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Friday, August 5, 2011



Linguist Considers 'What Language Is' — And Isn't

Linguist John McWhorter says sign languages function in ways that no other languages do. But, he says, like all spoken languages, they also morph over time.
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Linguist John McWhorter says sign languages function in ways that no other languages do. But, he says, like all spoken languages, they also morph over time.
Whether or not the first humans could speak is still a matter of debate, but most scientists agree that languages have been around for at least 80,000 years.
The written word, in contrast, is relatively new. Humans have been putting words on tablets, textiles and paper only for approximately the past 5,500 years.
Yet many assume the written word is superior to how humans actually speak. If a language isn't fixed on a page — like English, French, Spanish or Chinese — it isn't "real."
And while many English speakers consider the English language to be relatively advanced, linguist John McWhorter says it's actually profoundly simpler than many ancient languages.



In his book, What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be, McWhorter, a professor of linguistics and Western civilization at Columbia University, debunks some of our most persistent myths about language.
Languages are anything but pure, he writes; they are complex, intermingled and, as he tells NPR's Tony Cox, constantly morphing "like a lump in a lava lamp."
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