On Writing « The Secret Life of Language »

by Simon Pulleyn (London)

Secret Life Language front cover-1

In September 2017, I was asked by Trevor Davies, Commissioning Editor at Octopus Books, whether I would write a book about language for the general reader. Octopus already had titles such as The Secret Life of the Periodic Table and The Secret Life of Equations. Now they wanted to try linguistic science. They had some general ideas about scope, but I was offered a free hand as to the text. Octopus specialize in illustrated books. This was quite new for me. My previous experience was that pictures cost money and, as the author must pay for them, they are best avoided. But Octopus has an entire department dedicated to sourcing images; the project also had a talented artist who produced drawings tailored to my ideas. PhilSoc readers will not be slow to spot anachronisms in cartoons depicting Cicero or Babylonian scribes. But the aim of the book is to appeal to the bright general reader, not the specialist; the designers thought that the drawings would have broader appeal if they did not incorporate my niggles about period costume and furniture.

Once I had been signed up as the author, I was in the unenviable position of being expected to know everything. Sadly, I don’t but I was able to consult knowledgeable friends who dug me out of some of my ignorance. I began with an almost blank sheet of A3 paper. It contained just a series of empty rectangles called spreads: these correspond to what you see when you open the book at any given point and look at the two pages in front of you. My job was to decide, in outline at first and then in detail, what would go onto each page or spread. What were the topics to cover and how many spreads should be devoted to each? All this was against the background that the number of pages for this series is fixed at 192 and not all of those are for the author: there must be titles, picture acknowledgements, and an index.

I began with evolution, looking at the anatomical apparatus needed for speech and how this developed. I am no expert in this field and those who specialize in primate evolution will probably find things that they would say otherwise. I went on to look in detail at the constituent elements of linguistics: two spreads on phonetics, three on phonology, four on morphology, two on lexicon and three on syntax. The book then moves on to proto-languages and the problems with arranging languages into families. The book has on its cover an attractive tree diagram of the Indo-European languages. Anyone familiar with the field will know how contentious a topic this is and will either want to draw the branches in a different way, change the labels or object altogether to the notion of trees. But I hope that the text of the book makes it clear that the enlightenment enthusiasm for genealogies, which also brought us Linnaean classification of plants and the periodic table of elements, is not taken by linguists today as the last word on the topic. The problems of areal influence are discussed in detail, particularly in respect of the Semitic languages and those of mainland Southeast Asia.

The deadline for the book was strict. Whereas those of us accustomed to academic publishing often have years in which to write a monograph, my brief from Octopus was to write 50,000 words in ten weeks. Furthermore, the text was to be delivered in three batches so that the design team could be getting on with the illustrative content for one part of the book whilst I was writing the text for the next. Because of the need to fit in illustrations, this meant that one had generally to write in units of 610, 1220 or 2440 words depending on the number of pages to be covered.

Because I wanted to give the reader the broadest immersion in the field, the book goes on to tour the world either by looking at language families or at the speech of large geographical areas. There are thus sections on the Celtic, Semitic, Turkic, and Iranian languages and others on the languages of India, the Caucasus, the Pacific and the Americas. On some days, this meant that my task was to write 610 words on the idea and reconstruction of the Indo-European family. This is a challenge in terms of choice and compression but also a wholesome discipline. Other days were much harder. It is not encouraging to wake up knowing that the business of the moment is to produce 1220 words on the languages of North and South America. Quite aside from problems of choice and compression, the greater challenge was that I knew so little about the topic and needed to educate myself before presuming to write a single word. By the end of the day, I had not written the required number of words but at least had read a great deal and mapped out the way forward.

Specialist readers will disagree over what ought to have been included, what left out and what emphasis ought to have been given to individual elements. But I hope that the general reader new to language and browsing in a high-street shop will be enthused and drawn in to our wonderful subject. If a person is motivated to start learning another language or to buy some books on linguistics (there is a select bibliography), that is a result. The cartoons are meant to allure. But that does not mean that the text is small beer. I asked my editor if I could discuss things like syllabic nuclei and sonority hierarchy. ‘Yes,’ he replied without missing a beat, ‘Of course!  Just make sure that you explain it all clearly.’ The diagrams help to do that and there is a full glossary at the back.


Simon Pulleyn’s The Secret Life of Language was published by Octopus Books on 30 August 2018 (Cassell, 192 pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781788400244).

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