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The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (Inglese) Copertina rigida – 10 lug 2014

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In The Language Hoax - a "manifesto" - John.H Mcwhorter wishes to counter contemporary "neo-Whorfian" claims that significant cognitive differences are determined by people's mother tongues ... McWhorter covers some basic importatnt topics. (Michael Silverstein, The Times Literary Supplement)

Engrossing reading. (Kerstin Hoge, Times Higher Education)

In this succinct, accessible and engaging book, John McWhorter looks at the evidence and concludes that this popular idea is wrong. His argument is convincing and, despite its brevity, the book covers immense ground. Anyone fascinated by language would enjoy and learn from it. (Oliver Kamm, The Times)

He [McWhorter] is an engaging, persuasive writer, and although his book is unlikely to be the final word on the subject, it is a provocative and valuable addition to the debate. (Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times Ireland)

The Language Hoax is a welcome antidote to unqualified Whorfian claims and pronouncements. (Kerstin Hoge, Times Higher Education)

John McWhorter wishes to drive a stake through the heart of that claim, known as the Safir-Whorf hypothesis, or the language-as-lens theory. (Tom Bartlett, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

[McWhorter] tackles linguistic determinism― the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis―head on, arguing that world views are human, not strapped to one culture. (Nature)

McWhorter writes with liveliness and enthusiasm, noting: All languages are, in their own ways, as utterly awesome as creatures, snowflakes, Haydn string quartets, or what The Magnificent Ambersons would have been like if Orson Welles had been allowed to do the final edit. This book makes very accessible to the lay reader some of the more esoteric theories of linguistic studies. (Publishers Weekly)

a well-written and stimulating book that asks uncomfortable questions and turns common arguments on their head. The author uses examples from an impressive number of languages across the globe to provide counter-examples to claims that may easily be made (and occasionally have been made) about the influence of language on thought ... McWhorter manages the difficult task of properly positioning himself within the vast territory between the two extremes of linguistic determinism and biolinguistics. (Peter Backhaus, Linguist List)

this manifesto is thought-provoking and well-argued reading not only for the general public but also for linguists. (Angela Bartens, Sociolinguistic Studies)


John McWhorter is Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University and author of many books, including The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, and What Language Is, What It Isn't, and What It Could Be. He also writes on language, as well as race and cultural issues, as Contributing Editor at The New Republic and Columnist at Time. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Time, and The New Yorker, and he has appeared often on National Public Radio, CSPAN and MSNBC.

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28 di 30 persone hanno trovato utile la seguente recensione
5.0 su 5 stelle Language, thought, and reality? 22 agosto 2014
Di Jaylia - Pubblicato su
Formato: Copertina rigida Acquisto verificato
Does the structure of the language we speak affect the way we think and how we perceive the world? If you are intrigued by that idea and don’t mind re-examining any cherished Sapir-Whorf beliefs you may have this short but spirited and well argued book will be of interest. When we think of the fascinatingly structured Navajo language there is some appeal to the idea that its speakers have a special, maybe advanced way of understanding reality, but with his usual well informed wit McWhorter makes the case that if you accept that and take the idea that language patterns and limits our perceptions to all its logical conclusions you’ll end up with some very unpalatable and fortunately wrong judgements about various other peoples of the world--from the Chinese who speak a language which marks hypotheticals less explicitly than English (though surely Chinese speakers around the globe understand the difference between “She would have called him” and “She will have called him” anyway) to the people in New Guinea who speak languages with only one word for eat, drink, and smoke, (but who couldn’t possibly be thus doomed by this lack to be unable to distinguish between those three activities.)

Most people tend to take their own language’s idiosyncrasies (and idioms) in stride, accepting them as what’s normal, but language variations are the actual norm. McWhorter makes a convincing case that most of the often marvelous differences between languages are random, like spontaneous DNA mutations, and almost meaningless when we are looking at cognitive skills. Yes, Amazonian people with languages that have no way to indicate amounts higher than 2 or 3 will likely not be good at math, but McWhorter believes that is driven by circumstance and culture since hunter-gathers around the world and throughout time have not had much use for a number like 8,527.

McWhorter is always entertaining, and I especially love all the fascinating language facts he deploys, like that the Tuyuca people, who also live in the Amazon, have a language so rich and complex there are multiple suffixes for every verb to indicate where the speaker learned whatever he or she is saying--there’s one suffix affixed to the verb to let listeners know that speakers heard someone else say what they are now saying, another suffix for when the speakers instead saw what they are telling you, yet another for when the speakers think what they are saying is true but aren’t sure, etc. The Language Hoax is replete with wonderful, mind-expanding language anecdotes.

While it’s definitely both fun and worth reading, this isn’t my favorite of McWhorter’s books. Because it focuses somewhat narrowly on the debate about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its neo-Whorfian revival, The Language Hoax didn’t glue me to its pages with the same level of intensity that some of McWhorter’s other titles have, including Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, which gives different insights into the history English than I have read elsewhere, The Power of Babel, which covers the worldwide history of language and its development, and What Language Is, which presents an almost fecund biological picture of how languages multiply, evolve, and disperse.
2 di 2 persone hanno trovato utile la seguente recensione
5.0 su 5 stelle Very useful, well worth reading 9 maggio 2016
Di Small-business owner - Pubblicato su
Formato: Copertina rigida Acquisto verificato
Thanks, John, for a thoroughly enjoyable and useful read. I'm a linguist who graduated from the same program you did -- but instead of going into academia, I work as a consultant in the business world. I cannot tell you how often I run across people who really think that language does shape thought -- because they heard Boroditsky on NPR, or they read an article somewhere, or they "know" that Eskimos have 37 words for snow because they definitely learned that in college, or whatever. Add to that the number of my acquaintances who are anxious to tell me that because the word for "fork" in some language is feminine, or is it masculine, and therefore…what? This point of view can have consequences for people's careers, if their managers really think that they can't possibly be good at their jobs because, for instance, their language "doesn't have tenses!" Your book will help me develop more useful responses than groaning inwardly and forcing a pleasant smile while I try to think whether it's worth the trouble to try.
28 di 31 persone hanno trovato utile la seguente recensione
4.0 su 5 stelle A bracing and informative book on language and the trendy theory that language shapes thought 8 ottobre 2014
Di R. M. Peterson - Pubblicato su
Formato: Copertina rigida Acquisto verificato
As signaled by its title, THE LANGUAGE HOAX is in the nature of a polemic -- or, as author John H. McWhorter prefers to call it, a "manifesto". It is his case against simple-minded Whorfianism, or to use a more formal name, the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis". Put generally, that is the theory that a person's language controls and limits the way she thinks, such that speakers of different languages conceptualize and experience the world differently. It is a trendy and insidiously pervasive notion. But it is not born out empirically, except to a minute and limited extent, and there are many cogent arguments against it, especially when one considers languages other than the one being touted as so uniquely different that it makes its speakers see the world differently.

I suspect that anthropologists studying a specific people and their language tend to fixate on that people and that language and are prone to developing tunnel vision. Someone with the linguistic background of McWhorter has a much broader perspective. For example, some languages have "evidential markers", by which a speaker stating a proposition indicates how he knows it to be true and/or the degree of certainty he has concerning that proposition -- for example, whether he saw the chopping of logs, heard it, heard others talk about it, or whether thinks but is not sure logs were being chopped. One such language is Tuyaca, spoken by a people of the Amazon. Does that feature mean that Tuyacas are more sensitive to epistemological nuances or that they are more skeptical than people whose language does not employ evidential markers (such as English)? Whorfians are predisposed to think so. But broaden the inquiry to include all the languages of the world. The Ancient Greeks were renowned for their inherent skepticism, yet they had no evidential markers. Nor does any European language spoken today except Bulgarian. What, as McWhorter asks, do Bulgarians have in common with Tuyuca tribespeople that Czechs, Macedonians, and Poles do not? Evidential markers are common in the Native American languages of western North America, but not the ones in the east. They are present in one Aboriginal language in Australia but not in another related language spoken by nearby Aborigines living in identical circumstances. Broadening the inquiry to take in all, or at least many other, languages quells the impulse to think that features such as evidential markers exist because speakers "need" them in making sense of or coping with their world. As McWhorter discusses at some length, the explanation for differences in languages is not based on cultural "needs" but rather is a matter of chance.

I cannot begin to do justice in a short Amazon review to McWhorter's "manifesto" and all the arguments he marshals to support it. It is rather remarkable that he fits it all in a compact book of 180 pages of text. For such an academic subject, THE LANGUAGE HOAX is written rather informally. Nonetheless, it still can be difficult to track, primarily because of the dense syntactical constructions that McWhorter is prone to. (What, for example, does this sentence mean?: "However, from where the idea that what shapes thought is the word for something rather than the thing itself?" I had to read it four times before I made sense of it.) But even if I did not fully assimilate some of the book's nuances, I learned many fascinating things about language.

I should add that McWhorter does not quarrel with those he calls "Neo-Whorfians", who he acknowledges have shown, empirically, that language can have a subtle and overall minor effect on thought. What McWhorter wants to dispel is the notion that language shapes "world-views", such that an Eskimo, because he has umpteen different words for snow, cognitively sees the world and experiences life much differently than you or I, or likewise the Herero from Namibia because his language does not differentiate between blue and green, or the Pirahã of the Brazilian rain forest because her language does not contain words for different numbers.

At the same time, McWhorter shows language to be incredibly complex and protean. His enthusiasm for the fecundity of language is contagious. And it is that fecundity that, to him, is what is so amazing about language. "To think of the most interesting thing about language as being how it sheds light on its speakers' thought processes is like cherishing Beethoven's Seventh Symphony not for its nimble melodies, richness of harmony, surging thematic progressions, and stirring orchestration, but for the handful of dimly flickering hints that it just might lend us about what Beethoven was like as a dude." I for one am persuaded.
5.0 su 5 stelle Taking on Whorfianism 15 ottobre 2015
Di Seven Kitties - Pubblicato su
Formato: Formato Kindle Acquisto verificato
I'm a huge fan of McWhorter. His basic technique is to take popular scholarship and basically turn it on its head. In this book, he takes on Whorfianism, especially Deutscher's fun read Through the Language Glass. In a series of easily understandable but erudite and very personable chapters (I swear, every time I read something of his, it makes me want to hang out with him and grab a beer together) he discusses the overreach and proper limitations of the idea of linguistic relativity to a general audience. You don't have to have read Deutscher to read this, but it might help if you want to make up your own mind--he does represent Deutscher's points accurately.

Well written, fun, and brilliant.
28 di 34 persone hanno trovato utile la seguente recensione
2.0 su 5 stelle A book I really wanted to like but felt let down by 31 maggio 2016
Di Monty Vierra - Pubblicato su
Formato: Copertina flessibile Acquisto verificato
Please read the five-star reviews for details of contents. I am giving this two stars for reasons other than the content per se.

As a student of foreign languages and an overseas teacher of English for some time, I looked forward to reading this book. Because I’m so far from home, I hoped to read a clear, cogent argument against the views that (a) language determines how we perceive the world and that (a) each language provides an entirely unique view of the world, which my experience as a teacher and a student tells me is not valid. I have, for example, studied German, Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and a little Polish. During my time abroad, and back home in the States, I have heard people say peculiar things about language, such as "students in Indonesia come late to class because their language doesn't have a past tense." This was at a TESOL conference in the US; the speaker had a master's degree in this field, and had lived in Indonesia. I was appalled to hear such a preposterous statement. Anyone who has been to a museum of history in Indonesia (or Malaysia, as I have done) will see quite clearly that people there have a good sense of time. (The official languages of both countries are very similar.)

In short, I was hoping to see a real clear argument against such silly statements. Instead, I encountered a muddled argument and some equally silly statements or implications about other languages, including ones he seemed to be "defending."

Essentially, this is what McWhorter says:

First, all languages reflect similar thought processes because they deal with the same world with the same equipment, but they do so in a variety of ways, just as individuals do. In other words, different languages do not express distinct “world views,” and we should not expect them to do so.

Second, different “languages are fascinating in their own right” (page 168), in part because of their complexity and the challenges we face learning them. They all have in common the fact that they help us think about and interpret the world around us. In this, they are all basically “equal” to these tasks—but they are not the same. In short, we don’t need to invent reasons to value them.

I concur with him on both points.

If these two points seem obvious, not everyone agrees. As McWhorter notes, some people believe that each language is so different that each holds a special way of understanding the world and our place in it that is almost impossible for non-speakers of it to appreciate. It is these people that McWhorter claims are “hoaxing” the rest of us by making wild claims about certain languages. Much of his book deals with such claims made by people, some amateurs but also a handful of professional researchers, who, he says, are reading too much into very small parts of some languages.

For example, Mandarin Chinese refers to “last month” and “next month” by using two words that mean “up” (or “upper”) and “down” (or “lower”), which are [shang] and [xia] in pinyin Romanization. [I have omitted the marks above the syllables which tell us what their “tone” is.] Some researchers think these two words influence how Chinese people see the world. (pages 9, 25-26, and elsewhere but not listed in the index) Unfortunately for that proposal, the rest of the language does not follow this pattern and is just as illogical as English. For instance, how can the month before this one be “last” in English? Something that is last comes at the end, doesn't it? But that happens to be how English works according to its rules. On the contrary, English uses “upper” and “lower” to refer to time as well, but mainly in science, as in the Upper Paleolithic or the Lower Paleolithic. Do Chinese people have the same world view as anthropologists or geologists? Nine years living in Taiwan plus several excursions to the PRC tell me that most people do not have such a specialized viewpoint.

On the contrary, Mandarin Chinese uses the "up/down" words only for months, not for days, weeks, or years. This simple fact suggests that neither the authors he chides nor he himself thought to look at other words for time in Chinese. If the "up/down" distinction had an effect on thought, then we should expect more instances of such metaphors. But a look at how Chinese was written in the past, from top to bottom starting at the upper right hand corner and working leftward, and knowledge of the importance of the lunar cycle in Chinese cosmology and in agriculture would be a less complex way of explaining the use of characters that express "up" and "down". (Chinese is still sometimes written in this traditional way.)

McWhorter’s book is full of examples from dozens of languages, well-known like Chinese or Navajo or obscure like Tuyaca or Yukulta. With all these exotic names tossed around, it sounds well researched. I had high hopes for this book.

I have given it low marks for two reasons. First, it’s poorly written. McWhorter rambles. There seems to be little clear focus and little organization, with languages thrown in here and there sometimes with only a tenuous connection or an unclear connection. Equally annoying for me, he mixes registers. One moment he’s a professor of linguistics, another he’s your drinking buddy, and another he’s your teenage nephew.

He also uses words and grammar structures in non-standard ways. For example, I don’t know where he got the word “fraught” from, but his use doesn’t seem to fit any that I can find in searches of reputable online dictionaries. In addition, he sometimes places words in uncommon order, which makes for hard reading. True, academics are fond of doing this, but you don’t see it in Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Mark C. Baker, who address similar topics. They understand that when you write for a popular audience, you should be neither pompous nor chummy. They understand that word choices need to match potential audiences, in this case the general reader.

Still, these are matters of style, and other readers may find his word choice, his rambling, and his pal-professor persona quite suitable, not fraught at all. Several reviews, in fact, praise his style. This is a matter of preference. I prefer Mark Baker's style, for instance. (See Atoms of Language.)

My complaints about McWhorter's book center more on language, on his disparaging treatment of at least one of them, his lack of appreciation for change over time (aka, evolution), and his comments about the other professionals he chides.

I will start with the last. He complains that psychologists and others make too much of statistically very small differences in behavior. Apparently he is not aware that the concept of “statistical significance” is widespread in psychology, education, and other fields. Small “amounts,” so their argument goes, have meaning. He downplays this kind of result in such a cavalier manner that suggests he doesn't understand it. At the same time, he says he will accept some claims and not be bothered checking them with experiments of his own. That is exactly the opposite take of professionals in those fields, who take reports such as the ones McWhorter cites and seek to repeat the results, if possible. In modern science, failure to prove is as important as proving. Saying you don't like small degrees of difference is not an argument—it’s a preference.

Next to last on my list, McWhorter seems to reject the idea of “language evolution,” that is, that languages change in small ways that can affect not only their vocabulary (which he accepts as “random”) but also their pronunciation and even their underlying structures. Certainly he must know about the Great Vowel Shift or the word order change from Old English to Modern English. Also, it is precisely the concept of small changes that, when compounded over time, lead to larger changes which is at the heart of theories of evolution, linguistic and otherwise.

What changes do occur, he repeatedly says, do not alter our basic thought processes. Yet, he says that “language can shape thought” (page 106) but only “to an infinitesimal degree” (106). The fact that language can change the way we think is one of the points of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (both in the “strong” and “weak” versions), which McWhorter spends an entire book trying to refute! He chides K. David Harrison (author of When Languages Die) for apparently agreeing with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (pages 54-55 and 139), yet had he read Harrison’s book he’d have seen the author has a somewhat different take: culture influences language.

More important to me is his really weird love/hate attitude toward Mandarin Chinese. He likes to “quote” syllables here and there and say that they are words, but, as in English, not all syllables are words. Other times, he gives the English version of an expression as if it’s the only possibility. More likely, someone has hoaxed him, telling him these silly things, watching him take it on faith, and seeing him repeat these things in print. For example, although Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese are written as individual syllables, most words in each language have two or more syllables. Trying to read each syllable as a word would look like this in English: Try ing to read each syl la ble as a word [sic]. Some syllables go together, some don’t. This is true of Chinese. A glance at a dictionary would quickly disabuse any reader of the notion that all of Chinese is monosyllabic, as McWhorter implies. (See his rendering of Genesis in Chinese on page 86 for his benighted view of the language.)

If McWhorter had consulted The Atoms of Language by Mark C. Baker (available on Amazon), he would have seen how to put together the words correctly in sentences. In linguistics, syllables are grouped as they are understood in the language, not necessarily given separately, as if they were being hung out to dry. McWhorter’s rendition of Genesis in the individual syllables of Chinese makes it sound silly. (pages 76-77) He apparently doesn’t know that, when paired, the syllables have meanings quite similar to the English version he gives. This to me is a major shortcoming in McWhorter’s approach to language.

Another problem he has is interpreting Chinese grammar. Someone must have told him that Chinese indicates the difference between "definite" and "indefinite" through word order alone. English, in contrast, distinguishes the difference in part with the articles a, an, the, which Chinese does not have. He seems to believe that word order alone in Chinese determines these points, and he gives an example, saying that “train arrived” means it’s “the train” but “arrived train” means “a train.” (page 120) I’m afraid McWhorter, using the “classic” example, has oversimplified the case, further proof that he does not know Chinese from direct study. In fact, Chinese has several ways to indicate the ideas of definite and indefinite. (For a detailed explanation online, see “Identifiability and definiteness in Chinese” by Ping Chen, printed originally in the journal Linguistics, volume 42, number 6, 2004, pages 1129–1184.)

Chinese isn’t the only language of the Far East McWhorter has some problems with. Take Japanese. He seems unwilling to make certain connections. For example, some words that he finds “fascinating” in Japanese are actually Chinese imports. He apparently doesn’t know that successive waves of Chinese words, products, and ideas were brought to Japan from different parts of China, often via Korea, over a long period of time. (Not to mention languages from other parts of Asia, which is another topic.) When we know this relationship and work backwards, we find that the main Chinese languages underwent changes of their own. That will explain in part why words that sound the same today may be used in a way that seems odd to us as outsiders to the language.

For example, McWhorter seemed really taken by the fact that several Far East Asian languages use what are called “counters,” single syllables that come between numbers and objects. For example, he translates “two beers” as “ni-hon no biru” (page 22) when it would be more accurate to say in English “two bottles of beer.” (The suffix “hon” means “bottle” here.) And if you are requesting them, a more colloquial word order is “biru-o ni-hon kudasai [please].” If you are ordering two glasses of beer, however, you would not use McWhorter’s Japanese, you would use one of these forms: “Biru-o ni-hai kudasai.” (“Hai” is the measure word for cup or glass.) Or, you could say, “Biru-o futatsu kudasai.” And so on with some other variations.

McWhorter gives the impression that English has almost nothing like this except a “pound of X” and so on, but there is a whole range of counters used in English, though they are sometimes called “measure words.” Take the expressions head of cattle, head of lettuce, head of cabbage (?), and so on. The word “head” functions like a counter or measure word even if the meaning is a bit different in each case. He is correct in noting that English doesn’t have very many of these, whereas Chinese and languages influenced by Chinese tend to have a lot of them, but English has more than he lets on, from sheets of paper, bottles of beer, and gaggles of geese to crowds of people, cups of coffee, and clumps of grass.

In any event, foreigners studying Chinese or Japanese have to remember a lot more of these than the other way around. In contrast, foreigners studying English have to remember our crazy spelling rules, which often tell us about changes in pronunciation over time.

Spelling is a topic not high on his list, but it should be. Although McWhorter disparages the term “evolve” when applied to languages, he doesn’t seem to realize that our spelling system is one of the ways in which we can see just how languages do evolve, at least at the superficial level of words, one of his key concerns. Look at words like “though” or “know.” Why do we have silent letters? What’s with “elephant”? Other languages spell it with an “f”. How many people realize or care that “ph” words are from Greek? Our use of a final “-s” to show plurals was originally one kind of plural, which the Vikings “endorsed” (see McWhorter’s talk on, “A brief history of plural word…s” 2013), but final “-s” became the norm after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

McWhorter seems to think that “evolve” has something to do with “responding to needs,” but to evolve means to change. He understands the word “random,” but doesn’t seem to see the connection to the evolution of languages. He uses the word “bubbles” a lot, but the changes that English has undergone (and is still undergoing) are more than puffs of air in the soup of language. They’re more like morsels of vegetables or meat rising or settling in a stew. Sometimes they serve some purpose. Sometimes they don’t.

I was also taken aback by his discussion of a young man speaking “black English” (aka Ebonics or African-American English). He implies the speaker used a subjunctive grammatical form just for the heck of it, not because of any “need.” I don’t get that. Why can’t a young black man have a need to express a thought and then find a word or words that do that? I'm white, and I have such words in my repertoire, though they’re different from his. I use such words when I need to. Why can't a black person have a similar need and find a suitable way to express it?

And a “need” to say or think about something is one of the drivers of changes in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar—over a long period of time, which is what we mean when we say languages “evolve.” In fact, I suspect that McWhorter’s occasional alterations to standard American English sentence structures come either from habits he’s picked up over the years or from a conscious need or desire to express himself in the way he has chosen to do. Imitating a style, for instance, is another one of those drivers of change. I’m afraid McWhorter is just going to have to live with it, as fraught as that may seem to him.

Finally, I was disappointed by McWhorter’s system of end notes, where he gives details on the finding of books and articles. It would have been more helpful to have given a list of references. For how this would look, readers should be able to go on Amazon and look at Baker’s book, Atoms of Language, mentioned above, and see how Baker did his notes and gave his references.