Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages

When a linguist produces a book full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, he loses all credibility. I found out about Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages by Mikael Parkvall while reading the bibliography of a book on international language distribution. I take notes while I am reading as it is easier afterwards to write reviews. By the time I got to page twenty of Limits of Language, my sheet was full of the author’s errors. Some, and only some, of the errors encountered by page twenty include: dialctal three times on page four alone; Moncao [for Monaco] on page six; succesful on page nine; secterism and fanatism on page fifteen; jucier (misspelled twice) and fictious (three times); plus multiple examples of transposing were for where and vice versa. Parkvall’s first language is Swedish but that is no excuse for so many spelling errors. Even if Parkvall’s mother tongue was English, he should have hired a proofreader regardless. In the foreword Parkvall doomily confesses: 

“It would thus be surprising indeed if there were absolutely no inaccuracies to be found among these 394 pages. While I have endeavoured to consult people with a solid competence in the languages concerned, if there are any cases where I have not been careful enough, I would very much appreciate having these drawn to my attention. In that way, any errors or shortcomings can be corrected in future editions of Limits of language.” 

I will be sending Parkvall a copy of this review with citations of all misspellings and grammatical errors and the pages where they can be found. Couldn’t he have asked someone to proofread his work before he sent it for publication? Who lets George Bernhard Shaw go by–twice? What linguist misspells nazalised or the Chomsky/Halle classic Sound Patters of English [for The Sound Pattern of English]? There were multiple occasions where he writes about one language, such as Navajo or Nzebi, then only two lines later, spells it in an alternate form, as Navaho or Njebi. I have never read a book infected with so many spelling mistakes. It was pain to read…a genuine pain to sit through all 394 pages. 

Parkvall writes like a linguist trivia buff, without elaborating on any concept or theory. He thus leaves the interested reader hanging, after being introduced to a new idea one paragraph after another. Parkvall permeates his work with exclamation marks inserted in between sentences, or worse, terminating his sentences with multiple exclamation marks in parentheses. While I understand that he is trying to write a hip book on linguistics, the profusion of exclamation marks made his work seem more suited for groups of preteen girls addicted to text-messaging. His mid-sentence cutesy exclamations were downright annoying: “The largest known phoneme inventory is that of !Xũ (yes, it is spelt that way!) which is spoken by about 5 000 people on the border between Angola and Namibia.”.

A proofreader would have spotted two cases of editorial catastrophe. Parkvall makes repeated references to the term “lingua franca”, yet doesn’t define what a lingua franca is until page 87. He also refers to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis four times in Limits of Language, yet never explains what it is. 

Surely a proofreader would have spotted this awkward sentence from page 338: 

“Thomas Gallaudet, who introduced of French sign language to the USA, resigns from as principal of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford.” 

I am an armchair linguist. Even though I studied the subject in university, I never even took a minor program in linguistics. With that caveat I am open to any criticism over the point that I will make. Parkvall writes: 

“Kiribati is the only known language where a string of four vowels can be found in one and the same syllable. An example is the diminutive suffix -kaaei.” 

I also studied French, and wouldn’t the third-person plural imperfect form jouaient be a string of five vowels found in one and the same syllable? Isn’t the transcription /ʒwɛ̃/ ? 

As the book progresses, it gets more off-topic. Was Parkvall trying to pad his work? Who needs sections entitled “Linguists Who Have Spent Time in Prison” or “Sinister [left-handed] Linguists”? The end of the book was a total waste of time. His references and index were exhaustive. I did have pleasure researching further books on certain topics. Unfortunately Parkvall did not write a book that I myself would recommend.   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *