Monday, May 04, 2009

Fun with grammar

As ways to fill your free time online, is one of the better choices. If you are unfamiliar, each show brings together two people, often on opposite or conflicting sides of an issue, to talk for about an hour using computer video cameras and telephones. Unlike TV, the format is given to long form, loose conversations, which means it isn't great for soundbites or quick watching, but it can be an engaging thought-provoking listen.

One of the great benefits of the series is watching authors and thinkers explain and unpack their ideas, without the watering down and excess caution you see with tv pundits. One of the people I was happiest to discover via Bloggingheads is John McWhorter. He combines subject expertise, a strong point of view and a personality that makes him seem like an ideal dinner companion. You can see him here talking to Glenn Loury about torture, Obama, and other issues of the day.

So I put his latest book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, on my wish list and my wife bought me a copy for my birthday. It is a small, somewhat odd, but completely enjoyable book. McWhorter is a linguist and in the book, he takes aim at a number of theories about English, none of which were known to me beforehand. One of the biggest is whether Celtic languages impacted the development of English. The CW is no, and McWhorter argues strongly for their impact.

Another interesting section is based on his skeptical take on the Sapir Whorf hypothesis. His doesn't buy the idea that a language's grammar sets the parameters for how one understands the world. He points out that counter-examples are often left out of these supposed grammatical drivers of culture. For example, he notes "As towering a mind as literary critic Edmund Wilson, for example, thought the reason Russians seemed unable to keep a schedule was that Russian isa language where future tense is indicated largely via context- but then Japanese is like that, too, and the Japanese never seemed to have any problem with schedules."

McWhorters prose style is both erudite and conversational. His sentences are geared toward the interested layman, being neither jargon laden, nor condescending. It is these qualities that make a book that could so easily have been a challenge, a fun read that, while not easy, provides great stimulation. I will be reading more of these.

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