“What Language Is” by John McWhorter

Title: What Language Is: And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be
Author: John McWhorter
ISBN: 9781592406258
Pages: 240
Release date: August 4, 2011
Publisher: Gotham
Genre: Nonfiction; language
Format: ARC (Hardcover)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

What it is: A passionate defense of language as a living thing.
What it’s not: A primer for “proper” grammar nuts.
Why you should read it: So we have something to talk about at my next cocktail party. (It doesn’t matter if I don’t know you; if you read this book, you’re automatically invited.)

In his newest book, John McWhorter seeks to address common misconceptions about what makes up a language and what doesn’t. Far from a known thing with a set of written rules, language is ever evolving, and its state of constant change is a sign of its health.

McWhorter argues in each respective chapter that language is “ingrown,” “dissheveled,” “intricate,” “oral,” and “mixed.” (McWhorter’s initialism for these traits is I.D.I.O.M. What a cunning linguist!)

McWhorter proposes that the closer-knit a community, the more “ingrown” a language. These languages are more complicated, but far from making them strange it demonstrates their very normalcy. Only a few freakish languages like English and French have become streamlined and easier to learn:

These are “man-made” in the sense of being an outgrowth of transportation and military technology. The subjugation of massive populations, the ruling of them from afar, and the transportation of them across vast distances into central locations, where people speaking different languages had to learn a new one quickly, was unknown for most of Homo sapiens‘ history. Only when this sort of thing became possible was there any reason for a language to undergo the peculiar circumstance of being learned as much by adults as by children.

As adults learned the languages of major empires, they simplified complicated concepts and made the languages more user-friendly.

In fact, the only constant in language is this propensity for change; the instant one begins applying out-of-date (or artificial) constructs to it, it begins dying. McWhorter has little patience for grammar sticklers:

That Shakespeare spoke a different English from Chaucer is considered luscious. That people fifty years from now might speak slightly differently from us is considered a herald to the demise of civilization as we know it.

McWhorter’s account is descriptive, rather than prescriptive; in other words, he attempts to describe what language is without instructing the reader on how it should be. This crucial difference is what separates a book on language from a book like, say, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (the title of which, I am compelled to point out, is the result of a typo, not a grammatical error).

McWhorter also seeks to distinguish between language and orthography. There is a difference, he contends, between the words published to a page and the words that tumble from any speaker’s mouth. As he states simply, “You do not speak in letters. You speak in sounds.” He continues,

As literates, we inhale a sense that The Language is on the page, unchanging, while what goes on in the mouth, unscribed and changing from decade to decade, is a variation on the written–and, in its impermanence and fluidity, inferior.

On the contrary, McWhorter is quick to point out, language consists of the ever-changing–and constantly growing–ways in which every person, literate or not, communicates throughout the world.

Grammar is not a universal system that bears resemblance to a few popular tongues, McWhorter explains, but “the kind of thing speakers of a language do subconsciously without being able to explain it–systematic rule-bound practices of the kind that foreigners strain to learn.”

McWhorter liberally sprinkles the book with accessible pop culture ephemera; on the same page, he quotes Edith Wharton and Christian Siriano to illustrate similar points.

He tackles every aspect of the nature of language, discussing morphology and historical linguistics simultaneously with ease. But you would never know that these are the academic names for what he is talking about; his easy, conversational tone translates jargon effortlessly. His unique blend of humor and erudition is refreshing, and this is the first book about linguistics that I feel comfortable recommending to the general population.

I loved this book; though its necessarily academic nature was occasionally dry, it’s the best book I’ve ever read about language, and it reminded me why I began studying linguistics in the first place–because the way people communicate with one another is an endless and fascinating and important. I can’t wait to read Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, McWhorter’s last book, which has been (shamefully) gathering dust on my shelves!

And yes, he does talk about how many words the Eskimo have for snow. But, thankfully, only briefly.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy What Language Is for yourself from an independent bookstore. Each sale from this link helps support Melody & Words.

And check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

August 1: Book Club Classics!
August 2: BookNAround
August 4: One Book Shy of a Full Shelf
August 8: Rundpinne
August 9: Lit and Life
August 10: Hey I Want to Read That
August 11: The Broke and the Bookish
August 12: In the Next Room
August 15: Book Dilettante
August 17: Acting Balanced
August 18: My Book Retreat
August 22: At Home with Books
August 23: Raging Bibliomania
August 24: SMS Book Reviews
August 25: Unabridged Chick
August 29: Overstuffed

7 replies »

  1. Well, it’s been quite some time, but I was a linguistics major in college. I focused mostly on the philosphy of language, semantics and pragmatics. (Frankly, I’ve always had difficultly learning to speak a second language.) I do like grammar, though, both the concepts of deep structure and the nitpicky stuff of the classroom. I’m in awe of the former and consider the latter to be something akin to a word game. And while I appreciate precision in language, I also like that language is constantly changing. To me, language is communication – and as long as your message is communicated correctly, in the end, it really doesn’t matter if you say “who” or “whom.” I’d love to read this book because it will give me the opportunity to review what I studied so many years ago as well as introduce me to current ideas. It sounds wonderful! Thanks for the chance to win a copy.


  2. McWhorter’s The Power of Babel was recommended to me by a friend when I was in high school and ultimately was instrumental in my decision to take linguistics classes in college. I’m excited to read his new book because based upon what I’ve read in reviews, it seems like his main ideas are very similar to those I heard in my classes, but because it is McWhorter I can be assured that the narrative will be particularly lively.


  3. As a person who is paid to apply the artificial and perhaps out-of-date constructs to the written word, I’m constantly trying to remind myself that nothing is perfect, certainly not our language, and it’s the idiosyncrasies and imperfections that can make language so beautiful. I think reading this book would be a helpful reminder of that. Great review!


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