Monday, September 17, 2012

Learning about English from John McWhorter

McWhorter is a professor of linguistics and author of quite a few books.  He is a Black-American and has several books on Black English.

A major point he pounds is that everyone tends to feel that the language habits they learned as a child are the ones that seem right and correct.  He distinguishes between formal ways of writing and talking and informal ones but he also stresses that the most complex languages tend to be those spoken by small groups and large group languages such as Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Spanish and English tend to get simplified.  Not so much, according to what I have learned so far, from any tendency to be easier but more from the number of adults who first learn the language as adults.  

He stresses that children easily and automatically do mental and mouth things that adults cannot do.  He says up to about the age of 12 or 14, human brains pick up sounds and usage and vocabulary in ways and to extents that adults can't and don't.  If a language is a major one, there will be adults who learn it as adults.  Such a language is an "exoteric" one, as opposed to an "esoteric"one, nearly all speakers of which learned the language as children.  

There are 6,000 languages in the world so the big five named above are in the tiny minority as far as numbers of speakers.  The great majority are esoteric, and most we have never heard of, such as Ket and Navaho and Berik.  

One of the odd things I learned is that about the time of Isaac Newton, writing was done in Latin.  I know of Walter Ong's work on Latin as the language of educated people in the past but I never before got the idea that if you are going to write something, it will be in Latin.  Latin was the code (in certain areas) for writing, even while speaking was done in English.  Talk about bother!  Another whole vocabulary, spelling, and usage to write, in addition to all that to speak.  No wonder, not as much writing was done.  No wonder writing was a specialized craft like watchmaking or pottery.  No wonder Richard Lanham in "Style: An Anti-Textbook" emphasizes that as the ability and practice of writing spreads, we are entering a new world.  (I know, we are always entering a new world and the world is always changing in multiple ways each durned minute, too many for a mortal to grasp or understand.)  

Still, the great majority of people can speak in some language and therefore have the chance to benefit from talking with others but only about 80% can write in any language.  That is worldwide.  In parts of Africa and Asia, close to 50% of the women are illiterate and that is only after strenuous efforts to improve literacy.  Besides literacy is usually concentrated on as reading but it is writing that expands the mind, extends the view and serves as a greater voice.

McWhorter brings up some interesting points about pronouns, which he says are often a highly changing section of language:

"Now look at "Me and Billy went to the store." Many people who object to "Billy and me went" do not mind "Me and Billy went." Perhaps this is because "I and Billy went to the store" is a complete train wreck of a sentence, even though it is technically correct.

"Thus, we cannot condemn in the logical sense a sentence like "Billy and me went to the store", despite what we have been taught. A lot of what we were taught was based on Robert Lowth and his idea that English should look like Latin. [McWhorter makes clear that Lowth was not the only one pushing for particular uses and they sometimes had rational, if limited, reasons, in addition to their upbringing and habits.]

"What we were taught was valuable in that the world is not going to change instantly. In public settings, "Billy and me went" will still be seen as informal and will not be acceptable English."

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