Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Tyler Cowen Interviews John McWhorter

John McWhorter is a linguist and African American who briefly became a famous culture warrior for attacking the whole notion of Ebonics. When he sat down to be interviewed by Tyler Cowen, he obviously expected to be asked about his views on race politics, because that's all interviewers ever ask him about. But Tyler Cowen is a different sort of interviewer, interested in a world of things outside politics. The interview starts like this:
TYLER COWEN: Let’s start with linguistics. I’ve read that the Estonian language has 14 case endings, eight dialects, 117 subdialects, and the core population of speakers is only a bit over a million. Now, why is Estonian so complicated?

JOHN MCWHORTER: What a wonderful opening question.


MCWHORTER: It’s 16 cases actually, and the reason is that Estonia is like the size of New Jersey. It might be the size of Trenton. So, it’s a very small group of people, and very few people have ever had any reason — I can’t believe this is the first question — to learn Estonian as a second language. If you try, you fail.

As a result, it gets more and more complicated, more and more ingrown. Whereas, Finnish, which is a sister language to Estonian, is actually kind of easy. It’s easy Estonian. So Estonian is a small language that’s almost never learned by adults and therefore almost never screwed up. That is why it is so complicated.
They go on to discuss language in a wonderful way for twenty minutes or so, then move on to music, and only get to politics toward the end, and that part is also a lot more interesting than most American conversations about race politics. Highly recommended.

One more  bit:
COWEN: What is interesting about the language Saramaccan?

MCWHORTER: [laughs] This is delightful.


MCWHORTER: The sorts of things I’m usually asked — this is great. Saramaccan — okay, here’s what happens. Let’s say that you’re in South America. You’re up on the northern edge, and it’s 1660 something, and it is an English plantation colony. You bring in Africans to work there. They speak two languages. For whatever it’s worth, they’re called Fongbe and Kikongo. Some others, but they don’t really play much of a part. So you have slaves speaking those.

The English leave the place, and the Dutch come in. There’s a trade, and so New Amsterdam becomes New York. Suriname goes from the English to the Dutch. We here don’t care about the Suriname part, but that was the trade. Now the Dutch are running it. You’ve got English and Dutch. Then some Portuguese-Jewish slave owners come in from Brazil. That’s this whole other story of wandering Jews. They probably bring slaves with them.

So 350 years later, what is spoken by the slaves there who were lucky enough to escape into the rainforest and were never caught? That is what Saramaccan is. So they have their own language, and it’s been studied by many people, I am one of a great many. But it’s fascinating because it’s a mixture of all these languages. Then it’s got other stuff that it does all by itself and it’s tonal, so it’s absolutely fascinating.

1 comment:

leif said...

you're right. that is an uncommon interview. i quite enjoyed the erudite humor.