Languages are different for a reason

alif the unseenAlif the Unseen
by G Willow Wilson

I was eager to read more G Willow Wilson after discovering her writing in the Ms Marvel comics. This is a lovely easy read that deals with some pretty deep complex issues but manages to never feel like an “issues” novel. Which is a clever balancing act. It’s probably the fantasy elements that help keep it light and fun. Mostly.

The story follows Alif, a young man in an unnamed Arab Emirate who works as a “grey hat” – a skilled hacker who helps paying customers to remain hidden online. He keeps a vigilant watch for the state’s top internet security expert “the Hand” but is widely acknowledged to be the best and therefore safest from arrest. He is also conducting a secret affair with Intisar – secret because although they are both Muslim, their social classes are very different and neither set of parents would approve. But Alif is a romantic and assumes they will somehow find a way.

When the book opens, Alif (which is his screen name, not his given name) has not heard from Intisar (ditto) for two weeks and is trying not to worry about the possible reasons. Then the Hand manages to break most of the way through his computer’s encryption and he is suddenly at real risk of arrest. Friends help him out but there comes a point when he needs more than friendship – he needs another kind of aid entirely.

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Slang depends entirely upon its adoption by the ignorant

american languageThe American Language
by H L Mencken

I have had some interesting conversations in recent weeks when I told people I was a reading a book from 1919 about American English. I know that it’s an odd choice of reading matter. It’s because I was looking for older titles from the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge on Project Gutenberg, which didn’t have either of the Mencken titles on the list but did have a dozen others, including this one. I didn’t expect to read more than the first chapter or so, but found it strangely enticing.

This is a difficult book to categorise. It’s part reference book, part textbook, part history, part sociology. Mencken combines his own knowledge of etymology and philology with a huge array of sources in order to cover the rather large question of how the American language evolved into its then-current state.

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An ‘as-if’ that feels like reality

lostintranslation-coverLost in Translation: a Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
by Ella Frances Sanders

This is essentially a coffee table book, albeit a small one. It takes a simple idea and creates a beautiful object from it.

Sanders takes a small collection of supposedly untranslatable words from all over the world. Each word is given a double-page spread with a rough translation, some information about its origin and a fun but elegant illustration. Some of the words chosen really hit a nerve, while others simply amused me. Some are effectively putting words together in a “phrase in a word” and therefore their literal translation does make sense. But the book as a whole works well because it is so well executed.

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