Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review: What Language Is by John McWhorter

I do love words. My kids roll their eyes at me when I explain that I knew that Spanish word without ever taking Spanish because its English equivalent is a Spanish cognate. They are less than impressed when I tell them that the Russian and French words for store (I took both languages in high school eons ago) are also cognates. Obviously the English portion of the SAT will prove more challenging for them, mathematically inclined as they are, than it did for their word-nerd mom. For Pete's sake, I actually felt a sense of loss when the Oxford comma was phased out (and I will likely use them forever anyway). So a book about language, simple and complex, static and evolving, spoken by millions and spoken by only a few, was particularly suited to my interests.

McWhorter's primary argument is that language is changing and orally driven no matter the complexity of the grammar or the polyglot that created it. He offers examples of the ways in which language accretes new words, new grammatical structures, and how it evolves over long spans of time, branching (or merging) into discreet but related languages. He discusses the theory of adult learners causing extreme simplifications in languages in the time before language was written down.

McWhorter argues that language cannot be constrained by the prescriptives inherent in written language because writing as a development is too new but he is entirely comfortable insisting not only that language is fluid and ever changing but that new languages are currently developing in fact. An interesting inconsistency to be sure. I have to admit that I tend to lean a bit more toward a prescriptive view of language than he does as I see no problem in codifying language, articulating rules (as much as they can be articulated and despite my tendency to flout them willy-nilly), and accepting that the advent of writing is changing and lessening the fluidity of language just as people's movements changed language in the past before writing. It's a bit disingenuous to discount or dismiss the impact of the printing press because of its relative newness. I am, of course, coming at this not as a trained linguist but simply as someone who enjoys language, its evolution, its quirks, and yes, even (especially?) its rules.

McWhorter's viewpoint and mine are oftentimes at odds and I found myself shaking my head at his conclusions but I will say that his writing is very accessible, despite the sometimes highly specialized nature of the content. I loved his footnotes, breezy, casual, and witty. But his central metaphor about looking at language, like looking at underwater life from on shore, not noting things as they are and applauding the changes, is one that just doesn't hold up well. Underwater life may be changing but everywhere I've been diving or even just paddling about, the efforts are focused on conservation, not on allowing change to forge ahead unfettered to the detriment of the larger ecosystem. Despite our obviously differing viewpoints on language and the importance of abiding by the rules codified (and admittedly changed) since Gutenberg, McWhorter challenged me to think about why I feel the way I do about language and furthered my understanding of the unpredictable ways in which language drifts.

For more information about John McWhorter and the book visit the publisher's page about the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. A very insightful analysis of McWhorter;s book - thanks!

  2. Stopping by from the TLC Blog Tour for COCKTAIL HOUR UNDER THE TREE OF FORGETFULNESS.

    Looking forward to your review. Mine will be posted on August 25.



  3. Your review of this book is very interesting. I am now inclined to read the book just to compare the two. :)

  4. I like that you were able to enjoy the book even though you and the author disagreed on most points!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour - I can't wait to read this one myself.


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