Mark Abley, The Prodigal Tongue

Writing books about the state of the English language is a tricky business. To entice a readership beyond linguistics professors, you’ve got to strike a delicate balance between technical prowess and accessibility, between condescension and oversimplification. You’ve got to show that you know something, and at the same time resist the urge to drone on about it for 600 pages.

The most recent book to manage this feat is Montreal-based writer Mark Abley’s The Prodigal Tongue, a skillful assessment of how English functions in today’s world and the ways in which it may be reinvented in the near future.

Early on, Abley identifies another cardinal sin committed by fellow language writers looking for a boost in sales: the false prophecy. “Texts that tell you precisely what to expect in the decades ahead are not just misleading, they’re fraudulent,” he writes. “This book is not a crystal ball.”

Instead, Abley approaches his subject like an enthusiastic backpacker. Whether at an art gallery in Kyoto or listening to a Montreal eighth-grader explain the nuances of on-line slang used in the video game World of Warcraft, he’s forever taking notes and meticulously documenting what people say, as well as where, how, and why they say it.

Reading The Prodigal Tongue, you get the feeling that this is exactly how most people prefer to have language evolution explained to them: colloquially and with good examples, wit, and style. In that sense, Abley’s book ought to be on every amateur logophile’s summer reading list.

A big selling point is Abley himself, as the book is told unapologetically through his first-person perspective. Fortunately, he has a good sense of when to let a particular train of thought play itself out—the book opens with an extended meditation on, of all things, the British rock group Coldplay—and when to cut it short.

It may lack the kind of larger conclusions that a more academic book would be compelled to provide, but The Prodigal Tongue covers much of the same ground in less than half the space, and has a lot more fun doing it.

Random House Canada, 272 pp, $34.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, July 17, 2008)

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