This is the most recent book I’ve read — finished all the way back on July 19th. As someone who’s very interested in languages, I really enjoyed this book. It is a history of human language, attempting to trace its evolution from the hypothetical ur-language from all languages are supposed to descend. Although that history is the thread which the author follows throughout the book, I enjoyed the book most for its anecdotal quality.
For example, the author spends a lot of time discussing the directions in which various languages have developed and analyzing why they did so in that way. McWhorter, the author, never fails to make the point that the transformation of languages is completely random and any language could just as easily head in one direction as another. He gives as an example the fact that many Indo-European languages have definite and indefinite articles. This is a linguistic rarity, globally speaking; most languages around the world have only an indefinite or a definite or, most commonly, no articles at all.
Another example is how languages tend to fall into either the “does to itself” or “does to another” category. That is, some languages indicate when an action is reflexive (the “se” construction in Spanish, for example: lavarse, vestirse, etc.) When an active is not reflexive, that is the subject the performing the action on another party, that relationship is not marked. “Does to another” is the default category. This is, again, true of most Indo-European languages. Many other languages in the world, however, have “does to itself” as the default category and indicates, instead, with some sort of verbal construction when an action is being performed on something or someone rather than the subject of the action. I had never heard this before.
One final example: some languages (non Indo-European languages) make a distinction between things which we own inherently and things which we merely possess. That is, a different word would be used to say that I have two eyes than to say that I have a dog. The ownership of the dog is external and temporary whereas the ownership of the eyes is internal and (hopefully) permanent. It’s an interesting idea that a language need differentiate between these two types of ownership when context so obviously does it for them already.
I found McWhorter’s rather extended discussion of the difference between a dialect and a language (answer: none) to be quite tedious as I am already well-familiar with these arguments but other than that the book was very interesting, presented me with a lot of new information and was a quick and easy read. I highly recommend it!
Read so far:
The Dead Hand by David E. Hoffmann
The Power of Babel by John McWhorter
Sunnyside by Glen David Gold