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Monday, February 24, 2020

Review: Words on the Move

After reading Bill Bryson's lackluster book about English, I reflected that John McWhorter's audible series about human language was still by far the most memorable and interesting lecture series I heard last year, so I checked out his book Words on the Move from the library in hardback form. The book did not disappoint.

One thing that his lecture series touched on was that people don't really enjoy Shakespeare, and in a section of this book, he discusses why: many of the words used in Elizabethan times have drifted so far from their original meanings that their use is incomprehensible when presented in speech without prior study and preparation. Ever the pragmatist, McWhorter proposes that we present Shakespeare in translated versions, translating Elizabethan vocabulary into their modern equivalents. The examples he provides are compelling. In a further illustration of similar effects in modern times, he points to Moby Dick's use of certain words (e.g., "wonderful", "pitiful", and "earnest") that have drifted so far that we could never use them in the same way today. "Fantastic" is another word that has also similarly drifted.

The mechanics of why that drift happens and how it happens is similar to the story of telephone: each generation of new learners of the language puts their own twist on the enunciation, and eventually vulnerable syllables and sound drop off and we go from pronouncing "mate" like "mahtee" to "mayte". Entire categories of meaning can also shift, like "meat" used to mean "food", and "wort" usesd to mean "vegetables". Each of those words became more specific to a category, and another word moved in for the generalized meaning.

Upon reflection, this is one of those books where I should have bought the Kindle version. There are too many examples for me to retain, and it's worth reading multiple times. Recommended.

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