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Image of cover of Myths Lies and Half Truths of Language Uses

 

Title: Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage

Author: John McWhorter

Publisher: The Great Courses

Copyright: 2012

ISBN13: n/a

Length: 24 30-minute lectures

Price: $69.95 on sale

Rating: 90%

I purchased this DVD course for my own use.

A friend introduced me to The Great Courses (then known as The Teaching Company) about three years ago I was instantly hooked. Since then I've watched more than 20 courses, mostly to pass the time I spend on an elliptical machine or exercise bike. That the courses engage me sufficiently to make exercise bearable testifies to the quality of their material and presentation.

John McWhorter, a lecturer at Columbia University, has both an engaging personality and excellent command of his material. I enjoyed his previous course The Story of Human Language, which explored the development and spread of language throughout human history. He reprises some of the material in Myths, but McWhorter presents plenty of new material and greatly expands on his earlier discussions.

From a technology and society standpoint, the most interesting aspects of this course are his coverage of electronic communications and their role in society. Languages with only a few speakers or that are confined geographically tend to change very slowly and retain most of the complications introduced early in the language's development. By contrast, languages spoken by larger, geographically diverse groups with many speakers learning the language as adults tend to evolve quickly. It's easy to point to modern English as a language stripped of much of its complexity through international usage and adult learning, but the same type of change occurred in the transition from Old English to Middle English as the Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Frankish, and Celtic peoples fought, pillaged, settled, and intermarried.

McWhorter focuses one lecture on electronic communications such as texting and email, arguing that these new forms allow for a new mode of expression. In previous lectures, he noted that speech has always had formal and informal modes you speak differently when you address a crowd than when you talk to your best friend. It's always been that way. Despite what you read in 19th Century literature, friends on a park bench in Washington Square spoke informally. Writing, by contrast, was perceived as more permanent and, therefore, formal. Long the province of the educated and usually religious elite, widespread literacy lead to a slow decrease in written formality. Texting and email introduced a new mode of informal writing that accelerated this transition and, by highlighting the contrast between formal and informal expression, led to a new round of claims that the changes damage the language. McWhorter argues that nothing of the sort is happening - it's just the expected evolution of language in an unexpected direction.

As much as I like this course, I do feel compelled to point out that McWhorter includes some sideways political commentary that, while funny, wasn't necessary to make his points about language. In the opening lecture, he notes Barack Obama's habit of saying "They invited Michelle and I..." instead of the correct "...and me" and that Lyndon Johnson inherited large ears from his parents. It appeared he got a note from the producer to balance his statements, which accounts for his note that a former American president was famous for mispronouncing "nuclear" as "new-cue-lar". He didn't name George W. Bush as the individual in question so the scales don't quite balance, but for me it's a minor issue. I bring it up because he presented his critiques of Obama and Johnson at the top of the course, highlighting them in relation to his muted notes on their conservative counterparts much later in the narrative.

 If you're exceptionally sensitive to political commentary, buy the course and skip the first lecture. If you're not, buy the course and watch it all.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.

 

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