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The World Atlas of Language Structures
The World Atlas of Language Structures

Oxford University Press, 2005
712 pp., $855.00

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John H. McWhorter


Why Don't They Just Speak English?

The World Atlas of Language Structures.

For years, many linguists—myself included—have been eagerly awaiting the publication of what we call "the wals," and last year the great day finally came when we could hold in our hands—or, given its heft, more likely on our laps—what non-linguists will see as a big, pretty book of unclear utility called The World Atlas of Language Structures.

The layman will page through the wals and find 142 world maps festooned with multicolored dots standing for languages. Each map addresses a particular aspect of grammar, prefaced by an essay on the variations on that feature that the world's 6,000-plus languages display. For example, many of us have wrestled with the annoying genders in European languages, such as French's masculine le bateau ("the boat") and feminine la maison ("the house"). There are, in fact, many languages with multiple genders to learn (Swahili features six main ones), while just as many other languages have no gender at all (the language I am writing in is one example). The "Number of Genders" map, surveying 256 languages across the globe, shows that languages with way too many genders are concentrated in Africa, while languages with none are most common in Southeast Asia and in the Americas.

The layman is to be pardoned for wondering just why one might care about such matters. To begin with, this massive project reminds us that many human languages are counterintuitively different from English, Spanish, French, or German—the languages we learn most often, and which we are disposed to regard as normative—and different as well from ones farther afield (Arabic and Chinese, for instance).

Take the "Order of Subject, Object and Verb" map: it shows that the word order we Anglophones feel as "normal," the subject-verb-object sequence of The boy fed the dog, is less common worldwide than subject-object-verb, such that in Japanese it would be The boy the dog fed. And then a handful of languages put things exactly in the reverse of English: ...

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