Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Language Is by John McWhorter

What Language Is (And What It Isn't And What It Could Be) by John McWhorter
272 pages
Published August 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

In What Language Is, best-selling linguist John McWhorter explores languages throughout the world, explaining how they have evolved over time...or why they haven't, looking at languages spoken by only a few hundred people to the biggies, like Mandarin and English.

As an avid reader, language fascinates me, always has. As a high school student I took not one, but both levels of  "Greek and Latin Roots." Can you say word nerd? I loved them and still consider them to be two of the most useful classes I ever took. So I went into What Language Is expecting to be both educated and entertained. After all, the blurb on the front of the book says that Publisher's Weekly found the book "a rollicking tour of human language." Within twenty pages I knew that those folks at Publisher's Weekly are clearly even bigger word nerds than I am; clearly the kind of nerds that wear pocket protectors and have their pants belted so high that their socks are visible.

Rollicking this book is not. Boring is the word that first came to mind after just a few pages, in fact. How in the world will I ever finish this one to review it, I wondered. Fortunately it did pick up considerably and I found myself constantly amazed by what I was learning. McWhorter (a renowned linguist, mind you) even makes the case that we should stop being so uptight about allowing what we call "slang" to slip into our accepted language. After all, that's what's happened to language for thousands of years.

Language, he contends, develops orally. That's how a something like "a napron" over time became "an apron." That's one of the reasons that language changed more rapidly in the early years of man; without a written record of the "right" way, language is more likely to shift over time. For example, as people began anticipating the next sound in a word, over time their mouths simply began adjusting to prepare of the change, altering the first sound until that became the accepted way of saying something.
"Only when this sort of thing became possible [massive population shifts] was there any reason for a language to undergo the peculiar circumstance of being learned as much by adults as by children. Only then could there be languages like Modern English and Persian."
And how is it that some languages are more complicated than others? McWhorter contends that in places where there was an influx of foreigners, language became less and less complicated. Adults, he says, are unable to fully learn a new language and they will be learning it through hearing it, rather than reading it. They will learn the things that are absolutely necessarily to communicate and leave the subtleties and tricky bits behind. With a large enough influx of immigrants, soon the native children beginning learning their own language as much from hearing the "correct" way of speaking as from hearing the "new" way.

Here's a shocker for anyone who's ever taken an English class (and I'm hoping that is pretty much all of you!). English is not a complicated language. What? Doesn't McWhorter still, after all these years of studying language, still sometimes wonder whether or not he should be using "than" or "then?" It's true, compared to many of the other languages of the world, English really is much easier. Our nouns, for example, do not have gender. After you read even a few pages about some of the more complex languages of the world, you will wish you had been nicer to your high school English teacher.Clearly it was your own stupidity that made the class so difficult; that poor woman was teaching a relatively easy language, after all.

My dad is exceedingly fond of the English language but I'm not sure I'll be able to pass this book along to him because of one passage. Dad, I hate to tell you this, but McWhorter thinks that we should just get over the whole issue of "lie" versus "lay."

"Lie and lay "want" to just be words that mean the same thing. Call that unsystematic, but all languages have synonyms. Language is sloppy."

In What Language Is McWhorter teaches us that language is ingrown, dissheveled (the book's spelling, not mine), intricate, oral, and mixed. With more than enough examples to prove it (and I really do mean more than enough), McWhorter convinces his reader that all of the above are true. And that maybe we should be teaching foreign languages to our grades school students instead of our high school students when it is much too late for them to really learn the language.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. My brain is exhausted now. Can I please go "lay" down?


  1. No, I agree with your dad! I think you must LIE down! :--) As The Grammar Girl says re Eric Clapton, "To say “lay down Sally” would imply that someone should grab Sally and lay her down. If he wanted Sally to rest in his arms on her own, the correct line would be “lie down Sally.”

    I love language books, but I have to say, given the lie/lay thing, my inclination is to skip this one! LOL

  2. Wow! this sounds really 'exhausting' :D

  3. I am reading this for the tour too, and I am hoping that it's not too complicated for my brain to handle. I do love language and it's history, but your mention that this book was a little boring has me scared! I think even if it was a little dry, you did a great job with the review. Very comprehensive and thoughtful. Thanks!

  4. I chuckled while reading this one. I am NOT a word geek by any stretch of the imagination. Notsure if I would read this one or not but I surely enjoyed your take on it!!!

  5. Jill, that wasn't even the worst thing he suggested we give up on and accept! He does make a fine case but I doubt I'd ever be able to change my ways.

  6. I've got to get my hands on this one! I loved his first book, too. I know I would love this! Thanks for the awesome review!!!!!

  7. I find language fascinating enough that this book MIGHT interest me!

  8. I'm glad it picked up for you after you got into it ... I was worried when you said the beginning was boring!

    I think I'd really enjoy this one, being the nerd that I am. :)

    Thanks for being on the tour!