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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Story of Human Language

The Story of Human Language - John H. McWhorter Human language is a fascinating subject. We don't appreciate how complex language speaking skills are until we try to learn a new language as adults. It's one thing that children can do better than adults. Brain studies suggest that human brains are uniquely programmed to use language, and children's brains are uniquely adept at learning languages. This adeptness is lost as we age.

The Story of Human Language by John McWhorter is a collection of thirty-six lectures on the history and study of human languages. It includes some discussion of the tools used by linguists. However, I see that there's a whole separate set of lectures on "Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language." I haven't listened to this other set of lectures so I'm not sure how they differ. Presumably these lectures (Story of Human Language) has more focus on history and less emphasis on the technical aspects of linguistics.

Some things I've learned that I find interesting:

1. Differences in languages can be used much like gene technology to track prehistoric movements of humans. Changes in languages occur more quickly than changes in human genes, so whereas genes may be used to indicate humans migrations over a span of 100,000 years, language can indicate movements over the past 10,000 years.

2. Ninety-nine percent of the words in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language are from sources other than Old-English. However, Sixty-five percent of the commonly used words are part of the one percent that comes from Old-English.

3. The most complex and difficult languages are spoken in areas that are isolated from exposure to other languages. In other words, primitive peoples sometimes have very complex languages. Languages can become complex when everybody who speaks the language learned it as a child.

4. More widely spoken languages that need to be learned by adult speakers of other languages tend to become simplified over time.

5. Languages tend to either (1) have prefixes and case endings, or (2) be tonal. They seldom have both. (But there are exceptions.)

6. The majority of the world's languages do not have definite and indefinite articles (i.e. "a" and "and"). Speakers of European languages can't believe it to be possible to speak without them.

7. The majority of the world's population (including much of Europe) speak a different dialect (i.e. local vernacular) of their language at home than what is taught in their schools or used in official government business. This phenomenon is called diglossia. Americans are unique in having relatively little diglossia.

8. We can thank the influence of the invading Norsemen of the 9th century for the fact that English is the only European language that doesn't have gender markers for inanimate objects. (Thank you, Norsemen.) Other invaders who didn't learn Old English well were probably responsible for the simplified verb conjugations in English. (Thank you other invaders.)

9. Non-phonetic English word spellings are a remnant of an earlier time when they were phonetic. Unfortunately, word spellings change more slowly than the spoken language. The development of printing has essentially fossilized spelling conventions. (Thank goodness for computerized spell-check.)