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Words on words: 8 must-read language books

“There’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully; an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space,” says the legendary Joan Didion in one of her classic essays on the act of writing. After getting my mind blown right off its hinge, I realised how true this sentence is. Each one of us has had those few books that have “imposed” on us; those “secret bullies” that have haunted us in the most amazing way.

So here’s a list of books written by my secret bullies that have changed forever the way I look at languages. Presenting, 8 must-read books for language lovers!

8. I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears by Jag Bhalla

“I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms from around the World” is an amusing compilation of, as the title rightly suggests, the most intriguing idioms handpicked by researcher and idiomologist Jag Bhalla. The 1,000 funny expressions featured in this gem of a book speak volumes about the culture they hail from and also about just how weird the human mind can be. And as Cristopher Hitchens, the late British author remarked, “This (the book) will sell till the last dog dies.” It will, Chris. It indeed will.

7. Investigating Language by Ronald Wardhaugh

If you have even the slightest of academic interests in the study of language, you will cherish this book forever. Beware though; it is not your quintessential Linguistics for Dummies! It deals with the central problems in linguistics in the most accessible way possible and will prove to be a wonderful read for us nerds who don’t mind spending a quiet hour everyday dwelling in the timeless questions of human language.

6. In other words by C. J. Moore

The logophile’s version of paradise, Moore’s “In other words” is a delicious assortment of rich and poetic words from other languages that don’t have an exact translation in English. Ever experienced an expressive, meaningful romantic silence between two people? This universal human emotion has a specific word in Tierra del Fuego – mamihlapinatapei. And don’t you worry, the book also features a pronunciation guide. So even if you don’t miraculously start dropping bits of Celtic and Japanese in your daily conversations, a rare linguistic gem might just pop up and stun everyone around you!

5. The Snark Handbook: A reference guide to verbal sparring by Lawrence Dorfman

Insults and the art of mockery have held an undeniable position of awe and respect throughout the pages of history. Lawrence Dorfman, perhaps having realised just how much we like insulting others, wrote this enlightening book about history’s greatest masterpieces in the art of insulting to help us become a little bit meaner than we already are (as if we needed the incentive!). He also followed it up with a snarkier sequel, “The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition: Comebacks, Taunts and Effronteries.” Thank you, Lawrence Dorfman. The world is now indebted to you for the brilliance of the Snark series.

4. Your Mother’s Tongue: A Book of European Invective by Stephen Burgen

This is an invaluable book if you want to learn how to be rude in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, Welsh, Romani, Catalan, Corsican, Danish, Dutch, Basque, Finnish, Flemish, Galician, Greek, Swedish or Pied-Noir. And while you are at it, you might as well learn how not to offend the Europeans.

3. Flirting with French by William Alexander

“Reading Flirting with French motivates me to continue courting the language, no matter how often I’m stood up midsentence!” say Kristen Epinasse, author of Words in a French Life (which almost made the cut to this list, by the way).

As for me, Flirting with French was a journey in itself. And so will it be for anyone who has ever attempted learning a foreign language. Right from the way the language takes over our lives to the way it frustrates it to death, Alexander hits the spot with his heart-warming and honest story telling

2. Kant and the Platypus by Umberto Eco

First published in Italian as Kant e l’ornitorinco in 1997, Umberto Eco’s Kant and the Platypus is a heavy read. It is extremely gratifying but heavy. And you will thank yourself for having endured through it because Eco philosophizes on semiotics, semantics and etymology as only he can. So go read it. You owe it to your brain.

1. The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

“Words can hardly do justice to the superlative range and liveliness of Pinker’s investigations.” The Independent seems to have stolen the words right out of my mouth. The Language Instinct is, in my opinion, the best Linguistics 101 there is. It is unbelievably intelligent and despite Pinker’s academic pedigree (well, he’s from Harvard!) the book is a flowing read with bare minimum jargon. It will revolutionize the way you look at languages and the human mind forever.

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Sonali Kulkarni - Editor-in-Chief, French-English Translator A novice at adulthood and an ardent disciple of Dan Brown and Ayn Rand, Sonali is a pathological bookworm, a borderline nerdy introvert and a hardcore adventure junkie who cannot live without chocolate. She is currently studying French and manages to speak some Spanish too. Having represented her state in national level Athletics for the better part of a decade, the nomad in her has now given it up to venture into the exciting world of languages, writing and travel.