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You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity Hardcover – March 8, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A correspondent for the Economist and a self-professed lover of language, Greene takes on language "mythologizers" of all forms, like bestselling author Lynne Truss and other language "sticklers" for whom the superiority of "their" language also represents the superiority of "their" people. Greene asserts that language is about communication rather than just rules and that debates about language and its rules are often really about politics. Defending Black English as a dialect with strict rules of its own, Greene also relates how the imposition of Afrikaans, the symbol of South African apartheid, on the black majority sparked the violent riots that marked the beginning of the end of apartheid, and how the father of modern Turkey criminalized the writing of Turkish in Arabic script. In the end, he argues, simplicity in a language doesn't denote its "decline"; rather, languages become simpler and more flexible in order to spread and succeed. Though Greene argues perceptively and passionately, his controversial arguments still won't, for the most part, persuade traditionalists who bemoan the deterioration of English. (Mar.)
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About the Author

Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on Slate, and in other publications. He also wrote a biweekly column for The New Republic from 2002 to 2004. Greene is a frequent television and radio commentator on international affairs, an adjunct assistant professor in the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He speaks nine languages and was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, where he earned a M.Phil. in European politics and society. Robert Lane Greene lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Eva, and his son, Jack.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press; 1St Edition edition (March 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780553807875
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553807875
  • ASIN: 0553807870
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #123,126 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert Lane Greene is a journalist based in New York. He is a correspondent for The Economist and writes for the magazine's Johnson blog on language. His book on the politics of language around the world, You Are What You Speak, was published by Delacorte (Random House) in Spring 2011. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Slate and other publications, and he wrote a biweekly column for the New Republic from 2002-2004. He is a frequent television and radio commentator, an advisor to Freedom House, an adjunct assistant professor in the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Greene was born in Johnson City, Tennessee and grew up in Marietta, Georgia. He graduated with honors from Tulane University in 1997, receiving a B.A. in International Relations and History. He won a Marshall Scholarship and completed an M.Phil. in European Politics and Society at the University of Oxford in 1999. He is fluent in German, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Danish, and conversant in Russian, Arabic, and Italian. He joined The Economist in 2000, lives in Brooklyn, is married to Eva Høier Greene, and has two sons.

(Photo credit: Nephi Niven)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 71 people found the following review helpful By Laurence R. Bachmann VINE VOICE on March 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Do you split infinitives and dare to think yourself reasonably intelligent? Do you regularly end sentences with prepositions and refuse to believe the end of civilization is nigh? Are you or are you not threatened by ebonics or worried (or not) that Spanish is going to swamp English? This is the book for you.

Lane Green's You Are What You Speak is sharp, funny and filled with insight into the politics and pretense of languages' guardians and scolds. Cutting right to the chase, Green gives us a brief history of grammar grouches from Cicero and John Dryden to modern day cranks like David Foster Wallace and that queen of cranks, Lynne Truss. In doing so, Green not only reassures us that language isn't going to hell in a hand basket--only a small minority have ever thought so--but that it is flourishing as it should, from the speakers' needs.

More importantly, his considerable depth of learning debunks many myths. The split infinitive police are supported not by facts but early grammarians who based their rules on their knowledge of Latin (where it is impossible to split one-word infinitives). In English though, it is possible to do so and only undesirable when it creates confusion. As for dangling preps, Green says, by all means do. There is no reason not to, and for clarity's sake, plenty of reasons to go ahead. He provides some delightful examples of when following the dangling prep rule is preposterous.

The author makes the important point that a few grouches have forgotten that language created writing not vice-versa. Hilarious criticisms of England's great poets and writers by grammarians cinches Green's argument that the scolds have lost all sense of perspective and proportion.
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Brooklyn_transplant on March 21, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Greene gives a very useful and interesting overview of the major schools of thinking and controversies in modern linguistics, which is useful for anybody who wants to know more about why we speak the way that we do and what science thinks of that. However, this book really shines when he applies that knowledge to modern political situations and contemporary culture, illuminating some of the common missteps politicians and civilians often engage in, when they try to control and harness language to their own ends.
His good-natured crusade against sticklers really struck a chord with me, however, it's not like the author's is some dippy free-for-all grammar hippie - Greene clearly loves language and the most endearing and ultimately interesting point of this book was, to me, how he convincingly argues that language should be celebrated and cherished for its diversity, not ranked and looked down upon (or snobbily aspired upwards to by the socially ambitious). I personally have no real background in linguistics (just a love of languages) and I learned so much - next time I find myself in a discussion about language and politics, or culture I will feel infinitely more confident because of this book! Interesting, thorough, surprising, I really loved it!
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Altman on April 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I'll admit it, I'm a bit of a stickler when it comes to the English language. But Lane Greene has turned me around. His book presents such a positive and life-affirming view of language as an evolving phenomenon that it's going to be hard to cringe the next time I hear someone say "irregardless". And the book is full of fun: stories, jokes, and strange factoids from what is, for most of us, a very esoteric field of study.

Greene also exposes those who would use language (nefariously) for political gain or (unfairly) to denigrate social groups. This book should open our minds to the richness of language in all of its forms, and to the people who speak it in ways different from our own. Those who read it are taking a step towards healthier discourse and a more meritocratic world.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Eric Selby on March 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you are a Lynn Truss fan--you know the lady, the sticklerist who rants in her books ("Eats, Shoots and Leaves") about the ways English is being destroyed by its speakers and writers--then you may not want to read this book. On the other hand, you absolutely must because this is one of those I-simply-cannot-put-it-down books.
I teach writing part time at a local college. And before retiring and taking up this job in Miami with its vast population of ESL speakers, I taught high school English. And I recoiled at the misuse of so-called grammar books by far too many of my colleagues. (By the way, the best grammar book out there isn't one. But should be: "Woe Is I" by Patricia O'Conner with its simple, humorous direct approach including "comma sultra.") And this amazing work by Robert Lane Greene only confirms what I know, except not with his knowledge, about the way language evolves. I cringe at all the hyped-up media rhetoric about Hispanics taking over. In my opinion they add to the flavor of a mixture of their language with mine, which is English.
But--note that I have begun this sentence with a no-no in the eyes of some--what I have to deal with in my classes are the absolutely stupid number of "rules" these new-to-English speakers have learned. They have to wade through six thick workbooks of English grammar rules, many of which quite simply have absolutely nothing to do with how we speak and write our language when we write and speak it well. And I am one of those who is only too delighted to have "whom" take its place in the repository of words we simply do not need.
All of this is to say that if you are looking for a book that really gets into the substance of how languages have formed and how they work, they don't hesitate any longer.
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