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Posted June 2, 2002
Fascinating Psychological Thriller
I was in the language section of my local bookstore, and I saw this book on the shelf. I bought it and took it home. I read it cover to cover in a single night. This book is WONDERFUL. It starts out fairly dryly, giving a list of the irregular verbs of English (there are 180 of them) and their irregular past and past perfect forms. It groups them into categories according to the nature of their irregularity (spring-sprang-sprung vs. think-thought-thought, for example) and describes the linguistic evolution of them since the times of Anglo-Saxon (now referred to as Old English). To make the text more readable and light-hearted, Professor Hadbeen, a linguistic detective, is introduced. He explains some of what happened and makes occasional jokes. Prof. Hadbeen becomes more and more involved, however, and by the third chapter he's developed into a story of his own. He's investigating a murder mystery --- someone has killed the Duke of Donegone, heir to the throne of Iswasbeenia, and Prof. Hadbeen is now receiving anonymous letters indicating that he is to be the next victim. The book becomes a race against time as Hadbeen fights for his life and the protection of his beautiful girlfriend Andrea. The action comes to a climax in chapter eight, entitled 'The Horrors of the German Language' --- both a literary allusion to Mark Twain and a clever hint about the storyline. Naturally, I won't give away the ending, but I will say that I literally clung to the edge of my seat (incidentally, 'cling' is an irregular verb, with the past tense form being 'clung' instead of 'clinged'). After the story is over, Pinker tries to get back to the linguistic stuff, but I got bored with that and skipped to the end. Worth checking out, however, is the appendix entitled 'Glossary', which is actually a hilarious, biting commentary on North American social values and politics. I would also recommend the section 'Index', which contains a delicious recipe for buttermilk pancakes.
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