Short works

Books : reviews

John McWhorter.
The Power of Babel: a natural history of language.
Heinemann. 2001

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 3 September 2004

There can be few subjects of such widespread interest and fascination to anyone who reads as the strange ways of languages. In this wonderfully entertaining and fascinating book, John McWhorter shares his expertise as a linguist to introduce us to ‘the natural history of language’: to its histories, its ecologies, its politics and its geographies. Among other fascinating oddities we encounter Russenorsk, a creole of Russian and Norwegian once spoken by Arctic traders, the ways in which Yiddish – at heart a dialect of German – has been influenced by the grammar of Polish and an Australian Aboriginal language which only has three verbs.

Along the way we learn how English absorbed French at two stages of its history, giving us the Norman French ‘warranty’ and the standard French ‘guarantee’, that Japanese has been infused with Chinese vocabulary at three distinct periods, and why Danish, Norwegian and Swedish can be regarded as three dialects of Scandinavian.

Witty, brilliant and authoritative, this book is a must for anyone who is interested in language, as sheerly enjoyable as non-fiction gets. The Power of Babel is a wonderful guided tour of language and languages, as sharp and thought-provoking as Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and as entertaining as Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue.

This is a highly readable and very informative account of language, from its dawn to the present day. There is technical meat about specific languages, their relationships, and how they have changed, all written in a very accessible style, including some laugh-out-loud funny acidic footnotes and asides commenting on various components of popular "culture" and features of the languages.

p114. In the mid-1800s, Russian fur trappers produced children with Aleut-speaking Eskimo women on two islands in the Bering Strait and left forever shortly thereafter. The women never spoke Russian well (I can never quite believe that anyone does, the grammar is so complex and riddled with exceptions), nor did the men speak anything but utilitarian Aleut (which was doing pretty well because Aleut is so complicated that it’s a wonder its speakers have any room left in their brains for motor coordination, vision, or processing smell and taste). Their children–the world’s only RussoEskimos–developed a language that uses Russian endings on Aleut verbs a good part of the time. This language is called Mednyj Aleut-"middle Aleut" in Russian.

McWhorter explains why we shouldn’t really even talk about a "language", but rather about "dialects", and how dialects evolve, why some become "the standard", and why the dialects considered to be part of some particular languages are more divergent than other supposedly separate languages. The excursions into how languages change is fascinating. Word inflections (like verb endings) used to be completely separate words that got munged together; word tones are then the relics of such endings that in turn gradually disappeared. As an example of how extreme these changes can be, he describes how peponwi, the word for winter in Proto-Algonquian, became, with a succession of only small changes, the word aa' in Cheyenne (the dash represents a glottal stop), all in about 1500 years.

Different languages choose to distinguish different things, and what they choose is pretty arbitrary, and often unnecessary (since other languages manage without them). "Evidential markers" require each factual statement to be accompanied by evidence of how you know that ("I heard it happen", "I saw it happen", "I was told it happened"). Some languages distinguish "having" a head (inalienable) from "having" a chair. Not all languages mark definite and indefinite nouns: "the" is a weakened form of "that", marking a specific thing, whereas "a" is a weakened form of "one", marking a general thing, which have become required for everything, in English. And so on, and so on.

There’s a lot of fascinating discussion about pidgins (partial languages developed where people speaking different languages need to communicate) and creoles (what happens when pidgins are turned into full languages with grammar and so on). One point made is that languages of so-called "primitive" peoples tend to be ornate and baroque and complicated (the Fula language in particular, with its 16 arbitrary "genders", noun markers varying arbitrarily within and between genders, and the adjective markers varying differently, sounds a real nightmare), whereas the "tall buildings" languages tend to be simpler, because their rough edges have been smoothed off (undergone a degree of pidginisation) by generations using them as second languages. It seems to be the lot of many of these less widely-spoken languages to go extinct – and even if they can be kept "live" by cultural demand and teaching, they too will probably get simplified, for similar reasons.

Despite the popular accounts of "language family trees", implying pure branching, McWhorter shows how in fact there is a lot of melding, mingling, and cross-fertilisation in languages. Even ignoring the extremes of pidgins and creoles, which mix components of the progenitor languages, "ordinary" languages undergo this as well. Neighbouring languages can share vocabulary, and grammar. We have only to look at English, a Germanic language but with a large French, Latin and other vocabulary: a full 90% of English words come from other languages!

Then there is the effect of writing. It has to some extent "frozen" literate languages, greatly reducing (although not stopping) their rate of change. But it has effected a new kind of change on them: written language tends to develop a different style, with longer sentences and more subordinate clauses. This more formal style then gets picked up in the spoken language to some extent, too.

And there’s much more. All in all, this is a highly informative account of language, written in a lucid, enjoyable and accessible style. Recommended.

John McWhorter.
The Story of Human Language.
Great Courses. 2004

John McWhorter.
Understanding Linguistics: the science of language.
Great Courses. 2008

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 18 April 2020

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 36 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each lecture, some related reading, and some “questions to consider” . (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)

This is another McWhorter tour de force, as he covers the whole of linguistics in neat half hour chunks. You get the feeling that each lecture could be expanded into an entire module or book, so in a sense we get a taster-like overview of an entire Linguistics degree. And tasty it is, covering phonetics, syntax, semantics, language change, first versus second language learning, bilingualism, the effects of class and gender, conversation and speech acts, the affect of language on thought, writing systems, and even how to be a linguist.

John McWhorter.
What Language Is: and what it isn't and what it could be.
Gotham Books. 2011

Most of our assumptions about language are wrong. Language is not pure. Language is not about words. Language is not divided into real languages and “dialects.” Language is not what we write on a page. So what, then, is language? In this bold and bright book, John McWhorter asks us to do a simple thing: to look at language the way a linguist does. And once we make that leap, we see a whole new world of human communication, celebrating everything from ancient Persian to the Navajo language to the term “baby mama.”

What Language Is argues that any language, left untouched, becomes more ingrown overtime. Only adults attempting to learn a language (and constructively butchering it) can strip it down. Diving into the astounding complexities of Navajo, McWhorter outlines how a language can become downright disheveled, with more exceptions than rules. Looking at an African language called Twi, McWhorter elucidates how even tongues that sound primitive to the untrained ear enfold immense intricacies and how what sounds like "improper" language actually constitutes new and exciting grammar. And examining the difference between written and oral language, McWhorter explains that, to a linguist, the notion that the written word is somehow elevated over the spoken is downright bizarre.

Riveting and iconoclastic, What Language Is explores not just how we communicate but also how we think.

John McWhorter.
Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage.
Great Courses. 2012

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 10 November 2020

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 24 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each lecture, a few pictures, some suggested further reading, and a few questions to consider. (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)

Although the book explicitly states a myth addressed in each lecture/chapter, this is not a hotch-potch of unconnected points, but rather a course on the history of the English language, how it arose, how it has changed, and how it is still changing.

We start, as always, with proto-Indo-European, the source of essentially all European languages that have affected English. Then we learn about proto-Germanic, a more recent ancestor. Unlike other proto European languages, proto-Germanic is somewhat simple: it seems to have had some rough edges smoothed off. This is a feature that happens time and again in the development of English; such smoothing is often due to a language being learned by an adult population, who find it hard to learn the nuances, with this simplified version being handed down. This simplification of proto-Germanic is accompanied by the famous Grimm’s Law consonant shift. McWhorter notes that the new consonants are more Semitic-sounding, and suggests that proto-Germanic may have been influenced by a population of Phoenician explorers and settlers. [Given that proto-Indo-European seems to have had no words for ‘sea’ or ‘ship’, being a land-locked language, and that different descendants have unrelated words for such concepts, it would be interesting to see if the proto-Germanic words are related to the sea-faring Phoenicians’ vocabulary in this domain. I suspect someone has already looked.]

We then get the move to England, with the language being further smoothed by interaction with the inhabitants of the Saxon Shore, and further smoothed again as the Wessex and Northumberland dialects smashed together. McWhorter points out there is a further dialect that developed from a people learning English as adults: the American Black English dialect has further such streamlinings.

Having convinced us through the first half of the course that English is a simple language, in the second half he delves into how it actually has quite a complicated grammar. We get the ‘meaningless do’ formation: why do we say “I do not drink” rather than “I drink not”? indeed, why do we say “why do we say?” rather than “why say we?”. This may have been due to Old/Middle English smushing up against the neighbouring Celtic languages, particularly Welsh, which are essentially the only other languages that have this construct. We get the ‘obsessive progressive’ formation: why do we have the distinction between “I eat” and “I am eating”? We get the curious lack of future tense: “I will eat tomorrow”, where ‘will’ is a form of mood verb rather than a fully-fledged future tense formation. And so on.

McWhorter then discusses different ways of using English: formal and informal speech, and formal and informal writing, and how they differ. He finishes off with a note that English is still changing, the way it has always changed, and we should not be surprised about this.

All in all, another great McWhorter lecture series, with lots of fascinating information, from large structural features to gorgeous little snippets of detail.

John McWhorter.
The Language Hoax: why the world looks the same in any language.
OUP. 2014

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 10 September 2017

McWhorter is arguing against the notion that language affects thought in some profound way. He does not deny that subtle experiments consistently show that speakers of different languages have minutely different reaction times, or other differences, in certain respects. But that is the point: they are small, almost undetectable, differences, not huge contrasts. A difference that makes hardly any difference is hardly a difference.

His main argument is that people think these things are more impressive than they are because of the way they are reported in the press; that they think the differences are stranger and more unique than they are because they don’t know enough different languages; and that they think the differences are more important than they are because of some kind of paternalistic anti-racism (it is typically non-English languages that are shown to make more distinctions than does English, despite there being examples in the opposite direction).

In particular, the lack of knowledge of further languages exhibiting the particular features can make for wild over-generalisations. English doesn’t make this specific distinction, but language X does: therefore speakers of X must be more sensitive to these distinctions; somehow speakers of X need to make these distinctions because of their rich culture. On the face of it, this might sound plausible; but once you learn that languages W, Y, Z of nearby peoples also don’t make these distinctions, whereas languages A, B, C of very different peoples do, the argument is less persuasive. For example, McWhorter discusses the Amazonian Tuyuca language, which has evidential markers, little suffixes that indicate how you came to know the things you say (I hear, I am told, I don’t know for sure, ...):

[p39] One could suppose it must have something to do with living in a rain forest where one must always be on the alert to dangerous animals, or to the presence of other animals on which one depends for sustenance. Wouldn’t being a Tuyuca seem to require constant attention to whether one hears something, whether one can depend on someone’s statement that there is a new source of a certain food somewhere far off, and so on?
   This sounds eminently plausible when we think only of the Tuyuca. However, as odd as evidential markers seem to an English speaker, they are actually quite common worldwide. Crucially, to perceive any kind of link between culture and evidential markers from a worldwide perspective is […] extremely difficult.
   Basically, to link evidential markers to what a people are like is to say that some groups are more skeptical than others. […] However, who among us is prepared to say that the Ancient Greeks, who produced some of the world’s first philosophical treatises scrupulously examining all propositions no matter how basic, and lived in a society always under siege from other empires as well as from rival Greeks themselves, were a relatively accepting, unskeptical people with only a modest interest in sources of information?

It is not that the subtleties of language structure greatly influence thought, and that those differences are caused by local cultures and environments. It is rather that languages just naturally and continually embellish and simplify and grow and shrink and change, and have manifold complexities in different parts of their structure.

McWhorter brings to bear his immense knowledge of language in this lively and provocative small book. Having read it, I will no longer swallow reports that language significantly affects thought, and I now know a lot more about the rich complexity of languages.

John McWhorter.
Language Families of the World.
Great Courses. 2019

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 13 June 2019

Join a renowned professor of English to delve into the past present and future of different languages.

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 34 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each lecture, a few pictures, some related reading, and a few quizes. (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)

This is a whistle-stop tour of all the major language families, and some minor ones. Given the scope, there is no opportunity to go into any depth. What McWhorter does, in his inimitable style, is paint a broad-brush picture of the similarities and differences, and the mind-blowing diversity that exists (although that diversity is daily shrinking as languages go extinct). Everything we think is “normal” for a language to have, or not to need, from our limited experience, has multiple counter-examples in other languages: from vowels (just a few, or very many) and consonants (gazillions of possibilities), to vocabulary and grammar (tenses, genders, plurals, pronouns, evidential markers, word order, and more), to language divergence and blending. It gives a great feeling for the sheer range of possibilities exploited by people around the world to communicate by making structured noises at each other.

John McWhorter.
Language A to Z.
Great Courses. 2020

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 18 March 2021

Embark on an insightful journey into the quirks, curiosities, and intricacies of how our language works.

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 24 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each lecture, a few pictures, and some related reading. (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)

McWhorter uses each letter of the alphabet as an excuse to talk about an interesting facet of linguistics, covering grammar, vocabulary, sociolinguistics, language change, historical linguistics, and so much more. That the letters are merely an excuse is clear from cases like W, which is the lecture on slang. Interesting and informative, like the rest of McWhorter’s lectures and books.

John McWhorter.
Ancient Writing and the History of the Alphabet.
Great Courses. 2023