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What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What…
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What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be!

by John McWhorter

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John McWhorter offers us a linguists'-eye view of language, considering questions like: what does it mean for a language to have a simple grammar vs a complex one, and what is it that causes the difference? He also explores a lot of ways in which the understanding and perspective of people who study language for a living can be very, very different from the intuitive assumptions of those of us who merely speak it, including questions of what's a "real" language (as opposed to sloppy, mistaken, or wrong language, or "primitive" or "impure" language), and what kinds of characteristics are "normal" in a language. (English, it turns out, is a little strange in some ways -- albeit ones that make perfect sense given its history -- and isn't the greatest standard by which to judge normality.)

McWhorter does go into a lot more depth than I was expecting, or, honestly, than I thought I was quite in the mood for, including lots and lots of (sometimes slightly technical) examples from languages both familiar and obscure. But I quickly became utterly fascinated by it all. It helps that he writes in a very accessible style, sprinkling the text with occasional dorky jokes, dorky references, or odd little personal asides. If you're familiar with his Lexicon Valley podcast -- and if you have an interest in language, it's worth a listen -- the book feels much the same in tone, it's just that he gets to take a much deeper dive into things than a half-hour podcast would ever allow.

I found it meaty, insightful, informative, and well worthwhile. Despite having already read a few other books on more or less the same subject, I feel like I've come out of it more enlightened than I went in. ( )
1 vote bragan | Sep 1, 2017 |
Readable, chatty, learned, and informative. ( )
  AmphipodGirl | Oct 14, 2014 |
A very fun (if somewhat disorganized) book about the linguist's views on languages. ( )
  jen.e.moore | Mar 30, 2013 |
Although McWhorter sometimes gets bogged down in the details, overall this is a fascinating and persuasive book. I plan to read his Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English next. ( )
  szarka | Oct 11, 2012 |
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

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. ( )
  unabridgedchick | Aug 25, 2011 |
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To those who disagreed with me,
and to Lara (1996-2010)
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Languages are ingrown --Language is dissheveled [sic] --Language is intricate --Language is oral --Language is mixed --This view of language.
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A tour of the world's languages throughout history offers insight into human communications while challenging popular beliefs about grammar, discussing such topics as the ways linguists hear speech, the world's vanishing languages, and the hodgepodge nature of English.… (more)

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