November 2014 books to readAfter last time’s totally disconnected books, today I have two that are all about words and language. Hooray! One’s an e-book and one’s a paper book, and I have no record at all about when I bought either of them, although I’m pretty sure that both date back to 2013 [update: I went on to Amazon to check the date of publication and discovered that Amazon has recorded when I bought it – hooray again!]. I work with words all day and I love thinking about and reading about them, too, so this has been a lovely bit of reading for me.

Michael Swan & Bernard Smith (eds.) – “Learner English”

(Bought 2013)

This is a reference book all about how people’s first language affects their production of English – spoken and written. It takes a language or group of languages (so, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Scandinavian languages, West African languages) and goes through the ways in which the structure, grammar, pronunciation, gender division etc. in that language affects the speaker’s learning of English. Some languages are similar to ours, some seem to be similar but aren’t, and some are extremely dissimilar – if you want to understand what this book is about, you just have to think about how we native English speakers can grasp a lot of French because the structures and vocabulary are quite similar, but struggle to remember which gender particular words are supposed to have (because we don’t gender our nouns and French does), or with pronouncing the French ‘r’ sound (because we don’t have that sound in our language) or with the different endings to verbs (because we don’t tend to change verbs by speaker so much), or have trouble with Russian and Greek because we have to master new alphabets as well as words, or Arabic, because it has a different alphabet that reads right to left.

The book is pretty comprehensive – it doesn’t cover all languages, unfortunately missing out Icelandic (which is a Scandinavian language but isn’t mentioned in that section) and Finnish (however, most Finns I have met speak and write almost perfect English, and this is primarily a book designed to help English language teachers to deal with the common problems experienced by language learners). Although each chapter is written by a different set of experts, the structure and the areas dealt with remain broadly the same, all covering the same areas of grammar, for example, and most containing lists of those fascinating and annoying things, ‘false friends’ (where a word that sounds the same in two languages means something different in each, for example ‘actuel’ and variants meaning ‘at that time’ rather than ‘actual’ in the “Actually, I’m going to the cinema, not the theatre” kind of sense).

I got an awful lot out of this book, although I appreciate it wouldn’t be everyone’s fun-filled bedtime reading. I specialise in working with non-native speakers, so read a lot of texts created or translated by people whose English isn’t their first language, and I have long noticed the similarities between the English produced by my sets of Arabic, French, Chinese etc., speaking clients: now I can see exactly why they write in the way that they do, and how the structures of their languages affect the way in which they produce English. Fascinating stuff!

This completes the 1987 entry for my Century of Reading!

Mark Forsyth – “The Horologicon”

(E-book, bought 5 Jan 2013)

This book is based on an interesting concept: it looks at lost and interesting words in the English language, taking as its structural basis the hours of the day and night, so words about having trouble getting up in the morning, staying in bed, being warm under your duvet and getting dressed are grouped together into a narrative, while there’s a later section on lunch, office lunches, etc. and one on love lives in the evening section. This makes the material even more lively and interesting than it already is, and is an effective way to navigate the book, too. It’s written in a lively, amusing and accessible style with a great deal of dry wit and very funny asides. I’d read these words in a list, but the structure and themes serve to enhance rather than confine the writer’s style and subject.

I have to admit to knowing some of the words in this book already, but then I would suspect that most people reading it would find the little thrill of “Oh, I knew that, ” which is engendered when you come across one that you recognise. A good read and I would actually go back and look up the word for this and that, as the author suggests (he warns against reading it cover to cover, but I found that fine – however, I’m the kind of person who reads the book reviewed above from cover to cover, too, so it might be more of a dipping-in book for other people.


No acquisitions recently, as it’s present-buying season – unless you count a copy of a book I can’t mention because it’s on the wishlist of one of my Secret Santa giftees which arrived damaged in the post (yes, the vendor refunded me immediately, but sending a hardback book out in a thin plastic envelope doesn’t seem the best idea in the world – it arrived with a puncture through the wrapping and through the SPINE of the poor book, and I can’t give it as a gift now!). I’m currently reading “Underground to Everywhere, which is a lovely history of the London Underground within its context of London, and pondering what paperback to start next.

What are you reading? Do you like reading books to do with your job, or would you rather leave that at the end of the day?