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What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be
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What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  520 Ratings  ·  89 Reviews
New York Times bestselling author and renowned linguist, John McWhorter, explores the complicated and fascinating world of languages. From Standard English to Black English; obscure tongues only spoken by a few thousand people in the world to the big ones like Mandarin - What Language Is celebrates the history and curiosities of languages around the world and smashes our a ...more
Hardcover, 228 pages
Published August 4th 2011 by Gotham
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Audra (Unabridged Chick)
I'm hardly a linguist by any stretch, but I'm chatty and I love trivia. As someone learning a second language as an adult, I'm interested in the ways languages have grown and changed.

The title -- and subtitle -- pretty succinctly summarizes the point of this book: what language is, isn't, and could be. Written for, I presume, an American audience (certainly an English-speaking audience), the book argues that 'normal' languages like English are in fact, not normal, and that many of the obscure, s
C.C. Thomas
Aug 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommended to C.C. by: find books by title / author / isbn
Shelves: nonfiction
To truly appreciate this book, you have to fall into one of these three categories: ( 1) you are a teacher (preferably of the English professorial persuasion); ( 2) you are a linguist, either by hobby or trade; or (3)you are a fanatical fan of languages and the development and fallout thereof.

While I am indeed a casual linguist (2) and I enjoy a rousing history of words as the next gal (3), I will focus my review on the impact of this book on my teaching (of reading) and my teaching of the teach
Apr 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult, nonfiction
If you've ever taken a linguistics class, you'll already have an understanding of the primary arguments of What Language Is. It also won't matter, because the heart of the book is a series of case studies of really interesting languages and how they evolved to be so interesting! If you haven't taken a linguistics class, and/or you are a strict grammarian, this book will help you loosen up by exposing you to the (much more sensible) way linguists understand language. (Since reading various articl ...more
Mar 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, language
A linguist explains for the layman, in easy, readable prose and affable wit, the professional view on languages: they are Ingrown, Disheveled, Intricate, Oral, and Mixed. He tries to dispel the ludicrous and unfounded belief that some languages are more “real” than others (which are thought of as “primitive”) simply because they are better known or have a tradition of literature. Rationally, with no dogmatic axe to grind, he explains the prescriptivist view of language – all languages – as ever- ...more
Aug 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: language, nonfiction
Veronica has been on a McWhorter binge lately, and I've been following along. He's entertaining and a strong populizer/educator on linguistics. It's not hard to imagine him giving the same material as lectures to his college classes. And I'm always fascinated when people clearly explain what a thing is and why they love it to me.

I love how weird languages are, what arcane embellishments they accrue over time, and how imperialism strips those embellishments away. Now I feel reasonably well inform
Jul 07, 2011 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Language enthusiasts
Recommended to Terence by: NYRB advert
John McWhorter’s What Language Is is essentially an expansion of his efforts in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English to explore the intricacies of language. As such, it is not as “serious” an effort as The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language or some other works but I think its conclusion is important:

Language is whatever a group of people use to communicate with each other.

(view spoiler)
Aug 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Guys, this is so good. It's an honest, down-to-earth, clear, concise, and humorous look at the basics of language, with tons of amazingly well-sourced examples from many, many languages of the world. I learned an astonishing amount. I learned so much that I just wanted to go back to school for linguistics!

If you are not amazed by some of the "ingrown" properties of languages that haven't had to endure being dumbed down by adult learners (e.g. languages spoken only by remote tribes), then you are
Aug 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Good book, interesting insights, surprisingly funny prose. But definitely long winded and some parts were repetitive, thus the lost star.
Oct 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
I just love that title. xD

If you're a linguist or studying that subject, the message of this book is nothing new: language is ingrown, dissheveled, intricate, oral and mixed (using the author's words here), who would have thought?
The thing is, many people still believe that language is something static that has to be documented to be real and anything away from the standard is worth less than this standard.

Admittedly, I am sometimes called a Grammar Nazi and people a
Feb 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
I love John McWhorter and totally wish we could be buddies. However, this book pretty much said exactly the same things as all his other books, and his Teaching Company course...but then again I was entirely charmed by his wacky footnotes about, like, okapis and Broadway songs and what-all. Adorbs.
Nov 15, 2016 rated it liked it
Some fascinating stories about language rules, development... Debunked the idea that languages without a lot of grammar rules are easier by pointing to languages with lots of tones, languages where the verb changes based on who is the main actor, and other rules that seem very strange to English speakers.
Jul 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
Did you know that I minored in Linguistics in college? Not that a linguistic minor makes me any sort of expert on language or anything, but it does mean that I really love language and that all of its intricacies absolutely fascinate me. As a Vocal Performance major, I was required to study the diction of English, Latin, Italian, French and German, plus take the 101 level class in at least 3 of those languages (well, not English). So I took Latin 101, Italian 101, and German 101. You'll notice t ...more
Oct 21, 2017 rated it liked it
He covers a lot of the same territory in his podcast, Lexicon Valley. I liked the book, but didn't love the book. (And now of course I am contemplating the etymology and grammar of this review! Podcast is a great example of a compound word that is now definitely a Thing!)
Al Bità
Jun 13, 2015 rated it it was ok
This book might very well be appreciated by a student of linguistics, but for the rest of us, it presents a number of difficulties which could limit its reach.

McWhorter has a rather charming style is writing: it is chatty, colloquial and intimate, as if the printed text is a transcription from spoken tapes of friendly lectures. Anyone who believes they might thus easily slide into McWhorter’s argument will come to a screeching halt the moment one arrives at transcriptions of various languages (a
Nov 08, 2011 rated it liked it
John McWhorter tries to dispel several misconceptions people have about language in this 2011 book "What Language Is (And What It Isn’t And What It Could Be)."
McWhorter, who taught at UC Berkeley for many years and as of this writing in 2011 teaches at Columbia, says that many languages, spoken by few people and isolated from the influences of other languages, become “ingrown,” that is, become amazingly complicated and prone to making distinctions that, to an outsider, can seem most trivial.
May 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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.
Dec 04, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: 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 ...more
Jul 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a fun book about language. McWhorter does a great job of highlighting all the completely normal bizarre weirdness that is language. He uses an acronym, IDIOM, to structure his discussion. IDIOM means that language is Ingrown, Disheveled, Intricate, Oral, and Mixed. By Ingrown he means that the languages, left to themselves without external influence of other languages, develop more and more features that indicate all kinds of things that other languages leave unmarked without a problem. ...more
May 16, 2011 rated it liked it
If you've ever wondered why the English language is structured the way it is ~ and why other languages are structured differently ~ What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be by John McWhorter will shed light on the situation. McWharter, a renowned linguist, helps us understand how language develops over time, how each language relates to others and how brand new languages emerge within the modern world.

He presents this information using IDIOM as an acronym: Language, according to
Dec 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013, language
John McWhorter has written an engaging book on what language looks like to a linguist. These characteristics of language aren't tables of grammar and lists of vocabulary. Instead, using the mnemonic of "IDIOM", McWhorter characterizes all languages as ingrown, disheveled, intricate, oral, and mixed. Languages are complex, and a language's lack of complexity is an indication of something extraordinary in its development. Chapters 2 ("disheveled") and 3 ("intricate") were for me the most fascinati ...more
Jan 05, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The meme going around in my grade school so very many years ago was that English is one of the hardest languages to learn. It turns out that that is completely not true. In fact, English grammar is one of the simplest there is (Persian being another). If you want a language that's really hard to learn, look at languages that are spoken only within very small, insular societies; languages that aren't influenced by an influx of adult learners. There are languages in which virtually every verb is i ...more
Oct 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: misc
Oh, man, I love him and I love linguistics and it's all so FUN. I love how he views languages and how he explains them - it makes such good sense to me. Language is evolving all the time because it's a living, breathing thing created by people. We change, it changes. We speak a bastardized version of Old English that Vikings massacred in their attempts to learn it, but it doesn't take away from our language at all. The constant evolution of Black English and informal internet writing styles aren ...more
Nov 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Languages are intricate and complicated and often quite messy. Especially when you're trying to learn a new one, you'll realize just how many rules there are, and even more exceptions to those rules. Blessed those with a talent for learning foreign tongues. In What Language Is John McWorther introduces the reader in a both insightful and fun way to languages, shedding light not only on their history but also on the way they evolve and change.
Very entertainingly written, yet a bit heavy on actual
Oct 10, 2011 rated it liked it
I wanted to enjoy this book and with all the pop culture allusions McWhorter uses, I should have. Instead, it was just work. A lot of examples in tiny languages like Ket, Berik, and Saramaccan to prove, often, arguments I thought were either obscure or already self-evident.
McWhorter's premise is that Languages are "Ingrown", "Dissheveled"(McWhorter spells it with two s's), "Intricate", "Oral", and "Mixed". the acronym spells Idiom, meaning the language, dialect or style of speaking humans have.
Cheryl Gatling
Linguistics has got to be one of the dryest subjects on earth, with all its tenses and cases and inflections. Except in the hands of John McWhorter, who addresses the subject with such enthusiasm, and with such a perky style of writing that he makes it fun. His witty asides are the spoonful of sugar, but even without them, the medicine would still go down easily enough, because he explains complex concepts clearly, a little at a time. The big concept is that languages, left alone over time, grow ...more
Sep 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This was interesting which makes me what to find others by the same author. The author has real respect for all languages, including "creole" languages that others--including its speakers--look down on. He has definitely made me more aware. As I write this, I note the contrast between my spoken language and this written one. (He notes that many people mistakenly consider "written" language the "real" language)

In general, the chapters are organized around a few principles that he wants you to rem
Jul 31, 2011 rated it liked it
My full review with the 3.5 rating can be viewed at

John McWhorter has brought us an original and upbeat look at language. The full title tells it all: What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be). I knew this book would be interesting, I just didn't realize it would also be fun.

With tidbits such as the fact that the written word is only about 5500 years old versus the 150000 years of the spoken word; we are taken on a wild linguistical journey from An
Sep 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
An entertaining book on linguistics. I had trouble putting it down.

The main point of the book was that if a language is only spoken by an isolated small group of people, it gradually gets more and more complicated, until it is a wonder that toddlers can learn to speak it. There are 6000 languages in the world, and most of them are like this. Examples are a language in New Guinea with 100 genders, and Navajo, where there are no regularities. English is not a normal language. In spite of its diffi
Amy L. Campbell
Note: Review copy provided by Netgalley.

McWhorter doesn't an excellent job of describing the weird grammatical turns that language takes. While he focuses mostly on foreign language, he does frequently bring it back to English for comparison and to point out that it has the same problems. I found the effect of writing on language (and vice versa) to be especially interesting. McWhorter also did a great job of explaining that writing is a representation of language and not a language itself. And
Aug 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Jason and all my language-learning/-teaching/-loving friends (especially my multi-lingual peeps)
This is a fantastic book in which McWhorter poses what makes a language a language and not a dialect, touching on that languages are 1) ingrown, 2) dissheveled, 3) intricate, 4) oral, and 5) mixed. There is a lot of linguistic food for thought in this book, including an examination of the regularity of "irregular" verbs in Navajo (which made me think of my friends in Diné country), the multiple language enclaves in the small geographic area of Sri Lanka (which made me think of my friend Samanthi ...more
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Dr. John McWhorter is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. Before taking his position at the Manhattan Institute, he held teaching positions at Cornell University, where he held the position of Assistant Professor, and at the University of California, Berkele ...more
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