John McWhorter on Language

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Linguist and author John McWhorter talks about his new book, What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be.

Event: John is reading tonight, August 9, 2011, at 7 pm at McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince Street in Manhattan.


John McWhorter

Comments [13]

Um, no, Mr. McWhorter.

To cite your "Chinese example" -- yes, there are no conjugations and declensions in that language, so how is it that Chinese speakers understand whether singular or plural quantities are involved, or if something happened in the past or future or if it's meant to be totally subjunctive?

Context (mostly). This need to be aware of the context of something, the *relational* aspects of things, in other words, is a veritable worldview that Chinese people have by virtue of their mother tongue.

Indeed, it's arguable that because of such a mindset, informed by such a worldview, philosophies like Taoism and Buddhism have found wide and generally easy acceptance in China, since it's almost immediately apparent to a Chinese person, by virtue of the Chinese language, that things have no independent existence in themselves but are the byproducts of relationships and processes. The Abrahamic worldview, by comparison, remains quite foreign to the Chinese despite Abrahamic religions being known in China for many hundreds of years (Chinese even knew of Christianity and Islam much earlier than pagan Europe, possibly).

Finally, Mr. McWhorter should check out WNYC's own "Radio Lab" episode on how the color blue is a relatively modern perception: apparently, the sky looked something like gray to Homer and the ancient Greeks.

May. 01 2014 02:01 PM
Frank Clower from Charleston, WV

Joyce, Mr. McWhorter was referring to the Assimil series of books. Look for "German with Ease" at Amazon. For further information you can go to...

Sep. 15 2011 08:00 PM
Joyce T Endrle

What is the name of the books Mr. McWhorter mentioned to learn a language "The Magic Book" - I want to learn German? Thank you. Joyce Enderle - e-mail

Sep. 03 2011 10:01 AM
James from Honolulu

@ Peter from Jersey City:

McWhorter certainly does *not* believe that AAE is a bastardized English form. He studied at Stanford (ostensibly under John Rickford, one of the leading creolists and scholars on AAE); no student of Rickford would ever believe this.

@The notion that AAE is "incorrect" held by others:

Consider the following examples:

A: "Where y'all goin'?"
B: "We walkin' home."

A: "Where y'all go after school?"
B: "We be walkin' home."

Note that in example (1), the copula (i.e., "to be") is dropped (something not altogether uncommon in English dialects around the world). The answer in (1) means exactly the same thing as "We are walking home", that is, present progressive (something happening right now). However, note the presence of the copula in (2). Here, the copula (in its infinitival form) signifies something *completely* different. This sentence cannot mean "We are walking home", as that would be grammatically incorrect in AAE. Instead, the 'be' takes on a grammatical meaning that implies habitualness or repeated action. In other words, 'be' serves a very similar semantic function to that of any number of adverbials (e.g., usually, always); in AAE this is encoded grammatically in a verbal paradigm. The variety follows a set of "rules" that are not incorrect, but different. This does not make the variety any better or worse than any other variety -- simply different. Those who believe otherwise are what we linguists call "prescriptivists" (a dirty word in linguistics).
Furthermore, the argument that AAE is "inferior", "bastardized" or "simple" in comparison is completely and utterly ridiculous on its face as it assumes that languages and varieties are entities that can be evaluated in terms of objective quality. Is Russian better than Swedish? Is Malagasy better than Hindi? Is South African English better than New Zealand? What about German spoken in Dresden? These are meaningless evaluations with no place in scientific discussion.

Aug. 15 2011 03:14 PM
Peter T. Daniels from Jersey City

[My note on "Black English" referred to the last three comments below, rather than the first three above, because I didn't know that Comments appear here in reverse chronological order.]

gary from queens, you misspelled "misspelled" and "guest's."

If you're going to post a spelling flame, be sure it's spelled correctly.

Aug. 09 2011 12:11 PM
Peter T. Daniels from Jersey City

Jamie Floyd's interview with John McWhorter did nothing to bolster my confidence in him as either a linguist or a popularizer.

- His comparison of dialects to black and white cats, and to flavors of Jell-O, is remarkably inapt: cat colors and Jell-O flavors are distinct and unmixable, but dialects blend into each other; there are no "boundaries" in space or social class between dialects, but a continuum. He missed the opportunity to point out that _everyone_ speaks a dialect. The most "perfect" Standard English of Brian Williams, Scott Pelley, or John McWhorter is the dialect known as "Standard English." Brian Lehrer is easily identifiable as a New Yorker on the basis of his New York dialect -- though it's a bit less strong than, say, Ed Koch's!

- He failed to distinguish between _writing systems_ (alphabets, etc.) and _written language_. Written language most certainly is a distinct dialect of the language it represents; you write things in ways that you would probably never use in a conversation. And where did he get the spuriously precise date of "5500 years" for how long writing has existed? (This actually happens to be my area of specialization.) Who dates the earliest surviving examples of writing -- from Egypt and Mesopotamia -- to 3500 BCE? (Archeologists certainly don't.

- Black English is not a "streamlined" version of English. Modern English is not a "streamlined" version of Old English. Modern Hebrew is not a "streamlined" version of Hebrew. He could only say such a thing if he is looking only at (what linguists call) morphology -- that is, the way words are put together (handsome + ness) and "inflected" (eat, eats, ate, eating, eaten). In fact, every language is just as complicated as every other language. When the three languages mentioned lost most of their morphology, they became more complicated in other ways -- in their _syntax_, the way words go together in sentences to communicate ideas, and relationships between things.
(McWhorter in fact to a great extent shares the absurd opinion expressed by the first three commenters above -- that there's something wrong with "Black English" (linguists usually call it AAVE, African American Vernacular English); he is or was a fellow of the Manhattan Institute, a "right-wing think tank.")

[continued in next comment because of 3000-character limit]

Aug. 09 2011 12:05 PM
Peter T. Daniels from Jersey City

[continued from previous comment]

- He failed to note how rare what he called "mixed languages" are in the world (the linguists' term is "creole language"); the vast majority of the world's 6000 or so languages are descended and differentiated by gradual processes of language change that operate from generation to generation both as children learn their languages slightly differently from the way their parents speak, and as people unconsciously imitate the language spoken by people they admire. (If language didn't constantly change, it wouldn't be able to adapt to changed social and environmental conditions.) Until the invention of sound recording, hardly anyone needed to talk to anyone of a generation more distant than their grandparents or grandchildren; very rarely, someone might be able to converse with their great-grandparent/child. Thus language can grow almost unrecognizable in just a few centuries!

Aug. 09 2011 12:02 PM
john from office

Black Engish is not proper English and only serves to hold the race down. The acceptance of it is just Political Correctness. Acceptance of it is admiting that they are unable to learn, is that true??

Aug. 09 2011 11:13 AM
The Truth from Becky

The white trash slave owner taught the captured African slaves "English"...that broken English combined with the fact that "English" was not even a second language for African Slaves, was a mess, yet only the African is credited with that ignorant dialect.

Aug. 09 2011 11:07 AM
R from Manhattan

I don’t care what ethnic group is speaking it; incorrect English grammar and syntax should not be celebrated.

Aug. 09 2011 11:06 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Latin developed into the Romance languages; Ancient Greek developed into Modern Greek. Are both "dead languages"?

Aug. 09 2011 11:04 AM
ladynspain from Spain

For more information on how many languages there are in the world, including written ones as well as non-written, and dialects, you can look at :

Aug. 09 2011 10:58 AM
gary from queens

You mispelled your guests name on the front page. you wrote:

"John Whorter"

Aug. 09 2011 10:33 AM

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