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‘Words on the Move’ by John McWhorter

Posted at age 29.

Other books by John McWhorter and Steven Pinker had already stripped away most of my linguistic sense of right and wrong, but “Words on the Move” finished the job. It convinced me the new words and new uses for old words we hear, even if disagreeable to some, are exactly how language has evolved since the beginning. And this book gave me a framework to understand five ways language changes and a better understanding of what words and sounds are.

Most words mean something (semantics), but some words do something (pragmatics), and within that is a process by which normal words become personal and subjective (modal). Other words lose all meaning but become pieces of grammar. Vowels are constantly shifting around such that holes in the sound space left open are filled by nearby vowels in an endless train, where every language’s vowels at any given time represent a tiny fraction of possible vowels. Phrases become compound words that get “backshifted” and lose bits or all of the second half, all while meaning creeps to become broader or narrower or just different.

As McWhorter describes, all this is due to human imperfections and interactions and other forces that are as unstoppable as the forces that cause clouds to change shape. Trying to stop it would require devoting “all life’s energy to that task—which would be, essentially, death anyway.”

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