Thursday, August 25, 2011

What Language Is by John McWhorter

Title: What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be)
Author: John McWhorter

Genre: Non-Fiction (Linguistics / Communications / Anthropology)
Publisher/Publication Date: Gotham (8/4/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A discussion of what makes a language a language (rather than a dialect or 'tongue'), and how languages change, shape, grow, and shrink over time.

Do I like the cover?: It's a bit boring, but the word balloons make it clear what the book is about.  

First line: Page through a grand old book on what was once known as natural history -- as we all do so often, of course -- and you'll find that almost all drawings of marine life are rendered from the perspective of someone standing on the shore.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow -- my mother was always big into me reading books that might challenge my brain a little and I still pick up something outside of my normal tastes now and then. This might be that kind of book if you like words or have struggled to learn a second language.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a word nerd!

Review: I'm hardly a linguist by any stretch, but I'm chatty and I love trivia. As someone learning a second language as an adult, I'm interested in the ways languages have grown and changed.

The title -- and subtitle -- pretty succinctly summarizes the point of this book: what language is, isn't, and could be. Written for, I presume, an American audience (certainly an English-speaking audience), the book argues that 'normal' languages like English are in fact, not normal, and that many of the obscure, soon-to-be extinct languages spoken by small populations around the world are interesting, complicated, relevant, and evolved. More importantly, because a language isn't written doesn't mean it is less in value, importance, or sophistication.

I found this book a bit heavy at times, or more technical than I anticipated in a piece of popular non-fiction, but my wife found it very readable (but she also reads a lot of non-fiction). As the book progressed, I found it easier to understand -- either McWhorter's style grew less technical or I was starting to 'get' it.

Using 'idiom' as an acronym/frame, McWhorter's argument is that languages are ingrown, dissheveled, intricate, oral, and mixed.  Some of this went over my head (the entire chapter on languages being ingrown might as well have been written in, well, a foreign language!) but other chapters immediately made sense.  McWhorter helps by including charts and maps of the areas and languages he's referring to, which is immeasurably helpful.

McWhorter's writing, while very smart, also is humorous.  He's someone who clearly loves what he does, and he loves untangling linguistic mysteries.  Reading this was like hanging out with a very smart friend -- I might have gotten lost now and then, but ultimately, I enjoyed myself. 

*** *** ***

For more reviews, check out the other blogs on the tour!

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of What Language Is to one lucky reader. To enter, please fill out this brief form! Open to US/CA readers, closes 9/9.

11 comments:

  1. I had a really hard time with this one, and I think it was because I was expecting narrative non-fiction. Parts of it were electrifyingly smart, and I could totally dig on the brilliance, but I found that a lot of it was hard to decipher and retain. I am glad that you had better luck with it!

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  2. I find language fascinating so I'll definitely be giving this book a try. I'm glad you found parts that you really enjoyed!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

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  3. As a fellow word nerd, I can't wait to read this one!

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  4. I'm surprised this one was so technical too. I'm certainly intrigued by the concept. As someone who teaches undergraduates, I'm often struck by how different their language (both oral and written) can be than mine, and I was in college ten years ago. Perhaps this one would be a good one for me on audio, when I can zone out in some sections!

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  5. @Heather: Yes, I was expecting something more narrative-y too, but I found the style seemed...chattier as the book went on.

    @HeatherTLC: Thanks -- this was a good book to exercise my brain!

    @Rhapsody: Can't wait to see what you think of it -- very illuminating!

    @Carrie: I did wonder if an audio version might be easier, having someone 'tell' me about these things rather than having to read them -- which would be very fun since much of the book is about oral language vs written language. Grammar features a bit in this book and he has a fascinating chapter on Black English as well as creoles and languages that incorporate English -- very eye-opening!

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  6. Not for me then ;) I had enough of these books in uni

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  7. The New York Times Crossword Puzzle is a competitive sport in our family -- this is definitely going on my TBR!

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  8. This sounds fascinating...one of my favorite college books was an etymology guide....I'll have to keep this one in mind...please do enter me in the giveaway.

    savvyverseandwit at gmail

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  9. I do like to read about language, so this does sound interesting to me even if it is a little heavy at times.

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  10. This looks like one I need to read! I've read mixed opinions of it, but as a language lover I think I need to give it a try. Linguistics itself isn't my thing, but when it's more about different languages and not so much "this is what this part of the sentence is and this is how it's pronounced" sort of thing, I find it quite interesting.

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