6.10.2017

what i'm reading: words on the move by john mcwhorter

John McWhorter is changing my mind about language. And that is no easy thing to do.

I'm a grammarphile. Word nerd, language junkie, spelling nut, stickler -- whatever you want to call it. I appreciate proper spelling and good grammar, and I cringe at all the bad grammar all around us. Apostrophe abuse drives me insane. Same for unnecessary quotation marks. Misspelled words on websites, signs, flyers, and official documents... don't get me started.

Yet I also part ways with some of my fellow grammar-lovers. I believe grammar is important for writing, but not necessarily for speech -- and certainly not for casual speech. I hate seeing knowledge of grammar used to shame or exclude, or worse, as an excuse to not listen. Wmtc comment guidelines warn readers not to correct another commenter's grammar or spelling.

Even further, I believe it's perfectly all right to relax certain writing rules for casual writing. It's not necessary, in my view, to use awkward phrasing in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition in a casual email. It's all right to use sentence fragments, or to start a sentence with but. I don't think the English language is being killed off by texting; in fact, I know it's not. And most importantly, I don't think I'm better or smarter than anyone else because I use apostrophes correctly and they don't. But those unnecessary apostrophes still drive me insane!

So perhaps I was pre-disposed to enjoy John Whorter's enlightening and entertaining book, Words on the Move: Why English Won't -- and Can't -- Sit Still (Like Literally). But I do think that anyone who enjoys thinking about language would like this book.

McWhorter's most important message is in the title: language is never still. The meanings of words always change. Meanings have always changed, they are changing now, and they will continue to change in the future.
It isn't that a certain curiosity cabinet of a few dozen words happened to have different meanings hundreds of years ago. Just about all words in any language have different meanings now than they did in the past. Some words' meanings hold on longer than others. Some few even hold on to the same meaning for thousands of years. However, it is they...that are the oddities.
The book presents some illustrations of every day objects such as bread, fruit, meat, and fuel, and the words that have been used to convey those meanings over centuries. Then, the author writes,
Picture this process happening across tens of thousands of words all the time. That is the essence of what words are, and why the dictionary can qualify only as a snapshot of how the film was situated on the grid at one particular point in time.
McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature, says this throughout the book, in many different, entertaining ways. One of his strengths is creating lovely little analogies to illustrate his meaning. He's also very adept at shooting holes in the corrections most beloved by correcters, by showing us how inconsistent we all are.

If there's an expression that drives you crazy because it's usually used "wrong," chances are, it meant your particular version of "correct" only for a period of time in between its other meanings and uses. Most likely, the meaning has changed and you need to update your personal lexicon. Whatever your favourite bugaboo -- decimate, irregardless, sink down, used to, literally -- McWhorter has a slew of examples to prove that your objections are inconsistent at best, and might even be ridiculous. Those of us who hate the overuse of literally to mean its opposite may be surprised at how many words now mean their opposite that we never bother to complain about -- because those words changed in a different time and bothered different people. And it's not just English. It's all languages, all the time. Change, change, change.

Some of McWhorter's ideas are controversial. He explains speech tics such as "like" and "you know," and why we shouldn't care about them. He maintains that slang, including shorthands we use online and in text messages, are as old as language itself, and don't hurt the language. He counsels us to embrace "the euphemism treadmill" -- from Colored to Negro to Black to African American -- and explains why cultures make these shifts.

Perhaps most controversially, McWhorter argues that Shakespeare should be cautiously and judiciously translated, to make the plays more accessible to contemporary audiences.

If you love Shakespeare as I do, let me elaborate before your blood pressure elevates. About 10 percent of the words Shakespeare used now mean something completely different than they did when he wrote them. If we read Shakespeare, we can use footnotes, but when we watch a play or film adaptation -- and the words were meant to be performed, after all -- we can often follow the action through context and prior knowledge, and we might get the gist of the language, but we miss a good deal of the meaning. We miss more than we think, something the author illustrates very well. McWhorter believes that Shakespearean scholars should tweak the language for greater understanding.
Yes, I have been one of those people, and have experienced resistance (and even dribbles of vitriol) in response. However, most of this resistance has been based on the idea that the difference between our language and Shakespeare's is only one of poetry, density, or elevation.

The reason Shakespeare's prose sounds so "poetic" is partly because it is. But it is also partly for the more mundane reasons that his language is not, to a larger extent than we might prefer to know, inaccessible to us without careful study on the page.

Many assume that the translation I refer to would have to be into slang. I suspect this is because it can be hard to perceive that the very meanings of even the most mundane of words have often changed so much -- if one thinks the difficulty of the language is merely a matter of "poetry," then it's easy to think that no translation in neutral current English could be at issue, and hence the notion of "Yo, whaddup, Calpurnia?" as a serious literary suggestion.
He gives a few elegant examples, which are "hardly a desecration" -- the language is still "challenging and even beautiful, especially since most of it is the original." I must agree. He explains that he's not suggesting the original plays be withdrawn and never read.
However a world where the usual experience of a Shakespeare play outside universities was in today's English would be one where, quite simply, more people were capable of truly understanding and enjoying the Bard's work rather than genuflecting to it. Seeing Shakespeare shouldn't be like eating your vegetables -- even tasty vegetables. Nor is it much more inspiring for us to treat Shakespeare as a kind of verbal wallpaper or scent that we sit back and allow to "wash over" us. . . . Shakespeare translated into today's English wouldn't be exactly Shakespeare, no. But given a choice between Shakespeare as an elite taste and Shakespeare engaged the way Russians engage Chekhov and Americans engage Scorsese films and "Arrested Development", some may judge Shakespeare that isn't always exactly what Shakespeare wrote as less than a tragedy.
Like the novel, theatre, and baseball, language is something people often claim is dying or already dead. But if no one ever writes or reads another novel, and the great game of baseball is never played again, we will still have language -- because we are human. And language will still be changing, because that's what it does.

6 comments:

rww said...

Working as an Indexer for the House of Commons back when we indexed the House Debates and Committee Proceedings rather than tagging them as is done now, I had the privilege to attend a presentation by the Editor of the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary.

The extensive process of reviewing thousands of pages of written text, Canadian books, magazines, newspapers and even television and radio transcripts was fascinating. As were the rules for when new words get added and how they decide they are not just passing fads but have become part of the language.

Bit her main point was that the Oxford Dictionary is a descriptive dictionary, not a prescriptive one. They don not see their role as telling people how to use words but reflecting how they are actually used.

James Redekop said...

I gotta put this in my queue.

Here are a couple of YouTube playlists on language you might enjoy:

Tom Scott's Language Files

Xidnaf

laura k said...

rww, what a treat! I would have loved that. The descriptive dictionary -- that's exactly why I love the OED. I love love love the online version.

James, two other books by McWhorter that I want to read:

- Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of a "Pure" Standard English - 1998 (I'll have to find a used copy or do an interlibrary loan.)
- Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English - 2008

Amy said...

When I think about how words of changed and been replaced by others just in my lifetime, I realize how much must have changed in English over the centuries. It's also fascinating to see how words have different meaning in the US than the do in the UK. Brilliant, for example, has a much narrower meaning here than in England. And when I think of all the new words just in the last 20 years----texting, email, on line (which we NYers have always used for "in line"), etc., I sometimes wonder whether my own grandparents would understand some of what we say today!

Amy said...

of = have. the= they. Not new word usage, just typos....

laura k said...

lol We knew that.

There's a whole thing about lol in this book.