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What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be) Hardcover – August 4, 2011

4.0 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham (August 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592406254
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592406258
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #107,726 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Insightful, surprising and humorous, John McWhorter's latest book is a tour of human languages through time and around the world. He presents an almost biological view of language as a living, evolving organism, and does great job illustrating how languages proliferate, transform, and disperse, with fascinating examples of everyday speech from native tongues of the past and present.

If you are not familiar with his ideas this book may turn your unexamined assumptions about language upside down. For instance, he has an expanded view of what constitutes a "real" language, including speech commonly considered defective or improper even by the people using it, and he explains why a language is not primitive or lacking in clarity just because it does not have a written version. Most of the languages of the world are unwritten and it's actually the unwritten languages that tend to be especially complex, with intricate, hard to learn grammars and lots of micro-specific qualifiers, noun cases, genders and verb tenses. In contrast, some of our most familiar modern languages, Persian, Swahili, Mandarin and English, have been drastically simplified-- dumbed-down and streamlined though perfectly functional--because they long ago had to be learned by legions of adults who had already outgrown the childhood knack of language acquisition (for English these adults were the Vikings).

Among the corollaries to the idea that languages evolve like living creatures is that it is natural to expect that languages will change and silly to try to prevent it. The form of Modern English cherished and defended by language purists today developed from Old English through hundreds of "mistakes".
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There needs to be a caveat for anyone reading John McWhorter's latest book. This is not the only book you should ever read on language (and McWhorter would agree), but for people who love language per se, the book is really a treat.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a huge fan of John McWhorter. I loved both Power of Babel and Our Magnificient Bastard Tongue (on the story of the English language).

But unlike those other books I found this one decidedly harder to follow.

Whereas with his other books he seemed to make his points clearly and succinctly, in this book McWhorter seemed to ramble and digress into frequent asides that more often than not obscured the main points I think he was trying to make. What's worse, when he would use examples from various languages he'd fail to provide a pronounciation guide. In that way, unless you knew how to pronounce the words he'd tried to phonetically write you felt like you were missing something.

All that being said, McWhorter does make some interesting points in this book.

Probably the most interesting one is that like secret societies small languages tend to be more complicated than larger more universally used ones. That's because larger ones need to be user friendly so that immigrants can quickly get the hang of them. In that way, languages like English, Mandarin Chinese and Swahili are all...surprisingly...bracketed under the heading of being easy.

Another interesting but somewhat counter intuitive point was the relative independence McWhorter suggested that a spoken language has from its written version. Based on research from Jack Goody (who's written voluminously about the interplay between spoken and written language) I would have thought that written language had a more powerful impact on its spoken version than what McWhorter suggests in this book.

Only because it was written by McWhorter would I ultimately label it under the "recommended" banner but just barely because this is definately not his best work.
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