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 It might feel outdated.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.

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

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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Subscribe to this site by e-mail or RSS

Still in the process of making the obvious improvements to this site since switching to this self-hosted version.

You can now via e-mail, receive updates to this outlet for my professional work, experience as a young freelance writer and thoughts on what my future in news, writing and journalism might look like.

Also, you can submit your e-mail address to the box on the right sidebar and receive in your e-mail inbox what I post here. No spam, no clutter, no cost. Just these posts.

That is, of course, an alternative to subscribing to my RSS feed, which you can do here.

In case this RSS thing is still crazy and confusing, dig its explanation In Plain English below.

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ChristopherWink.com: Independently hosted and spruced up

The older, WordPress.com version of this site.

Well this is overdue.

Exactly 575 days after my first post on this incarnation of ChristopherWink.com, I’ve done a massive redesign. If you’re in a feed reader, come on over and browse.

There is so much left for me to do, though. A lot of usability, design and organization elements remain janky. We’ll get to that. For now, I wanted to get over the big introduction hurdle of the redesign.

Of course, when I say redesign, I mean I switched from a free WordPress.com theme to using a free, self-hosted WordPress theme, but, hey, I’m tweaking this baby up.

It’s a slightly bold step forward.

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April uwishunu posts: Hysteria, author appearances and BarCamp

It’s Memorial Day, so no one’s reading this anyway, right?

In February I announced that I was blogging for uwishunu.com, a popular, award-winning arts and entertainment blog for Philadelphia. Some months I write more for them than others, not all run as expected and some are of only middling interest to casual readers, so I’ve decided I’d like to do a monthly digest of my work there — if only just for record-keeping.

I’ll post them as I file them, not as they run. See all of my posts here, and my profile here.

Below — later than I’ll do this in the future — see my April posts.

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Community News Startups: Presentation notes from BarCamp for NewsInnovation

Sean Blanda, Brian James Kirk and me on Saturday, April 25, 2009 in the atrium of Annenberg Hall at Temple University after discussing at the BarCamp for NewsInnovation at TechnicallyPhilly.com, which we co-founded.

Two Saturdays ago, friends Sean Blanda, Brian James Kirk and I presented at the BarCamp NewsInnovation — which Blanda organized and Brian and I helped run — on TechnicallyPhilly.com, which we co-founded in February.

Read my thoughts on the event here. Read Twitter coverage of our presentation by looking through #BCNI304, which relates to the room in which we presented.

Below see the notes from and video of the presentation we gave.

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Are WordPress, Blogger the next Angelfire and Geocities?

In the late 1990s, a host of Web sites democratized the Internet, giving the average Internet-user the chance to have his own online home.

In 2003, MySpace used the model and brought in a new age of social networking.

Last week I posted that MySpace is on the way out, and briefly mentioned that WordPress and Blogger are taking over the role of providing free, easy-to-manipulate Web presences.

Does that make them the next Angelfire or Geocities? Are they just another trend ready to be overcome?