If there is a downside to a lifelong fascination with languages, it is having to politely tell people that they really don’t know what the hell they are talking about. It’s frustrating for the receiving party as well, as everyone seems to think that by merely speaking a language they are an authority on languages, and of course no one enjoys being told that they are wrong. But language misconceptions are ubiquitous; to the extent that even parts of the US federal government try to employ linguists to do a translator’s or interpreter’s job.
John McWhorter, on the other hand, knows what he is talking about. And in this volume he goes over much of what people not only do not understand about language, but what many so desperately need to learn about it. If your family has a the-end-is-nigh type who often cites people peppering their sentences with like or improper use of certain words (as if words had meaning by divine mandate) as evidence of the crumbling of the empire, this might be a good book to stuff into their stocking (or their mouth, for that matter). McWhorter goes into what is called pragmatics to inform the audience on why they should not be terrified of the linguistic changes. And unlike other books in the genre, this book includes a synchronic look at the pressures constantly in place affecting linguistic change, as opposed to merely talking about historic differences.
This book does all that while remaining legible and accessible. He does enough to simplify complicated subjects for a lay-audience while preserving the linguistics without bastardizing anything. There was really only one chapter of the book where McWhorter’s simplifications made things a bit dull and difficult, and were it not for the knowledge I had from previous work and education experiences, I would have been both lost and bored.
The book was a pleasure to read. For me.
I’ve read many of McWhorter’s books. I have watched his lectures. I listen to the podcast he hosts. I’ve even got audiobook versions of his reading his books. Which means I have come to know this individual and his style. It is also a style I very much enjoy. This is not an academic book, and McWhorter makes that very clear from the way he writes, and the anecdotes he adds through the book reinforce this. While these anecdotes worked well in the book to keep things lighthearted and enjoyable, they do distract from the fact they are authored by an extremely respectable professor of linguistics. The book has the feel of a conversation with a close, nerdy, friend. This can be a refreshing way to learn how to talk about linguistics a little more conversationally, but if you are looking for more pompous academic rigour, you may have to look elsewhere.
But the book is wonderfully accessible and necessary.