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What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be) Hardcover – August 4, 2011
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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About the Author
John McWhorter is the author of the bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, and four other books. He is associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a contributing editor to The City Journal and The New Republic. He has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
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The book is, quite accurately described as a romp through dozens of languages to prove a few well chosen points about language in general. Dr. McWhorter is a creolist by training, and so the focus of his interest is most often on the processes of language change, answering questions like: How did that language develop in that odd way, whereas the language over the hill developed in a different odd way. And odd, serendipitous development is the rule rather than the exception in almost every case--the highly regular, controlled languages being the exception. William Safire and other prescriptivist Miss Grundys of the world would roll over in their graves at much of what he says, but he is right: language will do what it will do, and there is no force on earth that can stop it from changing and evolving.
There is one big, big insight in the book that no one should miss, and that is that languages that are largely learned in isolation as first speech varieties by children will preserve more irregularity than languages that are learned in contact situations by adults, who just don't have the fantastic skills of autonomic acquisition. These "adult learned" languages sluff off irregularities, eliminate messy stuff, reduce complex sound systems and generally simplify, simplify, simplify. But once the new language gets established and babies start to learn it, it is off and running again, developing more complexity.
All that said, there is a wonkish caveat: Dr. McWhorter writes very fast, and very fluidly. His prose sounds just like him talking, making it seem almost as if he were dictating the book. This is unlikely given the excruciatingly produced examples in multiple phonetic fonts. However, nit-pickers will definitely find errors in the examples, and some things to carp about in his broad sweep of language functions.
That said, no one should deprive themselves of the fun of reading this book. It is a hoot and a half, and if one is a linguist or knows many of the languages in question, it will be a guilty pleasure to read it and laugh. I'm giving it to my freshmen. Maybe it will inspire them to stop thinking of linguistics as some kind of dry-as-dust formalist exercise.
A tip: The passages on the use of "ass" as a pseudo-pronoun in Black English Vernacular (Ebonics) is worth the price of the book.
The language of the book itself is very rich and sophisticated, sprinkled with nice humor. But it is a tough read at times; in some places too technical and detailed, in some maybe too repetitive. Well, this is what you have to put up with, being a language junkie. :-)