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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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12619137,373 (3.88)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:****
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 19 (next | show all)
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. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
I enjoyed the humor in this audiobook as much as I did its topic: our constantly evolving language. Whether it would have been as entertaining in print I don’t know, but I’m sure it still would have been very informative. It's a given that English isn’t a dead language like Latin but author/narrator John McWhorter shows just how dynamic it really is. He goes beyond vocabulary in the changes he cites and includes examples such as backshifting, which is a change of emphasis placed on syllables in compound words, vowel shifting, and grammatical morphemes. Overall, a very good listen. ( )
  wandaly | Mar 24, 2018 |
I literally, like, worship John McWhorter.

"No," you say, "You don't "literally" worship him. And quit using "like."" "Thank you," sez I, "that's exactly the response I was looking for. "

Language is a living thing, and like all living things, it grows and changes. As much as the use of "literally" to mean something that is figurative may make you tear out your hair, there are two things you should remember. First, that this is what language does, even to the point of some words coming to mean their exact opposite, frex, fast means something that is rapid. It also means something that is held immobile. Second, many of the words we use regularly, and think of as proper usage have already changed dramatically. Why don't we care? Because that happened long before we learned to speak. It's the newness that drives people crazy. They believe language must be frozen in dictionary form for eternity. But it doesn't work that way.

McWhorter is a brilliant scholar and lecturer, who can counter every argument you can come up with against some new usage in about half a dozen different ways without breaking a sweat. He explains how meanings change, how spelling and pronunciation change, and how grammar changes. He also explains why they do, how vowels shift from generation to generation, changing the pronunciation of a word over time. He discusses how word meanings change, citing examples such as our word "silly" which comes from the Old English "sǣliġ" which meant blessed, which later came to mean "innocent" and from there took on a negative connotation of weak-minded or silly.

Drawing examples from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and even more contemporary sources such as Saul Bellow and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he cites examples of the huge changes English has gone through, continues to go through, will continue to go through, will we or nil we. As such, this book is an excellent primer on how not to be too pole-up-the-ass about casual usage. Yes, it's important for people to know how to communicate clearly in formal settings, but as he quite rightly points out, no language has ever devolved into meaningless babble in spite of the constant changes that it undergoes, and no language ever will.

Whether you're a language purist or someone who loves watching language evolve, I think you'll find yourself fascinated by this book. ( )
  Tracy_Rowan | Mar 20, 2018 |
Fascinating look at how languages evolve, how words get shortened, turned into grammar, change their meanings, and change their pronunciations. Explains why English spelling is so irregular. Fascinating, but ever so slightly long-winded at times. ( )
  jvgravy | Jan 20, 2018 |
I literally, like, worship John McWhorter.

"No," you say, "You don't "literally" worship him. And quit using "like."" "Thank you," sez I, "that's exactly the response I was looking for. "

Language is a living thing, and like all living things, it grows and changes. As much as the use of "literally" to mean something that is figurative may make you tear out your hair, there are two things you should remember. First, that this is what language does, even to the point of some words coming to mean their exact opposite, frex, fast means something that is rapid. It also means something that is held immobile. Second, many of the words we use regularly, and think of as proper usage have already changed dramatically. Why don't we care? Because that happened long before we learned to speak. It's the newness that drives people crazy. They believe language must be frozen in dictionary form for eternity. But it doesn't work that way.

McWhorter is a brilliant scholar and lecturer, who can counter every argument you can come up with against some new usage in about half a dozen different ways without breaking a sweat. He explains how meanings change, how spelling and pronunciation change, and how grammar changes. He also explains why they do, how vowels shift from generation to generation, changing the pronunciation of a word over time. He discusses how word meanings change, citing examples such as our word "silly" which comes from the Old English "sǣliġ" which meant blessed, which later came to mean "innocent" and from there took on a negative connotation of weak-minded or silly.

Drawing examples from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and even more contemporary sources such as Saul Bellow and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he cites examples of the huge changes English has gone through, continues to go through, will continue to go through, will we or nil we. As such, this book is an excellent primer on how not to be too pole-up-the-ass about casual usage. Yes, it's important for people to know how to communicate clearly in formal settings, but as he quite rightly points out, no language has ever devolved into meaningless babble in spite of the constant changes that it undergoes, and no language ever will.

Whether you're a language purist or someone who loves watching language evolve, I think you'll find yourself fascinated by this book. ( )
  Tracy_Rowan | Jan 4, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
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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 suffix -ly 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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