Curious about linguistics but not sure where you can learn more? The Linguistics Starter Pack is for you! This is a curated list of my top recommendations for getting started in linguistics. Most of the items on this list are popular science books, aimed at a general audience, and written in a non-technical way. I’ve also included a few highly accessible introductory textbooks if you’re looking for something more structured instead.
Note: The links on this page are Amazon affiliate links, which means I get a small commission from any book you buy through these links (at no additional cost to you).
Language myths (Bauer & Trudgill, 1998)
If there’s one book on this list you should read to introduce yourself to linguistics, it’s this one. Consisting of short, bite-sized chapters each focused on a different myth, this book dispels some of the most common misconceptions about language and linguistics. The book is almost a quarter-century old, but remains one of the best places to start learning about linguistics.
The 5-minute linguist: Bite-sized essays on language and languages (3e) (Myrick & Wolfram, 2019)
A collection of tiny essays answering some of the most common questions about language and linguistics. This book is a more up-to-date take on Language myths (see above), except the style is more FAQ than myth-busting. This third edition is sponsored by the Linguistic Society of America because of the great impact that the first two editions had on educating the broader public about linguistics.
How languages work: An introduction to language and linguistics (2e) (Genetti, 2018)
Hands down the best introductory linguistics textbook on the market. Extremely easy to read, and covers a variety of topics not typically included in other introductory linguistics textbooks. It also includes a number of language profiles, illustrating the rich diversity of languages in the world. The chapters are written mostly by the linguistics faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara, one of the top linguistics departments in the world. Proceeds from the book help fund fieldwork with endangered languages.
Through the language glass: Why the world looks different in other languages (Deutscher, 2010)
How does language influence the way we think and see the world? This book is a brilliant journey into the relationship between language and thought, covering everything from how color terms shape our perception of those colors to how grammatical gender shapes the way we categorize people and things in a surprisingly captivating writing style.
The language myth: Why language is not an instinct (Evans, 2014)
A long-overdue introduction to language and the mind for a general audience, this book explains how humans bring to bear a huge array of cognitive skills to make language possible, debunking the idea that language is an instinct and that we all possess a Universal Grammar. Written by the foremost scholar on cognitive linguistics, this book is perhaps one of the most important popular science books published this century. Think of this book like a non-technical introduction to cognitive linguistics.
When languages die: The extinction of the world’s languages and the erosion of human knowledge (Harrison, 2007)
This book showcases the incredible diversity of ways that Indigenous languages work, and highlights just how much of this diversity and indigenous knowledge is being lost as more and more languages stop being spoken. The book covers topics like Indigenous ways of telling time, spatial orientation, and number systems, while serving as a poignant introduction to linguistic diversity and language endangerment.
The unfolding of language: An evolutionary tour of mankind’s greatest invention (Deutscher, 2006)
An enthralling introduction to how languages change over time, and how languages develop their incredible grammatical complexity, evolving from rudimentary utterances like “man throw spear” to the beautifully intricate Turkish sehirlilestiremediklerimizdensiniz ‘you are one of those whom we couldn’t turn into a town dweller’. This is the second book on this list by author Guy Deutscher (see Through the language glass, above), and for good reason, because his writing style makes his books impossible to put down. Think of this book like a non-technical introduction to historical linguistics.
Empires of the word: A language history of the world (Ostler, 2011)
A history of the world told not by tracing the development of civilizations and empires, but by following the growth of the world’s major languages. Ostler weaves together a fascinating narrative that gives a fresh perspective on history. This book is a must-read for any history buff.
Language files: Materials for an introduction to language and linguistics (13e) (Ohio State University Department of Linguistics)
Want to get your hands dirty with some actual problem sets in linguistics? This is the book for you. Half textbook, half workbook, Language files is one of the most widely-adopted textbooks for introductory linguistics courses, packed with problem sets illustrating each concept in the book.
An introduction to the languages of the world (2e) (Lyovin, Kessler, & Leben, 2017)
If you’re interested in learning about specific languages and language families, this is the book for you. It introduces the field of linguistics by taking you on a tour of the world’s languages. This is one of the most unique textbooks in linguistics, and a lot of fun to read.
An introduction to linguistic typology (Velupillai, 2012)
A survey of the incredibly diverse ways that languages work. This is the most technical / advanced book on the list, but is the ultimate guide to the grammars of the world’s languages. This is a great reference to keep on hand when reading other books and articles about linguistics.