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Short Essay Prompts Week 3- Kerry Phillips

Learning a language can be challenging, and even if you strive to develop a new language that isnt filled with irregular
rules, and verb conjugations to memorize, you may be faced with tonal challenges. It has been found that languages that
stress tone are very difficult for native English speakers to learn because of the importance of tone, and that the same
syllable can have a great many different meanings depending merely on what tone is uttered (p.194). This feature is
prevalent in many Southeast Asian languages. John McWhorter explains that inflections or tonal differences evolved
through sound erosion and are the only way to distinguish one word from another (p.195). The example McWhorter uses
for the word da in Vietnamese is very clear depiction of the importance of tone in this language. He shares da means
big toe, and that da with an apostrophe symbol indicates a different tone is used, which changes the words meaning
to nostalgic, which is quite different than a big toe. To further complicate things, an h added, dah, pronounced
differently than the prior two, would mean shitty little monkey. As you can see, these words are so closely related, but it
is the tone which must be used precisely to convey the appropriate intended meaning.


McWhorters argument that tone is a cognitively parsable, but ultimately accidental, permutation of a languages original
material, which can result only from a language, which began without it (p. 197) is important because it brings us back to
the origin of these tones. The idea is that sounds have developed meaning within these languages, but they were not
originally intended to provide the meaning. McWhorter discusses how there may be limited combinations of consonants
and vowels, and that tones end up taking up the slack (p.197). Through the development of these tones, languages such
as Vietnamese require much perception in order to discern meaning, but one must have a solid grasp of the original
language to develop true understanding and production of these additional tones. For example, McWhorter mentions his
favorite sitcom Married With Children, because his point is clarified by understanding that his favorite TV show could be
watched and appreciated without ever knowing the shows that it is meant to parody. However, unless one understands
the foundation of the show, and the similar types of family shows it aims to poke fun at, you could not truly appreciate the
complexity and humor or sarcasm presented. This is similar to his language argument, because he is saying you must
truly understand the foundation or base of a language to then add onto and deepen it with tone.


The author states that sign languages are real languages just like spoken ones (p.214). McWhorter goes on to add that
sign languages include grammar, complexity, and nuance, as he was able to witness first-hand, when he visited a school
for the deaf in Nicaragua. He discusses how students developed their own languages at home and then when they came
together, unified their manual languages, so that they could communicate more efficiently. Sign languages are relatively
new, when considering the ages of languages, and McWhorter notes that the structures do not match English, and could
be labeled as manual creoles (p.214). I am fluent in a few different signed languages, and I found it very entertaining to
see McWhorter mentioned he was able to see teens flirting in sign language. I think its worth mentioning that he may
have been able to determine this was flirting based on the tone used by the signers. Tone of voice is not something
that can be translated to manual signs, but most signed languages incorporate those nuances on the face and with body
language. I know this to be true, especially for American Sign Language.


Falstaff is a character from a piece of Shakespeare writing, Henry IV, and is quoted as saying, Theres never none of
these demure boys come to any proof (p.228). This is an example of a double negative being used emphatically.
McWhorter discusses that rather than in mathematics (when two negatives would cancel each other out and equal a
positive), the use of double negatives is meant for heightened negativity. (p.228). This is the case for Old English and
many other languages. Spanish is mentioned as one of the languages as accepting the double negative, and I personally
know that American Sign Language uses the double negative, or double positive, for emphasis. However, McWhorter
says that in this years fashions this dialect has been shunted away from its natural evolution. It is interesting that so
many other languages accept this double negative for emphatic purposes, and sometimes include a triple negative- as is
the case for French, but English continues to reject it. I like the way that John McWhorter describes his internalization of
English English (p.229), and how the feeling he gets when he reads one. He feels obligated and innately responsible to
himself and education to avoid use of a double negative at all costs. He describes this feeling is an arbitrary imposition
tracing back to under informed pronouncements made more than two hundred years ago by disproportionately influential