Book: ‘Biting the wax tadpole’

I decided some time ago that I’d share some of the interesting writing- and language-related books that I read. Unfortunately, I’m very good at starting lots of books at the same time, but not always great at finishing them…

One I did complete a while ago (and, yes, I should have written about it while fresh in my mind) was Biting the wax tadpole (Penguin, 2008) by Elizabeth Little, a self-proclaimed ‘armchair linguist’. This book was a very readable, light-hearted and interesting foray into linguistics for a beginner such as myself.

The one area that stood out in my mind, in comparison with similar books, was an in-depth chapter on the origin and meaning of numbers, i.e. how they’ve been expressed through the ages and why. This topic seems to be neglected in many other books on language.

Aside from discussing the many different ways that cultures do this, Liz (we’re all friends here!) makes a small point about how similar the number ‘nine’ is to the word for ‘new’ (in Indo-European languages). She suggests that we haven’t always used a base-10 number system, but a base-8 one (gaps between the fingers?).

Think about it…

  • Spanish: nueve vs nuevo
  • French: neuf vs nouveau (and even comme neuf for ‘as good as new’)
  • Italian: nove vs nuovo

Aside from numbers, the book also explores the standard linguistic fare: nouns, verbs, modifiers and speech (from pronunciation to good ol’ profanities). It’s a romp through the world’s languages that’s easy to understand but which also makes you think (with the occasional ‘a-ha!’ moment, such as the ‘nine thing’).

If you’ve stumbled into this post by accident, this probably all sounds a bit, well, dull to you. But if you have an interest in writing and language, I definitely recommend this for an enjoyable read.

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