26.1818, Review: Anthropological Ling; General Ling; Socioling: Stollznow (2014)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-26-1818. Mon Apr 06 2015. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 26.1818, Review: Anthropological Ling; General Ling; Socioling: Stollznow (2014)

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Date: Mon, 06 Apr 2015 13:56:33
From: Hanno Beck [hbeck at hannobeck.de]
Subject: Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic

Discuss this message:

Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/25/25-3612.html

AUTHOR: Karen  Stollznow
TITLE: Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Hanno T Beck, University of Maryland

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


'Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic' by Karen Stollznow is a 269-page book
that takes the reader on a journey that few linguists are likely to have
experienced before.  In this work we meet an array of peculiarities, alleged
to be somehow mysterious and/or magical, but all having to do, in one way or
another, with language.

The book is divided into five parts.  Each part has its own list of references
and consists of five short chapters.  Thus the reader will be experiencing 25
separate adventures, many of which concern the here and now, but also
encompassing the distant past, far-off galaxies, and even crossing beyond the
boundary of mortality.  

Chapters address such topics as how channeling is supposed to work; whether
animals can know language; prayer; speaking in tongues; the language of
Martians and other aliens; communication with the dead; messages that appear
to be revealed when a record album is played backwards; graphology; and
neurolinguistic programming.  As you may surmise from a list like this, the
book is intended to bring pleasure and entertainment. 

In addition to the many references cited, the book includes a good index.  I
noticed a few stray typos but nothing to detract from the work overall.

One cannot summarize Stollznow's main points in 'Language Myths, Mysteries and
Magic' any more than one can summarize a dictionary; the value of this work
does not reside in its message, so much as what it brings together in one
place.  A series of puzzling/magical themes is assembled here and looked at
with the author's very skeptical eye.  

Nevertheless, I think we can detect some outlines of a higher-level picture
being sketched in the book.  In some of the chapters, and again in the
two-page conclusion, Stollznow begins to touch on an important idea -- why do
people keep on falling for the same faux-mystic trickery, century after
century?  The persistence of certain foibles or biases in humanity is itself a
fascinating topic and Stollznow's work does provide a sort of illustrative
launching pad for that pursuit.


Linguists are always on the lookout for good books to give to their family,
friends and acquaintances who want to know what we are actually up to.  This
is not that type of book – it does not seek to describe linguistics, the
field's scope and value, nor the people who pursue it.  If you are, however,
looking for a little light diversion for yourself or a loved one, or if you
want to furnish undergraduates with a generous supply of ideas for report
topics, this book may well be suitable.  The writing style is modern and
clever; no background, linguistic or otherwise, is assumed of the reader.

The book is not structured as a technical narrative and does not develop an
argument from chapter to chapter.  Rather, it is a collection.  One does not
read it from beginning to end any more than one would do with a compendium of
South American birds, or an automobile repair guide.  Stollznow has brought
together 25 strange, “magical” or somehow unexplained topics, for the most
part connected clearly with language, and gives her treatment of each.  

What exactly happens in this book?  Stollznow is an author with a mission, and
that mission is to debunk.  This mission plays itself out in each chapter.  We
are given a brief introduction to the topic, including some of the more
outrageous uses or abuses of it, and then the topic or some aspect of it is
debunked.  Stollznow performs this with intelligence, not by rote.  When
established fields such as hypnosis are discussed, only the ways in which it
is overstated or sensationalized receive the author's skeptical
counterarguments; while with areas such as the purported language of the
creature Bigfoot, the entire topic is dismissed due to lack of evidence. 
Sometimes an apparently magical or mysterious phenomenon is not constructed by
connivers but is genuinely misunderstood by its own promoters – a case likely
to be familiar is that of the horse Clever Hans, whose handler thought the
animal could count and answer questions.  As Stollznow explains (pp. 170-72),
the horse was able to notice subtle, unconscious body movements and thereby
start or stop counting (tapping his hoof) at the right moment.  Not exactly
knowledge of a language, but still an impressive feat in its own right. 
Stollznow has a whole treasury of accounts of such mysterious phenomena.   

On the positive side, this myth-busting can be entertaining and it is also
clear that Stollznow's skepticism is well justified in her chosen areas.  On
the minus side, all of the topics, be they plausible or absurd, receive 
treatment according to the same basic pattern.  Their presenter is also their
debunker, and the presentation in each chapter is so brief that one cannot
find many opportunities to use one's own judgment before learning Stollznow's
verdict.  If you read too much in one sitting you might find this pattern a
bit repetitive.

Since the book is a survey, skipping lightly across many topics without
delving deeply into any, a reader must go elsewhere for a fuller impression. 
'Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic' is not trying to present the full case
for and against these mysterious topics – that would be quite interesting, but
would be a different (and considerably longer) work.  Here, Stollznow, with
ample preparation and wit, lines them up and knocks them down.

Those who have spent more time investigating one or another of the subjects
breezily dismissed in this book might feel that their topics were judged
rashly, and deserved a more balanced presentation here.    In my own research,
I look at divination scientifically -- as a phenomenon to understand, rather
than as a kind of flaw to explain away or condemn.  To lump that entire rich
field in with ''fortune telling,'' not to mention Bigfoot and outer-space
aliens, does not feel really fair.  But while I sympathize with the criticism
that the topics handled in this book never receive a real chance to establish
their own worth, we must be conscious that in-depth and balanced coverage was
not part of Stollznow's purpose.  

What would improve this book greatly for the curious reader would be
illustrations.  To accompany us on our 25-chapter tour of the magical
landscape, we would benefit from pictures, charts, graphs, or line drawings. 
For a truly engaging work, one would at least expect pictures of some of the
exotic characters and contraptions encountered, e.g.,   Klingons, talking 
animals, and the telephone to the dead.  The language used by Stollznow is
colorful enough, but in a work for the general public we can hope for more
graphic appeal.


Hanno T. Beck is a senior systems analyst in Baltimore and a non-degree
graduate student in linguistics at the University of Maryland. He will enter a
full-time PhD program at a to-be-determined university in autumn 2015. Current
research includes the syntax and semantics of the “tough” construction.

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