Review: Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language Usage

by Aug 14, 2015Books, Culture, Linguistics1 comment

Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language UsageMyths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language Usage by John McWhorter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely loved this. McWhorter is a brilliant lecturer (and at 1.75 speed, he sounds superhumanly brilliant). As I began, however, I wasn’t sure how much more McWhorter had to teach me given the other things I’ve read and enjoyed by him. I’m happy to say I stand humbled and enriched and, hopefully, a little closer to “educated.” Language is endlessly fascinating.

Particularly helpful for me: McWhorter explores the cultural reasons behind the impossible-to-miss “informalization” of American English over the last century. There was a day when even casual speech, when quoted in a newspaper, had to be—it just had to be—”formalized.” People are quoted in old newspapers as saying things that no one could possibly say in real life, only write. Senators up till not all that long ago wouldn’t dream of delivering anything on the Senate floor but a flowery, formalized, oratory. Now hardly anyone speaks in a formal tone. Why? McWhorter points to the anti-authoritarian 1960s and to the self-assurance America gained as a nation in the mid-20th century (i.e., now that we’re on top of the world we can relax). He doesn’t point to texting.

In fact, McWhorter proposes a helpful new taxonomy through which to view texting. Think of a graph of four quadrants mapping speech and writing on the side and formal/informal on the top. in which we have formal speech (“fundamentalist oratory” is his repeated example), informal speech (all other speech, pretty much), formal writing (most of our writing now) and a new category: informal writing (e-mail and—especially—texting). Great. Texting fills in an empty gap. It’s creative and interesting—and if you don’t believe me, use one of McWhorter’s common strategies and examine texting in other languages. It’s clever in Japanese. It doesn’t ruin writing in German. Nor in America.

Also helpful: I’ve always wondered how languages can change in major ways, not just subtle or gradual ones. I’m old enough to have seen the latter in my lifetime. But how could a self-conscious language let itself shift from Old English to Middle English to Modern? There are some massive changes there. McWhorter highlighted the role adult learners of language play in changing a language. They tend to give that language a “close shave,” getting rid of the hard stuff. No more cases, no more genders—like several of the progenitors of modern English had. McWhorter also discusses the role this phenomenon (adult learners of a language) played in the formation of “Black English,” complementing well what Steven Pinker wrote about that topic.

Random: McWhorter also explained how Edward became “Ned.” I am forever in his debt. You gotta listen.

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1 Comment
  1. Aaron Blumer

    Thanks, Mark. Adding to my Audible wish list.