paper TOWELS or PAPER towels

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
John McWhorter on the Evolutio... Benedict Evans on the Future o...

paper towels.jpg Emergent order has long been a common EconTalk theme, and this week's fascinating episode is no exception. This week, host Russ Roberts welcomed Columbia University linguist John McWhorter to the program to discuss the evolution of language and his new book, Words on the Move. Language as an emergent order has also long been a theme of political economy, but McWhorter's engaging examples and explanations breathe new life into the subject. It's a must listen (and I mean listen, as you'll miss a tremendous amount of auditory nuance.) For example, is it paper TOWELS, or PAPER towels? BLACKboard or blackBOARD? Let us know your thoughts today!

1. Let's start with perhaps the most controversial question... Should we re-word Shakespeare for the modern audience? Why or why not?

2. In thinking of language as an emergent order, what does it have in common with the emergent order of markets? How do they differ? What are the feedback loops in language evolution? Which do you find a better example of emergent order, and why?

3. Like, does it like drive you crazy when people are like constantly peppering their speech with "like?" Why should you like chill out about it, according to McWhorter?

4. How does the use of language differ in text versus conversational settings? How much do you employ what McWhorter refers to as "easing strategies" in conversation, and what does their use help you accomplish? (You may want to revisit the Shakespeare question as you think about this.)

5. Russ says several times during the conversation that McWhorter changed his mind about something. Did this week's conversation change your mind (or at least surprise you) about anything? What? If you could ask McWhorter one follow-up question about this week's episode, what would it be?

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Greg G writes:

Regarding #1:

We encourage the translation of great literary works in other languages don't we? Nobody seems to think that's shocking. Well, English this old IS a different language.

I do not believe that a translation of Shakespeare to modern English would come at the expense of interest in the original works. I think it would stimulate interest in the original works.

Come on people! A libertarian economics comment section is the last place we should hesitate to defend competition and call out zero sum thinking.

Greg G writes:

Regarding #2

In both these emergent orders very large numbers of people are making what appear to be voluntary choices in an attempt to get closer to some result that they want.

They differ in what they are really about. Language is about communicating meanings. Markets are about people sorting out how scarce resources get distributed.

I don't see any reason to think that one is a "better" example of emergence than the other. There are many examples of emergence and no good metric for, or reason for, ranking them as better and worse.

Amy Willis writes:

On the question of "translating" Shakespeare, my colleague Sarah Skwire, a Shakespeare scholar herself, weighed in over at EconLog. Check it out:

Ed Kless writes:

This is an outstanding episode, instantly in the running for best of 2018.

I do not think my mind was changed immediately, BUT it certainly has caused me to reflect on several of the ideas presented.

During the conversation I found myself joining in out loud. For example, when Russ was sharing that his kids were miffed about paperCLIPS v PAPERtowels, I said out loud, "I DO say paperTOWELS." I am glad to know I am on the forefront of the evolution of the English language.

That said, I do have one phrase that I do not like that has crept into usage - "on premise" used to describe software that run on a server on a computer or local area network. It should be "on premises."

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