John McWhorter standing at a podium appearing on CSPAN2 during a talk

Language is more like fashion than math: “Words on the Move” by John McWhorter

We get it wrong: language is always in motion, more like fashion, than science or math. This changes how we treat language and its uses.

We don’t quite say someone is wrong for wearing bell-bottom jeans today. It might feel outdated. We also might think they could return someday in some form if fashion and culture moves in the right way. It’s just not what most of us would consider common today. That is a pretty good approximation of language.

This concept is the big idea from linguistics that John McWhorter most gets at in his sublimely readable and thoughtful Words on the Move book from 2016. (Read the New York Times review here)

I first read this book earlier this summer, part of a binge on McWhorter’s books and linguistics generally. I finally wanted to share my notes from reading this. But if it interests you, you really should buy it, because there’s so much more.

Below I share my notes.

John McWhorter headshot alongside the cover of his book

Here’s what stood out to me:

  • Language is as clothing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing sweatpants to a party but you’re signaling something in society. That’s just like the language we choose to use (p. 7)
  • Words tend to evolve into pragmatics like “Well” and “so” and even “totally,” in which they become parts of grammar, not independently defined words (29)
  • Speaking is communication together, so a transcript of a conversation is single unit of two or more people, not alternating between separate, independent fields. That’s distinct from writing (49)
  • Orthography, the traditional or common spelling of a language, is always in flux. But writing lags behind speech always. (60)
  • John McWhorter thinks we should translate Shakespeare to be better understood because his language wasn’t considered so high-minded in his time. It’s just because his form of English is so old and quaint. Shakespeare was more like a sitcom or a popular movie today. (91)
  • The “euphemism treadmill” from linguist Steven Pinker is a concept that as words collect negative connotation, we replace them. This is why idiot becomes retarded becomes mentally challenged becomes person with a specific condition. (98)
  • Words are only incorrectly used when they become confusing (100)
  • “The” started as “that” and “a” started as “one.” These grammar words and other endings started as words and moved (grammaticalization) (108)
  • Like the “-ly” ending for adverbs started as “like,” as in “slow-like.” (119)
  • Consider “Elvis has left the building” vs “Elvis left the building” (113)
  • English letters are not sounds, writing then and speaking are related but different systems (138)
  • We tend to switch accents on two-syllable verbs when they become nouns (this and other word defining movement is backshift) Try to “permit” me to get a new “permit.” (180)
  • We’ve had just 6,500 years of writing but 150,000 or more of speech. So still just 200 of 6,000 are commonly written. Writing does slow the rate of change of language with the constancy of letters but it’s still always moving (204)
  • Old English to Middle English changed far more than it likely will now, in part because of writing. (206)
  • Words like “fantastic” (like awesome and wonderful on previous page) are words that don’t fit well now because they’re under change from their meaning. (209)
  • Arabic has been kept similar because of the systematic conservatism of the Quran and Icelandic writing is similar. They changed less than English but changed nonetheless (210)
  • At least three meanings of “like” are in use: (a) counterexpectation (“and then, like, a goblin comes out of the closet”); (b) a courtesy/easing hedge (“do you want to, like, go on a date?”) and (c) a quotative (“and he’s like ‘I’m coming over now!”). So of course the word appears to be over-used but that heavy usage is developing into pieces of grammar (216)
  • With the “overuse” of like, you wouldn’t learn a foreign language and decide it used some word too much. No, it’s just that language is personal. Still McWhorter notes that suppressing “likes” for speeches or work makes sense to avoid distractions (222)
  • Rage over language usage may be the last permissible open classism, channeling a tribal impulse roiling ever underneath (223)