What Language Is by John McWhorter (thoughts)
Ah yes, another book that I read months ago from Netgalley, loved to bits, and didn’t write about after I finished. I have since learned my lesson! Promise. Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before one of my college majors was modern languages, and I took a couple of enjoyable linguistics classes during that time, which means I feel mildly justified in Having an Opinion about the field. ;) And as I’ve learned after happily reading a few of McWhorter’s books, he and I have similar opinions. Yay! In addition to taking the correct approach to linguistics (is there a tongue-in-cheek emoticon I could pop in here?), McWhorter is an engaging writer with a fierce intellect who is unafraid to stand up for those beliefs and at times explain why the other side is wrong. All of this means he’s one of my go-to nonfiction authors, and I was so excited to see he had a new book out! In fact, it was this galley that made me sign up for Netgalley in the first place.
I’m happy to report that What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be) lived up to my expectations. It covers quite a variety of topics, as the full title might lead you to expect, but my favourite two were his look at how ’empire’ languages become ‘easier’ over time (aka, why English no longer has cases, and how the same thing happened to Persian) and his in-depth examination of creoles (which are in fact languages, not just people speaking ‘wrong’). One of his case studies is Ebonics, and the way he breaks down the grammatical structures and looks at word usage was just fascinating. Throughout, he makes a case for legitimacy of languages that have traditionally been marginalised, and he points out that the so-called ‘weird’ complexities of isolated languages are actually normal. It’s the simplification of widespread languages (i.e.: Persian in their ancient empire, Russian in the Soviet Union, English today) that’s unusual!
This book is smart, compelling, funny, readable, and thought-provoking: everything you could ask for from nonfiction! I highly recommend it, as well as his earlier books (I blogged about Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and I read The Power of Babel pre-blogging; I’ve still got the rest of his back list on my wish list, I guess I should get to that!).
Suggested Companion Reads
- In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent (If you want more pop linguistics, this is a really fun, interesting book that I read last year and loved but didn’t manage to blog about; I think it’d especially appeal to all of the school overachievers, since Okrent is unabashed about her nerdiness.)
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (One of the first novels written in dialect I ever read that actually worked for me; Hurston had an amazing ear for language, and she manages to bring the speech cadences of her Florida home region to life.)
- Translation Nation by Hector Tobar (Not a linguistics book, despite its title, but a really fascinating account of Latino culture in the US, which does include a look at language issues. I didn’t agree with everything Tobar said, but I enjoyed reading this one!)
- Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (Another novel that makes the language itself a play thing, and most of the characters are living in the kind of overarching empire/cultures meeting/world trading environment McWhorter describes.)