What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be)

John McWhorter. Gotham, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-592-40625-8
The King's English topples from the throne of linguistic legitimacy in this rollicking tour of human language. Columbia University linguist and bestselling author McWhorter (Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America) surveys a Babel of languages from behemoths like Chinese to isolated, insanely complex Siberian languages, New World creoles, and unfairly disparaged street slangs. His approach is organic rather than prescriptive; he argues that languages are living entities that grow, mutate, and interbreed, creating new words and grammatical forms. The fluidity and incorrigible "disheveledness" of language, he contends, means that no linguistic practice is uniquely correct, least of all persnickety written standards that ignore spoken realities. An insightful chapter on African-American dialect analyzes it as a slightly simplified but equally expressive version of Standard English, shaped by the same pressures that make modern Hebrew a simplified version of the ancient tongue. McWhorter unearths a wealth of colorful linguistic facts (in the New Guinean language Berik, Nice to see you comes out as My gall bladder is really warm today), from which he distills larger principles, couching his erudition in a lucid, supple prose. The result is a fascinating romp through the ornery wonders of language. Illus. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 04/25/2011
Release date: 08/01/2011
X
Stay ahead with
Tip Sheet!
Free newsletter: the hottest new books, features and more
X
Only $18.95/month for Digital Access
or $20.95 for Print+Digital Access!
X
Only $18.95/month for Digital Access
or $20.95 for Print+Digital Access!
X
Email Address

Password

Log In Lost Password

PW has integrated its print and digital subscriptions, offering exciting new benefits to subscribers, who are now entitled to both the print edition and the digital editions of PW (online or via our app). For instructions on how to set up your accout for digital access, click here. For more information, click here.

The part of the site you are trying to access is now available to subscribers only. Subscribers: to set up your digital subscription with the new system (if you have not done so already), click here. To subscribe, click here.

Email pw@pubservice.com with questions.

Not Registered? Click here.