Turgid at times, but mostly eye-opening, even liberating.

WHAT LANGUAGE IS

(AND WHAT IT ISN'T AND WHAT IT COULD BE)

Linguist and New Republic contributing editor McWhorter (Linguistics and Western Civilization/Columbia Univ.; Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, 2008, etc.) returns with a discussion of what languages are, and some insightful thoughts about why we view some as “primitive” and others as “advanced.”

The author employs a jumping-bean style that briskly leaps from frisky allusions to popular culture—not always recent: Wilt Chamberlain and Warren Beatty appear in one sentence—to dense descriptions of the complexities of language. Throughout, the author uses what he calls the “underwater approach” to language analysis, noting how early scientific illustrations of marine life showed critters dried and displayed on a beach; not until we could stay underwater for extended periods could we describe these creatures in their own habitat. Linguists offer a similar view of language. Observing that any language is a “fecund, redolent buzzing mess of a thing,” McWhorter groups his observations under five headings—languages are ingrown, disheveled, intricate, oral and mixed. The author dispels many common misconceptions, among them the notion that languages spoken by isolated peoples are simple or primitive. On the contrary, the more isolated a language, the more complex it becomes, as native speakers add numerous layers of special-purpose features. It’s only when other, non-native adults arrive that the language begins to simplify. He notes, for instance, the enormous complexity of Navajo (and, yes, he deals with the code talkers). He also reminds us that spoken languages antedate by millennia any written language and quips that all languages are “sluts,” taking on the attributes of all comers. McWhorter also dismisses the notion that Black English is Africa-born but recognizes the dialect’s dignity, calling it “a different kind of English but not a lesser one.”

Turgid at times, but mostly eye-opening, even liberating.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-592-40625-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Gotham Books

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2011

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

IN MY PLACE

From the national correspondent for PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour: a moving memoir of her youth in the Deep South and her role in desegregating the Univ. of Georgia. The eldest daughter of an army chaplain, Hunter-Gault was born in what she calls the ``first of many places that I would call `my place' ''—the small village of Due West, tucked away in a remote little corner of South Carolina. While her father served in Korea, Hunter-Gault and her mother moved first to Covington, Georgia, and then to Atlanta. In ``L.A.'' (lovely Atlanta), surrounded by her loving family and a close-knit black community, the author enjoyed a happy childhood participating in activities at church and at school, where her intellectual and leadership abilities soon were noticed by both faculty and peers. In high school, Hunter-Gault found herself studying the ``comic-strip character Brenda Starr as I might have studied a journalism textbook, had there been one.'' Determined to be a journalist, she applied to several colleges—all outside of Georgia, for ``to discourage the possibility that a black student would even think of applying to one of those white schools, the state provided money for black students'' to study out of state. Accepted at Michigan's Wayne State, the author was encouraged by local civil-rights leaders to apply, along with another classmate, to the Univ. of Georgia as well. Her application became a test of changing racial attitudes, as well as of the growing strength of the civil-rights movement in the South, and Gault became a national figure as she braved an onslaught of hostilities and harassment to become the first black woman to attend the university. A remarkably generous, fair-minded account of overcoming some of the biggest, and most intractable, obstacles ever deployed by southern racists. (Photographs—not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17563-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1992

Did you like this book?

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

A LITTLE HISTORY OF POETRY

A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

Did you like this book?

more