Words on the MovePosted: December 14, 2016
Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)
Henry Holt and Co., September 6, 2016, 272 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $19.35
I am a big John McWhorter fan. I have completed all four of his offerings from The Great Courses: three on audio and one on DVD. He is a brilliant linguist. While he has taught graduate students he is superb at popularizing the concepts of linguistics. He is witty with a wry sense of humor.
In one of his Great Courses lectures McWhorter talks about “sweeping the ocean.” He describes someone with a broom who goes out on the seashore and tries to sweep the tide back as it comes in. That, he tells us, is the equivalent of expecting that language change can be stopped.
Words on the Move is the first book by McWhorter that I have read. While one does not get the full impact of his personality as one would on video or audio, his unique personality does come through. He tells us that we can forget about fighting use of the word “literally” to mean “figuratively.” (“He literally fell apart.”)
McWhorter tells us, as most linguists do, that many rules of language, “are arbitrary, unconnected to clarity or logic.” He also tells us:
Yet no linguist denies the other reality, which is that these rules, having been entrenched in society as measures of formality and social worth, must be followed in formal contexts and taught to young people.
If you enjoy the study of language this book is well worth your time.