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Words on the Move: Why English Won't -…

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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17721110,030 (3.91)17
"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)
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

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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 21 (next | show all)
Hugely entertaining, clever, and informative. If the modern use of "literally" gets under your skin and upspeak grates on you, this book just might change your mind. Either that or it'll drive you nuts. It's full of fascinating little factoids like how once upon a time "silly" meant "blessed," and Jonathan Swift got mighty mad when english speakers stopped pronouncing the "e" in the past tense in words like "blessed," and how many languages worldwide use their version of "like" as a speech marker (as in the often-deplored usage a la "And then he was like, 'I can't go'").

I listened to the audiobook, and I recommend that. So much of what he writes depends on pronunciation and accent, and it comes through very clearly when spoken aloud (plus he was a really great narrator). ( )
  andrea_mcd | Mar 10, 2020 |
Super accessible for those who know little about linguistics and/or the history of the English language but love learning more about these topics. Recommended. ( )
  sparemethecensor | Apr 19, 2019 |
Time changes things. The color of your hair and the tautness of your skin. Clothing styles. Moral standards. Even rivers and mountain ranges. Yet one of the most difficult changes to accept is that relating to the language we speak everyday. Whatever our political preferences, we tend to be conservative when it comes to language.

Columbia Professor John McWhorter makes the case in “Words on the Move (2016) that such change is inevitable, no matter how valiantly defenders of the language fight against it. Yet even those defenders of the language don’t want to go back to the English spoken by Chaucer. Rather they want to preserve the English they learned in school as children. Never mind that in the years since they have helped change the language by adopting teen slang in their youth, by using new words that came with new technology and by accepting cultural changes, such as using the pronoun they instead of he to refer to a person of either sex.

Language changes in a variety of ways. New words come into the language all the time, while others words drop out from lack of use. The meaning of words change. Pronunciation changes. Grammar changes. The people who make dictionaries will always have a job because their work, like that of a dish washer in a restaurant or a mortician, never ends.

McWhorter writes in an engaging, witty style, which is fortunate for him because much of what he says is bound to irritate some, if not most, readers. He is tolerant, for example, of those who use the word literally when they mean figuratively. Like other words that once represented truth, such as actually and really, literally now means something less than swear-on-the-Bible truth.

Phrases such as “you know” and “and stuff,” and even the word like, used by young people as a stand-in for the word said, are all acceptable to McWhorter. To him they are just natural, even sensible, changes in the way English is spoken. He argues that "casual speech full of likes is not, in truth, tentative or messy, but empathic and polite."

The way English is written changes, as well, but much more slowly. The fact that written language changes more slowly than spoken language explains, McWhorter says, why the spelling of English words seems so screwy. "Speech moved on; spelling stayed put," he writes. Often words are spelled the way they were once pronounced, not the way they are pronounced today.

If you are someone who still owns a dictionary in book form, it is out of date. Even if you just bought it new yesterday. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Apr 14, 2019 |
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. ( )
1 vote LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
I enjoyed the humor in this audiobook as much as I did its topic. 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 |
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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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