paper TOWELS or PAPER towels
By Amy Willis
Emergent order has long been a common EconTalk theme, and this 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?
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?