John McWhorter can be an aggregation of uncomfortable political opinions. I first became familiar during my early days listening to his appearances on News & Notes with Farai Chideya until its cancellation (Boo NPR!). His commentary could later be found Tell Me More with Michel Martin where he was also a frequent contributor. His flagpole leans right with a fair minded independent streak. If I am honest to a fault, I can stomach his punditry far more readily than his fellow black conservative and NPR guest contributor, Ron Christie, but I digress on that point.
I only make note of this because it feels strange when you encounter a political pundit in his other professional capacity. You are then forced to wrangle with the idea that you won’t be mentally jousting in the same manner in the space of this present engagement as you had done previously. The whole experience can be disorienting.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that McWhorter was a trivia hound. This text is a masterfully crafted and eclectic mix of humor, satire, intellect and English language history that would make a starched shirt student of any lazy Anglophone linguist. As if he were the star attraction at a faculty mixer, McWhorter makes the debates occurring in the Academy as interesting as any element of pop culture.
He maneuvers deftly through such topics as the cross lingual pollination of English with Welsh rendering us such aspects as the meaningless “do”, the invasion by the Normans which layered classical French terminology in our formal speech and the understanding that language is a fluid and formless creature living more readily in the mouth than on the page.
Along the way, I laughed, became dreadfully bored, rubbed my chin in contemplation, stoked the humble flame of my curiosity and committed myself to engaging some of the other works of English philology which McWhorter had dismissed. He reminds you that language is a perfectly fascinating subject when you stop and ponder all of the tiny little complexities it creates.
Where is language created and if a language is not recognized, is it rendered invalid? If the latter question is “yes”, then English would have been destroyed when it was initially restricted in its written form. Does that create a justification for reconsidering colloquialisms and black vernacular as a standard “language”? There is much room for debate.
This level of inquisitive thought is what makes John McWhorter’s work such a perfect foray into the study of language or even the best single text available for someone who wants to be conversant in a few major questions that are presently being explored within the field of philology. I can’t promise everyone that they will make it through to the end.
When he began to lay out language tables and compare verb conjugation across Spanish, Dutch, Old English, and Nordic dialects, the book and I fell asleep in each others arms, but it was one of the most rewarding sleeps any book has ever granted me. I now know that I am not supposed to understand Pablo Neruda even when I read his work translated and it is all thanks to John McWhorter.
There were other such odd queries that occurred to me while reviewing the text and I leave you one such note as offered to my colleagues on Goodreads in updating my reading status for this tome.
I am failing to recall the moment when I first encountered the notion that humans think in pictures and then translate those pictures into words. I notice now that we further strip the words of all material meaning and later come to think only in words. Therefore how much of what you think you know about anything is merely a consequence of the construction of the language into which you were born?