Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What Language Is: And What it Isn't and What it Could Be

by John McWhorter

A linguist explains for the layman, in easy, readable prose and affable wit, the professional view on languages: they are Ingrown, Disheveled, Intricate, Oral, and Mixed.  He tries to dispel the ludicrous and unfounded belief that some languages are more “real” than others (which are thought of as “primitive”) simply because they are better known or have a tradition of literature.  Rationally, with no dogmatic axe to grind, he explains the prescriptivist view of language – all languages – as ever-changing oral traditions, most of them a macedoine of borrowings from neighbors, colonists, conquerors, and subcultures.  He inverts the layman’s suppositions about “primitive” creoles – it’s writing which is the perversion of language, not the other way around; and it’s the baffling impenetrability of, say, Navajo that is unusual, rather than the more simplistic grammars of Persian and English - which have been streamlined over time by an influx of adult immigrants who honed off some of the intricacies while learning them orally, as well as infusing some of their own language into the pot.

This is a terrific book, full of fascinating tidbits about individual languages (the English word “notch” used to be “otch” but the initial n was transferred to the indefinite article; Mandarin uses some shape-based classifiers for its numbered nouns; the African language Serer has ten genders; Twi uses various particles to indicate how you have come to know a statement; Berik nouns specify the time of day things happened to them) as well as wise, compelling pronouncements on language as whole.  McWhorter looks at a language’s entire background – its history of colonization or conquest, its geographic setting – to explain its own individual quirks.  As McWhorter notes, languages have fetishes over different things – English's insistence on differentiating the indefinite and definite articles of nouns baffles Mandarin and Russian speakers, who don’t use any articles, while other languages are anal about specific counting words or the relations of objects to the speaker.  This doesn’t make them “strange” or not “real” languages, just individual, and it’s that variation that is so endlessly fascinating to us language geeks.  Where I think McWhorter fails to convince is in his argument that textspeak and the slipping of written standards results in just as “real” a language than the AP Manual of Style; this may be true, from a linguistic point of view, but the actual criticism is that slipping standards are worse, not less real, than the heavy precedent of our vast, complex written tradition, which has ennobled us, and which is being forgotten.  This aside, the book is charming, captivating, and compelling; anyone who makes misinformed comments about what language is – and that is so many otherwise perfectly rational people – should be forced to read it.

four stars

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