Book Review: The Way We Talk Now

Since 1989, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has been a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. He regularly delivers essays about the changing nature of the American language. The Way We Talk Now is a collection of some of the best of these radio essays.

His essays cover the spectrum of language change, from etymology to the influence of politics on language to grammar and usage issues. His subjects include cigarette jingles, how the meaning of superman has changed over the years, what is a cult, and spelling bees.

Nunberg takes a compromise position in the debate over whether change in the language is a good thing. He recognizes that rules like never splitting an infinitive are silly and have no basis in good grammar, yet he does admit there is such a thing as good writing and speech and that not all changes are to the good. He writes in his essay on the Ebonics controversy of 1997, “it has nothing to do with the ‘the language of Shakespeare.’ Their immediate task is to teach their charges to speak like kids in middle-class suburbs, so that they can grow up to become competent speakers of the brutalist clatter of the American political and business worlds. They don’t have to talk like James Baldwin, but it is clearly to their advantage to be able to give a passable imitation of George Bush.”

Perhaps the first thing that strikes you about the essays is the wit. Nunberg is genuinely funny. He compares E.B. White’s Charlotte to a public relations executive, “so she gets a rat to pick some clippings out the garbage, and then she spins a gossamer of words out of her rear, and all of a sudden everyone’s looking at the pigsty with new eyes.” In another essay he takes on the implications of a grammar quiz that appears in Cosmopolitan magazine, “just the thing to keep him interested. That pretty little mouth of yours drawn in a pout as it closes around a whom.”

If there is a problem with the book, it is that there is no organizing principle other than discussion of our changing language. Still, since this is a collection of essays written over a 13-year span, this is to be expected. The essay format makes the book ideal for snatching a quick read when you have two or three minutes to spare. It can be picked up and put down again without loss of continuity—perfect for subway or airplane reading.

Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp, Oct. 2001, paperback, $14.00.

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton