October 17, 2011

BOOKS: What Language Is, John McWhorter (2011)

What's unusual is not when a language is frighteningly complicated, but when it isn't.

That's the conclusion McWhorter reaches in this entertaining and fascinating study of languages and their innate complexity. It is, McWhorter claims, the natural tendency of languages to grow more complicated and intricate with time, to accumulate grammatical oddities and inexplicable requirements that seem to make no sense, mostly because of the ways they've changed in the centuries since they were introduced.

What's the best way to simplify your language? Empire. Go out and conquer a lot of new citizens, preferably from lots of different places with lots of different languages of their own. All of those new people trying to learn your language -- and to learn it as adults, who have a much harder time learning languages than children do -- will inevitably make lots of mistakes, and those mistakes will consistently lean towards simplifying the language and making it more regular. Get a critical mass of new adult learners, and those changes will take hold even among the population of native speakers. McWhorter uses the Persian language as his illustration, and calls this process the "Persian conversion."

And it's a process that most of us have seen a clear example of, because Black English is a classic example of a Persian conversion. Lots of African slaves from different places, trying to learn English as adults -- from a historical/linguistic perspective, it would have been bizarre if something like Black English hadn't been created. McWhorter points out that many of the grammatical features of Black English -- things that may sound like grammatical errors to speakers of Standard English -- are in fact part of the natural grammar of the 18th and 19th century rural British immigrants from whom the slaves would have heard most of their English. (Most slaves, after all, spent more time with the relatively uneducated indentured servants than they did with the educated slave owners.)

What does a language look like that hasn't gone through the simplification of a Persian conversion? Well, it looks like (to pick one example among McWhorter's many) Navajo, a language that is so spectacularly complicated that it has no such thing as a regular verb. It's so difficult to learn that linguists use "Navajo" in sentences the way the rest of us use "rocket science": "You had problems with this language? C'mon, it's not exactly Navajo, y'know."

McWhorter also talks about the distinctive challenges faced by people who use languages in which the written form has remained fossilized as it was centuries ago, while the spoken form has continued to evolve. In most of these places, the written form is considered the "real" language, so much so that some people don't even consider what they're speaking to be anything more than slang. This privileging of the written word is something of an oddity, given that only about 3% of the world's languages even exist in a significant written form.

In lesser hands, this book could be a stodgy, academic look at esoterica of interest only to a handful of linguists, but McWhorter has a great gift for making his subject matter accessible, interesting, and entertaining.

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