Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Review: Words on the Move

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2016


It can be unsettling to be told to think about the fact that you have a tongue in your mouth. It’s wet; it’s biggish when you consider the whole thing all the way back; plus, it has that pebbly texture you’d find hideous to encounter in some undersea creature. Yet there it is sitting in your mouth and you can’t get it out.

As I’ve written before, John McWhorter is a master of analogies, and he still commands them in examples like this one. It comes from his latest book, Words on the Move, of which I received a free review copy from Holt Publishing. The tongue analogy above isn’t even in reference to articulatory phonetics, as you might think in a book about language; it’s about the oddball past-time marker in English used to, the commonality being that they’re both things that are amazingly weird when you stop to think about them, but which we use every day and consider completely normal. Here are some of the other analogies McWhorter uses in WOTM:

  • junk DNA
  • scooping out litter boxes
  • the mouth anatomy of fin whales
  • fade-out endings in pop music
  • fads in baby names
  • pre-ripped blue jeans
  • your child’s dating experiences
  • aside monologues in sitcoms that are not intended to be faux-reality shows
  • musical notes played
  • toolsheds
  • bees moving around in a hive
  • scurvy and being eaten by a bear (in the same sentence)
  • living squid in the ocean vs. dead squid in a kitchen
  • the Victorian party game of creating a “tableau vivant”

The theme of this book is how words not only do change, but are inevitably bound to. Fans of the Lexicon Valley podcast will recognize some of these topics from the episodes that have run since McWhorter’s assumption of host duties. In six chapters, he covers the various kinds of change that words are subject to, some of which will be familiar to most language enthusiasts, some of which won’t. Even when I was already familiar with the concepts, many of McWhorter’s examples were new to me. However, I have to say that I found this book to be M’s most “lecture-y”, because in between the fun analogies, there’s more awkward phrasing than I’m used to (or maybe more than I recall) in his other books. For example, in Chapter 3, M uses the example of some old Archie comics to illustrate how things that start out as markers of emphasis–in this case, exclamation points–end up just showing “basic engagement”. M quotes a dialogue between Archie and Veronica in which Archie is going fishing, and invites Veronica to come, and every declaration ends with a bang. M points out, “‘I’D LIKE TO FISH, TOO!’ in real life would [emphasis mine] get us near water with no one but ourselves.” He’s trying to make the text more interesting with this unexpected phrasing, but this attempt fell flat.

Chapter 1 is about one kind of semantic change, whereby words acquire meanings that are more about feelings and relating to one’s audience than they are about naming things or actions. Indeed, M observes that words like these are often hard to define. He calls them modal pragmatic markers, and uses the acronym FACE to divide them into those that emphasize factuality (those on the very/really/literally spectrum); those that acknowledge of your audience’s state of mind (discourse-initial so fits in here); those that indicate that something it counter to expectation (for example, a big-ass car is not merely big, but surprisingly big); and those that try to ease the impact of an unwelcome statement (I know, right?). Sometimes it’s not entirely clear why M puts a particular word in the box that he does, which makes me wonder how things would have shaken out if he had used, say, a 5-letter word as a mnemonic. Furthermore, the acronym wiggles a bit in that factuality is where words like really begin rather than what they become, whereas the other categories name the function that words later come to have. Even so, the classification is a good rough-ad-ready way to look at this kind of change.

Chapter 2 moves into another kind of semantic change, namely, the drifting that occurs as a result of happenstance imbuing a word with various connotations, which then become its denotation. His main source of examples in this chapter is Shakespeare, and I found this to be the driest part of the book, as he traced out example after example of seemingly familiar words that had very different meanings in passages from Shakespeare’s plays. Each would make a good entry for a page-a-day calendar, but one after another, they become numbing, even with M’s occasional one-liners to liven things.

In Chapter 3, M moves on to semantic changes that go so far that the words cease lose all of their earlier meaning and serve only to provide grammatical information. For example, the used to construction mentioned earlier really did start with a meaning that was closer to the “employ” meaning of use. It’s a good introduction to the process that linguists call grammaticalization, but M gets about halfway through the chapter before he reveals this word, since it has so many syllables that he wanted to put it off until the last possible moment.

Chapter 4 shifts from changes in word meaning to changes in pronunciation. In here, M covers not only the Great Vowel Shift, which will be familiar material to many readers of this review, but also various other vowel shifts that have occurred or are occurring in American English: the Northern Cities Shift, the Southern shift, and some less elaborate shifts, such as the cot/caught merger. He does all this without ever using the International Phonetic Alphabet, because he’s aiming for a non-specialist audience, but as with his similar attitude toward using the term grammaticalization, simply taking the plunge and bringing in the technical vocabulary earlier might have made things easier to read overall. Not using a vowel chart may have contributed to his surprisingly vague explanation of our diphthongs in mite and mouse: “[It] just branched off in a little spew.” A little spew? It makes a little more sense on his diagram, but not much.

Next, M attempts to sustain a sexual analogy throughout the entirety of Chapter 5, which he titles “Lexical springtime: Words mate and reproduce.” After quickly dispensing with portmanteau words and contractions, M resumes the progression of Chapters 1 through 3, now considering words that lose so much of their distinct meaning and pronunciation that they’re not even elements of grammar anymore; they’re just meaningless snippets of sounds that are parts of larger words. This still fits in his “words mating” analogy, because it all starts with compound words. M then goes through the stress-shift that regularly occurs in English compounds as they become familiar, to subsequent syllable reduction, to the eventual irrecognizability of the word as a compound at all. For example, I was surprised to learn here that world began as a compound of the same word for “man” that gives us werewolf and eld meaning “old”. Rather than Shakespeare, in this chapter M quotes a lot of examples from actual audio recordings, so that we can hear these processes taking place within the 20th century. (Actually, you can’t hear them so well on the page; I recommend listening to the Lexicon Valley episode where M plays the clips he’s talking about.)

In the final chapter, M talks about the effects of having a written language on how words change: It doesn’t stop it, but it makes it more visible and therefore more troubling–if you let it. M wraps up the work with a grand slam of all the kinds of word-change he’s talked about, illustrated in one word: like. He finishes with one more sexual analogy, one which, if he had spoken it, would have had me asking myself, “Did he just say what I think he said?” Here it is:

Language lives, as we do. Let’s love it as what it is–something always becoming, never still.

Maybe some prefer their flowers pressed dry in books. There are those with affectionate feelings toward the inflatable doll and the corpse. Surely, though, most of us seek life. Language, too, lives.

So if you’re looking for an entertaining and informative holiday gift for a language enthusiast, I’d go with McWhorter’s The Power of Babel or What Language Is. But if they already have those, or if their humor runs toward the sexual and scatological, Words on the Move is a good choice. And if you’d like a free copy of Words on the Move, write your best linguistics analogy in the comments, or tweet them @LiteralMinded (with the hashtag #LxAnalogy if you have room). I will see that a copy gets sent to whoever posts–by midnight EST, Monday, December 12, 2016–the most-entertaining analogy, as judged by me.

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