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 It might feel outdated.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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The Americas were more populated than Europe at the time of first contact

The Americas were home to some of the world’s most complex and established civilizations in the world at the time of European contact.

As many as 100 million people may have lived in the Americas in 1491, far more than Europe. In the next century, an estimated 80 million of them died, largely because of diseases humans didn’t understand yet.

Though those estimates are still actively contested, a growing number of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians defend the concept that perhaps as many as one in five people on the planet died. It would have been the largest epidemic in human history.

That massive change in understanding pre-Columbian was chronicled in the celebrated 2006 book 1491, by Charles C. Mann, who had written on the issue for the Atlantic. It made a stir then, and I finally got to picking through it, regularly reading news articles on the topic.

I shared my notes below.

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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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Do not save writing for later, more will come: ‘The Writing Life’ by Annie Dillard

The Writing Life,‘ a 1989 collection of essays from novelist Annie Dillard, is one of the foundational contributions to the canon of teaching modern fiction writing.

A few months ago, I finally tore through the tidy, celebrated, delightful little book, commonly known as the friendly, fiction alternative to the 1920 grammarian guide from Strunk and White. (Interestingly a New York Times book review took a dim view of her collection, but it’s cherished today.)

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Every entrepreneur should be building a monopoly: Peter Thiel

Paypal cofounder, public intellectual and global tech entrepreneurship leader Peter Thiel is thoughtful in his perspective on economic growth. An interview with him was on our last Technical.ly podcast and an even longer conversation he had on a different podcast was even more enlightening.

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Manage Your Day-To-Day: lessons from this 99U book on productivity

There is an entire industry of creative productivity self-help resources. My friend Sean Blanda gave me ‘Manage Your Day-to-Day,’ one in a portfolio of books from 99U, an effort from Behance, the Adobe division where he works.

It was a quick and energizing read. Buy it for $8.  As I like to do, I wanted to share a few of the directives I most acted on.

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Wilmington, Del. needs to develop its innovation corridor [Op-Ed]

The fate of small, urban satellite cities and the role technology and entrepreneurship communities will have in their future is of interest to me. I recently wrote something about it for the Delaware state newspaper.

After this op-ed in the Wilmington News Journal about the innovation economy, Delaware entrepreneur leader Jon Brilliant encouraged me to write something in response. I did so here for Technical.ly Delaware and contributed a shorter version that was published in the News Journal here.

Today, any U.S. community preparing for the future is fostering a technology and entrepreneurship ecosystem. Delaware is too.

A recent News Journal op-ed on the matter didn’t take into account much of an organic, nascent community that is building toward a bigger impact. There are efforts in Newark, Lewes, Rehoboth and elsewhere, Wilmington, despite its challenges, already has the foundation of an innovation corridor. MORE

Read the rest here

Download an image of the paper version [PDF].

I put people first, then technology: Biz Stone

To promote his new book ‘Things a Little Bird Told Me,’ Twitter cofounder Biz Stone was at the Free Library of Philadelphia for a ticketed, breakfast event for which I interviewed him on stage for a half-hour before audience questions finished the morning.

My line of questions can be seen here. I tried to to steer the conversation away from what has already been said by Stone, a well-covered tech entrepreneur who is in the midst of a popular book tour, but we still hit upon some of what has already been covered: the designer by trade has focused on bringing the human touch to software.

That helps explain how decidedly simple Twitter is and how Stone’s new startup Jelly, a network-driven answer app, has stayed focused on getting social responses.

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