What Language Is, by John McWhorter

I think my friends on Facebook are glad I’m done with this book, because for three days I kept posting quotes and language trivia on my page. (Honestly, guys, I couldn’t help it!)

10794269John McWhorter’s What Language Is is like an extended conversation with the author, in which he sits down and just talks. The book starts out with the metaphor of language as an iceberg. What we can see above the water is what is spoken today. What we don’t see, below the water, is all the history that came before, all the vowel shifts and slang and shortcuts, etc. Once the metaphor is established, McWhorter rambles through a series of examples of how wonderfully complex language can be if it’s left alone. I don’t mean ramble in a bad way. It’s more like a conversation with a good friend, when you start our with topic one and end up at topic q.

And I enjoyed the hell out of it. Because I am a word nerd.

McWhorter makes several arguments in this book, coming down firmly on the side of language evolution. For centuries, grammarians, etc., have written about the deplorable state of the language among the young people. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that linguists and other interested parties have started to point out how silly it is for people to insist that language stay static. One of McWhorter’s primary points is that language is fundamentally oral. What’s written on the page is just a reflection of how we really speak. That’s not to say that we can use slang and curse words at work, it just means that it’s futile for people to write letters to the editor ranting about text speak. It also means that people need to stop looking down on dialects like African American Vernacular. (After all, Dante wrote in the vernacular of his day and look what happened there.)

If left in isolation–that is, without many adults trying to learn the language–languages tend to become more complex. McWhorter points out more than a few languages (Archi, Navajo, etc.) that are so complex that they’re almost impossible to learn once you leave childhood and lose the ability to pick up languages just by listening. The way McWhorter sees it, English is actually fairly unusual compared to other languages because of its simple (relatively) grammar. Other languages use grammar in the form of prefixes, suffixes, declensions, and conjugations to do things like indicate how far away something is relative not only to the speaker but to the listener or whether the speaker witnessed something or only heard about it after the fact. McWhorter never tries to explain what this tendency to complexity is for, but he does address the question briefly before moving on to more examples. I’d be kind of frustrated about this, but when I read it, I thought, “Well, what speaker would be able to say why they say things the way they do. They just do.”

This book isn’t for everyone, I know. But I did enjoy reading it. Most books about language tend to be deathly dull. McWhorter has the knack for making a good argument about linguistics and actually making his reader laugh while doing it. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book:

The nearest equivalent for an English speaker [to highly complex verb conjugations for different tenses, i.e. lots of irregular verbs] would be if every verb were like be, where we have to know that it’s I am but I was and I’ve been and, subjunctively, if I were–just imagine if English had it in addition that today I speak, yesterday I spoke, tomorrow I spock, repetitively I spack, and hypothetically I just might spoo. (68*)

The whole book is full of sentences like that. So, if you’re a fellow word nerd, I highly recommend this book and McWhorter’s previous one, a history of the English language, titled Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

* From the 2011 hardback edition.

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