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Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally) Hardcover – September 6, 2016
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“John McWhorter’s Words on the Move has a deeper point than most language books: it’s focused on the ordinary words which do most of the grunt work of communicating, but which we rarely give much thought to. It’s full of little puzzles and surprises that stop us in our tracks and make us aware of the gentle breezes that are always blowing our words hither and yon. McWhorter is awfully good at listening to words and at explaining what he hears there, and his book is so brimming with insights that even as a linguist, I found myself stopping every couple of pages to say to myself, ‘Huh―I never thought of that.’ So will you.”
--Geoffrey Nunberg, linguist on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and author of Going Nucular and Ascent of the A-Word
“If you want to hate on new developments in English, you should at least understand why. With a combination of linguistic erudition and ready wit, John McWhorter takes us on a tour of a thousand years of the history of English, showing how language change is natural, unavoidable, and fascinating. You’ll come away with a better realization of why you feel the way you do―and why you shouldn’t.”
--Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F-Word, former editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, and past president of the American Dialect Society
“Witty and wise, John McWhorter’s Words on the Move is an adventure and a romp, full of surprises and delights. If you love language, you will love this book. You’ll never think of language in the same way again.”
--Deborah Tannen, university professor and professor of linguistics, Georgetown University, and author of You Just Don’t Understand
“An unintimidating welcome to readers new to the subject that pleasantly relaxes the discourse of grammar propriety.”―Publishers Weekly
“Fascinating…. McWhorter proves to be a well-informed and cheerful guide to linguistics…. enthusiastically mak[ing] the case that language is fluid.”―Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and is the author of more than fifteen books, including The Language Hoax, The Power of Babel, and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. He writes for TIME, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic, and his articles have also appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Daily Beast.
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Each chapter is devoted to exploring different ways that language changes. First, we talk about those little known pragmatic functions of language where a lot of change happens; words like "like" or "you know," are words that are less meant to convey an idea and more to add pragmatic and expressive color to sentences. Language needs those expressive words (or...emojis?) and words like that are not extraneous.
Words also change their pronunciations, and this often has to do with very gradual changes in how people hear (and thus speak) certain words. The word "like" used to be pronounced "leek" and one can understand how the "hard e" could gradually change into a "soft e" which becomes a "hard i." (And have you ever noticed how the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill rhymes "daughter" with "after"? There's a reason; the spelling didn't change but the pronunciation did.)
Words also change by combining and sometimes, after combining, dropping one of the syllables entirely. Again, the word "like" (pronounced "leek") used to be attached to adjectives like "slow" ("slow-leek" meaning "slow like"), until at some point, people heard it as "slowly" And more recently, "cellular phone" becomes "cell phone" which gets shortened further by dropping the word "phone" and just saying "cell."
There are many more examples like this, each quite fascinating. But the moral of McWhorter's language story is that words, meanings, grammars, and pronunciations always change. Language is a sort of living thing that we collectively create and recreate. And if you think that your version of language is the "correct" one and that "that's not what ___ is supposed to mean," there is an excellent chance that you are using words and language in a way that the same would have been said about you by purists of the 1850's. The only reason we think the way we speak is the correct way is because that's the way we learned it.
As irksome as the truth might be (“Novelty is unsettling,” the book tells us), McWhorter is right: language is mutable. A living language will inevitably acquire new words, change the meaning of old ones, and turn the rules of grammar upside down. I remind myself of that every time I hear someone complain about alleged faults in word usage or grammar (quite a few of those complaints are aired in nasty comments to Amazon reviews). If you think (as I do) that people frequently and persistently misuse the word “literally,” that’s because you have not (as I have not) accepted that the meaning of “literally” has changed. McWhorter tells us that we just need to deal with it. Sadly enough, he’s right.
As cranky as I can get about unsettling changes in the meaning of words, I fully support McWhorter’s mission, which is to make readers understand that the meaning of a word is determined by how people are using it right now, not by dictionary definitions. It takes dictionaries some time to catch up. Dictionaries like American Heritage, where panels of “experts” decide what a word means, strike me as trying to impose authoritarian order on the democratic, or possibly anarchic, evolution of language.
I totally make fun of the way younger people use the word totally, but language belongs to the young as much as it is the domain of stuffy old farts like me. McWhorter explains that totally now implies fellowship or shared sentiment, so “what looks like slackjawed devolution actually contains a degree of sophistication.” He also explains that words of acknowledgement, including totally, are among the most likely to change.
Sometimes changes in language are eminently sensible. Other than high school English teachers, who really cares if a writer splits an infinitive or ends a sentence with a preposition? Good writers have always known that some rules are made to be broken, at least when breaking them makes sentences easier to read. As McWhorter also recognizes, that doesn’t mean rules should not be taught (even rules that serve no real purpose), but the world doesn’t come to an end when a rule is so commonly broken that it dissolves into dust.
A chapter on grammar struck me as less interesting than other chapters, simply because indefinite articles and other words of grammar are less interesting than nouns and verbs. A chapter on pronunciation is a little too wonkish, but parts of that chapter are illuminating. Most readers are familiar with the vowel shift, but McWhorter explains how vowels are still shifting (something we might perceive as regional accents). Does any word have a proper pronunciation? Since the word will probably be pronounced differently a couple of hundred years from now, fretting about what’s “proper” seems pointless to people who are not social strivers or using pronunciation to signal their place in society.
More entertaining is a chapter that explains how new words come into existence. Some are obvious (camera + recorder = camcorder), others not so much (flash + gush = flush). It’s also possible to make new words by changing the accented syllable (e.g., the transition of “suspect” from verb to noun). The last chapter explains why younger people obsessively use the word like and why older people, anal tendencies notwithstanding, should resign themselves to the evolutionary nature of language.
McWhorter writes in a lively, amusing, energetic style, eschewing jargon or explaining it when he needs to discuss the finer points of linguistics. He introduces his personality into every chapter, making even dull material engaging. His wide-ranging discussion touches on Black English, emoticons, and a variety of other subjects. He explains the evolution of scores of words, many drawn from Shakespeare, and then explains why Shakespeare’s plays are so difficult for a modern reader to understand (at last, it’s okay to admit that you’re often baffled by Shakespeare’s meaning). Any fan of words, including stuffy curmudgeons, should find Words on the Move to be educational and amusing.
“Did you know that the adverbial -ly comes from like?”
“Those little words we use to smooth the cracks in conversation? They’re mostly there to acknowledge the feelings of the person who just spoke.”
“What’s happening with ‘literally’ already happened to ‘really.’”
Rather than blurting out these ideas, a better choice would be to recommend they read the book. (And if they like it, they should also listen to his podcast on Slate.)