Remember the classic shaggy dog story in which for
years the owner of a lost canine waits for any
response to an ad which reads "Lost: Shaggy dog."
Finally a knock is heard upon the door and there
stands before him a man with a very shaggy dog. The
punch line is "Not that shaggy!"
This is how I felt when towards the end of John
McWhorter's totally entertaining book, a sugarcoated
antidote to scholarly linguistic falderal - and here,
I'm sure, Mcwhorter would digress to explore the
derivation of the word "falderal" - the author
poo-poos the cherished notion of "adamspeak", an
original first language.
By the time he has blasted this theory to bits like a
kid aiming a BB gun at his teddy bear in a sad but
necessary rite of passage, we are prepared for it.
McWhorter has shown us by stacks of examples, a glut
one could say, that language is continually being
created and dying, changing and refusing to change.
He makes of us linguistic Buddhists, ready to accept
the mutability of all words and to pursue our own
verbal salvation by playing diligently and joyfully
with our mother tongues.
McWhorter reveals that at age four, in frustration at not
being able to fully communicate with a playmate, "I
learned to sound out Hebrew (I was that kind of a
kid)." For fun he picks up some Polish so he can
order lunch in a favorite diner. His knowledge of
French is possibly suspect in these parlous
times...and his ability to tweak a sentence and make
it mean what he wants it to turns his book into an
elaborate crossword puzzler's mother lode.
I'm no linguist, though the wonder of words has always
drawn me with a lusty siren song. I can't therefore
say that Mcwhorter's book would satisfy a truly
scholarly nature. But it satisfied me, a rather
average reader, because it kept the ball rolling and
gathered a lot of moss along the way.
My favorite bit, that which I'll carry off and nourish
with care, was McWhorter's revelation that Native
Americans really used to talk pretty much like Tonto,
inventing a serviceable pidgin that aped the dominant
lingo of the time.
"...this was all that was
necessary for someone still rooted in his native
culture and only needing English for trade and brief
interactions. Native Americans across the country
really did say heap for a lot and squaw for a woman."
Now that takes me back to the thrilling days of