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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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199896,405 (4)11
New York Times bestselling author and renowned linguist, John McWhorter, explores the complicated and fascinating world of languages. From Standard English to Black English; obscure tongues only spoken by a few thousand people in the world to the big ones like Mandarin - What Language Is celebrates the history and curiosities of languages around the world and smashes our assumptions about "correct" grammar. An eye-opening tour for all language lovers, What Language Is offers a fascinating new perspective on the way humans communicate. From vanishing languages spoken by a few hundred people to major tongues like Chinese, with copious revelations about the hodgepodge nature of English, John McWhorter shows readers how to see and hear languages as a linguist does. Packed with Big Ideas about language alongside wonderful trivia, What Language Is explains how languages across the globe (the Queen's English and Surinam creoles alike) originate, evolve, multiply, and divide. Raising provocative questions about what qualifies as a language (so-called slang does have structured grammar), McWhorter also takes readers on a marvelous journey through time and place-from Persian to the languages of Sri Lanka- to deliver a feast of facts about the wonders of human linguistic expression.… (more)
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» See also 11 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
He covers a lot of the same territory in his podcast, Lexicon Valley. I liked the book, but didn't love the book. (And now of course I am contemplating the etymology and grammar of this review! Podcast is a great example of a compound word that is now definitely a Thing!) ( )
  charlyk | Nov 15, 2019 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
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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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