Wednesday, February 20, 2008

a language is just its words

I’ve long been unimpressed by anxiety people feel about the degradation of English. John McWhorter in his The Power of Babel: a natural history of language doesn’t seem worried either. In this paragraph he dresses down the language purity police:

“The Association for the Preservation of the German Language and similar organizations, such as the Academie Francaise’s famous vigil against English words ‘taking over’ in French, are laboring under a misconception that, for all intents and purposes, a language is just its words. This is a natural feeling, because words are what we are conscious of – we don’t think about … the grammatical rules when we talk. There is a folk conception that learning a language means picking up the word for hat, the word for sleep, etc. – but we all know that, in actuality, you could memorize thousands of a language’s words and still have less ability to communicate than a three-year-old, because how the words are put together is equally central to what ‘a language’ is. English … lost most of its original words. However, because we still use a sound system similar in broad outline to that of our Germanic relatives (it’s not hard for us to get a good German accent, and vice versa), as well as a broadly similar grammar (for example, adjectives before the nouns), and retain original English words as our bracing beams and girders (the grammatical words like will and the, basic words like boy and like), the language remains fundamentally Germanic – that is, English. It could be nothing else.”

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