Review: What Language is by John McWhorter

what language is You know when you meet someone who loves what they do so much that when they talk about it they get so excited about it even though you have absolutely no idea what they are talking about but you are so taken in by their enthusiasm that it doesn’t matter.  This is often how I feel when Kate talks about Linguistics.  She gets so excited and her face lights up and it’s just so Kate that I want to know what she’s talking about and be just as excited as she is.  John McWhorter is the same way.  I can feel his excitement on the page as he talked about one language after another.  I’ll admit that there were a few things I still don’t understand but I think I get the gist.  It’s interesting on how languages evolve and change over centuries.  Obviously I knew that the English we speak today is not the English that was spoken in Shakespeare’s day or even Chaucer’s but never really thought about it how we got to where we are now.  Basically, adults needed to be able to communicate but were unable to grasp some on the complexities of the language so they simplified it and taught it to their kids and so forth and so on.  It’s kind of amazing.  I basically learned that the more people who speak a language over centuries, the less complicated it is.  If you speak a language that only a few know and have all learned from childhood it’s going to be more complicated it because adults from the outside have little use to learning it to communicate it.  I’m probably oversimplifying it but that’s fascinating.  He makes arguments for what languages are categorized and how our own biases make us judge languages and what are real languages and what are not. Does it have to be written? Spoken by a certain number of people?  Have it’s own grammar?  Follow certain rules?  All very interesting questions that I really can’t do justice answering but say read the book and get suck into his excitement and enthusiasm while you are at it.

What I’m Reading Now: What Language is by John McWhorter

what language is

Well Kate is almost finished with her homework assignment so I guess I better get going on mine.  Pretty excited to dive into my sister’s world.

Pop Culture Homework Assignment for Beth: Language

This summer, I am sharing with Beth something that has been a passion and a profession for me: the study of language. At the end of the month, I will defend my dissertation. If it all goes well, I will have a PhD in linguistics. Language and its study have been a huge part of my life for a long time now, but the details of it haven’t really been something that I have shared with my family. I know that they know what I do, but I worry that they find the discussion of it way too boring. To be honest with you, coming up with this list felt a little self-indulgent and unfair. (So much so that I have a back up assignment, in case she protests and boycotts this one.) But, I love the work that I do and find it exciting, so I have decided to share a little bit of general linguistics with my sister (and anyone who wants to join the challenge!) this summer. The four books I have picked are half non-fiction and half fiction (huge hat-tip is Jessi Grieser on twitter for asking for book suggestions and Gretchen McCulloch for this blog post! It helped me pick the fiction on this list!).

  1. What Language Is: and What it isn’t and what it could be by John McWhorter


John McWhorter has written a number of pop science on language and I’ve found them to be quite enjoyable. I haven’t read this one, but the reviews suggest that it will be a good introduction to what linguistics is, while also providing some fun trivia about language.

2. Left hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin


I couldn’t resist adding an Ursula K. Le Guin book to the list following our read along last February.  Le Guin uses language in interesting ways in this novel. I look forward to hearing Beth’s thoughts on the book, after having read McWhorter’s thoughts on language.

3. The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison


Depending on how you count, there are between roughly 6,0007,000 languages in the world. For many of them, the possibility that they will still be spoken in one hundred years is slim. This book highlights that and brings attention to speakers of some vanishing languages.

4.  Embassytown by China Miéville


Language is at the center of my final selection. Living figures of speech, a unique language humans must be modified to speak. Danger! Catastrophe! Hard choices! So fun. I can’t wait for her to read this.

In fact, I can’t wait to hear what Beth thinks about all of them!