Author: John McWhorter
Rating: 4 Stars
Review By: Shana
Professor McWhorter remains a lively, humorous, and knowledgeable guide through the linguistic evolution of English. As in his earlier books, he underscores that linguistics, as the study of language, does not decry the ever-changing nature of language -- in fact, it is the erosion, expansion, and transformation of vowels, meaning, and usage that makes such study fascinating. As such, he again stresses that the heart palpitations suffered by some over the "degradation" of language, the proliferation of slang, the ubiquitous use of “like”, the use of “incorrect” grammar and the like have nothing to do with linguistics. And moreover, are not rooted in any necessary truths and ignore the history of language. That is, that language is always on the move and won't and can't sit still (as McWhorter declaims in the title).
In exhorting the reader to look to language changes (including changes in meaning and pronunciation) without clutching their pearls, McWhorter uses ample examples of how English has changed over the centuries. As discussed in earlier books, we are shown how Old English morphed into the English used by Shakespeare, and how it continued to change to present day (including how up to 10% of the words used by Shakespeare have changed -- making modern audiences' inability to fully grasp what is being said utterly explicable). The proliferation of the written word helped stabilize the language, but still it evolves over time.
In prior books he has had extensive sections explaining how certain consonants are vulnerable to being dropped or morphing into other sounds, and to how vowels change. Here such discussions are more truncated, though he has an entertaining section on how the pronunciation of “bitch” has morphed to “betch” in certain areas of California.
Between changing pronunciations (which explain many of the bizarre spellings of words in English that seem to bear no resemblance to how we say them) and changing meanings, any person feeling aghast at the changes in English should take a deep breath. Such constant evolution is the rule, not the exception, and much of the effort expended in annoyance would be better served by realizing this is inevitable and necessary.
All in all, McWhorter remains one of my favorite academics, willing to make silly jokes and find the humor in his subject. And pointing out the elitist nature of much of the criticism of language in its present form. Learning more about language and how it grows and transforms over time is nothing short of fascinating, and well worth any person's time.
My love of reading was sparked in 3rd grade by the promise of personal pan pizzas via the BOOK IT! Program. Hmmmm... any chance that someone might give adults free food for reading? Asking for a friend...