Language is always changing -- but we tend not to like it. We understand that new words must be created for new things, but the way English is spoken today rubs many of us the wrong way. Whether it’s the use of literally to mean “figuratively” rather than “by the letter,” or the way young people use LOL and like, or business jargon like What’s the ask? -- it often seems as if the language is deteriorating before our eyes. But the truth is different and a lot less scary. English has always been in motion and continues to evolve today, the shifts that can seem so unsettling are a natural process common to all languages, and they are ones we could easily embrace and appreciate rather than condemn. Did you know that silly once meant “blessed”? Or that ought was the original past tense of owe? Or that the suffix -ly in adverbs is actually a remnant of the word like? And have you ever wondered why some people from New Orleans sound as if they come from Brooklyn? When we fully understand that words are ever on the move, our lives are all the richer for it.
Presented in partnership with the Language Institute at UW-Madison.
John McWhorter is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, teaching linguistics, Western Civilization and music history. He is a regular columnist on language matters and also race issues for Time and CNN, also writes on language for the Atlantic, and hosts the Lexicon Valley podcast at Slate. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Interest, and other outlets. He was Contributing Editor at The New Republic from 2001 until 2014. He earned his PhD in linguistics from Stanford University in 1993 and is the author of The Power of Babel, Doing Our Own Thing, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, The Language Hoax, and most recently Words on the Move and Talking Back, Talking Black. The Teaching Company has released four of his audiovisual lecture courses on linguistics. He spoke at the TED conference in 2013 and 2016. Beyond his work in linguistics, he is the author of Losing the Race and other books on race. He has appeared regularly on Bloggingheads.TV since 2006, and produces and plays piano for a group cabaret show, New Faces, at the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City.