AUTHOR: Kate Burridge
TITLE: Weeds in the Garden of Words
SUBTITLE: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
Anja Wanner, Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison
In his book ''The Language Instinct'' (1994) Steven Pinker accused
''mainstream American linguists'' of having left the task of satisfying
everyone's natural curiosity about language ''entirely to the mavens'' (p.
399). Although this has changed to some extent (there have been a number of
books written by linguists addressing common beliefs about language, e.g.
Napoli, 2003), most of the bestselling books about English grammar or
vocabulary aiming at a general audience are still not written by linguists
(e.g., Truss, 2004).
Kate Burridge's new book (196 pages) ''Weeds in the Garden of Words'' is the
kind of book that illustrates that writing about language can be personal
and professional, entertaining and informative, profound and accessible at
the same time. As in her previous book, ''Blooming English'' (Cambridge UP,
2004), Burridge uses the metaphor of language as a garden to discuss
phenomena dealing with linguistic variation and change. This time, she
focuses on what many speakers consider the ''weeds'' of a language, but the
reader learns very quickly that just as people can make tea of dandelion,
double negation may not be such nuisance after all. The pieces were
originally written for an Australian radio show (the book was first
published by ABC Books for the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2004),
which accounts for the richness of data from Australian English. Linguistic
weeds are defined as ''structural features of the language whose virtues
have yet to be realized'', among them ''the pronunciations we don't want, the
constructions that are of place, the words we create but hate'' (p. 2). The
book is loosely organized into seven chapters, but it is ''meant for dipping
into'' (p. 7), and that's what anyone who gets his/her hands on it will do,
with delight. The chapter organization divides linguistic phenomena
perceived as ''weeds'' according to their linguistic domains. ''Lexical weeds''
(Chapters 2 and 3) are words perceived as inappropriate, including jargon,
slang, or euphemisms, as well as words that seem to have changed meaning
inexplicably. ''Grammatical weeds'' (Chapter 4) are constructions that seem
to run against prescriptive rules, such as the use of bare adverbs.
Finally, phonological weeds, or ''weeds in our sounds and spelling'' (Chapter
5), are exemplified by silent letters and perceived mistakes in
pronunciation, such as consonant dropping. The words and structures that
Burridge discusses come from a variety of sources – linguistic research
(her own and others'), dictionaries, queries from people who call in to
Burridge's radio show. Chapter 6 deals with ''the truly nasty weeds'', by
which Burridge refers to more applied topics, such as the use of
dehumanizing '''deodorant' language'' in the context of news reporting (e.g.
''collateral damage'', p. 170). The final chapter is a short conclusion.
Chapters are interspersed with boxes that give information about specific
words, such as the history of the word ''nylon'' (simply a word coined by
DuPont, p.51f.) or of the participle ''gotten'' (which was recommended as the
correct form in an 18th century grammar, p. 113). The book ends with a
bibliography and an index, which lists words and expressions that are
discussed in the text (''cat's whiskers/pyjamas'', ''edutainment'') as well as
some linguistic terms (''dangling modifier'', ''conversion'').
''Weeds in the Garden of Words'' is a delightful book about irregularities
and perceived trouble makers in the English language. It is geared towards
a general audience, and, unlike other books based on pieces originally
written for magazines or broadcasts (e.g. Wallraff, 2000), it is written
with the insight of a linguist with expertise in language variation and
change. The writing is conversational (Burridge uses the first person
plural a lot, solidarizing with the reader) and kept deliberately free of
jargon. For example, when addressing the passive, Burridge explains the
notions of topic and information structure without actually using these
terms and she illustrates that the use of the passive does not
automatically make a text sound impersonal and undynamic (p. 94).
Burridge approaches the irregularities considered ''weeds'' from the
perspective of a linguist, i.e. descriptively, but she recognizes that
oftentimes ''it doesn't really matter what linguistic science suggests, but
how speakers perceive their language to be'' (p. 54). If speakers perceive
the adjective ''niggardly'' as related to the ''highly tabooed word 'nigger''',
they will avoid using it, and linguists may not simply disregard those
perceived etymologies (p. 55). Burridge explains a number of language
change processes, such as sound reduction or assimilation, but her main
interest lies in meaning shifts, ''undoubtedly the most complex part of our
language, probably because more than any other area, it's tied to the
cultural and social aspects of a speech community'' (p. 70). She illustrates
this on the basis of selected examples, such as the adjective ''gay'', which
did not have any connotations of homosexuality up to the 20th century. She
effortlessly integrates insights from linguistic research into her
argument, for example Bybee's work on frequency.
However, one has to bear in mind that this is not a scholarly book in the
strict sense. There are no footnotes or endnotes and not every claim is
documented. For example, the famous ''ghoti'' example is perpetuated (p.
161), even though – as far as I know – nobody ever produced any evidence
that Shaw actually said, tongue-in-cheek or not, that English spelling was
chaotic enough to allow this as a spelling for ''fish'' (this topic has been
discussed on the LinguistList). While I am not sure about whether or not
the interjection ''ouch'' is borrowed from German, I disagree with Burridge's
argument that the borrowing theory is improbable because it ''ouch'' is
''nothing like the sound a German would make'' when in pain (p. 25). The most
common expression used in German in this context is probably ''aua'', but
''autsch'' (pronounced just like ''ouch'') is certainly also very common, a
fact than can easily verified by doing a Google search.
Since the chapters are structured quite loosely, most readers will probably
use the index to look up a specific topic. What is missing is some sort of
information about the dictionaries that Burridge draws on. They are not
listed in the bibliography, and the linguistically interested layperson
does not necessarily know what sets the Oxford English Dictionary apart
from, say, the Collins Essential English Dictionary (to list two
dictionaries that are named in the text).
If you teach a class on English words (as I do), Burridge's book will not
replace a textbook on the subject, such as Heidi Harley's excellent
''English Words'' (Blackwell, 2006), but it will be a most welcome complement
and a source for many examples to be discussed in the classroom
(personally, I loved to learn about Australianisms such as ''budgie
smugglers'' for a ''tight pair of men's swimming trunks'', p. 44, or the
discourse particle ''yeah-no'', p. 22). The book's particular strength is
that it reaches out to a general audience and explains a series of
linguistic phenomena from a professional perspective without ever being
smug about speakers' attitudes. It is delightfully written and, to use a
weed that has made it into the orderly garden of dictionaries, quite
Burridge, Kate (2004): Blooming English. Observations on the Roots,
Cultivation and Hybrids of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Crystal, David (1995): The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Napoli, Donna Jo (2003): Language Matters. A Guide to Everyday Questions
About Language. Oxford: Oxford UP.
Harley, Heidi (2006): English Words. A Linguistic Introduction. Oxford:
Pinker, Steven (1994): The Language Instinct. The New Science of Language
and Mind. London/Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Truss, Lynn (2004): Eats, Shoots &Leaves. The Zero Tolerance Approach to
Punctuation. New York: Gotham. (Published in the UK in 2003).
Wallraff, Barbara: Word Court. Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes
Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done. New York: