Graeme Wood

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A Dozen Words for Misunderstood

Originally appeared in Pacific Standard.

Review of The Language Hoax by John McWhorter

 

Few fields of study suffer from a more complete public misunderstanding than linguistics. It isn’t uncommon for a linguist to be asked, on meeting a non-linguist, how many languages he or she speaks, or to hear the exclamation, “Oh dear, I must watch my grammar!” Linguists study languages and their structures, but speaking many of them isn’t a job requirement, nor is being a professional grammar scold. A slightly rarer misimpression is usually held by those with just enough knowledge to be dangerous. These people think they flatter a linguist when they say how important linguistics is, “because what we think depends on the words we use to think it.”

This last belief is the bugbear that’s been eating John McWhorter’s trash, and that he hopes to kill off once and for all with his latest book, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. McWhorter’s writing appears frequently in the liberal New Republic and the conservative City Journal, often on the subject of race and politics. (McWhorter subscribes to a number of political heterodoxies.) But before he went into punditry, McWhorter trained as a linguist and contributed to the study of creolization, the process by which two or more languages coalesce into a full-featured third language.

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Filed under: Pacific Standard, ,

Tongue-Tied

Review of Michael Erard’s Babel No More.

The ability to speak multiple unrelated foreign languages fluently counts among a short list of showstopping talents, like the ability to play a Bach fugue or fly a helicopter (assuming one isn’t a harpsichordist or pilot by profession). It impresses in part because it suggests discipline, time, and effort — and, perhaps, other hidden skills.

But what if the languages came effortlessly? There are, in the history of polyglottism, a few examples of people who seem to have found a way to cheat the system and acquire languages so easily and quickly that what would normally appear a feat of discipline and erudition looks instead like savantism. These hyperpolyglots chitchat fluently in dozens of dialects, and they pick up new ones literally between meals. For the rest of us who have to slave over our verb tables, their talent resembles sorcery.
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I Say Qaddafi, You Say Qadhdhafiy

The Atlantic (online)

The first rule of foreign policy, says the adage, is never to invade a country where they use q’s without u’s. Besides saving the Republic from overseas boondoggles, I like to think this chestnut exists to rescue American copy editors from endless niggling over Arabic names. If war is, as Paul Rodriguez quipped, God’s way of teaching Americans about geography, it is also a way of teaching his humble servants at the Atlantic copy desk how to cram foreign words and phrases into an alphabet that manifestly doesn’t suit them.

Since terrorism and Iraq began to dominate our coverage, The Atlantic has crammed many Arabic names and phrases into our text, and some have not gone gently. The simplest cases demand fussiness and attention: We spell Iraq’s second-largest city Basra. But why not Basrah, as writers in English called it for hundreds of years before? And why no dot under the s, as scholars seem now to prefer?

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Filed under: Atlantic Monthly,

Greetings from Abkhazia

The Smart Set

The forlorn seaside resort where Soviet rulers once frolicked.

The Republic of Abkhazia is one of the few countries, if you can call it that, where every tourist who shows up gets a handshake and a friendly chat with the deputy foreign minister. Or rather, it would be such a country, if it were a country at all. A wee seaside strip in the Republic of Georgia, Abkhazia hasn’t yet persuaded anyone to recognize its independence, even though it boasts many of the trappings of nationhood — a president, a parliament, and an army that guards the border in case the government in Tbilisi wants to invade again. Read the rest of this entry »

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