A third of the way through his latest look at the way we talk and write, John McWhorter pauses to sum up what he's spent 70 pages trying to impart: "To be a language, then, is to be a mess."
In this lucid and knowledgeable book, McWhorter takes a jaunt through dozens of exotic tongues -- from Western Africa's Twi to Siberia's Ket -- and these bits will be endlessly fascinating to language fanatics. But the parts of "What Language Is" that will connect with most readers are those that deal with the patchwork that is English in its spoken form.
A linguist who has published more than a dozen books, McWhorter is obviously devoted to the written word, but he argues that speech is more vibrant. "Dance is a useful analogy," he writes. "There are systems available to transcribe ballets on paper for future dancers to use for re-creations. Yet none would think of these transcriptions, despite their usefulness, tidiness, and accessibility, as 'the ballet' itself."
If speech is the ballet of language, then the form of communication that McWhorter calls "talk-writing" -- seen in e-mail, text messages and similarly harried jottings -- might be likened to the kind of dancing that occurs at an open-bar wedding. And here, you'd think, is where McWhorter is going to sound a warning. Because if there's one aspect of contemporary discourse that's going to get a linguist fired up, it's the tiresome onslaught of LOLs and WTFs.
Or maybe not. McWhorter argues that the casual language of online communication is more patois than pathology. "Here," he writes, "we might take heart in something easy to miss in America. It is a human norm to speak more than one language, or at least more than one dialect of a language. As such there is no reason to assume that people are unable to write in two styles as well."
As he has in several previous books, McWhorter, who is an African-American, also deals extensively with what he refers to as "Black English." In one of the book's bolder passages, he points up several commonalities between Black English and contemporary Hebrew, noting that languages -- not just some, but all of them -- evolve over time. "Those adults learning Hebrew in the late 1800s and afterward shaved off some of the hard stuff," he writes. "Not all of it or even most of it -- but about as much as African slaves shaved off English to create Black English."
This is the sort of argument that in the past has incited mini-controversies about McWhorter's work. But what good is a linguist who won't engage issues that might get him in a bit of trouble? McWhorter, fortunately for his readers, is willing to do just that.
- Kevin Canfield is a writer and book critic in New York.