Book Review: New in Nonfiction
Two new nonfiction books work their mouths around the English language
Reviewed by Tim Warden, Fri., Nov. 21, 2008
Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savoryby Roy Blount Jr.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 384 pp., $25
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of Englishby John McWhorter
Gotham, 256 pp., $22.50
"Writers love a good list," begins Roy Blount Jr.'s entry for lists in his book Alphabet Juice, which both contains many lists and is itself a list. But one needn't read the lists entry to know that "extraordinary miscellaneity" and "rhythm" are "two keys to a good list" – both qualities are evident on nearly every page of Alphabet Juice. For instance, Blount lists his favorite UrbanDictionary.com entries for "hater" (including: "4. NOT someone who hates a hater"), and following that, he lists a few choice examples of the threatened art form headlinese (including: "City Pledges Strict Enforcement of Law"). In fact, well before I reached the Ls, Blount had won me over with both his abilities as an unimpeachable digresser (that's the miscellaneity part) and by pacing this list of entries such that one can enjoy reading it even in lengthy doses (the rhythm part).
For all its meandering, Alphabet Juice does congeal around a specific idea. This idea, represented by the word "sonicky," is introduced by a discussion of pig utterances. Ours go, "oink oink." In Russia, it's "chrjo chrjo." The point of this is to call out "scholars of linguistics" on their belief that the dissimilarity of pig noises across the globe reveals that "the relation between a word and its meaning is arbitrary." Blount disagrees and fires back with ammunition culled from the more discernible sections of the world's barnyards. After he explains that it's damn hard to spell "any of the various sounds that pigs make," he spends the rest of the book turning the notion of randomness in language construction into an idea only the most tone-deaf, ivory-tower elitist would claim. After all, are we really to think it random that "sphincter, or squeeze constricts the throat"? Or is it just a happy accident that a cave person might "without the benefit of any verbal tradition come up with something close to nausea" to communicate that feeling. Blount emphasizes that "the music of words" is an essential ingredient in language construction. But given that he provides little more than the one example of scholars' reasoning, I doubt he writes to persuade scholars. No, instead of writing for peer review, Blount is using this argument as a reason to wax away on his favorite "Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof." And fortunately for his readers, this is something he clearly takes joy in doing.
In a sharp contrast of purpose, John McWhorter is definitely out to persuade scholars with his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. McWhorter reimagines the history of English in a new version that goes on the offensive against historians' insistence that randomness played a role in the creation of Middle English. McWhorter's insight, as well as his self-professed frustration with the history of English, stems from his observation that English is more peculiar for its grammar than for its words. From the Old English of Beowulf to the Middle English that emerged in the 14th century (following 300 years of French rule), McWhorter says, "English lost a perplexingly vast amount of grammar." Also, during this period, English gained two pieces of grammar unlike "what any languages on earth were taking on!" The oddities are: the "meaningless do" used to formulate questions (as in, "Do you wanna shut up?") and the -ing suffix used to form our present tense (as in, "I'm walking here"). McWhorter writes that "specialists in the history of English sincerely believe that English started using 'do' and '-ing' by itself, and that it is irrelevant, or virtually so, that Welch and Cornish have the same features." Being that Welch and Cornish shared Britain with Old English, this would seem an unlikely coincidence.
As I read Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, I was reminded a bit of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene insomuch as that book sought to disabuse its readers of the fallacy that Darwinian evolution is a random process. If Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue can become a sort of Selfish Gene for English-language history, then that is great for McWhorter and an important contribution to the project of advancing human understanding. And although McWhorter's somewhat tedious debunking of counterarguments gave me that alright-already feeling in places, by the end of the book, all was forgiven. After all, we are on the cusp of inaugurating an unapologetic intellectual as our next president, and in that spirit, these two books that appear earnestly interested in advancing the Enlightenment project are valued examples of an optimistic new age.