What Language is: And What it isn’t and What it Could Be

Sometimes people ask me to recommend a good book on linguistics for the general reader — not a textbook, not a technical treatise, just an informative (and accurate) explanation of what linguistics is all about. I’ve never quite been sure what to recommend…until now. The answer is What language is: And what it isn’t and What it could be, by John McWhorter.

You’ll enjoy this book, and learn a lot from it, as long as you’re willing to put up with a conversational style that doesn’t follow a rigid outline. A few commentators were turned off by its desultory “plot,” but I found it refreshing. A few commentators were bothered by the extensive details about obscure languages, but linguistics needs those data in order to provide concrete illustrations of what would otherwise be abstract points. A few commentators were bothered by McWhorter’s clear opinions that he argues for, even though the book is really about linguistics as a science so some readers think the author shouldn’t have opinions, but that’s just unrealistic.

I don’t usually like to quote other reviewers, since it seems so indirect, but in this case I just have to quote a review by someone with named “Shawn” on GoodReads:

This is a fun book about language. McWhorter does a great job of highlighting all the completely normal bizarre weirdness that is language. He uses an acronym, IDIOM, to structure his discussion. IDIOM means that language is Ingrown, Disheveled, Intricate, Oral, and Mixed. By Ingrown he means that the languages, left to themselves without external influence of other languages, develop more and more features that indicate all kinds of things that other languages leave unmarked without a problem. For example, there are languages that have 10 genders (noun classifications)! Disheveled refers to the way languages have lots of illogical, redundant, and irregular features (e.g. flammable and inflammable). Intricate is about how all languages—even stripped down disheveled mixed up ones—have complex systems of rules. In the Oral chapter, McWhorter argues that writing is not the whole of a language and that we ought to pay more attention to the spoken aspect of language to really understand language. Lastly, Mixed is about how languages interact, coexist, borrow, and mix together. Along the way, you learn about Navajo, Black English, and lots of tiny language communities in Southeast Asia.

The book is not technical or ‘academic,’ so it is highly readable. That also means that it pretty much skims the surface of things. This is really a kind primer or appetizer for linguistics. (I’d recommend McWhorter’s Teaching Co. courses if you want some more detail: http://www.thegreatcourses.com/professors/john-mcwhorter/.) He has some views about language that will certainly piss some people off—in particularly the relationship between oral and written language and the implications of this for grammar. He is, though, good at noting disagreements and controversies within linguistics.

Categories: Books, Linguistics