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What Language Is by John McWhorter (thoughts)

September 12, 2011


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.)
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24 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2011 10:30 am

    Definitely gonna check this one out. I never thought too much about language, how some are simplified over time, how certain dialects and regional variations are marginalized, until about two years ago. (Don’t ask me how that’s possible, for someone who spends as much time reading and writing as I do.) I learned Albanian for my Peace Corps service, but what I learned in my three months of training was “literature Albanian,” with all its nightmarish cases. When I got to the town where I work and learned enough of the language to actually speak with people, I realized that everyone was simplifying the language – that so many of the things I had found confusing they had cut right out of their spoken language. Adding McWhorter’s book to my (seemingly endless) list of works to check out from the library when I’m back in nj. Glad you reviewed this!

    • September 13, 2011 4:17 pm

      That’s like Russian: the grammar surrounding numbers is just ridiculous, but in normal conversation most Russians follow a more simplified version! And my host sister told me even Russians often get number grammar wrong: it’s a big source of stress on their exit exams, lol

  2. September 12, 2011 10:48 am

    Ooh. I love me some linguistics…. Thanks for the title.

  3. September 12, 2011 11:26 am

    Sounds like a fascinating read. Just wish I could’ve skipped a few linguistics papers that managed to make the most interesting topics sound boring and read this instead.

  4. September 12, 2011 11:44 am

    Sounds like a really interesting book. I’m fascinated by languages and am always trying to learn more. But then get distracted. Currently I speak English and moderate French – need to improve that. Have the materials to try to teach myself Spanish, Swahili and Arabic :)

    • September 13, 2011 4:18 pm

      I’ve got conversationally fluent Russian and alright French (my reading is decent…my speaking, not so much, since I didn’t get to study abroad…boo! long story), but I really need to pick up Spanish. Except, all I really want to do is either revive my Latin or study ancient Greek or Hebrew. LOL Am nerd!

      • September 13, 2011 4:35 pm

        Is there any other way to be??? (Besides being a nerd, that is!)

  5. September 12, 2011 1:35 pm

    I loved The Power of Babel and am so glad that McWhorter’s other stuff is up to the same high standard! He’s just so much fun to read, and it doesn’t hurt that I agree with his philosophy of language. He makes me wish my college had offered more in the way of linguistics classes when I was there – it’s such an interesting subject.

  6. September 12, 2011 4:11 pm

    Ooh, this sounds perfect to read after The Unfolding of Language! So glad you enjoyed it and I’ll have McWhorter on my list of TBR authors.

  7. September 12, 2011 5:07 pm

    One of my favorite classes in college was History of the English Language. I haven’t done heaps of reading on the topic, but I’m still very interested in the evolution of language and think about it a lot as it relates to my work as an editor, which requires a certain amount of putting the brakes on change (even in spite of my own personal preferences). I’ll have to look into this book.

  8. September 12, 2011 7:11 pm

    McWhorter is great and reliably so. I was a linguistics major, and there are relatively few things that get me more annoyed than people spouting off about linguistics (as so many seem to do) when they know nothing. So I’m very grateful for the pop-linguistics writers who know their stuff and can simplify without stupi-fying.

    • September 13, 2011 4:19 pm

      Heehee: I’m glad you approve of my McWhorter endorsement! :D

  9. September 12, 2011 8:06 pm

    With you recommendation I will add this to my list. I’ve got a huge stack of non-fiction reading that I’m working on right now.

  10. September 12, 2011 11:01 pm

    Yes to this book and a very big yes to your accompanying book suggestions.

  11. September 12, 2011 11:23 pm

    This sounds fascinating. I have always wanted to read a book about language but I am not much of a non-fiction reader normally. I find it tough to read one a year (isn’t that terrible). Eats Shoots and Leaves is one that has been on my tbr for awhile, but sounds like this would be just as valuable

    • September 13, 2011 4:20 pm

      I don’t read any poetry, so I understand when you’re not naturally inclined to some types of books! :)

  12. September 13, 2011 3:54 am

    I definitely know the feeling of reading a book and forgetting to blog about it… I love books about language, so will definitely remember this one for future hunts. Have you read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue? I read it nearly a decade ago, but if memory serves it is extremely good!

    • September 13, 2011 4:20 pm

      I haven’t, but I’ll add it to my wish list now. Thanks for the suggestion!

  13. September 13, 2011 9:51 am

    sounds like another great book. I think I’ll have to read OUR MAGNIFICENT BASTARD TONGUE first, as that has been on my wishlist longer :)

  14. September 13, 2011 10:58 am

    Definitely one for the priority wishlist. I’m always looking for something interesting around languages (have you read “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages”?).

    Language is common dinner-conversation here in Brussels. The European Union has 23 official languages and the expat community working at their HQs is forever discussing things like what to do when a baby is born from parents with different mother-tongues, who speak among themselves in English and live in a city that’s bi-lingual (FR and NL)….

    • September 13, 2011 4:22 pm

      No I haven’t, although I have to admit that subtitle makes me a bit skeptical! And now that I’ve read its premise, I’m not sure I’m the right audience…I’m pretty firmly on the other side of the camp on that debate. However, if it’s smartly done, I do enjoy reading an author who disagrees with me, so I’ll still put it on my wish list! :)

      I pretty much live in a bilingual city, although I’m not sure if it’s ‘official’ (everything is available in both Spanish and English, including government forms and websites). So I really need to pick up Spanish already! lol

  15. September 13, 2011 6:57 pm

    Oh “empire languages” is an excellent category to exist! And I never would have thought of it as a category with separate things that happen. That is brilliant. I’m reading this book.

  16. September 13, 2011 7:03 pm

    I agree with Simon. Mother Tongue is a great book. So glad to see you liked this one so much as I just got approved for it through NetGalley. Now I’m excited to get to it!

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