The Creole Debate, by John H. McWhorter****

thecreoledeThanks go to Net Galley and Cambridge University Press for the review copy. I am reviewing this title because accepting the galley created an obligation on my part, but these are deep waters, and I found myself thrashing around in them searching for the shoreline.

Since retirement, I have sought to stretch myself by stepping out of my own comfort zone, veering away from the types of fiction that I have always enjoyed, and from the historical and other nonfiction titles that dovetailed with my work. In doing so, I have often been rewarded. Sometimes I learn things, and a couple of times I have discovered that I enjoy a genre that I had never even explored before. Taking risks can be a good thing.

Then there are situations like this one. This one is just embarrassing. Take my rating with a grain of salt, readers, because for the most part, I have no clue what is in here or whether McWhorter has proven his point. I was able to figure out what the debate is about: some linguists claim that Creole speech is a dialect created from other languages (and if I’m wrong about that–it occurs to me that my review may attract the attention of actual linguists–tell me so, but be gentle here, because I am doing my best.) The thesis presented is that Creole is a legitimate language unto itself, and the writer delves into the history of its evolution in order to prove its independent development.

Is he right? Is he incorrect? Hell if I know.

Generally I appreciate reading specialized texts (in the humanities, where I am usually at ease) that don’t dumb things down for the reader and that assume some facts are understood in order to move forward. And one might expect nothing less from a Cambridge publication. But there are enough terms used that are technical and specialized for use by linguists, and there is enough prior knowledge assumed here as well, that I soon realize I am in over my head. A Google search isn’t going to cut it here.

What I did pick up by noting the descriptive terms and phrasing is that this is a red-hot debate, one that excites a certain amount of passion and perhaps even creates lifelong grudges among scholars in the field.

So forgive me, linguists, because I know not what I do here. This may be a five star book, at least for linguists that can understand what’s being said; or perhaps the case is poorly made and it’s less than the four stars given here. Four stars is my default for a book that is good but not stellar, and since I don’t understand enough of the argument the author makes here to provide a valid, fair rating and am nevertheless required to rate the book, my default of 4 stars is the port in which I will rest, in my lifeboat, until I can find the courage to wobble onto the shore.

Recommended for those that are confident as linguists, and that are interested in the discussion.

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