What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Beby John McWhorter
New York Times bestselling author and renowned linguist, John McWhorter, explores the complicated and fascinating world of languages. From Standard English to Black English; obscure tongues only spoken by a few thousand people in the world to the big ones like Mandarin - What Language Is celebrates the history and curiosities of languages around the world and smashes our assumptions about "correct" grammar.
An eye-opening tour for all language lovers, What Language Is offers a fascinating new perspective on the way humans communicate. From vanishing languages spoken by a few hundred people to major tongues like Chinese, with copious revelations about the hodgepodge nature of English, John McWhorter shows readers how to see and hear languages as a linguist does. Packed with Big Ideas about language alongside wonderful trivia, What Language Is explains how languages across the globe (the Queen's English and Surinam creoles alike) originate, evolve, multiply, and divide. Raising provocative questions about what qualifies as a language (so-called slang does have structured grammar), McWhorter also takes readers on a marvelous journey through time and place-from Persian to the languages of Sri Lanka- to deliver a feast of facts about the wonders of human linguistic expression.
Linguist and New Republic contributing editor McWhorter (Linguistics and Western Civilization/Columbia Univ.; Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, 2008, etc.) returns with a discussion of what languagesare, and some insightful thoughts about why we view some as "primitive" and others as "advanced."
The author employs a jumping-bean style that briskly leaps from frisky allusions to popular culture—not always recent: Wilt Chamberlain and Warren Beatty appear in one sentence—to dense descriptions of the complexities of language. Throughout, the author uses what he calls the "underwater approach" to language analysis, noting how early scientific illustrations of marine life showed critters dried and displayed on a beach; not until we could stay underwater for extended periods could we describe these creatures in their own habitat. Linguists offer a similar view of language. Observing that any language is a "fecund, redolent buzzing mess of a thing," McWhorter groups his observations under five headings—languages are ingrown, disheveled, intricate, oral and mixed. The author dispels many common misconceptions, among them the notion that languages spoken by isolated peoples are simple or primitive. On the contrary, the more isolated a language, the more complex it becomes, as native speakers add numerous layers of special-purpose features. It's only when other, non-native adults arrive that the language begins to simplify. He notes, for instance, the enormous complexity of Navajo (and, yes, he deals with the code talkers). He also reminds us that spoken languages antedate by millennia any written language and quips that all languages are "sluts," taking on the attributes of all comers. McWhorter also dismisses the notion that Black English is Africa-born but recognizes the dialect's dignity, calling it "a different kind of English but not a lesser one."
Turgid at times, but mostly eye-opening, even liberating.
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Meet the Author
John McWhorter is the author of the bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, and four other books. He is associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a contributing editor to The City Journal and The New Republic. He has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
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I suppose I was expecting more of a discussion of language as a mode of communication. This it was not. Rather, it is a discussion about the variously different ways language is structured; the idioms of oral communication. The author, in fact, uses the word IDIOM as an acronym reminder for each of the chapter subjects; Ingrown, Dissheveled, Intricate, Oral, Mixed. This technique has its uses but tends to lead into repetition of the same information from different perspectives. But even so, the presentations are useful and clarifying. While I do not think an explanation of "What Language Is" was fully discussed, what was discussed in the way of comparative grammars was excellent; far beyond my own non-technical background and presented in a way that I could easily grasp. I went 4-star because I am thoroughly enjoying the book but did not find any philosophical discussion on the nature of exchanging concepts and ideas. I had expected some reference to Boole and/or Frege and how the concepts of programming languages fit in. But that seems to not be a consideration here. Rather he discusses langauge families, similarities in development of modern Persian and English, compared with, say Pashto, which has a source the same as modern Persian but us far more complex. Then, the complexity of verb forms, the practice of suffixing and prefixing, sentence construction, historical influence of migratory patterns and political dominance on word and grammar evolution (wouldn't say language development here because it seems more like change and simplication over time), are what he discusses well. For me, it gives me better occasion to stop and pause as I consider my own ability to conceive and think being structured and influenced by my own native language (American style English). I found this very useful and educational. A strong case is made for nothing being inherently correct in language. Correct is a matter of convention, use, and popular understanding. I recall some of Noah Websters labored rules for spelling; when to use gh for the f sound (like in "enough") versus when to use it as a silent appendage (like in "though"). It seems silly to engage in justifications and reasons why a language behaves as it does when convention and acceptance in a population make it so. Of course, to disregard accepted convention purposely is to break down on a present utility of a given language. I would think that anyone with an interest in langauge as a subject would find this book useful and educational.
I would have love to have been able to read this book but B&N formatted it so it's not compatible with my simple touch. So I'm going to buy it from Amazon using my wife's Kindle. Great business model.