Our Englishes

(This is a post I just wrote for Shelf Space, the blog on language that I write along with David and Jeff. It actually ranges from language to the state of current political discourse, so I thought I'd post it here too.)

Yesterday I finished reading John McWhorter's The Power of Babel. It's an absolutely fascinating book, and there are so many topics in it to talk about that it's hard to know where to start. I recommend it - it's not, as you might expect, yet another explanation of the language families and which languages are connected to which others and so on. Instead McWhorter talks about the processes by which language evolves, and challenges the idea that there are actually this things called languages that we break into dialects - pointing out that we bundle dialects into languages in very arbitrary ways.

I'm going to just pick one thing to mention right now, though, an topic relevant to this blog (and once which McWhorter discusses in great detail and specifically in relation to modern English in his later book, Doing Our Own Thing (which I'm midway through now).

I am assuming that anyone reading this blog is literate and reasonably well educated - simply because if you can't read, you're unlikely to be reading my blog, and it tends to be educated people who have the time to sit around reading things like this on the Internet. Whether or not English is your native tongue, it's likely that you learned to read rather early in life, and therefore have a notion of English as a written and spoken language. But really, writing is a very recent innovation; for most of human history, languages have been something we speak, and it's that spoken language capability that seems to hard-wired into the human brain.

There are a very small number of languages in use today that are written frequently - Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, etc. - although they are used, natively or as a second language, by more than 90% of the world's population. And in every case, there's a noticable gulf between the way these tongues are written and spoken. In the case of English, it's actually a relatively narrow gulf, but even so: record yourself speaking and then try to read a transcription of it. ("Eek! I'm incoherent!")

But you're not incoherent. We speak differently than we write. (I would never say that lest sentence out loud - I'd say, "the way speak isn't the same as the way we write.")

McWhorter's thesis in Doing Our Own Thing is that American English in its written form has moved toward the spoken form, for a variety of cultural reasons that have very little to do with language per se, and everything to do with American attitudes toward formality and structure. You might see this as a great democratizing force, and there's some truth to that. It also means, however, that we've lost the refined use of the language in a way that is not true of our peers who speak the other "top 20" languages on Earth today.

McWhorter's concern (which I share) is that this goes beyond aesthetic concerns. Written language is more suitable for lengthy, complicated discussions - just the kind of discussions one needs to have about pressing issues like foreign policy, domestic financial policy, the role of religion in public life - in other words, all the issues that relate to democratic governance. By losing our ability in the written language, we're impairing our ability as a society to talk about these things.

(McWhorter has not yet in my reading said that quite so bluntly, but I will; I think that's coming later in the book, but we'll see.)

It's fascinating stuff and I recommend both books.

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