Thursday, August 4, 2011

John McWhorter's "What Language Is"

John McWhorter is a lecturer at Columbia University, specializing academically in language change and language contact. The author of the bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, and other books, he is 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.

McWhorter applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be), and reported the following:
Page 99 of What Language Is happens to pretty well encompass what the book is all about. Most of the physical page is taken up with a map showing where a very obscure language called Akha is spoken, in Southeast Asia. Akha is rarely known to anyone beyond there, is spoken by indigenous peoples, and is rarely written down.

As such, one might assume that it was a less complex language than ones spoken by people with tall buildings and clinical depression given to talking about things like Zeitgeists. Yet in fact, small languages like Akha have “grammar” just as rich as languages like English and Russian -- and generally more, not less.

As such, page 99 gives the words you would need to fashion the simple sentence “He gave me one fruit” in Akha. In subsequent pages, I show how we would build that sentence step by step, and we see that it is anything but a matter of just stringing those five words together, despite that Akha is a language without prefixes or suffixes. Example: you need a little separate word just to show that the “I” did something to something else (!).

The book is not a textbook, however: this passage is just one illustration of a general theme: that all fluently spoken language is “real” language, complex and nuanced, even when never written – which all but 200 of the world’s 6000 languages almost never are. One may suppose that there are perhaps some dozens of “real” languages like English and then a big bunch of “dialects,” somehow lesser than “languages.”

The truth is much more interesting than that – even the obscurest language of an unknown tribe is typically so complex we might wonder how people could speak it. Moreover, there is complexity even in humble nonstandard varieties of languages. I use Black English as one example, where things like the “yo” particle you hear young blacks put at the ends of sentences are actually as subtle as very similar particles in Chinese.

In the book I “spell out” that all languages are Ingrown, Disheleved, Intricate, Oral, and Mixed, making an acronym IDIOM. The main message is that all languages are magnificent messes: weirdly complicated, shot through with illogicalities that leave communication unimpeded, and more alive in mouths than in the artificial representation of writing. What Language Is essentially shares what I love about being a linguist, and I was happy to be allowed to put that between two covers.
Learn more about What Language Is at the publisher's website.

See John McWhorter's top ten list of books on race that should be more widely read.

--Marshal Zeringue