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Reidy, Virginia

Language and Language Development

Professor Stephanie LaQua, M.Ed.
1 March 2016
Assignment 2A
McWhorter's The Power of Babel Discussion and Analysis
Short Essay and Evaluation Prompts: Questions 1-6
1. Author John McWhorter argues that language is a fundamentally
mutative phenomenon. How does language change? Use the five
faces of language change to support your answer. (Ch. 1, reference p.
18- 35 for criteria discussion)
John McWhorter supports his theory that language transforms
vs. evolves through the concurrent and interactive progression of a
number of processes, which can be broken down into five principal
ones (p. 18 McWhorter). He refers to this progression as The Five
Faces of Language Change (p. 18 McWhorter) and explains that
language changes by these processes:
1. Sound Change occurs when pieces of words, often prefixes and
suffixes, are deemphasized and gradually combine or erode.
Sounds also transform into new sounds, making new words. The
new words are passed along to new generations of speakers of
the language.
2. Extension occurs when a grammar pattern, such as how plurals
are formed, is generalized across the language and wipes out
the other patterns. McWhorter refers to this process as a virus
(p. 23 McWhorter), that has now taken over the whole
organism (p. 23 McWhorter).
3. The Expressiveness Cycle refers to how an expression gradually
wears down in force and becomes used more frequently with less
impact, such as the word terrible, which once had much
stronger connotations but now is used more regularly for less
terrible things.

4. Rebracketing happens when misassignments (p. 28

McWhorter) of word sounds or word meanings happen so often
that new words and phrases are born to replace them. My
college Italian teacher always charmed us when he said low and
below for low and behold. We thought his phrase made more
sense anyway!
5. Semantic Change refers to how the meaning of words and
phrases can undergo a process of narrowing and broadening
through the ages (p. 31, McWhorter) until eventually no longer
represent the original word or phrase. For example, hound
once referred to all dogs, like the word dog does now. Its
meaning narrowed to refer only to hunting dogs. Collectively,
these processes are constantly at force with language, shaping
and changing it with usage and time.
2. The theme Todays Dialect is Tomorrows Language runs
through the text (p. 92). McWhorter argues this as a kind of mantra
for the linguistic discussion: Dialects is all there is. Using
McWhorters analysis of the eight languages of the Chinese versus
eight Chinese dialects, support your understanding of this theme in
Chapter 2.
McWhorter continually uses examples to support his theory that
languages are ever evolving and morphing into new languages. Since
the transformation of a language into a new one is an incremental
process (p. 74 McWhorter), he theorizes that what we process as set
languages are really dialects in transition. One example he uses to
demonstrate his thinking is the Chinese languages. He begins by
explaining that most Chinese languages, such as Mandarin and
Cantonese, which are referred to as dialects of Chinese, are so
vastly different (p. 73 McWhorter) that they should be thought of as
separate languages. Its the Chinese writing system that ties these
languages together in a way that makes them considered to be
originally from the same language. However, branching off of these
languages are yet more versions that differ enough as to make them
difficult to understand among speakers of their parent language.
Differences such as tone and shape of a word can change its
meaning. Although culture and politics group these languages under
one (Chinese), McWhorter describes them more accurately as several
dozen dialects of eight different languages (p. 74 McWhorter), thereby
supporting his mantra that dialects is all there is.
3. The author describes how language proceeds in myriad directions.
Dialects form by migration, communication, and education. How

would you relate the examples of the family tree or making stew in
discussing how language change and mixing is inherent according to
the author (p. 93-94). Chapter 3.
McWhorter uses the analogy of how a family tree grows to
illustrate how most linguists describe the progression of language. He
says it would be as though all languages sprang from an original
root, with many offshoots upon offshoots representing how
languages split from each other to form new languages. However, he
feels that the bush analogy cannot capture the fluid nature of the
degree of relatedness between dialects (p. 93 McWhorter) because
though it does demonstrate language splitting into subvarieties, it
doesnt show the equally important feature of how languages mix
together. McWhorter prefers the idea of a stew, with many added
ingredients to represent language transformation. The stews
ingredients (languages/dialects) can stand out on their own in original
form, but also become suffused with juice and flavor from the other
items as well (p.94 McWhorter). McWhorter points to the English
language as a prime example of his stew theory, stating, no less than
ninety-nine percent (of words) were taken from other languages (p. 95
4. What would be the benefit for having the Latin language as a
foundation for learning English? (p. 98). McWhorter posits that Latin
teaches vocabulary and base words, grammar, and how to have an
economy of words in speaking. Do you agree with this point of view?
Does learning any second language facilitate learning English?
Support your opinion with Ch. 3 concepts.
I agree with McWhorter because the English language as we
know it today is a descendent of Latin, and contains many of the roots,
suffixes and prefixes in its words. To study it could therefore help a
learner of English organize and understand the language better.
Students studying for the SAT, and spelling bee contestants often use
Latin roots to form a base strategy for learning vocabulary and
spelling. I enjoyed the movie, Akeelah and the Bee, that came out in
2006. Its the story of an eleven-year old disadvantaged girl who finds
she has a knack for spelling. She wins her schools spelling bee and
begins working with a brilliant English professor to prepare for the
national spelling bee. He teaches her that all big words, such as
solterraneous, are really combinations of small words, and if she can
learn all the small words, she will be able to spell anything. I found the
clip of this part of the movie on Youtube:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQ2UdNY0UAw. I think that the
idea of an economy of words means that if a speaker knows these

small words and can form the language from them, they will be more
efficient, coherent speakers.
5. Give examples of usage of English vocabulary words in other
languages. Discuss the relationship of English words that are being
incorporated into other languages.
McWhorter explains, all it takes is contact between cultures (p.
100 McWhorter) for word borrowing among languages to occur. During
the early 80s when Japan was experiencing an economic boom, many
Japanese tourists visited the United States. I happened to be working
at Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco handing out coupons to Wendys
Hamburgers. Wait, theres moreI was also dressed as Wendy from
Wendys Hamburgers! Consequently, hundreds upon hundreds of
Japanese tourists stopped to take my picture, and many discussions
ensued about the hanbgus (hamburgers), where to get good bgen
(bargain) on San Francisco t-shatsu (t-shirts), where to buy chiketto
(ticket) for the Bay cruise, and that I was tarento (a celebrity)! Perhaps
I am a celebrity in Japan and dont know it. English has become a very
important language worldwide due to the status of the United States as
a world power, and many of its words have seeped into other
cultures that deal with the United States economically and socially.
6. Discuss the development of a new dialect of Spanish in America-Spanglish (p. 119-120) as it relates to Question 5. You may prefer to
give another symbiotic language example like Konglish or Denglisch
(p. 117) to support your answer in discussing hybrid linguistic
development, where English language has bled into other languages.
Answers may vary here (Ch. 3)
I just returned from a quick trip down the California coast and
back to see my daughter perform in her dance company. While staying
in Santa Barbara, I noticed the predominance of Spanish names for
almost every street in the city. We stopped by the Santa Barbara
Mission, and were reminded of the Spanish roots of not only that city,
but of all of California. My husband wondered how the Spanish
language, which must have been the primary language of the state,
had disappeared to the point it is now considered a second language.
With the current growing Hispanic population, now the majority in
California, it only seems fitting that Spanish be recognized and
respected as a usable language, and that Spanish speakers in
California will naturally be peppering Spanish with English words
(McWhorter 120). Given the pressure that Americans put on foreignlanguage speakers to speak English coupled with the shift in
demographics, it would make sense that a new dialect, Spanglish, will

immerge. As McWhorter points out, we are just being mislead by how

slow and gradual language change is (120), but this transformation is
already occurring.
Week 3
Assignment 3A
Language and Language Development
Power of Babel Analysis, by John McWhorter (2004)
7. How do Pidgin English and tone relate to the development of
language? Is there a difference when people use the language without
having the need to acquire it? Explain. (Chapters 4 and 5, p. 206)
A pidgin language refers to when a rudimentary language is formed
when people needed to use a language on a regular basis without
having the need or motivation to acquire it fully (p. 134 McWhorter),
such as in the 1800s when the Norwegians and Russians were in a
trade relationship. They formed a very sparse shared language in order
to communicate, but didnt see the need in learning the other
language fully. Pidgin English varieties formed in a similar manner, but
some were not of a mutual nature as in the case of Native Americans.
For many, the English they acquired was enough for basic
communication and brief interactions. My favorite example from
McWhorters book is that of the Native American woman dissing a
white suitor. She said, You silly. You weak. You baby-hands. No catch
horse. No kill buffalo. No good but for sit still read book (McWhorter
136). She certainly got her message across. I think people who dont
need to acquire a language, but use it for basic purposes, just do the
minimum to get by with it.
Regarding the use of tone in a language to differentiate word
meanings, McWhorter explains, tones emerge in a language as an
accident of sound erosion rather than out of any communicative
imperative (195). Tonal differences are used when sound erosion
makes words undistinguishable unless it is used, especially when the
language makes heavy use of simple monosyllables (McWhorter
197). However, when a rudimentary pidgin is formed because adults
need to learn and use a language quickly or passing, utilitarian
purposes (McWhorter 206), subtleties such as tone are cast aside.
The simplistic purpose for the creation of the pidgin ensures that none
of the potential language complexities from the original languages
makes it into the pidgin.
8. In Chapter 5, the author argues that world languages are densely
overgrown and contain utterly unnecessary decorations, and fluff. How
would communication be without evidentiary markers?

Evidential markers are used in certain languages, such as the Tuyuca

language to help give a language a more nuanced, expressive
capability. These markers give precise indicators regarding the source
of the circumstances and provide more information. Different suffixes
in the Tuyuca (Amazon) language help indicate a more precise
explanation. Instead of just He is chopping trees, there are various
suffixes that describe under what circumstances the speaker knows
this (hears him chopping, sees him chopping, supposes he is
chopping). McWhorter says the markers, renders a language more
expressive and precise (180). However, he feels that these types of
markers are not really needed, but rather an accessory to full human
communication (McWhorter 181). He refers linguistic overgrowth as
language having developed baubles (McWhorter 215). I think that
the baubles are what make a language beautiful and artistic, especially
in the form of written expression, such as poetry, prose and lyrics, but I
understand his point about their extraneous nature.
9. Intonation influences the meaning and register of a word. Could you
give an example of how precise Chinese syllable stress is key in
communicating? (p. 194)
McWhorter explains that in Chinese, as in many Asian languages, the
same syllable can have a great many different meanings depending
merely on what tone it is uttered (194). He explains how many
meanings there can be for the single syllable yau, depending on one
of six tones used: (McWhorter 194).
Syllable: yau
high and level tone
Worry (or rest, depending on other words)
high and rising tone
middle and level tone
low and falling tone
oil and swim
low and rising tone
have and friend
low and level tone
Again and right (as in hand)
McWhorter notes how these nuances pose a great challenge to
learners unaccustomed to linking meaning to subtle tonal gradations
(p. 194 McWhorter).
10. McWhorter argues in Ch. 5 that tone is not a necessary feature of
the human language. It is a cognitively parsable but ultimately
accidental permutation of a languages original material that can result
only from a language, which began without it. (p. 197) Why is this
linguistic argument important? Explain.
McWhorter makes an argument that tone is a secondary feature of
language that resulted from sound erosion and has no original

communicative value. The original language existed and functioned

without tone-infused words, and these words only exist now because of
accidental permutation of the original language. McWhorters
argument is important in that it implies languages can work without
the added fluff and sludge that often muddy their
expressiveness. He says that developmental overkill (McWhorter
205) contributes to why learning other languages as adults is such a
challenge. On the other hand, though, now that tone has become
integral to understanding many languages, it seems to me that it must
be considered an essential component of those languages.
11. Discuss the authors point of view on Sign Language (p. 214).
McWhorter considers sign language to be of equal stature to spoken
languages. He uses the example of deaf children coming together for
the first time to demonstrate how a language might start anew. These
particular children, from Nicaragua, had no established sign language
and little contact with other deaf people. They came together in a new
school for the deaf with only the language systems they had used in
their individual homes, which were very specific to each child.
McWhorter explains, they quickly conventionalized a systematic sign
language of their own capable of expressing all human thoughts
(214). This touching and beautiful example supports the idea that sign
language can develop like real (spoken) languages do. McWhorter
says that sign languages contain the same elements as spoken
languages, such as grammar, complexity and nuance. However, since
sign languages are more recently developed, they more closely
resemble the newer creoles in structure. He calls them manual
creoles (McWhorter 214).
12. Spoken language is an ever-changing system, the very nature of
which is always in a process of transformation into a new language.
Can we justify the double negative as grammatically acceptable in the
English language today? Who is Falstaff?
***Posted on the discussion forum***
Falstaff is an iconic and historically immensely popular Shakespeare
character. He appeared in three of Shakespeares plays, Henry IV,
Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor. McWhorter uses one of
Falstaffs lines from a famous speech in Henry IV to illustrate the
strength of employing a double-negative. Theres never none of these
demure boys come to any proof Falstaff says, referring to why
abstinence from drinking alcohol isnt good! McWhorter is
demonstrating how the use of the double negative was used by
Shakespeare to give greater emphasis to the phrase. Falstaff was really
sure that drinking was important to the body and morals of a man! The
contradiction is that Falstaff was not a moral character. Or should I say,
not no way was he a conscientious man! McWhorter is making a point

about the contradictory and arbitrary nature of language by using a

character full of contradictions himself to demonstrate his point. He
explains that the rules of use against the double negative are an
example of rules that "have been imposed on the language from
without, rather than arising naturally within them" (McWhorter 226).
He thinks that the rule against double negatives is "the most utterly
silly of these rules" since it's use is prevalent in languages throughout
the rest of the world, such as in the Spanish phrase, "Nunca he visto
nada" (Never have I seen nothing).