A Berkeley linguist conducts a learned, lively tour through the lush garden of human languages.
McWhorter (Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, 2000, etc.) begins with a childhood shock of recognition: Hearing a little girl speaking Hebrew, he suddenly realized that English was not the only language in the world. “This,” he writes, “was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with foreign languages.” He estimates that the first language, from which all other languages descend, emerged about 150,000 years ago in Africa. Since then, many thousands of languages have arisen, fallen, and died. Today, there are some 6,000 varieties around the globe, although 96 percent of the world’s population speaks one of the “top twenty,” and many surviving tongues are in imminent danger of demise. McWhorter explains how so many languages could have developed from a common ancestor and assails the popular notion that this “proto-language” could be reconstructed. Discussing pidgins and creoles, he dismisses such common misconceptions as the belief that English is somehow more “adaptable” than other languages because it borrows many of its words; so do many other languages spoken by people who have lots of contact with lots of other people. Other news: Dialects (like “Black English”) developed in parallel with standard, written forms and are not merely ungrammatical versions of their more elegant cousins; in many languages, double negatives are common, and distinctions between past and perfect tenses are rare; so-called “primitive” languages spoken by hunter-gatherers today are no simpler than French or Chinese—in fact, they are often more complicated. With a brisk, witty style that reveals a comprehensive knowledge of music and popular culture, McWhorter rarely lets his tour wander into the tangled wood of academic jargon and arcane illustration.
An entertaining, instructive Henry Higgins of a volume: it’ll transform readers into enraptured Eliza Doolittles.