52 Good Books

Book Review – The Secret Life of Language by Simon Pulleyn

What languages do you speak? Ever noticed similarities across languages and wondered why? If you’re curious about the human ability to communicate then The Secret Life of Language by Simon Pulleyn is the book you’ve been waiting for.

I must say I have been nurturing my inner nerd with this book. I found the time recently to head to the British Museum where alongside taking an audio tour and then finding myself sat next to Sally Phillips in the coffee shop (yes her, the sweary friend from Bridget Jones,) I got seduced by a number of books in the gift shop. I restrained myself however and just bought the one: this one.

The Secret Life of Language is truthfully more of a text book than the kind of armchair or bedside reading most people enjoy, but don’t people read text books? I have a friend who was so into coding as a kid his mum had to ban him from taking C++ text books on holiday. These are the extremes of text book revelry, but I say to myself that surely it’s not just the geeks and freaks that read text books for fun. Surely the rest of society is allowed to read a text book too?

The Secret Life of Language is a book that is relevant to everyone. I genuinely loved it. I had been thinking for a long time how it is uncanny how many of the world’s languages have similarities you wouldn’t expect. I learnt French at school for example and was astounded to find out the word for one hundred is ‘cent’. Why? Well the word for one hundred in Hindi is ‘soh’. Ignoring the spellings and apart from the slight nasal inflection in the French word, these two words are practically pronounced the same. It tickled my fancy to think that a French man could be understood in an Indian village (if he was talking about one hundred of something of course!) Pulleyn uses precisely this numerical example to draw out the similarities in the roots of language. Both Hindi and French belong to the Indo-European group of languages and this is why some words do sound similar.

If you’re a bit curious about these things, about how language started out and the spread of languages then this book is a wonderful place to start. It’s packed full of pictures, diagrams and fun facts! It gave me a fantastic insight into the origins of language and speech.

Next week I’ll be reviewing The Heavens by Sandra Newman. A story that weaves together dreams and real lives. Come back on Monday to find out more.

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