Ilya's Reviews > What Language Is

What Language Is by John McWhorter
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Jan 06, 2012

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bookshelves: linguistics

This short popular book argues that language is five things. It is ingrown, which is to say by the virtue of its grammar each utterance provides more information than strictly necessary. In English, a sentence must indicate whether the event happened in the past or will happen in the future; in a language of West Papua, a sentence must indicate whether it was light or dark outside. It is disheveled, which is to say it contains illogical rules and exceptions. English has quite a few of these (why is being close called closeness, being warm called warmth, being humid called humidity, and being irrelevant called irrelevancy?), but Navajo has many more. It is intricate, which is to say it obeys the rules of its grammar; even young creole languages of the Caribbean have grammars that are hard to describe precisely. They are oral: in English, you can write, "Mom went to work, having spoiled my morning," but saying it will make you sound weird; you must say, "Mom spoiled my morning and went to work". The written form of the Sinhala language of Sri Lanka inflects the verbs, and the spoken form doesn't, and the latter is more important; this was especially true before the age of mass literacy. It is mixed; there is no such thing as a pure language. Some languages, however, are more mixed than others; a few villages in the Western China speak a language with a vocabulary that is mostly Chinese and Tibetan and a grammar that is mostly Mongolian. As in his other books, McWhorter discusses his favorite topic, African American Vernacular English. Like Moroccan Arabic compared to Standard Arabic and Modern Israeli Hebrew compared to Biblical Hebrew, African American Vernacular English started out with a slightly simplified grammar of English, and tacked on more complexity, such as using "ass" as a kind of metonymic pseudo-pronoun (which made me wonder whether "why don't you move your free black ass out my spot" in the Civil War movie "Glory" is anachronistic).

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