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Words on the Move: Why English Won't -…
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Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still… (original 2016; edition 2017)

by John McWhorter (Author)

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7914152,477 (3.95)16
Member:gregvogl
Title:Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally)
Authors:John McWhorter (Author)
Info:Picador (2017), Edition: Reprint, 272 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:language

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Words on the Move: Why English Won't—and Can't—Sit Still (Like, Literally) by John McWhorter (2016)

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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
I love John McWhorter. He makes linguistics, language, grammar, human communication, and history so much fun. Granted, I find all those subjects interesting anyway, but McWhorter makes so many clever observations and comments that it is simply entertaining.

He is also the rare author who delivers the perfect narration of his writing too. (I'm guessing that's because he's used to delivering speeches as a professor.) ( )
  Connie-D | May 31, 2017 |
Linguist John McWhorter investigates different kinds of language change, including meaning shifts, the "grammarization" of words, syllable emphasis changes, shifts in pronunciation, and yes, the way "like" is used and what it means in various contexts.

Language change. It happens naturally - after all, the English we speak has changed significantly since Shakespeare's time so we need copious notes to know what even "simple" words meant at the time - yet people on the street will tell you that it's degrading and that everyone using "literally" figuratively is just plain wrong and ignorant. McWhorter's point of view is one of wonder at our language and the way it lives and breathes through the changes we make in it through the generations. I found his discussions fascinating, though somewhat repetitive in his making the point that it's natural and not a devolution of language. He uses some examples from other languages, but his main focus is American English. His accessible, engaging style makes this fun reading for anyone interested in language even if you don't have a linguistics degree, yet there was still plenty there that I could glean even more on a reread. ( )
  bell7 | Mar 27, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Language is not static. Words and meaning change over time. Thinking of language like a river slowly flowing over culture and picking up new elements along the way.

Some chapters get a bit technical but generally the text is accessible to the educated reader. Recommended for all who like exploring the meaning of words and willing to think in new ways about language. ( )
  BookWallah | Oct 13, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As usual for John McWhorter's pop linguistics books, Words on the Move is very accessible and friendly. Reading it felt like I had a chatty conversational partner at my side, explaining the concepts, almost. He relies heavily on pop culture of many different flavors to help explain topics or provide further examples of how a language feature might be observed elsewhere, and he avoids the International Phonetic Alphabet as a rule in his pop-ling books, to avoid any feelings of stuffiness or academese.

Frankly, when I read this book, or The Power of Babel, or his various articles around the web, I feel real smart. McWhorter is really good at that.

Unfortunately, this skill of his means this book is grounded in American English and less accessible for those who do not speak the language fluently or who do not know the references cited. Most of the time, if a pop culture reference is dated or even slightly obscure, there is an explanation and a short pointer to the source (old tv shows, for example), but this is not always the case.

Likewise, the lack of IPA means he relies on spelling conventions (and spacing, hyphens, capitalization) to express differences in pronunciation or stress. This is very useful if you have the right accent, but I found a lot of these to be fairly opaque. I tried to say the words out loud, but couldn't figure out why his "this is said this way" didn't sound right to my ears. Maybe IPA could have helped - or at least made a better distinction. He has recorded an audio book version, which I think would be excellent listening at those points. He does, afterall, take pains to point out that he has a Philadelphian accent himself, which is different from a lot of his audience.

The topic for this book is evolutionary linguistics in general, but specifically the changes in language that we can observe right now, rather than how it changed in the past (such as in The Power of Babel or Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue). There are five main categories, all of which eventually are used to explain that little word "like".
  1. The Faces of English: Words get personal — on pragmatics, using a "FACE" acronym as the skeleton of the explanation (Feelings, Acknowledgement of others' state of mind, Counterexpectation, Easing)
  2. It's the Implication That Matters: Words on the move — on the drift of word meanings due to implications (positive, negative, broad, narrow, etc.)
  3. When Words Stop Being Words: Where does grammar come from? — on grammaticalization, for example "-ly" from "like"
  4. A Vowel is a Process: Words start sounding different
  5. Lexical Springtime: Words mate and reproduce — on how new coinages become standard, or old standards freshen up with some emphasis on Backshift


To everyone who hates words like "impactful" or "irregardless", this book will not apologize for them. It will explain why these words are so tenacious and not going away, but it doesn't say that they or any word are right or wrong - just that they are. The final chapter, in discussing "like" (or even "all" as a quote marker), does point out that describing language this way doesn't mean approval. It's an acceptance that language, as with all fashions, change, and trying to explain why it is changing in this particular way. But society has rules for fashion, and likewise for language, and one must use language appropriately.

As someone who does read "All Things Linguistics" and "Language Log" and pop linguistics books fairly regularly, I find that the most informative and new thing in Words on the Move is the first chapter on pragmatics. I had never seen the subject explained in quite this way, and the FACE descriptor is very useful. The "Factuality, Acknowledgement of others, etc." listing helped me articulate concepts that I instinctively understood but couldn't explain. ( )
1 vote keristars | Aug 28, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
John McWhorter always has a lot on his linguistic plate and shares his passion for words and their histories with great verve. While this volume is not his most interesting or rigorous - it reads a little bit like he wanted to get some things off his desk so he could more on to something else - it offers the reader much to ponder and enjoy. I am unsure if this is a good place to start reading/thinking about words -it may be - but McWhorter is always at least provocative and well-written. ( )
  michaelg16 | Aug 25, 2016 |
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To Martha, I said having children would mean I would stop writing these. You didn't want me to, I couldn't, and thank you for enabling (in both senses) my habit.
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No one minds that today the clouds are neither in the same position nor in the same shapes they were yesterday.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"A bestselling linguist takes us on a lively tour of how the English language is evolving before our eyes and why we should embrace this transformation and not fight it. Language is always changing -- but we tend not to like it. We understand that new words must be created for new things, but the way English is spoken today rubs many of us the wrong way. Whether its the use of literally to mean "figuratively" rather than "by the letter" or the way young people use LOL and like or business jargon like Whats the ask? it often seems as if the language is deteriorating before our eyes. But the truth is different and a lot less scary, as John McWhorter shows in this delightful and eye-opening exploration of how English has always been in motion and continues to evolve today. Drawing examples from everyday life and employing a generous helping of humor, he shows that these shifts are a natural process common to all languages, and that we should embrace and appreciate these changes, not condemn them. Words on the Move opens our eyes to the surprising backstories to the words and expressions we use every day. Did you know that silly once meant "blessed?" Or that ought was the original past tense of owe? Or that the suffixly in adverbs is actually a remnant of the word like? And have you ever wondered why some people from New Orleans sound as if they come from Brooklyn? McWhorter encourages us to marvel at the dynamism and resilience of the English language, and his book offers a lively journey through which we discover that words are ever on the move and our lives are all the richer for it"--… (more)

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