John McWhorter – Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)

John McWhorter – Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)

I listened to the audio version, which McWhorter narrated himself. It is at once casual, funny, factual, and led me to a number of useful and fun intellectual tangents. We all know language changes over time. To people my age (born early 1980s), it sounds odd when older people pronounce “diabetes” as “diabeetus” or “horrible” as “hahr-ibble.” At the same time, many younger people pronounce words like “bit” and “bet” and “dawn” and “Don” in rhyme. Even well-defined regional accents change over time—the classic, often-mocked Brooklyn accent of pronouncing “work” as “woik” is mostly gone now.

Text messages and Twitter are part of a whole other linguistic evolution. McWhorter argues that their innovations have a common purpose of conveying ease and informality. To describe it more fully, he uses the acronym FACE for Factuality, Acknowledgment, Counterexpectation, and Easing. Language doesn’t just communicate information, it communicates social dynamics. All the “LOLs” and emojis in text messages closely imitate in-person spoken language—listen to the cadence, not the words, of any normal spoken conversation and the amount of laughter you will hear is absurd. This is important for texting—you can’t see or hear your correspondent, so verbalizing nonverbal language with LOLs and emojis is a way of compensating for it.

McWhorter doesn’t make this connection, but the overall trend of this evolution ties into Steven Pinker’s point in Better Angels of Our Nature about decreasing violence over time. A reason people today are less formal and more at ease with each other than previous generations is because the threat of violence is low; unlike in, say, medieval times or even the mid-20th century, a social gaffe or lack of proper deference is unlikely to result in bodily harm. People today are more relaxed in dress, speech, and culture because they an be.

Finally, today’s use of “like” as a near-constant verbal tic and “literally” to mean “figuratively” can be annoying, but they also have precedents going back a long way. Teddy Roosevelt’s use of the word “bully,” for example, was that era’s equivalent of having a president who says “dude” a lot. Language changes over time. It happens, and it cannot be stopped.

Linguistic change is also an example of spontaneous order in action—a Hayekian angle that also ties into Adam Smith’s famous essay on the origins of language, which could have been another useful avenue for McWhorter to stroll down.

One can infer from the length of this ewview that McWhorter provides a lot of fodder for thought beyond language, ranging from culture to evolution to psychology. I also recommend the audio version over the print edition.


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