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Linguist Considers 'What Language Is' — And Isn't

Linguist John McWhorter says sign languages function in ways that no other languages do. But, he says, like all spoken languages, they also morph over time.
Linguist John McWhorter says sign languages function in ways that no other languages do. But, he says, like all spoken languages, they also morph over time.

Whether or not the first humans could speak is still a matter of debate, but most scientists agree that languages have been around for at least 80,000 years.

The written word, in contrast, is relatively new. Humans have been putting words on tablets, textiles and paper only for approximately the past 5,500 years.

Yet many assume the written word is superior to how humans actually speak. If a language isn't fixed on a page — like English, French, Spanish or Chinese — it isn't "real."

And while many English speakers consider the English language to be relatively advanced, linguist John McWhorter says it's actually profoundly simpler than many ancient languages.

In his book, What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be, McWhorter, a professor of linguistics and Western civilization at Columbia University, debunks some of our most persistent myths about language.

Languages are anything but pure, he writes; they are complex, intermingled and, as he tells NPR's Tony Cox, constantly morphing "like a lump in a lava lamp."

Interview Highlights

On the relative simplicity of English

"You often think that ... because we've got tall buildings and airplanes and depression, that somehow English must be more complicated than a language spoken by a small group who do not have what we might call civilization.

"In fact, as languages go, English is pretty user friendly. If you look at a tiny language spoken somewhere that most of us have never heard of, chances are it's going to be so complicated that you have a hard time imagining how people can walk around speaking it without having a stroke. I find massive wonder, and just fun, in that."

On why the English language lacks genders

"There is no other Indo-European language in Europe that doesn't have gender ... it's really peculiar. And the reason is because, as far as we can tell, it was the Viking invasion ... Those people came speaking something that wasn't English. It was Old Norse. And there were no Berlizt courses to teach them Old English ... so they learned it. They learned it badly. And one of the first things that would have gone was these pesky genders. Who cares whether a fork is a man or a woman? They didn't. And so next thing you know, English became this user-friendly language ... And here we are speaking it today.

"It's odd, we're speaking a tidied-up, broken Old English. That's what we've got ... and that's what we think of as the height of civilization. While most of the world's 6,000 languages have been going on about their business in normal fashion — normal being hideously marvelously complicated."

On the influence of hip hop culture on language

"Some of the changes [in languages over time] are driven by the fact that there is social identity ... People split off into their groups, and changes will be different in one group as opposed to another group. And then certain groups acquire a certain dominance in society. And, next thing you know, people are following their lead.

"And in this case I don't mean rich white people. I mean that in society now, espcially in America, on the popular level it's black English — or Ebonics as many people are calling it — which is the coolest way of speaking. And now it's popularized especially through hip hop.

"And so a lot of the changes that are taking place among characters on The Wire, in a way, are the ones that younger Americans are now taking on as part of their speech."

On the unique — and less unique — qualities of sign language

"It's easy to think, if you've never had an occasion to become acquainted with it ... that signers are just doing some sort of mimicry with their hands and that they've just gotten very good at it.

"And no, it's not that at all. Nor is its structure anything like English. It's very much a language of it's own ... In fact people who study creole languages, like Jamaican Patois, Haitian Creole ... see a lot of likeness between the gramatical structure of those languages and how sign language works.

"And then, in other ways, sign lanugage does things that no spoken language does ... Very much they are newish languages, and they are different from one another.

"And if you look at a film clip ... of somebody using sign language, say, American Sign Language, 100 years ago, then that person now signs in a way that looks a little peculiar, just like people we hear in spoken recordings then sound a little peculiar, simply because the language has changed somewhat over 100 years, just like spoken language."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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