laugh at the part where he talks about, in the future, there being a small computer you could talk into in one language and it would translate it into another. But computer experts were scoffing at the possibility. Since I work with young children and see the progression of how they pick up language, the chapter on children learning language ran very true. It was somewhat dry writing, though gave many examples. This book was interesting, though very dated since it is from the early 70's. I had to laugh at the part where he talks about, in the future, there being a small computer you could talk into in one language and it would translate it into another. But computer experts were scoffing at the possibility. Since I work with young children and see the progression of how they pick up language, the chapter on children learning language ran very true. It was somewhat dry writing, though gave many examples. I'm guessing there is something similar that is more current and would be interested to read and compare.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Shannon

    So I read this as it was recommended to writers interested in dialogue... and it was definitely helpful on that level (I have something like 90 highlights of random facts and anecdotes I found helpful), but more deeply this books delves into how languages work for the purposes of their speech communities for better or for worse, given power dynamics, economics, written systems, etc. On a practical note, when I'm approaching a new character, I think I will skim my highlights for inspiration on ho So I read this as it was recommended to writers interested in dialogue... and it was definitely helpful on that level (I have something like 90 highlights of random facts and anecdotes I found helpful), but more deeply this books delves into how languages work for the purposes of their speech communities for better or for worse, given power dynamics, economics, written systems, etc. On a practical note, when I'm approaching a new character, I think I will skim my highlights for inspiration on how a particular person, given their environment might speak.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Beagley

    I think this is a very smart book with good ideas that just didn't age well. The state of "quirky bookish non-fiction" has changed. Lots of great stuff in here, just something about the tone and construction comes off as... over stuffed? Deep dives in shallow waters? Pretentious? Not for me, DNF. I think this is a very smart book with good ideas that just didn't age well. The state of "quirky bookish non-fiction" has changed. Lots of great stuff in here, just something about the tone and construction comes off as... over stuffed? Deep dives in shallow waters? Pretentious? Not for me, DNF.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Danni Green

    I really enjoyed reading this. It's obviously very dated, and made me excited to read some newer books on similar topics written by people of other genders and racial/cultural backgrounds. But I liked reading it! I really enjoyed reading this. It's obviously very dated, and made me excited to read some newer books on similar topics written by people of other genders and racial/cultural backgrounds. But I liked reading it!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Dasha

    Quite insightful, has plenty of examples and is in general a good book if you're interested in linguistics. However, the book is quite dated, and it's important to keep that in mind when reading; some statements made when writing wouldn't be considered acceptable now. Quite insightful, has plenty of examples and is in general a good book if you're interested in linguistics. However, the book is quite dated, and it's important to keep that in mind when reading; some statements made when writing wouldn't be considered acceptable now.

  12. 5 out of 5

    John Hamilton

    Great book filled with fascinating insights into how languages work. Well written and easy to follow. Written in the 1970s, so just a bit dated, but all the research and concepts still stand from what I gather from the more recent lectures by linguistic John McWhorter.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Z

    It has its moments.

  14. 4 out of 5

    David

    Revised rating to 5 stars (January 6th 2008), as this was one of my top 5 read in 2007. First published in 1973, this book is an excellent, highly readable overview of the major aspects of language, many of which are also discussed in later work by Steven Pinker and others. Clear, engaging, accessible - highly recommended for anyone with an interest in language and languages.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Nicole G.

    What do we really mean when we say particular things? Farb posits that all speech is really a very intricate word game, with the rules varying depending on culture, etc. Written in a rather engaging style, for the common reader.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    fascinating book about words. problems of translation. changes in meanings across cultures, words that don't exist in other languages. how we think and how words shape what we think. fascinating book about words. problems of translation. changes in meanings across cultures, words that don't exist in other languages. how we think and how words shape what we think.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Dracostellarum

    This is a good book on descriptive linguistics without a lot of academic jargon. It's interesting and informative and addresses a wide variety of language situations. This is a good book on descriptive linguistics without a lot of academic jargon. It's interesting and informative and addresses a wide variety of language situations.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Maggie

  19. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  20. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Holder

  21. 5 out of 5

    Bill

  22. 4 out of 5

    Chris Branch

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kaycelyne

  24. 4 out of 5

    Dawn Hughes

  25. 5 out of 5

    Laura Lee

  26. 5 out of 5

    John

  27. 4 out of 5

    Codi

  28. 5 out of 5

    Logan

  29. 5 out of 5

    Russ Murray

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ross Browne

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