McWhorter’s Language Interrupted

I just started John McWhorter’s new book, Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars, Oxford, 2007. Just a few pages in, I already find that the book lives up to McWhorter’s famous ability to reconceptualize or “reframe” familiar notions.

McWhorter may have specialized in creole and pidgin languages, Creolistics, but his ability to cross all linguistic borders makes his books exciting. In addition to his outstanding reputation as a linguist, this young man in his 40s has embarked on a second career as a social commentator on Black America, finding his way to the Manhatten Institute, much to the chagrin of Liberals like me, and much to the discomfort of his fellow conservatives who find him unexpectedly blunt in his appreciation of Black culture.

A long interview with him on Book TV a while back demonstrated his broad interests, with musical theater being prominent among them. What made me salivate is when the camera panned his library of linguistics books in his study. He works primarily at home.

But to the book!

McWhorter characteristically takes on the standard and, if I may, liberal interpretation of the status of the grammars of languages (here I use the word grammar inclusively to include phonetics, syntax, etc.). That interpretation can best be characterized as relativistic. Certainly, as an anthropology major in the early 60s, I can say that the relativism advocated by Montague, Benedict, Boas, Mead, and so many others influenced the way we thought and went a long way toward creating the zeitgeist of the 60s. We used relativism to combat the oppressive racism of our own country and to criticise the heretofore accepted colonial empires of our WW II allies.

In language, relativism meant giving up cherished notions of the greater logicality of Latin, the superior beauty of French, the finer precision of German, and other shibboleths of the century. The great anthropologist/linguists of the first half of the twentieth century did field work rather than armchair theorizing. The latter permitted fustian pontifications about the superiority of Western, read White, European, Christian culture. The former put the Western scholar at the feet of the “native”, one down as he or she struggled with a language, a culture, relationships in unfamiliar contexts, and still he wrote up his notes every night!

A slap in the face is what it feels like, that so many neoconservatives, who now attack relativism and multiculturalism, are, many of them, non-Christians, and it was relativism that allowed us to condemn anti-Semitism. At least that’s the way it seems to us, the liberals from the 50s and 60s, whether beatniks or hippies. Our allies in the Civil Rights Movement seem to have shifted over to the “Westerner as superior being” camp.

And here is John McWhorter, an African-American, consorting with, in our minds, the very people who cautioned against Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, cautioned against going “too fast”. How does he manage this? Very interestingly, if you listen to his interviews and read his books. My wife has read one or two of his sociological statements and liked them. I have yet to do so. But in this book, you can see how adroitly he skewers the standard, relativistic view of language.

Not all languages are equally complex. Boy, does that go against my grain! Here we go again, I think: all the talk about how refined European languages are, with a nod to Asian languages. But, guess what? As is so often the case with McWhorter, as when he told his colleagues he likes rap music, the categorizing of languages as simple or complex cuts across all geographic and cultural lines. Here’s what he says:

In the past, relativistic view, all languages were equally complex except where they arenít. And where they aren’t it just shows that at some point the language was actually a pidgin. That kind of settled it for most people. I certainly thought that made sense, although I always was vaguely made uncomfortable by the way some languages seemed to have so much more morphological complexity than others. My Old Norse teacher explained that ON was spoken by small groups of people who communicated in a closed social environment and therefore complexified (that is a word) the language.

And McWhorter says that’s right, except a clear-eyed look at languages across the world shows that most languages are complex and certain ones arenít. The traditional views attributes that to “drift”, the tendency for all languages to drift toward a more analytic state or stage. Thus Latin drifted to Spanish; Sanskrit drifted to Hindi; Ancient Greek drifted to Modern Greek; etc. From greater complexity to less, then eventually the analytic forms coalesce with roots to again form a morphologically complex language.

INSERT > analytic languages are those which use basic root words in various combinations whereas inflected languages bind complex endings to the root stems. An example of the former is English “I would have worked”, using 4 root words to convey person (I), mood (conditional), tense (perfect), and focus word role (past participle of ’work’ to function in the conditional). An example of the latter is Spanish ’trabajaria’ (accent on the i) where the -ia indicates person, the -ar + ending indicates the mood, and the root, trabajar- represents the future system. This fusion of elements, esp the way the affixes change form as they join various word classes, characterizes inflected languages.

No, say McWhorter. If we look at the world’s languages, we find umpteen instances of languages that do not lose complexity. They do change, but they do not simplify. They maintain their complexity through the ages. We need not posit some stage of utter simplification to the point of being a pidgin, we need only picture many adult learners of a language, people who simply couldn’t be bothered with seven different and unpredictable plural affixex, but just settled on one, like “-s” maybe? Sound familiar?

A famous example and one he cites early on is Icelandic. Icelandic is very similar to the Old Norse that all the North Germanic languages have come from. Yet Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are all vastly more simplified. While West Germanic languages like German, Dutch, and English have lost some of their complexity, English has gone very far indeed. An example would be the loss of a variety of plural endings to the simple -s for almost all plurals.

I will continue with this. Questions will make me read with greater attention.

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