28 July 2011

Post 408: What Language Is

What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be by John H. McWhorter. ISBN: 9781592406258 (eGalley - publishes: August 4, 2011).

Sometimes I like reading non-fiction because it reminds me of what I already know, but have sort of buried under all of the other "things I know." For instance, I know that writing is technically a representation of language, but this book reminded me of that, and then it went a step further and blew my mind. McWhorther gives examples where not only has the written language been affected by the spoken, but vice versa. One example he used was a country where the written language was considered the "real" language whereas the spoken language wasn't (I can't remember which country, my bad). That is just about the very definition of unbelievable. Why is the more formal (and complicated) version considered real when it isn't even used to communicate on a person-to-person-in-real-time basis?

I've always found writing, the fact that we can understand it and even interpret it in different ways, fascinating. It definitely makes it challenging to choose the correct word to indicate tone and meaning, whereas speaking allows for a range of vocal inflections, and if you're in the same room there's always body language to assist with interpreting meaning. Writing requires a lot of assumption when reading it. For instance, if I state something sarcastically in my blog, you have to know that I'm being an asshole instead of just contradictory. I can give you certain textual clues, like including emoticons or italicized text or maybe even a footnote, but writing does lack a great deal of information that you would otherwise get from spoken language, which of course is why writing will always only be a representation.

But what an awesome representation it is! How many of you actually think in words rather than pictures? What do you think we did before we had writing? First of all, if we saw a tree, we wouldn't think of the word "tree"; but our brains automatically identify things, and with the identification comes the words. If I was speaking with someone and didn't know how to read or write, instead of seeing the word "tree" in my head, I would probably just see a tree, and then as they described it the tree would get closer to matching their description. Our brains still do this, but go through the additional step of picturing the word first. At least, this seems to be the way my brain works, which is probably why words are so important to me.

Don't get me wrong, I don't care about words dying out or falling out of use. For the most part I don't care about kids not knowing the difference between they're/their/there; it's annoying to me, but whatever, it doesn't hurt me that they don't know that. I do care about communicating effectively through writing when I do not have the opportunity to speak. Part of that is because I am a very deliberate thinker. I am not a slow thinker per se, but I like to evaluate all of my options and mull over an idea before opening my mouth. I don't like to look stupid, and if I say something stupid, I at least want to be assured of the opportunity to clarify my statements. In writing I don't always get that opportunity and so I try to be more careful of what I say.

If tomorrow the World Linguistics Council for English decided to change how English was written, I wouldn't mourn it. I would adapt and learn how to write according to the new standards of grammar and/or spelling. Because I want to be able to communicate. I may not be able to adapt to it immediately, but just as I have learned that because I think it should be spelled "sandwhich" doesn't mean that it's correct, and if I want to be certain someone will understand I meant "sandwich" as opposed to "sand which," I need to conform to the structures of the time. Do those structures need to change with the language? Should we simplify our writing to reflect changes? Do we really need to be that hung up about they're/their/there? Maybe not. Maybe we shouldn't care. Maybe this poor ability to remember grammar rules is a good thing and we can get over ourselves and just communicate already.

Nah, that shit still pretty much annoys me.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley.

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