Sunday, June 25, 2017

Words on the Move:Why English Won't--and Can't--Sit Still (Like, Literally), by John McWhorter (author, narrator)

Audible Studios, September 2016

English is a wonderfully weird and strange language, having gotten that way from a a wholesale theft of vocabulary from other languages, and wearing down the parts of speech due to the mingling of populations that included speakers of the North Germanic language called English, Norse, Celtic tongues, and French.

This book isn't about our weirdly varied vocabulary and wholesale theft of words, though. It's about the changes in words, their shapes, sounds, and meanings. It's about why the use of "literally" to mean "figuratively," along with apparently useless interjections like "like" sprinkled through our sentences are in fact completely normal, appropriate changes in the language.

It's been a long time since "literally" was used primarily in its literal sense.  Changes in meaning, use of words as signals of intent rather than to directly carry meaning, and shifts in the sounds of words are part of the normal process of language evolution. English spelling is so very, very weird because English became fixed in print right before a major vowel shift. along with other changes in pronunciation. "Good" and "food" don't rhyme as they ought, and "knight" has seemingly extraneous letters, and "silent e" is a thing, because the spelling of English represents how the words were pronounced at the time that printing, just before what is known as the Great Vowel Shift. In fact, vowel shifts are happening all the time, in various regions. The Great Vowel Shift is different mainly in that it's the one that still confounds our spelling, centuries later.

Because these shifts are always happening, and happen differently in different areas, it affects how we hear each other. We have regional accents, that in extreme cases can come close to mutual incomprehensibility. We also tend to feel, with varying degrees of distress or annoyance, that those a generation older than us talk funny, while those a generation younger are simply talking wrong, and debasing the language! Surly the use of "literally" to mean "figuratively" and "decimate" to mean practically wipe out are insupportable and a sign that Kids Today are wrecking the language, right?

Well, no.

As John McWhorter very clearly and entertainingly explains, its a normal part of the way language, all languages, evolve. It's why people from, broadly, the region the speakers of Indo-European spread through, don't still speak Indo-European, even with lots of new words to cover things that didn't exist when Indo-European was the language of our (loosely speaking) ancestors. McWhorter writes well, and then reads his own work very well. You'll learn a lot, and you'll enjoy it.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.