YOUNGER AMERICANS ARE reading for pleasure less than ever, the National Endowment for the Arts reported last week. How to help? By giving your favorite benighted youth a book, of course - perhaps one of these wrap-worthy recent language books.
In "The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?" (Oxford, $19.95), Deborah Cameron blows through the fog of pop-psych gender "research" like Afrin through swollen sinuses, shrinking the claims of sound-bite science on contact.
Cameron, an Oxford University linguist, was apparently spurred to action by "The Female Brain," the 2006 book that said women spoke about 20,000 words a day, and men just 7,000. That claim was pure invention, and after it was debunked by linguist Mark Liberman (in the Ideas section and elsewhere), the author promised to remove it from future editions.
Too late, says Cameron. "The much-publicized soundbite that women talk three times as much as men will linger," while the retraction won't make a dent; we all have a weakness for stereotypes, and we're suckers for "evidence" that supports them.
That's why we need to keep our balderdash detectors tuned, says Cameron, who demonstrates hers on a bit of communication advice from John Gray (of "Men Are from Mars" fame) who suggests "that men hear utterances like 'could you empty the trash?' as purely hypothetical questions about their ability." That's ridiculous, she writes. "No competent user of English would take 'could you empty the trash?' as 'merely a question gathering information,' any more than they would take 'could you run a mile in four minutes?' as a polite request to start running."
"How Language Works" (Avery, $17.95), by the formidable British linguist David Crystal, more than lives up to its ambitious subtitle: "How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die." It's a wide-ranging introduction to the study of language, touching on virtually every aspect from neuroscience to dialects to language death.
How, for instance, do we group words into grammatical classes? Not as neatly as we might like, explains Crystal. Some members of a class have all the core traits, but others are more limited. A typical adjective can occur before a noun, or after very - a big car, he's very cold - but abroad doesn't work that way: We say they are abroad, but not the abroad girl or he's very abroad. "Some adjectives, it seems, are much more adjective-like than others."
Remember those Latin conjugations? A lot of Brits apparently do; Harry Mount's tribute to the undead language, "Carpe Diem" (Hyperion, $19.95), was a bestseller in England last year. Subtitled "Put a Little Latin in Your Life," it purports to be a workable introduction to the language, with basic grammar brightened by illustrations (John Belushi in a toga), whimsy (the Latin bit from "Life of Brian"), and fun facts about Roman emperors. But Mount's affectionate ramble, with its tributes to teachers past, seems more likely to lure nostalgia trippers than budding classicists.
Elizabeth Little's "Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic" (Melville House, $21.95) is a similar voyage, but multilingual, exploring the "quirks, innovations, and implausibilities" of the world's languages. In Ojibwe, she says, a stone is classed as animate; in Japanese, "if Alanis Morissette labeled [something] 'ironic,' then it would probably be expressed in the Japanese adversative passive."
You want words based on Dickens characters, or Greek myths? In "The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two" (Plume, $13), Anu Garg has them, along with measurement words - tog, the warmth of a clothing layer; dol, a unit of sadness. And the "diglot" of the title is less obscure than it looks: It's a speaker of two languages.
Michael Quinion's "Gallimaufry: A Hodgepodge of Our Vanishing Vocabulary" (Oxford, $25), a late-2006 book that missed our deadline, is less a lament for lost words than a handbook for curious readers. Would you rather have driven to a ball in a barouche or a landau? What sort of dance was the galliard? What job did a nutter-up do? (Hint: It was boring, and involved bolts.)
When I saw the advance copy of "Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing" (Morrow, $14.95), I wanted to disapprove. It's the very essence of stocking stuffer: A book made by padding and packaging a few words by a famous author.
Funny words, yes: "Never open a book with weather." "Keep your exclamation points under control." Useful, too, except - as Leonard admits - when they aren't. But they're freely available on the Web. And the book design scatters sentences one to a page, including some not designed to fly solo.
But the hardcover won me over. The illustrations, by Joe Ciardiello, are perfectly Leonardesque; the paper is art-book luxurious; and all that blank space will be useful for scribbling dissents and counter-examples, as any self-respecting would-be author will do.