Monday, September 14, 2020

Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage, by John McWhorter

The Great Courses, July 2013

John McWhorter is always enjoyable and informative when talking about the English language, and this is no exception. 

It's often popular to talk about the decline of English, bad grammar, and the Awful Effects of texting and email on how we speak and write. We may also tend to think that people doing a foreign language are doing something much more impressive than we are in speaking English,

McWhorter shows us how the things we often denounce as Bad Grammar are often the English language changing in response to changes in our lives, the kinds of changes that English has been undergoing for a thousand years or more--such as the often-denounced verbing of nouns--and normal cultural changes.
We get some great history of the language, which explains just how weird it is, and how it got that way. Many of the case endings and other frills in Indo-European got out in Proto-Germanic due to some other group, possibly Phoenicians, settling in the area and learning it as adults. Then the same thing happened to what became Old English, in contact with large numbers of Norse also learning the language as adults.

Oh, and there were the Welsh, who gifted us with "do," a thing that doesn't exist in any other languages except the Celtic ones--and Welsh had other effects on English as we now speak it.

Other changes, more recent, are cultural. We don't have "let's go hear the currently popular lecturer speak for two or three hours" as a form of entertainment anymore. And we don't expect modern politicians to speak with the kind of formality that Lincoln, or Churchill, or even John Kennedy did. Yet we still have a distinction between formal and informal English; it's just that our version of informal is found in email and texting, while what we find suitable for writing or public speaking is different from what previous generations wanted.

John McWhorter talking about this is a lot more fun than I am. ("Fun" is another interesting word, doing interesting things...) Go listen to it.

I bought this audiobook.

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