Thursday, June 09, 2016

Introductory linguistics that delighted this opinionated dummy

For anyone who is looking for a truly educational, truly fascinating, truly understandable long read (18 hours in the less expensive audio edition referenced here) I cannot recommend The Story of Human Language in The Great Courses series too highly. This is a clear yet sophisticated introduction to the discipline of linguistics -- just what I'd hope to get if I took an introductory college course in the subject.

Ever wondered how the world's 6000 or so languages can be so different from each other, yet somehow related? That's here, as is plenty of discussion of what is known about how language groups diffused around the globe. Why do some languages seem intricately complex, while others seem to be radically bare-bones? Linguistics has insights into this conundrum. Do you suspect that how people think is somehow conditioned by the structure of the languages they speak? That hypothesis is discussed here too.

The lecturer for this course, Professor John McWhorter who is affiliated with the Manhattan Institute and teaches at Columbia, is as good at conveying difficult concepts in simple terms as any instructor I've ever listened to. Truth be told, I was lousy at attending lecture classes long ago in college; even the professors who got good reviews as lecturers seemed more interested in entertaining than instruction. McWhorter entertains, but he also communicates substance.

It was healthy for me as a proper, silo-ed left-liberal to find myself delightedly learning from McWhorter. You see, before encountering these lectures, he was known to me as a Black critic of Black Lives Matter, who makes an unsupported leap from condemning police violence against Black people to somehow raising up the parallel horror of Black-on-Black violence. (For what it is worth, I think Jill Leovy provides insight on how the absence of a functioning rule of law results in Black people killing each other in some communities.)

McWhorter categorizes himself as a "cranky liberal" who has found a place at a libertarian think tank. It's possible to catch echoes of a style of argumentation he's honed in the academy listening to these lecturers: he oh-so-carefully and reasonably describes intellectual positions he intends to demolish, then carries the credibility he has earned through rationality to knock over what he disagrees with. On linguistic topics, he may be right. I take him with a lot of salt on politics -- but that only makes it more delightful to have found this series so educational.

For a sample of McWhorter's analysis of language development in the context of the current migration flow into Europe, here's an Atlantic article.

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