Lifelong Dewey

Reading through every Dewey Decimal section.

Category: 490s

494: Passions of the Tongue by Sumathi Ramaswamy


494.8110954: Ramaswamy, Sumathi. Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997. 258 pp. ISBN 0-520-20804-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Languages
  • 490: Other languages
  • 494: Altaic, Uralic, Hyperborean, and Dravidian languages
  • 494.8: Dravidian languages
  • 494.81: South Dravidian languages
  • 494.811: Tamil
  • +0954: South Asia/India

In the 1960s, men began to sacrifice themselves in the name of the Tamil language. Steadfastness to the Tamil language by inhabitants of Southern India was tantamount to a religion. But what lead to these beliefs? And what can be learned from both history and language when we view through the lens of language devotion? Sumathi Ramaswamy, in Passions of the Tongue, proposes a very new and interesting kind of linguistic study, and along the way, shows how both a people and a language evolved.

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496: Language and Colonial Power by Johannes Fabian


496.392096751: Fabian, Johannes. Language and Colonial Power: The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former Belgian Congo 1880-1938. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986. 162 pp. ISBN 0-520-07625-7.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Language
  • 490: Other languages
  • 496: African languages
  • 496.3: Niger-Congo languages
  • 496.39: Bantu languages
  • 496.392: Swahili language
  • +096751: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Africa is a continent with hundreds upon hundreds of different languages and dialects. In even one small part—the area that makes up the Democratic Republic of the Congo—listeners can hear an estimated 240 different languages. So how did Swahili (or KiSwahili), a language spoken primarily my people on the Eastern part of Africa become one of its four recognized national languages? Johannes Fabian’s Language and Colonial Power is an exploration of the intersection of history, power, language, and communication.

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499: In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent


499.99: Okrent, Arika. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009. 324 pp. ISBN 0-3855-2788-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Language
  • 490: Other languages
  • 499: Non-Austronesian languages of Oceania, Austronesian languages, miscellaneous languages
  • 499.9: Hurrian languages
  • 499.99: Afrihili (Artificial languages)

I have been waiting to read this one ever since I first heard of it—a book devoted to all the languages that have been created by other people. Everyday languages are organic: they have no real inventor but time and culture. These things shape the way we talk about the world and express ourselves. But someone had to sit down and invent Esperanto, to compose Klingon, to shape the way that Loglan works. These languages were created for many reason, but the main one seems to be so that people of different nationalities and cultures could finally communicate with one another. Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages explores the rich history of those people who tried (and ultimately failed) to create a single language that all of humanity could use. And along the way, she reveals what little truth in contained in language, and how that reflects on us as language’s users.

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495: A Cultural History of the Chinese Language by Sharron Gu

495.109: Gu, Sharron. A Cultural History of the Chinese Language. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012. 211 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-6649-8.

Dewey Construction:

  • 400: Language
  • 490: Other languages
  • 495: Languages of East and Southeast Asia
  • 495.1: Chinese
  • +09: History

Chinese has existed as a language for about 5,000 years and has approximately 1.5 billion speakers. It is a language of nuance, culture, and tremendous range. Having evolved from the simple pictograms of Archaic Chinese to the complex and compact artistic and tonal structure of today’s China, the language is an incredibly difficult thing to encapsulate. The problem here, though, is neither can Sharron Gu.

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493: The Linguist and the Emperor by Daniel Meyerson

493.1092: Meyerson, Daniel. The Linguist and the Emperor: Napoleon and Champollion’s Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone. New York: Ballantine, 2005. 267 pp. ISBN 0-345-45067-1.

Sadly, non-European languages are consigned to the Dewey dustbin. If a work’s not about English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, or Greek, then it gets stuck in the 490s. Egyptian languages (and more specifically, hieroglyphics) get placed in 493—Non-Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages. Since this is about the biography of the person who deciphered the writing systems of ancient Egyptians, we get 493.1 (for Egyptian writing systems) + 092 (biography).

[It occurs to me that maybe I haven’t been including enough details about the plot of the books I’ve been reading, so with the below review (and those to follow), I will try to give a lot more information about the texts. Let me know if I’m boring anyone.]


Meyerson’s Linguist and the Emperor follows the historically separate lives of Napoleon Bonaparte (famed ruler of post-Revolution France) and Jean Francois Champollion, the eventual decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

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