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Review of  Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic

Reviewer: Hanno T Beck
Book Title: Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic
Book Author: Karen Stollznow
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.1818

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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.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781137404848
Pages: 256
Prices: U.K. £ 60.00
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781137404855
Pages: 256
Prices: U.K. £ 18.99