The geopolitics of language: when is a spoken tongue a dialect and when is it a language?

by Rachel T. Essay Creator

Language change—in particular the inexorable tendency of languages to do so, and why, and how—is the theme of much of this book. The author is John McWhorter, Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He uses examples of change—both recent and historical—to demonstrate how primordial human languages diversified into the six thousand or so known today. (He seems to be convinced there was just one original human language, but that seems extremely unlikely.) He is careful to describe such shifts as language transformation, rather than evolution, because the latter word so often suggests progress or advancement—the evidence suggests early languages were at least as complex as modern ones, though more limited in what it was possible to talk about.

In the second chapter he explores the geopolitics of language. Using modern pairs like Urdu and Hindi, Serbian and Croatian, and the Scandinavian languages, he shows that our definition of a language has more to do with political history, perceptions and tensions than with the nature of the languages themselves. Even within a speech form that is considered to be a single language, wide variations can exist that, he suggests, means that “in the end, dialect is all there is: the ‘language’ part is just politics”.

Later chapters discuss the changes to language through the mixing of vocabularies and grammar following cultural contact (English cheapest essay writing service, the archetypal mongrel language, is a prime example here) and how this has given rise to pidgins and creoles. The fifth chapter considers the ways in which languages overshoot minimal functional needs into what he calls “uselessly baroque elaborations” by adding markers for gender, tones, and groups of prefixes and suffixes. He argues these add inessential extra data, and he looks into why they appear. The last chapter investigates language death and the loss of diversity that results (he quotes David Crystal’s assessment that, on average, a language dies every two weeks).

John McWhorter’s approach is largely non-technical (he explains the few formal terms he uses when they first appear), but his arguments become detailed when necessary, especially in later chapters, and the going becomes tougher towards the end. However, the detail is eased by his chatty and informal approach, with personal asides and pop-cultural references thrown in from time to time. Though it is grounded in and suffused with US style and culture (to the extent of making a couple of blunders about British history), the book includes a wealth of examples chosen from dozens of languages world-wide.

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About Rachel T. Junior   Essay Creator

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Created on May 16th 2019 07:40. Viewed 307 times.


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