Posted: Saturday, December 1, 2012 2:29:06 AM
I was never the bookbound dreamer.
Sure, I could whip up a half dozen elegant paragraphs if need be, fake enthusiasm or fervor if the assignment called for it—but I was never swept up by language. It seemed a fairly simple construct, governed as it was by its own grammatical and syntactical rules and the fact that it had but one application, communication. Surely the process of communication could not be very complex; after all, language was simply the substitution of words for ideas. No matter how enlightened or profound those ideas might have been, the vessel of their distribution between individuals and across societies remained a mere matter of exchanging sounds for concepts, and then letters for sounds.
This was the attitude with which I approached this book, and it is an attitude that, since then, has been utterly stripped from me. McWhorter's book argued against my entire concept of language, declaring that words were rarely simple and never stagnant. Much of the value of the book lay in the rich, detailed examples of global languages the author provided to illustrate his points. They ran the gamut from the evolution of the Latin idiomatic phrase “ad ripam” to the relative “deadness” of the English suffixes “-some” and “-th,” and every possible linguistic rule or quirk in between. As I read, I realized the fault in my logical view of language as a conduit for thought—for as ideas have progressed, branched off, spawned new theories and inspired new perspectives, so language has progressed, evolving new rules and intricate exceptions every day.
Though McWhorter established his authority on the topic of language quite definitively, he retained a conversational tone and accessible writing style, underlaid with a sense of true linguistic passion—and it was this passion that spoke to me most. McWhorter declared language to be “a fecund, redolent buzzing mess of a thing, in every facet, glint, and corner, even in single words.” His genuine love for language comes through in his ideas, his paragraphs, his very diction, with words like “fecund” and “irrepressibly.” I was in awe of the sheer might of his voice and his opinions, expressed so powerfully even through mere paper.
The evolution of language has occurred outside of the scientific eye for millennia, and over this course it has built up a vast body of misconceptions tied to its definition. This book provided me a compelling, novel, and above all, passionate counter to these misconceptions. It inspired in me a true fascination with words and a newfound respect for those who place them so deftly on printed page. In fact, I am now seriously considering linguistics as a career.
Astonishing and iconoclastic, "What Language Is" profoundly influenced my perception of the nature of language. I have been converted: I am now a dreamer.