Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tales from the Non-Fiction Section

Apologies, my readers. My internet is down. It's great, really: I've diminished my time faffing about on the internet and have more time to read. This does, however, impact my ability to post timely blog entries.

I work in a bookstore and people often ask me where the non-fiction section is. My job is to explain to them that there is no non-fiction section. Non-fiction is everything that is not fiction, obviously, duh, come on people. If there was a non-fiction section, then books about puppies and books about Hitler would be shelved next to each other. People who are looking for the non-fiction section usually want book about a concept that they have no words for. Ladies, oftentimes, asking for the non-fiction section, want memoirs about women just like them, but they don't know the word for memoir, or they don't understand that the thing they want is a memoir too, because "memoir" sounds more literary than My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler. Men who are looking for the non-fiction section don't know what they want, but if you pick them up and carry them to the military history section and set them down, they will be happy enough.

The true non-fiction section is the clearance section. If a person is simply looking for an interesting book that is not about made-up stuff, he should go to the clearance section, spend a bit of time browsing, and spend $10 for five fine books that matches his whim and interest. However, browsing for books is, to some, a difficult concept. This is compounded at the State Fair Sale, which happens in mid-October and is well worth attending. A person will walk up to me and say, "Do you have any books about gardening?" and I wave my hand at the quarter-acre of non-fiction filling roughly half of the Grandstand and say, "Probably." They are befuddled because I don't have a gardening section, just a non-fiction section. I have to say, "It's kind of a treasure hunt," and smile, and they remember that treasure hunts are fun!, and they must now go on one, and then they buy fifteen pounds of books and have trouble getting them out to their car. I will now tell you about the books that I have been reading, straight from the non-fiction section:

John McWhorter is one of the coolest popular explainers of race and linguistics in America today, and I'm surprised at how he has managed to fly under everyone's, including my, radars for so long, especially because his awesome book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America was a New York Times bestseller, so someone must have bought it. McWhorter made a series of lectures on The History of World Language for The Teaching Company, that company that sells lecture series in the back of the New York Times Book Review, which is how I found out about him, because I listen to those, although not, of course, for $299.95 NOW $69.95! We have them at work, and the library has them. I recommend the one that I'm talking about right now and Bob Briar's History of Ancient Egypt.
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter is a damn fine book if you like linguistics. I would however, recommend his Teaching Company lectures or one of his other books to start off with. This is not a general overview of the history of English or of world languages, both of which McWhorter has written, or of creoles, which are McWhorter's forte. McWhorter's point, this is a very pointy book, is that the standard narrative of the history of the English language is simplistic and flawed in three particular ways.

Firstly, English has more Celtic influence than anyone has acknowledged up to this point. English is an extraordinarily peculiar Germanic language in many ways, but one of its queerest features is the meaningless "do." It's unique among other European languages... except Welsh and the other Gaelics!, and it confuses the hell out of English language learners. Why do we say "Why do we say?" when other languages are perfectly content to say, "Why we say?" "Porque nosotros hablamos?" Chaucer might say, "Why say we 'do'?" to phrase that phrase. We also say "ing." I am explaining this to you in my blog. If I explain this to you in my blog, that takes a slightly different shade of meaning. I do choose to be explaining this to you instead of watching Top Gear on a lazy Friday off. Guess which other language has an "ing" construction? Welsh! And those other Gaelic languages. In the common story of English, a bunch of Angles and Saxons invaded England, killed everybody or shoved them up into Ireland and Wales, and replaced the Gaelic languages with Beowulf Germanic.  McWhorter argues that it was more complicated than that. What probably happened, rather than full-on genocide, was the usual: kill the men, marry the women, and the kids end up speaking a pidgin which takes on features of both parents' languages. This happens again in English, too, in McWhorter's second point of the book, popping the language from Olde to Middle English. The Norsemen invade and suddenly English changes from a language of painfully complex conjugations, worse than good old yo hablo, tu hablas, nosotros hablamos, vosotros huh, usted hables, ellos hablandos Spanish, and maybe horribler than German, with its multiple crazy noun endings, to a nice language, easy on the verb endings, where I go, you go, he/she/it goes, and they go. He argues that this came about, again, by non-native adult speakers of the language not bothering to learn the arcane complexities of their wives' tongue. They were Vikings, after all. Their children dropped endings, and people began speaking something much closer to modern English than the language of Beowulf, in the North at least. A mass migration of Northeners to Southern England in the late middle ages/early modern period, brought the simplified language to the capitol in time for the printing press to codify it as the language of the land. Now let's swing back to one of McWhorter's asides: People don't write as they talk. Especially not in the olden days, when writing was the purview of an elite few. The fact that people were writing a Germanic-sounding, ending-heavy formal English up to the Norman conquest doesn't mean that was how people were speaking. Most English speakers who could write were writing in Latin at the time, and English-speaking English writers could well have been writing a stylized, formal English. McWhorter argues that scholars need to stop assuming that written language and spoken language are the same thing when it comes to tracing English usages.

McWhorter's third point is that the English weirdness among the Germanic languages started before the Angles ever laced up their pants and went invading. He says a third of old, old Germanic words aren't even Germanic. They're funny. And they describe sea things. They seem foreign. Almost Semitic. They seem like Phoenicians established settlements on the west coasts of Europe (now underwater) and made babies with the locals and those babies grew up speaking a Phoenician-influenced Germanic creole that left its mark in words like "sea." McWhorter makes it clear that he has less to back this up than his other points.

Not wanting to become an academic linguist just to find out if McWhorter's theories are on or not, I will take him at his word that these are cogent theories. One assumes that John McWhorter is publishing this stuff in academic journals as well, while writing books about topics in popular linguistics, commenting on African American issues in various news media, writing more books on contemporary African American issues, giving a TED Talk, serving as Carnegie fellow, and owning a cat with a people name. He is so cool.

Next up: More non-fiction.

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