9 Nasty Words by John McWhorter

Vulgarity has gone through three big waves in English: about religion, about the body and now about groups of people.

The etymology and usage of profanity can tell you the most important lesson there is about language: It is always in motion, whether or not you know it, can perceive it or like. That’s the point of linguistics professor John McWhorter’s 2021 book Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever. As he cheekily summarizes: “Profanity, first involved the holy, and only later the holes.”

I’ve read a bunch of McWhorter’s books, including his other recent publication, which veered into the political. This book is far more like his other pure, approachable books on linguistics. I’m a fan of his, and I’d recommend this as much as his others. As he writes: “To understand that language changes without allowing a certain space for serendipity is to understand it not at all.”

For future reference, I have my notes below.

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Woke Racism: notes from John McWhorter’s controversial 2021 book

Early Christians didn’t think of themselves as a religion but as bearers of truth. So too do a class of progressive activists that put race at the center of everything, and are unwilling to hear any complicating narrative.

That’s the theme of the 2021 book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America written by John McWhorter, a linguist and prolific writer on language, whom I have long read (he’s also a native Philadelphian). No surprise given the topic and his stature the book has garnered widespread coverage. Some more thoughtful than others.

I respect McWhorter, and am a genuine fan of his linguistics books, so I’ve gone with him on this ride he’s taken into our political and partisan muck. He was one of the hundreds of academics to sign that Harper’s letter that called for greater civility, which received ample generational criticism.

I don’t suggest his politics align with my perfectly but I do take him to be a good-faith arguer. So I appreciate his book’s overall argument that a class of activists are more interested in virtue signaling among their peers than actually progressing forward. The best way to understand this movement is that they’re adherents to a kind of religion, he argues. They’re no more likely to accept other points of views than a Christian is to accept perspective on Christ from Islam.

Instead, his broad perspective on race in America is that culture outlasts original stimuli (ie true racism). It’s thorny. I share my notes from the book below for my future reference.

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A few quotes I read recently that are stuck in my mind

I often try to capture ideas from my reading. So I sometimes internalize those ideas by sharing notes here on my takeaways from something I’ve read.

Most usually that’s with nonfiction; though I’ve done it with fiction too when something really connects for me. But other times, I have a habit of squirreling away quotes or shorter notes, more often from fiction, in all sorts of places.

I had a few bundled up and thought I’d just share them here, if only for me to come back to more easily. They aren’t precisely tuned or themed, other than to be about life in some way or another.

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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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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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