You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity

Robert Lane Greene, foreword by John McWhorter, Delacorte, $25 (336p) ISBN 978-0-553-80787-5
A correspondent for the Economist and a self-professed lover of language, Greene takes on language "mythologizers" of all forms, like bestselling author Lynne Truss and other language "sticklers" for whom the superiority of "their" language also represents the superiority of "their" people. Greene asserts that language is about communication rather than just rules and that debates about language and its rules are often really about politics. Defending Black English as a dialect with strict rules of its own, Greene also relates how the imposition of Afrikaans, the symbol of South African apartheid, on the black majority sparked the violent riots that marked the beginning of the end of apartheid, and how the father of modern Turkey criminalized the writing of Turkish in Arabic script. In the end, he argues, simplicity in a language doesn't denote its "decline"; rather, languages become simpler and more flexible in order to spread and succeed. Though Greene argues perceptively and passionately, his controversial arguments still won't, for the most part, persuade traditionalists who bemoan the deterioration of English. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/17/2011
Release date: 03/01/2011
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