What Language is – John McWhorter

I read Saussure before doing my Master’s. When I got to my Master’s, I had to read Saussure again, and found that I knew it well enough to help some of my fellow students out with it. Granted, much of that is out of date, but I bring it up to nominate that fact that I have, and likely could again, read more sophisticated texts on the subject. Yet, I find myself turning back to many of these, ‘introductory’ texts.

It might be my mind acting on the hope that more people would read books like this.

It might be my working as an ESL teacher, but I hear at least one doggedly wrong opinion about languages on a daily basis. People have some silly opinions about languages, and their justification for having these flat out wrong opinions is almost always erroneous. Sometimes, I can think of the exact chapter of a book I read that would prove them wrong.

People seem to assume that, because they use language every day, they must understand how it works.

Well, I am writing this on a laptop that I use every day…

What Language is explains some aspects of how linguists conceive of language that may not be immediately evident to the lay person. Language is actually extremely unintuitive, and many of our initial observations about it seems to suffer from illusions that bring us to wrong conclusions. McWhorter clearly explains some aspects of what language is with very clear analogies and reams of examples to prove his point.

I’m not kidding when I say reams. McWhoter is not afraid to compare Russian to African American English to make up his point. He will talk about Persian, Pashto, Urdu, Tajik, Wutun, and damn near everything else between. It can be a little daunting if you are not used to it. A lot will come at you, and it will come at you fast and hard. I liked that about the book, but again, this is not my first time stepping toe into this field. I can imagine other people having a very different reaction to it.

That being said, I found myself enjoying and anticipating some pretty strange things while reading this. I’ve now read many of McWhorter’s books, and I have come to expect that way he fills them with quirky little anecdotes. I can definitely see how enjoyment of his works and enjoyment of those anecdotes might be related. Nor do I think everyone will enjoy them (nor do I think McWhorter does, who on his podcast once referred to himself as “obnoxious”). But those little tidbits often help to convey the absolute glee McWhorter seems to have for the subject matter.

I think I will keep reading things like this. Maybe I will learn how to explain to people why their opinions on language are wrong.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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