Wednesday, August 10, 2011

John McWhorter

 John McWhorter is a lecturer at Columbia University, specializing academically in language change and language contact. The author of the bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, and other books, he is a contributing editor to The City Journal and The New Republic. He has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

His new book is What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be).

From the author's Q & A with Will Boisvert at Publishers Weekly:

You spotlight the fiendishly complex Caucasian language called Archi, with its one million verb forms. Why do they need so many?

They don't. Most languages spoken by a few thousand people are so complicated they make your head swim; a Siberian yak herder's language is much more complicated than a Manhattan bond trader's. Languages develop complexity from entrenched habits. First comes a word meaning "more than one," like "bunch." People start using it for "more than one" of everything, it shortens to one sound and becomes a suffix like the English plural "s." Multiply that by 10,000 things, and you get needless complication.

You also examine how languages become simpler by comparing African-American dialect to Hebrew.

Black English is simpler than Standard English in some ways; for example, it often gets by with just "be" and drops "am," "is," and "are." That's because Black English arose when adult African slaves learned the language. Children are incredibly good at learning complexities and irregularities, but adults are not; when adult Africans came here and learned English, some complexities fell away. Similarly, modern Hebrew was revived by adults in Israel, so complex aspects of biblical Hebrew got shaved down. People think of Black English as ungrammatical, but it bears the same relationship to Standard English as contemporary Hebrew does to ancient Hebrew.

You're both a linguist and a prolific writer. Does one influence the other?

As a linguist I see...[read on]
Learn more about What Language Is at the publisher's website.

See John McWhorter's top ten list of books on race that should be more widely read.

The Page 99 Test: What Language Is.

--Marshal Zeringue