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January 26, 2007

McWhorter on Language

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Another winner from The Teaching Company: John McWhorter's lecture series "Story of Language." This is an overview of language -- and when I say "overview" I mean "from really far above." You won't learn lists of the major language families; etymologies aren't what's on offer either. Instead, McWhorter's focus is on processes: How languages grow, merge, change, twist, turn, and die.

Along the way he of course touches on many of the basics: What are the differences between dialects, creoles, and pidgins? What can be known about early languages? And how about that Esperanto, eh?

McWhorter's approach is far more descriptive than prescriptive. He has no apparent desire to tell people how to speak, for one thing. As he points out, what's considered to be proper usage inevitably changes over time -- and what really interests him is the "changing over time" angle. (He has a nice way of describing a language as being not one-thing-with-deviations but instead "a bundle of dialects.") Anyway, McWhorter's approach suits my own "far more interested in how things are than what they ought to be like" temperament to a tee.

Much as I loved the series, I confess that I floundered for the first half-dozen lectures. The talks seemed to alternate between vague generalities and blizzards of examples. They were interesting and engaging right from the outset, but I felt lost. I couldn't discern the logic of the series.

Then I finally caught on to McWhorter's method. What he's doing in each lecture is announcing a general principle or theme, then riffing on it. When I settled into his rhythym and allowed myself to be swept along, I left my confusion behind and had a swell time. I found myself thinking: "So what if I'll learn and retain few new facts -- I don't retain many new facts these days anyway. And so what if the series is short on conventional argument-structures? It has its own kind of beguiling organization." Besides, in most of the lectures McWhorter's riffing has the effect of deepening and broadening the theme.

What's coolest about the series is the way that a kind of immense vision takes shape as it goes along. As McWhorter presents it, language is a huge, organic, ever-morphing, ecologically-opportunistic bio-something, like a gigantic fibrous Blob, rooted in nature (and in human nature) yet under the impetus of its own nature as well.

The examples McWhorter supplies in abundance are fun too. A small sampling:

  • Around 6000 languages are spoken in the world today.
  • 800 of them are to be found on the island of New Guinea.
  • Only one-fifth of living languages have words for both "a" and "the."
  • Only 200 languages have a written component.
  • What round-eyes tend to think of as varieties of Chinese -- Cantonese, Fujian, Mandarin, etc -- are really quite different from one another. So different in fact that linguists consider them to be separate languages, as distinct from each other as European languages are from each other.
  • On the other hand, the languages of Scandinavia? As far as linguists are concerned, they're all basically the same. Linguists think of them not as separate languages but as dialects of one language they think of as "Scandinavian."

I don't know if you've run across him before, but John McWhorter is an interesting figure. He's a U.C. Berkeley linguistics prof who's now at the Manhattan Institute. He has published ten books, some on linguistics, some on racial and political topics. (Where commentary on racial matters goes, I find him a breath of fresh air.) As far as I can tell, he was adopted by the Republicans circa 2000 for his commonsense political views and for his relatively cheery attitudes on race. And in recent years he has made a name for himself as a black semi-conservative commentator -- a younger Shelby Steele, perhaps, although one with a more playful personality. He currently writes a column for the New York Sun. In one recent column he revealed that he now thinks that the mideast war has been a bad mistake. Does this mean that he has grown disenchanted with the righties who took him in?

McWhorter himself was mainly what carried me through the series. (About midway through the series I discovered that my appetite for learning about language has its limits.) He's an exuberant, confident, and self-amused performer who has the gifts of mischief, slyness, and humor. His youth and his freshness are a major kick. Without making any self-conscious effort to be hip and with no fear of being silly, he pulls many of his examples from pop-culturey fields. "The Jetsons," "Green Acres," "I Love Lucy" ...

Let's just say that the man really loves popular culture. At one point he even sings a few bars from "Annie Get Your Gun." I noticed long ago on Amazon that McWhorter is a serious fan of American musical comedies as well as a gifted reviewer of them. In this NY Sun column, he admits that he has seen "Hairspray" six times and intends to see it six more times. This is someone with no fear of projecting his personality, in other words.

Let me venture a thought that I hope will be read generously. The series struck me as intellectually serious, interesting, and provocative -- as well as very jazzy. I found myself thinking, "Hmmmm, McWhorter is black ... His method here is themes followed by riffing ... He puts his material over with brains and information, but also with a lot of Big Personality ... The series has an overall movement that doesn't have a traditional Euro structure yet that has its own pulsing logic ... Hmmmm. "

Is it awful that my thoughts followed such a path? Whether the answer is Yes or No, I think I'm onto something about the way the series works. In other words: If a Teaching Company gem such as Patrick Allitt's "American Religious History" is crafted as a kind of intellectual version of a classical symphony, McWhorter's series is more like an ambitious and intricate performance, something along the lines of a Duke Ellington jazz suite. Main advantage of the jazz approach: When the stars are aligned and the personality is fizzing, there's nothing quite like the rumbling and funky high it delivers. Main disadvantage: There's no safety net beneath for those times when inspiration falters. In this series McWhorter's on days far outnumbered his off ones, so my verdict on "Story of Language" is, Superfine!

Here's a Booknotes interview with McWhorter. I notice that the Teaching Company is currently charging full retail for McWhorter's series. Unless you have money to burn, wait until the series goes on sale to buy it. It'll then cost about a third of its current price.



posted by Michael at January 26, 2007


"What round-eyes tend to think of as varieties of Chinese -- Cantonese, Fujian, Mandarin, etc -- are really quite different from one another. So different in fact that linguists consider them to be separate languages, as distinct from each other as European languages are from each other." I am under the impression that this isn't a round-eye error but official Chinese government policy and that round-eye linguists who say otherwise become persona non grata.

Posted by: dearieme on January 26, 2007 3:42 PM

Well, in written form, there's very little difference between equivalent sentences in Cantonese and Mandarin, for instance. And the grammar is similar, like English versus German. That said, the spoken languages have very little to do with one another, and the connection is more Spanish-Swedish than Spanish-Italian.

The Chinese government does teach school across the country in "putonghua" or Beijing dialect of Mandarin. I don't think this is malicious, however; it's just sensible to be able to talk with your countrymen!

Posted by: cure on January 26, 2007 6:32 PM

Uniform languages have their uses, of course, and may be advantageous for the country as a whole long-term. They can, however, be used to suppress local independence; as I recall, the French government went to quite a bit of trouble to stamp out Provencal in the old days. Can anyone confirm?

As for it being evil that you compare McWhorter's work to a jazz solo because he's black: c'mon, you read Steve Sailer and love him, how guilty can you be? It's not an unheard of thing, though; I read a comparison of Kazuo Ishiguro's work to a Zen rock garden, even though he moved to England at a very early age.

Posted by: SFG on January 27, 2007 7:23 AM

I find the evolution of languages to be fascinating.

If I understand "Cure" (and others) correctly, people from pretty much all over China can understand each other acceptably well via written communication, but the very same people can have almost no success understanding each other via spoken communication.

If my understanding of what Cure (and others) have said is accurate, my way of guessing at an explanation is that in "olden" days, when travel over vast distances was difficult and for only the very few (like the Mandarins?), it was easier to maintain uniformity and consistency in the written language as opposed to the spoken one.

While this is not quite the same thing, it seems to me it might be similar (but to a much, much greater degree) to the relative ease that New Yorkers and Scots have understanding each others' written communication, but the great deal of difficulty they might have understanding each others' spoken communication when spoken with a heavy local accents.

It also reminds me of the times that you speak for the first time a word that you've only previously read (and never heard spoken, that you know of, by anyone else in your crowd), like "chic" and pronounce it "chick."

Given the ease with which people communicate today with other people all over the globe, it seems like the trend would be (and, many people seem to say, "is") for "correct" English to become more standardized -- or, at least, not become more fragmented and localized. While it does seem to be true, however, that new, for lack of a better word, "dialects" still seem to be generated (e.g., hip-hop, Valley Girl, etc.), my guess is that elements of the "dialect" are more likely to be incorporated into one main "standard" language, rather than there being a "breaking off" of new languages (as there probably would have been had we not developed radio, TV, etc.).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 27, 2007 11:28 AM

Also, thanks for putting a spotlight on John McWhorter. Previous to your post, he was someone I had only vaguely heard of -- and half confused with someone else. I didn't realize that he's also a gifted writer about popular culture -- and that we share some similar interests and tastes.

By the way, I find it interesting that you describe him, I realize with no offense intended, as a serious fan of "American musical comedies." I think he would say, instead, that he is a serious fan of "musical theater."

What's the difference? People interested in "musical theater" see "musical plays" as a form of theater that can encompass serious themes as well as comedy (e.g., Show Boat, Lady in the Dark, Street Scene, Lost in the Stars, Carousel, King and I, West Side Story, etc.).

For those who were interested in Donald Pittenger's "Peak Music" post a few weeks back, McWhorter's "New York Sun" column (where he mentions "Hairspay") contains an interesting disucussion about popular music and singing that seems to me to be related to Donald's post.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 27, 2007 12:41 PM

Michael - I will check out “The Story of Language” when it becomes more affordable. Do the lectures include audio samples or examples? One of my favorite references to dip into now and again is “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.” Even though this resource includes copious illustrative material (quotations, newspaper clippers, cartoons, etc.), it always annoyed me that no one thought to include a CD which could easily let a reader hear how the language has changed over time.

RE: What round-eyes tend to think of as varieties of Chinese -- Cantonese, Fujian, Mandarin, etc -- are really quite different from one another.

I used to rent a lot of Hong Kong action movies on laserdisc or DVD (I especially recommend “Peking Opera Blues” and “Hard Boiled”), and saw that often the disks let you select between Mandarin, Cantonese, and English dubbing, and Mandarin and Cantonese subtitles. I don’t know any Asian language, but even so, the Mandarin and Cantonese dubs often sounded very different when I sampled them. This also reminded me of how Chinese Americans, mainly Cantonese speakers, were having to learn Mandarin because of the increasing economic clout of mainland China.

RE: On the other hand, the languages of Scandinavia? As far as linguists are concerned, they're all basically the same.

Yep. I always recall that Norwegian actress Liv Ullman had no problems speaking the Swedish dialog in Ingmar Bergman films. On the other hand, apparently, Icelandic is not particularly close to Norwegian or other Scandinavian languages. Here’s an almost comical, but interesting discussion of the degree of mutual comprehension between Norwegian, Swedish and Danish, see this Wikipedia entry.

By the way, there are there are two official forms of written Norwegian — Bokmål (literally "book language") and Nynorsk (literally "new Norwegian").

I also found it interesting that the course description referred to sign language as an artificial language. I understand that Esperanto is totally made up, but I seem to recall a story of a group of deaf children (in South America or Central America) spontaneously creating a coherent sign language.

As an aside, a recent news story ponders whether Latin, at one time the dominant language of the Western world, might be headed for extinction.

Benjamin Hemric – RE: Given the ease with which people communicate today with other people all over the globe, it seems like the trend would be (and, many people seem to say, "is") for "correct" English to become more standardized -

Oddly enough, in part because of the influence of the Internet, a lot of “incorrect” and informal English (based on speaking) is displacing written “standard” English. Also, because many pop culture fan sites (Harry Potter, X Files, etc.) include English speakers from the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Hong Kong, there is sometimes an interesting and unexpected blending of idioms.

Posted by: Alec on January 29, 2007 7:57 AM

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