I don’t know about you, but I receive many emails every day about cultural events and programs that are available free for listening or streaming. Of course, I want to enjoy them all, but at the same time I’m trying desperately to get away from seated activities. If I wore my Fitbit I’m sure a frowny face would show up on the dial at the end of the day.
Despite that resolution, this morning I found the public radio show and podcast A Way with Words, an hour-long program about language that’s like a mashup of Car Talk and Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. What could be better? And there’s an archive going back to 2007. I’m in. The hosts are Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, a journalist and a lexicographer, respectively. The website has a great feature: synopses of each show, even links to each segment of each show. That way you can pick and choose episodes, or even portions of episodes, that sound interesting to you. I learned about the expressions, “Want an egg in your beer?” and “lie bumps.” Pretty cool.
There are lots of books about language that I’ve enjoyed reading, some of them quite entertaining as well as informative.
I’m a big fan of Guy Deutscher’s books, especially The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention. I’ve always been interested in how languages change over time. Deutscher takes this topic seriously but leavens it with cleverness and humor. He upended many of my assumptions. I also read his book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, another fascinating topic that he elucidates with humor.
In a slightly different vein, I loved The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox. In 1900, archaeologist Arthur Evans, excavating in Crete at the ancient site of the Minoan civilization, unearthed a group of clay tablets written in a language hitherto unknown. The language became known as Linear B. It bore no relationship to any other known ancient language as far as linguists could tell and it dated to a thousand years before classical Greece. The race was on to decipher it! How could someone possibly make a start at deciphering a language about which nothing was known? That’s what I wanted to know. If you’ve read elsewhere about Linear B, the solution is usually credited to Michael Ventris, a brilliant architect, classicist, and philologist. However, what’s not usually mentioned, is that Ventris’ solution depended on the painstaking work done by Alice Kober, a college professor in Brooklyn who worked on the text for many years, and brought to light many of the structural issues that allowed Ventris to finish the task shortly after Kober’s death in 1950. Kober rarely receives the credit she deserves. The story of how she began to solve the puzzle of LInear B is a linguistic thriller, entertaining and enlightening in equal parts.