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on 30 May 2017
Decent and easily readable pop sci introduction to basic elements of (historical) linguistics: language as a spectrum of dialects, the nature of sound change, semantic shifts, and some bits and bobs on sociolinguistics. The main argument is to stop seeing languages as official, immutable things, and dialects, accents, creoles etc as degenerate forms, but rather to recognize that all languages are just a version or variant of a broad range of possibilities.

Very little in this book, including that lesson, will be new to people with a basic grasp of linguistics, but for complete newcomers it's a useful and entertaining read. McWhorter also makes the useful point that 'culture' actually has relatively little to do with the shape of language, and that therefore the importance of language preservation, for which he makes an impassioned plea at the end of the book, is not best defended by claiming that each language preserves unique cultural heritage. Rather, languages are worth preserving in their own right, just like biodiversity is - an argument that seems to me right. Even so, McWhorter is gloomily pessimistic about the prospects of achieving either.

Two caveats: the book is pretty superficial if you already know anything about the subjects in question, all the more since for ease of entry McWhorter studiously avoids using any proper terminology from linguistics; and to make it accessible, it is heavily larded (too much so for my taste) with pop culture references. The problem with that is that those tend to go out of date really fast, which in this book from 2001 is already noticeable.
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While I can't be as entertaining (and I'm not as well-informed) as the presumably bilingual Mr Foulkes-Arellano, I concur with his rating. There are nuggets to be found - who knew that in Australia 'words that sound similar to the name of a tribe member who died are deliberately replaced by the equivalent word from another language'? - but two pages further on you come to the leaden para about one- or two-word infinitives. Like, whatever. Better by far is Mark Abley's The Prodigal Tongue, which is superficially similar (wideranging and populist) but a fun read that doesn't bog you down - as well as winning on title! And Abley writes, well, ably, by no means a prerequisite in a book about language; academic and organisation-speak, for instance, he describes as 'Latin's bulk without its clarity'. Unimprovable.
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on 23 May 2004
It's difficult to know where to begin with this tome.
It's kinda like "Will & Grace" meets sociolinguistics. There is a serious work in there on linguistics, but this is somewhat overwhelmed by McWhorter's immaculate scholarship and bizarre errors.
"Welsh [hangs on] in England" (p256) - sorry, Wales is in Great Britain not England. And there are many Welsh for whom English is not a first language.
The book is as much about a bibliomaniac sitting in his appartment with his cat, eyebrows and DVD collection, as it is about the history (or non-history)of language. Anyone hoping for a helicopter view on historical linguistics will have to look elsewhere.
There is rather more about pidgins and creoles than the book's thesis might warrant, and in the end I found McWhorter's lack of understanding of balanced bilingualism rather sad and annoying.

Overall it's a reasonably enjoyable read if you enjoy languages and 20th century TV. To be honest there are much better sources of information.
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on 16 January 2003
I've been reading books about language and linguistics for many years and have rarely been as disappointed by a book. If you extract all McWhorter's own self-referential little comments about his childhood, stories about television shows and comic books, and "cute" footnotes (example: 6. "Hats off to the 'Simpsons' house composer...." 7. "I like that one too." 9. "Dino fans: Yes, I know....", to take just one chapter), there is scarcely any new or interesting information in his book.
Who is the book aimed at? On one hand, the overly colloquial style ("Make no mistake: I love written language deeply and enjoy few things more than composing prose on the page" !!) argues that it is aimed at a reader who knows nothing whatever about the subject and needs to be pulled in by things like analysis of a McDonald's ad in German. On the other hand, the long, long, long sections about creoles and pidgins seem to be aimed at a reader who is already fascinated by that subject. Well, at any rate this book was NOT aimed at me-- an interested and educated amateur.
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on 6 April 2013
An easy read of a book on the languages of the world that helps you understand why they exist and how they have multiplied and then are dissapearing, giving us a panorama of the different kinds of languages and their situation in the world nowadays.
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on 21 May 2016
Bought it for a language class and ended up really enjoying the book! McWhorter's style of writing is informative without being boring. I might read another one of his books when I get some time off from school!
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VINE VOICEon 15 September 2008
Although the subject matter of this book is one of enormous and lifelong interest to me, I had only dipped into this before now and this was my first attempt to read through the whole book. This largely didn't work for me - the chapters are too long and rambling, and poorly structured, with excessive use of long-winded examples. The editor should really have taken a good look at this and produced a more tightly structured book of half or two thirds the length. For this UK reader, there were also too many slightly flippant and highly irritating and unnecessary contemporary or near contemporary American cultural references that spoiled the flow of the book. Could have been a good deal better.
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on 3 October 2011
I am puzzled by the inconsistency of quality of this book. I read the kindle version, and the first think that strikes is the poor punctuation. Missing full stops, and obviously he cannot see the difference between a dash and a hyphen, which is unsettling. Then there are many poor analogies with American popular culture, most of which I didn't get. On the other hande, there is interesting data, and many conclusions that make a lot of sense. Also the analogies between language evolution and biological evolution are very relevant and appropriate.
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on 11 August 2013
I was somewhat disappointed by a work that made a big claim and took an awfully long time to try and evidence it. I am smitten by linguistics ( graduate) so learnt a lot (in chunks) but could not recommend this book to the casual reader. I was particularly disappointed as McWorter has a high reputation but to misquote a critic of Mozart it just has "too many words"!
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on 9 April 2003
If your interested in historical linguistics from an interested lay-perspective or the subject is new - its well worth the read - informative and enterraining - the Richard Dawkins of historical linguistics
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