Book Review: What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be) by John McWhorter

At the science fiction convention ConDor 2013 I attended a panel on linguistics by David Peterson, who created four languages for the TV miniseries “Game of Thrones”.  His presentation fascinated me, and I kept interrupting to ask questions.  At the end I asked him if he could recommend some books on linguistics so I could get an idea of the basics.  This is one of the books he and his wife, who is also a linguist, recommended.

One thing I notice about linguists:  they can be passionate about their field, every bit as passionate as I am about writing.  I say this not only through meeting David, whom I met again and had a chat with later on at the con.  I have another friend who has a Masters Degree in linguistics, and there’s nothing she enjoys more than diving into linguistics research.

To each his (or her) own.  I find linguistics, even the very simple and basic variety presented in this book, to be as difficult as physics (for me personally very difficult indeed).  One might think it strange, as language is the tool with which I sculpt my stories, memoirs, essays, novels, and so on.  But then again, not all artists are familiar with the chemical composition of the colors they work with; not all guitarists can construct a guitar from scratch; not all drivers can repair their cars.  It is not necessary to have a knowledge of linguistics to be a writer.

Be that as it may, in this book the writer attempts to introduce a few concepts in language.  For an outline he uses the acronym IDIOM.  Language is ingrown, disheveled, intricate, oral, and mixed.  Each section of the book explains one of these concepts, and the author uses various languages, both obscure and well-known, to reinforce his ideas.  Language is ingrown when it does not receive much input from outside, and so mainly is passed on from one generation to another; it develops idiosyncrasies and complex grammar as a result; the writer uses Pashto, spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and other obscure languages, as examples.  Language is disheveled when it becomes unimaginably complicated; he uses the Navajo tongue, which has more exceptions than rules, as an example.  Language can be intricate even though the grammar at first glance appears to be simple; the writer uses languages from West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Black English from the United States to illustrate this.  In explaining that languages are primarily oral, the writer points out that of the several thousand languages in the world, only a few hundred possess written form.  Writing is, in fact, only an approximate form of the basic spoken language.  In the last section, about how languages mix, the primary examples are the various languages of Sri Lanka.  I have to confess that I got lost in a few of the explanations here.  Perhaps it was my state of mind at the time; a lot is going on in my life.  But for me, the explanations are not easy to follow.

Overall, I found the book interesting but not easy reading.  Well, that’s okay.  Not all books need to be bubble gum or junk food.  But it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked it up.  I wanted a general overview of the field of linguistics, and that’s not what this book is.  This book is a popularization of some of the basic concepts, presented in simple, light, witty prose.  If you are interested in getting a little background concerning the languages the world’s peoples speak and write, it’s a worthwhile read.

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