What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be)

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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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

With books like Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Losing the Race, and The Power of Babel, Columbia University professor John McWhorter has established himself as one of the most entertaining linguists alive. His latest safari into the strange world of language confirms what his faithful readers already know: The liveliness of his discourse actually enhances the forcefulness of his insights. What Language Is functions as a post-college tutorial on an elusive subject always close at hand. Editor's recommendation.

Publishers Weekly
The King's English topples from the throne of linguistic legitimacy in this rollicking tour of human language. Columbia University linguist and bestselling author McWhorter (Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America) surveys a Babel of languages from behemoths like Chinese to isolated, insanely complex Siberian languages, New World creoles, and unfairly disparaged street slangs. His approach is organic rather than prescriptive; he argues that languages are living entities that grow, mutate, and interbreed, creating new words and grammatical forms. The fluidity and incorrigible "disheveledness" of language, he contends, means that no linguistic practice is uniquely correct, least of all persnickety written standards that ignore spoken realities. An insightful chapter on African-American dialect analyzes it as a slightly simplified but equally expressive version of Standard English, shaped by the same pressures that make modern Hebrew a simplified version of the ancient tongue. McWhorter unearths a wealth of colorful linguistic facts (in the New Guinean language Berik, Nice to see you comes out as My gall bladder is really warm today), from which he distills larger principles, couching his erudition in a lucid, supple prose. The result is a fascinating romp through the ornery wonders of language. Illus. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Which languages are more typical or normal—those offering huge vocabulary, others known for intricate grammar, or those with notable sounds or tones? To answer such questions, McWhorter (linguistics & Western civilization, Columbia Univ.; Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue) boldly offers general readers another taste of language study. This time he serves as tour guide to highlight five traits that language comprises, identified by the letters of the word IDIOM: "Ingrown," "Disheveled," "Intricate," "Oral," and "Mixed." Each trait receives its own chapter, and McWhorter compares and contrasts as his main means of supporting his narrative. He revels in providing side-by-side examples of a particular linguistic feature from different languages, such as Pashto, Archi, Russian, Chinese, and Sinhalese. He presents a wealth of examples of English dialects when considering matters of grammar. These will fascinate, as will the similar development of two imperial languages, English and Persian. VERDICT Though casual readers may lose interest, the distinctive blend of detail, accessible tone, and solid research will appeal to language students of all kinds.—Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL
Library Journal
Columbia linguistics professor McWhorter is the author to go to when you want to talk language; his best sellers include Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. Here McWhorter gives us insight into the linguist's job while explaining how languages are born, grow, change, and sometimes die. Fun for all—or at least all with a passion for words.
Kirkus Reviews

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.

Evelyn Small
…McWhorter's book makes considerable demands on the lay reader. But its strengths lie in many of his informed opinions and conclusions…He includes both history and linguistics lessons, asking pointed questions and offering strong examples of the complexities, impurities and messiness of language…
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592406258
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/4/2011
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.54 (h) x 0.98 (d)

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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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Languages Are Ingrown 15

Chapter 2 Language is Dissheveled 61

Chapter 3 Language is Intricate 93

Chapter 4 Language is Oral 134

Chapter 5 Language is Mixed 167

Epilogue: This View of Language 199

Notes on Sources 207

Acknowledgments 215

Index 217

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 25, 2011

    An Excellent Discussion of Spoken Languages

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 12, 2013

    I would have love to have been able to read this book but B&

    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.

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