“Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage”, by Professor John McWhorter, Columbia U. A set of talks from The Great Courses.
The title sounds like this series of 24 half-hour lectures would be suitable only for dedicated linguists or people who don’t want to embarrass themselves by ending a sentence with a proposition – but nothing could be further from reality.
In these lectures, Prof. McWhorter tells a fascinating tale about the development of modern English from Proto-Indo-European to today’s texting abbreviations. Human language is always in a process of continuous slow change, rather in the manner of a 1960s lava lamp. His underlying thesis, illustrated with examples from around the world, is that languages spoken only by relatively isolated populations tend to become much more complex over the centuries. Languages where at some point in the past many people learned the language as adults tend to be simplified. Thanks to the Norse invaders who landed in Anglo-Saxon England to loot and stayed to breed, English falls into the category of relatively uncomplicated languages. Even so, there is lots of subtle grammar which we never think about. Take the sentence “He cleaned up the mess”; what on Earth is “up” doing there?
At various points, the good Professor alludes to the observation that young children learn their mother tongue without thinking about it, whereas it is a struggle for adults to achieve even basic proficiency in a new language. It makes one wonder what change occurs in the brain around 8-12 years old?
Prof. McWhorter is highly articulate and has a very listenable voice. He also has an entertaining manner and a fund of amusing stories. The set is well worth the investment of 12 hours to watch or listen – fun and an education to boot!
There appears to be a language acquisition module in the brain that switches off around the time of adolescence. While it’s on, it is relatively easy to acquire mother tongue competence in multiple languages to which one is exposed and not mix them up too much.
Language learning after that is much harder and more tedious, and many who have learned languages later, even if they have a larger vocabulary and better knowledge of formal grammar than many mother tongue speakers, will never speak without an accent or summon words as readily as a native.
Brain scanning suggests the brain processes languages learned in childhood and as an adult in different areas, with access to the former turning off with age.
Crackpot idea: as humans evolved in small hunter-gatherer bands, evolution selected for children learning the language of the band automatically, but always being able to identify the other instantly just by hearing their speech, even if the language was comprehensible.
This would be in terms of grammatical complexity, right? Vocabulary is enriched by invaders, even if people are not.
So why would relatively isolated peoples make finer and finer grammatical distinctions, rather than make up new words for more nuanced ideas? Maybe they are getting on each others’ nerves, so are making up new inflections in order to express ever-finer degrees of respect to others in the culture.
Anyway, thank you for the review!
(I just read his Woke Racism, a very different project with the narrow aim of encouraging people to recognize and resist woke-racist salients. It’s like a tract to give hope to the beseiged.)
Let me now try to summarize everything I’ve said in the last ten fifteen minutes or so, and summarize it in one sentence and we'll wonder why it took me that long: We acquire language in one way, and only one way, when we get Comprehensible Input in a low anxiety environment.
I heard somewhere that the polyglot army of the AustroHungarian Empire was controlled by a vocabulary of 100 words.
And I remember reading about ‘Globish”, a kind of pidgin English through which peripatetic businesspeople from all countries can communicate. That was a long time ago. Gotta look that up.
I remember learning back in college about the “switching factor” which disappears from our brains about age 9. I reckon in the intervening years nobody has figgered out much more about it.
A paean to our language: think of the line “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” Say it aloud. The beauty of the vowels in that sentence blows me away. And then, shout-out to our unique combined consonant sounds, there’s MacLeish’s phrase “wherever the iron of English rings from a tongue”. That line makes me tear up, it’s like seeing the flag. “Ring”,”tongue” “ English “ itself, are onomatopoeic words.