What Language Is

And What It Isn't and What It Could Be

by John McWhorter

What Language Is

Hardcover, 228 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $26 | purchase

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Book Summary

A tour of the world's languages throughout history offers insight into human communications while challenging popular beliefs about grammar, discussing such topics as the ways linguists hear speech, the world's vanishing languages, and the hodgepodge nature of English.

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Excerpt: What Language Is

Page through a grand old book on what was once known as natural history — as we all do so often, of course — and you'll find that almost all drawings of marine life are rendered from the perspective of someone standing on the shore. There will be some fish bobbing around out in the waves, and maybe some flying fish doing what they do. But clams, squid, sea anemones, and such will be lying on the beach, or artfully positioned on conveniently placed rock formations, or even just dangling from the margins of the picture. This was standard procedure in illustration until past the middle of the nineteenth century.

It all looks nice enough. But wouldn't it seem more natural to draw a squid swimming in the water, springy, fierce, and alert, instead of putrifying on a rock?

But then, what was "natural" to someone in 1840? Even if they were a naturalist? One thing that wasn't natural, if you think about it, was imagining what an underwater scene looked like — for a simple reason. People then didn't have the technology to ever be underwater for very long, and certainly not to be able to see much while even making a stab at it.

There were no diving bells or submarines. You might take a deep breath, hold your nose, and dive under for a look, but water is often muddy and it's hard to see through it when it's moving. Plus, you can only hold your breath for so long — and certainly not long enough to plunge a mile down and get a peep at anglerfishes and such.

In England, it was only after a home aquarium mania in the 1850s that people started to get a sense of what aquatic creatures looked like in life, such that illustrators began drawing underwater marine scenes. Before this, as modern as the British were in so many ways, even those with advanced educations, three names, and salad forks had no way of picturing undersea life in the "Jacques Cousteau" style that is second nature to us. To start thinking of sea creatures that way, you had to see them that way.

And in many ways, quite often, to be a linguist is to feel like you're underwater in 1840 while everybody else is up on the beach laying jellyfish out on rocks.

It's because so much about language is so hard to see.

Or hear.

So from what it's easy to see and hear, we learn that there are languages, and then in many parts of the world there are assorted "dialects." These "dialects" are, in some sense, lesser than languages. Part of the difference would seem due to the fact that, as one typically supposes, a language is a collection of words. English has enough words to fill a doorstop like The Oxford English Dictionary (actually the printed version could practically serve as a garden wall). Some "dialect" out there in the rain forest does not — and therefore qualifies as something different from, well, a language language. And then there's the writing issue: if a language isn't fixed on the page, then surely, we suppose, it has not achieved its full power. A certain transiency hangs about it; it's just a "dialect," in other words.

Because of this it becomes natural that if asked which was more complex, French or the language of a tiny group in New Guinea called the Nasioi, most people would immediately suppose that the answer was French — a "developed" language, after all. The truth, however, begins with the observation that if you thought French's two genders were annoying, imagine having to deal with Nasioi's one hundred!

Down underwater, what we see is a world with six thousand languages, period, whether or not they ever see the printed page and even if their vocabularies number only in the tens of thousands. If anything, the languages that are a little "sub-ordinary," a little "special," as we might designate a certain congenitally ungifted sort of person, are typically rock-star ones like English,

French, and Mandarin Chinese.

But who'd know? We'll never meet a Nasioi, much less have any reason to learn the language. Besides, we're too busy attending to other notions about our own language, such as that one of the gravest flaws of the Anglophone is a noisome propensity to use the language "illogically." We are taught that a language is sensible, tidy — such that we treat it as an oddity that English is shot through with random inconsistencies. Richard Lederer has heightened the festivity quotient of many an e-mail inbox via excerpts that get around from his Crazy English book along the lines of "Why are loosen and unloosen the same?" or "If we conceive a conception and receive at a reception why don't we grieve a greption?" or observations such as that there's no egg in eggplant and no ham in a hamburger.

This stuff is, in fact, but the tip of an iceberg of nonsensicality in English — underwater you can see the rest, but we humans are terrestrial. Not to mention territorial — don't even get most of us started on what happens when languages mix together. Spanish full of English words is "Spanglish," reviled by many and thought of as "an issue" by others. And there was even a time when more than a few had a serious problem with English having taken on so many words from French and Latin. After all, a real language is "pure."

Excerpted from What Language Is by John McWhorter. Copyright 2011 John McWhorter. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

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