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 It might feel outdated.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.

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Why English actually is relatively easy to learn (but not to master)

English is a (relatively) simple language to learn enough of to communicate (rather than to master) because it’s had so many non-native adults learning and using it.

The rules are relatively flexible, so — as you’ve likely experienced — we can often understand someone speaking in simple “broken” English. Try that with Russian. But — as you also likely know — it can take a lifetime to have some kind of English mastery, and even that’s no promise. If you want to understand why, you need to look into the secret corners of the 1,500 years of English language development.

That’s among the big ideas from “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue,” a 2009 book from linguist John McWhorter. I picked this up after devouring his 2016 book, both of which I read earlier this summer. (Read the laudatory New York Times review of this book. For context, this Economist story is a nice recap of what makes language difficult.)

I have a bunch of posts about linguistics.

This book’s focus on English is distinct from other linguistics books I’ve read recently about language generally. Find my favorite lessons from the book and a few related videos below.

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Do you know when humans first developed language?

Somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 years ago, our ancestors likely first began communicating ideas through sounds in a more structured way than other species on the planet ever had before.

That’s the beginning of what we now call language, and on an evolutionary scale, it’s remarkably recent (for context, the earliest writing was some 6,000 years ago and we split from the Neanderthals some 700,000 years ago.)

In ‘The First Word,’ a 2008 book by Christine Kenneally, the research into the origins of language are unveiled. I read it earlier this year. Critics liked it when it first came out, and I enjoyed it myself. I read it for two reasons: both as part of my on-going resolution to reading books by women and people of color and to help kickoff a deep dive I’ve been doing into linguistics.

A few weeks ago I decided I just didn’t understand enough of how language developed — or how we’d figure it out. This book was an excellent foundation for me, and I was surprised (and thrilled) by how much evolutionary biology is involved in pinpointing the origins of language. For example, if chimps can do certain language-like things (like gesture, the beginning of language), then humans likely got that from our last common ancestor some four million years ago.

I was so taken by the book and many of the concepts, that I shared some notes below. Consider reading the book yourself, and use this as a jumping off point.

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What we know from 150,000 years of human language

There was likely once a single language, first developed 150,000 years ago. That grew to as many as 100,000 languages, before we developed farming. Today there are 6,000 and by 2100, that might be back to as few as 500.

Along the way, languages have emerged, influenced each other and continue to change.

That comes from the 2003 book “Power of Babel,” the third consecutive book I read by linguist John McWhorter, which I finished early this summer. In the last six months, I’ve become quite a big fan of his — having read his 2016 book on language evolution and his 2009 book on the lesser-known stories of the English language history, I seem to be working through his language books in reverse chronological order. (Read the Guardian’s review of this book here.)

The title of the book is, of course, a reference to the biblical story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel. Following the Great Flood, humans speaking a single language plan to build a tower that can reach heaven. God destroys it, sets humans into an array of languages and spreads them across the world to keep them from conspiring to do something like that ever again.

Find my notes from the book below.

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