HIGHLY IRREGULAR: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language
English can be so illogical and frustrating. Ugh, English, why are you like this?
Maybe you’ve resigned yourself to the idea that all we can do is shrug. That’s just how it it is. But there is an explanation, and this book is here to help.
Highly Irregular takes on the weirdness of English with clear, playfully illustrated answers to a range of questions about its quirks. At the same time, it’s a deeper history of English and how we made it the way it is.
In the Land of Invented Languages was published in 2009. Highly Irregular was released July 2021.
The history of the human impulse to build a better language. Book site with excerpts, language examples and sortable lists of languages at inthelandofinventedlanguages.com
- I wrote hundreds of articles you can see listed at Mental Floss, The Week, and Considerable.com.
- The grammar rules of 3 commonly disparaged dialects
- How to tell whether you’ve got angst ennui or weltschmerz
- What does “the” mean?
- Can “y’all” be used to refer to a single person?
- 17 overly optimistic book titles
- The grammar of “Top Chef”: What’s with “It eats salty”?
- Is it possible to think without language?
- How late in life can you start learning a language and still become fluent?
- Why “no problem” means different things to different generations
Articles at other places:
- The listicle as literary form (The University of Chicago Magazine)
- Everybody in Almost Every Language Says “Huh”? HUH?! (Smithsonian Magazine)
- How you say “coffee” or “tea” depends on ancient trade routes (Popular Science)
- Body Language (Lapham’s Quarterly)
- Is linguistics a science? (Aeon)
- Why is English spelling so weird and unpredictable? (Aeon)
- What happens when scientists use their own children as test subjects? (Slate)
- Trüth, Beaüty, and Volapük (Public Domain Review)
I produced a bunch of of videos for Mental Floss with Sean O’Neill that you can see on my YouTube channel. These are some of my favorites.
What causes a foreign accent?
Why do animals make different sounds in different languages?
The story of the umlaut
How do we know how languages are related?
I collaborated with Julie Hochgesang, professor of Linguistics at Gallaudet University, on this video about how sign languages have accents
Do sign languages have accents?
- Okrent, A. (2020). Budding linguists and how to find them. In J. Punske, N. Sanders, and A. Fountain (Eds.), Language invention in linguistics pedagogy (pp.). Oxford University Press.
- Okrent, A. (2013). Artificial Languages. In M. Aronoff (Ed.), Oxford Bibliographies in Linguistics. OxfordBibliographies.com
- Okrent, A. (2006). Disorders of sign language. In K. Brown (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Second Edition. Oxford: Elsevier.
- Shintel, H., Nusbaum, H. C., & Okrent, A. (2006). Analog acoustic expression in speech communication. Journal of Memory and Language, 55(2), 167–177.
- Okrent, A. (2002). A modality-free notion of gesture and how it can help us with the morpheme vs. gesture question in sign language linguistics. In R.P. Meier, K. Cormier, and D. Quinto-Pozos (Eds.), Modality and Structure in Signed and Spoken Language (pp.175-198). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Arika Okrent was born in Chicago and became fascinated with languages at an early age. She flitted from language to language in school, wondering why she couldn’t just settle down and commit to one, until she finally discovered a field that would support and encourage her scandalous behavior: Linguistics. After some lengthy affairs with Hungarian (she taught in Hungary after college) and American Sign Language (she earned an M.A. in Linguistics from Gallaudet, the world’s only university for the Deaf), she began a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago, where she fell hard for Psycholinguistics. She first worked in a gesture research lab, and later took up with a brain research lab, where she conducted the experiments that would earn her a degree in 2004. By that time she had begun to spend long afternoons with the languages that even linguists think they’re too good for — the artificial languages, losers like Esperanto and Klingon. Initial feelings of pity and revulsion gave way to fascination and affection, and she embarked on a whirlwind romance with the history of invented languages. The love child of this passion is her 2009 book In the Land of Invented Languages.
She began writing about language for a popular audience and worked as a contributing editor at Mental Floss where she developed her style of smart, shareable language content. In 2016, she won the Linguistic Journalism Award from the Linguistic Society of America. She also began collaborating with illustrator Sean O’Neill on a series of whiteboard videos about language. That collaboration led to her latest book, Highly Irregular, an illustrated history of English as told through the question of why it’s so weird.
Her Erdős-Bacon number is 11. A paper she co-authored with Howard Nusbaum gets an Erdős 8 (>Strogatz (3)> Arbesman>Vitevitch>Pisoni>Nusbaum) and a film she appeared in about conlanging with Jason Momoa gets her to Bacon 3. She did not actually meet Jason Momoa, but one time her urban planner dad gave Kevin Bacon’s urban planner dad a ride, so she also has a “personally met” Bacon number 3.
In 2013 she won the American Copy Editors Society’s National Grammar Day contest for best tweeted haiku. From the announcement by Mark Allen:
Arika Okrent tapped into a universal feeling of realization and dread when she wrote her winning entry for the 2013 National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest:
I am an error
And I will reveal myself
After you press send
Soon after, she tweeted an amendment:
Make that “send”
“It became a self-fulfilling haiku,” Okrent said. “I wish I could say I planned it that way.”