Shiku's Reviews > What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be

What Language Is by John McWhorter
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

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 are right - it does give me the creeps if people use an apostrophe to mark possession in German (which is wrong, btw, though now it is okay if it's a proper name, much to my dismay) - or even the plural (*shudders*). I believe that in such cases people are just too lazy to care about the rules, and yes, I do believe standards are useful and necessary. I like to point out that one day someone wrote me a letter and mentioned "Kwalitet" ... it took me five minutes to understand what that person was trying to tell me. She meant "Qualität", btw. "Quality".

But apart from that? Yes, I try to use the genitive instead of the dative because I think it sounds nicer. (Speaking about German grammar again!) But more often than not I don't care, just as I heretically say that something makes sense, though in German the "correct" term would be "to produce sense" ... People can get really aggressive when it comes to that one. (If you ask German purists, English is a very evil villain indeed.) And just here, with using abbreviations like "btw", I contribute to the language decay that has infected the younger generations. I shall sit in a corner and weep with shame. Maybe.

Lucky me, there are people like John McWhorter who see language as what it is: something living, something changing and therefore irregular in some way or other. And with languages, all varieties are included; I won't elaborate much further, because this is actually not meant to be an essay, just let me say this: the author shows that even small varieties have their worth, and they are usually more complicated than languages with a certain prestige, such as English. Sure, English does have some grammar I constantly keep forgetting, and the pronunciation is really tricky from time to time, but there are no genders (for example) and even though there are some irregular verbs, there are regular ones, too. Out there, languages exist in which irregularity is the rule.

I haven't made up my mind about everything he said, yet, but generally speaking: this is a funny book for those who are interested in languages, and it should be compulsory reading for conservatives and purists. It's not hard to read, if any of you worried about that. The theory is presented without many technical terms and accompanied by many, many examples and case studies. (Though I should warn you: I now have the urge to learn some more languages. Especially Indonesian, just for fun.) If you already came to the conclusion the author draws, it might still be interesting to read about the different languages out there - at least some of them.
2 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read What Language Is.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

October 27, 2012 – Shelved
July 14, 2013 – Started Reading
July 14, 2013 –
page 18
July 24, 2013 –
page 55
24.12% "Ich schleich mich dann mal wieder vorwärts. Ist auf jeden Fall lustig geschrieben, aber mehr für Leute, die sich hobbymäßig mit Sprache beschäftigen. Hab mich schon ein paar Mal erwischt, dass ich manche Dinge doch lieber etwas genauer dargestellt haben wollte. xD"
July 25, 2013 –
page 104
45.61% "Vielleicht wird's ja doch noch diesen Monat was. xD"
July 28, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Ellie (new)

Ellie Loredan Oh yesss, every time I see one of those apostrophes, I run screaming bloody murder! It's so awful. In the other cases, I try to use the correct form, but in speaking I tend to forget but remember just after I said it. That's especially the case with the difference between 'wie' and 'als'. I know which is which but since my dialect doesn't really care about the difference and uses 'wie' in both cases, it took me quite some time getting it right - and I'm still slipping from time to time.

Shiku Tehehehe. I stopped tearing my hair out by now, but still ... I mean - the hell? Funnily, in many cases I'm pretty sure the people responsible don't know much English, so where does that come from? Especially when used to mark the plural? (Of all things!) I'm just glad sometimes that I haven't found an example with a comma instead of an apostrophe in real life ... yet.

I don't think there's anything bad about that slipping - I mean, we all do that. Just think of how subordinate clauses become main clauses only because we often put the verb into the second position without thinking. And why not? Spoken language is something else than written language and at least in everyday life contexts it doesn't really matter - we want to communicate and for that we don't need perfectly accurate grammar. It all comes down to context; I often watch my mother's linguistic behaviour when she talks about her work (very formal, many technical terms), to us (informal speech, but still near the standard; she even dropped her "einzigste" after I corrected her again and again and again xD) and to people from the place she was raised in (veeeeery dialectal). Sticking to "High German" while being in the last situation would completely take away the identification purpose, which is one of language's purposes after all.

back to top