John McWhorter on the Evolution of Language and Words on the Move
Aug 21 2017

Words%20on%20the%20Move.jpg How did bad come to mean good? Why is Shakespeare so hard to understand? Is there anything good about "like" and "you know?" Author and professor John McWhorter of Columbia University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the unplanned ways that English speakers create English, an example of emergent order. Topics discussed include how words get short (but not too short), the demand for vividness in language, and why Shakespeare is so hard to understand.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Aug 21 2017 at 8:55am

I liked this episode.

The conversation almost went into emergence, which would be an interesting topic in itself. Russ mentioned how there is no “market” for words where originators get credit.

So… language markets don’t have prices, profits, contracts… what they do have is repetition. When words, idioms and such get repeated enough, they become a part of language.

Richard Dawkins called this sort of thing memes. He was borrowing from biology where they call emergence evolution. Just like Russ was looking for prices or profit analogues, Dawkins went looking for genetic analogues.

It’d be interesting to examine, biological evolution, language & economics together. They all have these emergent order characteristics. In what ways are the mecghanics similar or different.

They’re all undirected. They all have novelty. They all have ways for useful novelty to replicate. What else do thye have in common. What else has an emergent dynamic.

Aug 21 2017 at 1:10pm

Russ: “…language as an example of emergent order. Language is undoubtedly the product of human action but not human design”

You are very wrong. There’s nothing “emergent” about language, the economy, or anything else for that matter. It is in fact Human Design that drives language and the economy. Definitely not a grand design from the central authority, but a design none the less. The first time you might use “wicked” for “cool” you do so for some reason: it sounds smart, want to make fun, want to fit in, etc. It need not be a long prepared speech, but it’s still a micro decision of yours.

Same goes for the economy – just because there’s no central authority on bread, it doesn’t mean that thousands of bakers don’t ponder how to optimize their business all the time. These are all decisions and hence Intelligent Designs of micro pieces of the economy.

Contrary to popular belief, no one has ever observed an “arising” or “emerging” of anything:
No “Universe arises in the Big Bang”
No “Life arises from non life”
No “Human intelligence arises from animals”
No “Consciousness arises”
No “AI machines will arise”

Not so far and not ever. If anyone has any proof to the contrary, you need to show it:

Aug 21 2017 at 1:31pm


Your Dawkins is of course very wrong: tell a joke to El Capitan (of your boat) and it might become a “meme”, but tell the same joke to El Capitan (the rock) and it will die for sure if no human is around.

You see, only intelligent and purposeful humans develop language and the economy. That’s Intelligent Design in my book.

Greg G
Aug 21 2017 at 4:44pm

Excellent podcast. This was one of my favorites. McWhorter is one of the best linguists in the business.

It is always surprising to me how few people realize that language is entirely based on convention and convention is constantly changing through a process that is indeed a classic case of emergence. Language is not based on logic or consistent rules. It is convention (and ever changing convention) all the way down. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Surely every good libertarian should want it that way.

A huge part of academic philosophy in the 20th Century in the English speaking world was devoted to what was called Analytic Philosophy. The thing that was being “analyzed” was language itself. In the beginning it was believed in good faith that, with enough rigor, language itself might be able to be used with something very much like the precision of mathematics.

That entire project died a horrible death. After several decades of telling other people they didn’t know how to speak their own languages properly, analytic philosophy was blown up by its own best practitioners who admitted that it couldn’t pass its own tests.

Wittgenstein, who had been an early supporter of the project, did something you rarely see in any field. He renounced his earlier work and took off in an entirely new and original direction. He famously described different uses of the same word as hanging together by a “family resemblance.” He referred to language as a game. Grammar can be thought of as the somewhat flexible rules of the game. Winning is being understood the way you want to be understood. Losing is not being understood the way you want to be understood.

Everyone gets to choose what the words they speak and hear mean to them. Some people get much better results from those choices than others. We all have hopes and preferences for how language will evolve and intentions for how our words will be received. But none of us can predict, much less design and implement, a plan for what changes the language will incorporate at some future date. That will emerge as the unpredictable product of the decisions of countless individual agents.

Aug 22 2017 at 12:26am

I love most EconTalk podcasts, but some – like this one – are super-fabulous. Wanted to comment on the discussion of the Yiddish word ‘nu’. Not sure what is the etymology, but i see two options, and maybe the combination of those. ‘Nu’, is used in western slavic languages (Czech, Polish; and maybe there is something similar in German?) to mean ‘yes’. It is also a very commonly used word in Russian, and other eastern slavic languages. I would bet that no Russian conversation is possible without ‘nu’.

It serves a wide variety of purposes and is one of those definitive pragmatic words (or, as we often uncharitably call it in Russian, a parasitic word). You can make it mean whatever you like, more or less, depending on context, including very commonly the meaning that Russ ascribed to it in American Yiddish. I recall that maybe the original use was to express something of a threat and induce the interlocutor to do or says what you expect of them. And these days, a mother might say to a child, who brings home a D on a math test, demanding accountability: “Nu?!” (to which an intemperate child might rebut: “Nu i chto?” – “So what?”). It also often serves to soften the ensuing statement, or question, or make it less formal. “How are you?” (“Kak ti?“) becomes “Nu, kak ti?” – not as explicitly demanding an answer, just expressing interest. Nu i nu! (nu and nu) expresses surprise. As does Nu da?! (nu yes) – more even as incredulity; although it can also mean affirmation: “well, yes”. And of course the most favorite animated cartoon of my generation was called “Nu, pogodi!” – “Just you wait!“; not surprisingly, it was about the Wolf and the Hare.

Aug 22 2017 at 1:35am

Fun, fun, fun. Lots to think about….

Academics, by definition part of the autism spectrum (stereotyped interests), will rarely do poorly investing human capital into working on their backhand (reviewing language pragmatics). Look at what a beautiful job Russ has done with his videos…..

1. When is language not on the move? Two biological examples come to mind: adulthood and swearing. For the auto-didacts out there who would like to pursue this topic further, there appears to be a critical period of language acquisition in adolescence driven by terminal differentiation of parvalbumin + interneurons in the prefrontal cortex. Parvalbumin is a calcium binding protein which helps neurons turn off and on very quickly. Its also found in fast twitch muscle. Think white meat in a bird or the power of an defensive lineman. When these neurons don’t work, you observe the disordered thinking in schizophrenia marked by neologisms (new words). It may be too late for Russ’s kids to change their grammar and too late for all of us to practically learn a new language.

Swearing is different. Many stroke patients (Broca’s aphasia) can still communicate pragmatically by swearing suggesting a different selection pressure or emergence if you prefer. These fixed expressions are tightly coupled to distinct emotions and perhaps less easily decoupled from their biological meanings than conventional terms. What does biology tell us about how practical it is for the US trademark office to objectively define racially charged epithets, e.g. “The Slants”

2. Suspect that a substantial amount of speech pragmatics is related to defining dominance hierarchy between the listener and the speaker. Its great to be “loved and be lovely” but even in intimate settings specialization of function and associated territory needs to be defined and respected. Anyone who has been married can attest to the complicated contracts which arise between spouses in terms of defining the relative expertise of the individual on a particular topic or task, A Hayekian economy doesn’t work unless there is some sort of branding enforced by an agreed dominance hierarchy.

The converse of branding is suspiciousness of claimed authority by so-called experts. Most people be don’t like didactic people. Advice from individuals who don’t know you deeply is usually wrong. We all have very very strong evolutionary designed anti-virus programs which prevent us from being easily verbally manipulated.

I know Russ works very hard in his show to let his listeners reveal their relative expertise and to add his own expertise without hopefully detracting or diluting their story.

Is the show limiting its audience by using too formal of a language? His brand attracts the college educated professional class, defined immediately by their language with implicitly rigorously enforced speech codes. Could he expand his brand (audience) without diluting his current one with a rougher and more emotionally charged language? I liked it when Taleb called Dawkins a “BS salesman” For many people outside of academia, swearing is an intrinsic part of their language and instinctively resent too formal of a language. A little swearing is “Easing”. Perhaps there is room for a different show meant for a different audience who respond better to emotionally charged argument rather than finely detailed academic ones.

Frederick Davies
Aug 22 2017 at 5:27am

Concerning “backshift” as defined by the guest (“a BLACK BIRD” vs “a BLACKbird”), here in UK we have been noticing that it also happens even if there is no reason for the two words to be permanently associated (TV hosts pronouncing “a blue car was seen” as “a BLUEcar was seen”). Is there a name for such a phenomenon? Is this a case of a change in the language or just TV hosts not knowing how to read a teleprompter?



Aug 22 2017 at 10:58am

One line that caught my attention:

If Shakespeare peppered his plays with Italian because, let’s say his audience knew Italian

I’m reminded of translations of Russian literature that leave untranslated large blocks of French. Modern editions might have a translation in a footnote, but the older Constance Garrett translations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy et. al. had me scrambling for a French dictionary.

This, I think, is another example of language (and the translator) prizing form over function; the French was meant to convey that the characters were cultured and westernized. Perhaps if Shakespeare had peppered his plays with Italian for a similar purpose, we’d see the Italian left as-is!

Aug 22 2017 at 11:34am

Interestingly, the “blasphemous” idea of updating Shakespeare’s texts would have been standard practice for Shakespeare himself, whereas he would have found the existence of canonical texts quite foreign. The plays were meant to be performed, not read, and they often changed between performances.

Angela N
Aug 22 2017 at 3:01pm

I’m waiting to see how long it takes before “verse” becomes a verb meaning, “to take on; compete with.” I noticed that a lot of younger children use this rather logically from Little League or AYSO. They see the schedules posted: Cubs v. Mets and then of course the next logical statement is, “We’re going to verse the Mets this Saturday.”

The Original CC
Aug 23 2017 at 6:01pm

This whole “literally” issue seems to have been mis-framed. The reason many of us object to the use of the word “literally” to mean “figuratively” isn’t that we can’t stand the thought of language evolving; it’s because there’s no replacement for it! I once had a friend say to me, “X is literally Y, and I mean ‘literally’ literally (not figuratively).”

In other words, he had no word to express the fact that he meant something ‘literally’. We had a perfectly good word for this concept, and it was literally taken away and made to mean the opposite.

How am I supposed to say “X is literally Y”? I can’t even figure out how to ask the question unambiguously!!

Same goes for “begs the question”. This was a very useful phrase (and concept). It was taken away by people trying to sound smart when they really meant “raises the question”. Fine, I get that language changes over time, but now those of us who used the phrase in its “classical” sense now have to find a new name for the concept. I didn’t ask for this burden; it was given to us by people who heard the phrase and decided that they wanted to sound sophisticated.

The same is now happening to “by definition”. People use it when they just mean…. well I can’t figure out what they mean except that I’m not supposed to argue with whatever it is that they’re positing.

Good podcast and great guest though!

Aug 23 2017 at 10:53pm

Really interesting podcast.

The guest, keen to point out that there’s nothing “inherently bad or illogical” in using certain words or expressions, goes on to argue, somewhat inconsistently, that in a formal context there are in-fact useful conventions.

It would be interesting to hear more about these conventions. Language is obviously about communication but it’s also conveying something e.g. status, expertise, intellect &c.

To me, it would seem that knowing these conventions is incredibly important for those who want to see, for example, their children progress socially and economically.

Great podcast, Russ, very impressed with the breadth of topics you tackle.

Aug 24 2017 at 10:29am

I was surprised how much I got out of this topic.

In particular, I found the topic of contronyms very interesting as the I have found the “literally” phenom irritating at times.

I thought the topic was completely new to me until I thought of some Huey Lewis (yes, I’m that old) songs (sometimes bad is bad, hip to be square) and realized some people have made a living using them.

I thought this episode was particularly well done.

Aug 24 2017 at 3:02pm

Hey Russ,

Just wanted to say, this was a fascinating discussion on language. Loved it! McWhorter has a great voice too.

Dr Golabki
Aug 25 2017 at 8:45am

The Original CC and Pete –

On “literally”, I think there is a bit of a false equivalency here.

There’s a qualitative difference between a contronym like “literally” that starts with people who don’t know what the words means and accidentally use it as a contronym while trying to sound smart. And one like “bad” which starts being used as a contronym intentionally, for emphasis. Michael Jackson wasn’t confused about the literal (am I doing it right?) definition of “bad”.

(Side note – if I’m wrong about this and the origin of “literally” is really a maverick linguist intentional using “literally” as a contronym to make older, more traditional linguists gasp at boring dinner parties I would be very very happy).

On the other hand, “literally” probably doesn’t catch on as much if it isn’t somewhat useful. When you say “X is literally Y” what you are saying is “X IS Y”… you’re just emphasizing the equivalence that your drawing. I’d argue there are LOTS of ways of doing the same thing without “literally”, but I don’t think any are obviously superior… except, as discussed in the podcast, the cultural connotation of “literally” isn’t necessarily good.

Michael Byrnes
Aug 27 2017 at 3:56pm

A great interview, and some great comments.

The window into the inner conflict between Russ Roberts, proper English purist, and Russ Roberts, strong believer in emergent order, was interesting to say the least. (He handled it very gracefully).

A few thoughts:

On literally…

The original CC said:

This whole “literally” issue seems to have been mis-framed. The reason many of us object to the use of the word “literally” to mean “figuratively” isn’t that we can’t stand the thought of language evolving; it’s because there’s no replacement for it! I once had a friend say to me, “X is literally Y, and I mean ‘literally’ literally (not figuratively).”

Dr. Golski wrote:

There’s a qualitative difference between a contronym like “literally” that starts with people who don’t know what the words means and accidentally use it as a contronym while trying to sound smart.

To me, the original CC is closer to the mark here. I think that what stands out about ‘literally’ vs ‘figuratively’, as compared to fast vs slow, or good vs bad, is that, formally, literally is the word we would use to refer to the precise proper English meaning – yet here we are shifting the meaning of the word we use to refer to a precise meaning to its opposite.

I don’t have any specific knowledge about this, but I don’t think ‘literally’ arose from accidental use out of ignorance. Rather, I think it was used as a sort of intensifier, in the same way that figurative uses of language arose.

“When I saw that hat he was wearing, I just DIED.”

Figurative use of ‘died’, obviously, but, in its early days, very strking and impactful. But as it gets adopted more widely, it loses some of that impact. Everyone is used to ‘died’ in this context, and now instead of packing a (figurative 🙂 ) punch, it is just the thing everyone says. So, to add more punch, you start adding adverbs like “I really died” or “I completely died” or whatever. But from the outset, these aren’t as effective. (It is kind of like ‘language inflation’).

What is happening here, over time, is that, in a sense, the figurative meaning of died is moving further and further away from the literal meaning of died, resulting in much lower impact of the phrase.

So, how to remedy that, and come up with something that restores the full impact of ‘died’? “I literally died.” Of course, still figurative usage, but the impact is dialed back up.

While I’m on the topic of intensification, here’s one that really used to bug me a lot. One of the phrases that I always loved to use (whenever possible, depite limited oppotunities) was “for all practical intents and purposes”. Over time, this shortened by dropping ‘practical’ so that it was just ‘for all intents and purposes’.

I can barely even begin to describe my horror when, on line a few years ago, I saw what this phrase evolved to next: “for all intensive purposes”. It was not easy to hold back from berating the poor soul who I saw use that on a message board 15 years ago.

CC also wrote:

Same goes for “begs the question”. This was a very useful phrase (and concept). It was taken away by people trying to sound smart when they really meant “raises the question”. Fine, I get that language changes over time, but now those of us who used the phrase in its “classical” sense now have to find a new name for the concept. I didn’t ask for this burden; it was given to us by people who heard the phrase and decided that they wanted to sound sophisticated.

This is an easy one for me. I love seeing ‘begs the question’ used properly, but for all intensive purposes [grin] that ship has proabably sailed. I do think that going right back to the literal meaning of the phrase ‘assumes the conclusion’ works well, though. It is direct, to the point, and avoids confusion. And since so few actually say it, it packs more of a punch than ‘begs the question’ now.

Just my $0.02.

Aug 30 2017 at 8:57am

“Generous” meant both “noble” and “magnanimous” since Latin. So it’s used in the play as a double entendre, and we would lose that sense if we translated it.

Aug 30 2017 at 1:50pm

A related and perhaps more applicable question for this audience: Should we re-word Adam Smith? I remember when Russ did the series on Theory of Moral Sentiments, I was trying hard to find a more contemporary version of that work that’d be easier to understand. Well, I recently found it and wanted to post a link here for others:

Adam Smith re-worded on

There are many other interesting authors (e.g., Hume) whose works have been “re-worded” on this site. Well worth checking out.

[Broken link fixed–Econlib Ed.]

Sep 1 2017 at 6:02pm

I need to unload this linguistics rant that I’ve been carrying with me for a while now. (If you choose to read this, please read it carefully. It is not the standard rant on this topic.)

The word LITERALLY: Kids are NOT using it to mean “figuratively”, they are NOT confused about the definition. It is not becoming a contronym!

It is HYPERBOLE!! It is *exaggeration*. And hyperbole (ironically enough), is when the exaggeration is not meant to be taken literally!

If you said, “I got a million annoying emails today.” No one would tell you that you don’t know the definition of “a million”. They would understand the exaggeration.

So if a kid says, “My mom will *literally* kill me if I get an F!”, he means that he will be in so much trouble that you should probably just imagine his furious mother clutching his calculus exam and straddling his blood soaked corpse. That is how much trouble he is in.

“My mom will kill me” = figurative

“My mom will literally kill me” = exaggerated figurative speech = hyperbole.

Michael Byrnes
Sep 2 2017 at 7:40am

@ Kimi

I think that is a distinction without a difference. Yes, use of ‘literally’ is hyperbolic, but – at least based on this interview – hyperbolic word usage seems to be one process that, over time, leads to a contronym.

Sep 4 2017 at 9:03pm

Russ: “…language as an example of emergent order. Language is undoubtedly the product of human action but not human design”

Nonlin_org responded:

“… There’s nothing “emergent” about language, the economy, or anything else for that matter. It is in fact Human Design that drives language and the economy. Definitely not a grand design from the central authority, but a design none the less. The first time you might use “wicked” for “cool” you do so for some reason: it sounds smart, want to make fun, want to fit in, etc. It need not be a long prepared speech, but it’s still a micro decision of yours. …”

Back in the episode with “Don Boudreaux, Michael Munger, and Russ Roberts on Emergent Order”, JUNE 12, 2017, I made some posts suggesting that even though emergent order is sometimes said to be “not designed”, in truth it is best identified as Dynamic Distributed Design.

That means that instead of a single centralized decision, the design process is distributed across a great many people, each of them making design choices acting locally, independently, simultaneously, and continuously.

Given that “Language is undoubtedly the product of human action” just as Russ said, I agree with Nonlin_org that each of those human actions is the result of that human making certain choices and decisions. The actions spring from intentions aimed toward a goal.

Whenever we intend to communicate what we have in mind, we are faced with the challenge of putting that into language. We can draw from language as we’ve received it plus language as we can bend or shape or change it to suit the purpose at hand.

Yet even when making changes, we are acting by human intention and human design. We are looking for and seeking fulfillment of a communication goal — to convey what is in our mind that we want others to understand.


Russ Roberts: … we are always looking for ways to make language more vivid. And I’ve noticed this again after reading your book– …{examples}… It doesn’t just convey enthusiasm. It conveys lots of things. And you give other examples where language evolves in order to convey that vividness. And I don’t know if this is accurate–you can tell me–but it seems to me that’s a lot of what contronyms are doing. So, you give the example of how ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’ are very similar, and yet they mean opposites.

John McWhorter: Right.

Russ Roberts: It seems to me contronyms are to some extent a way to–in other words: This thing is so much this thing, I’m going to use the opposite to convey it.

John McWhorter: Right. Yeah, that’s part of a larger issue, which is that in a language you are always seeking something that you can convey really red-hot enthusiasm with. And, red-hot enthusiasm tends to cool the novelty of the term, the novelty of the term tends to cool. And so you have these rolling words that fulfill that function. One way that you can do it is the shock value of using what’s conventionally thought of as a pejorative word to mean something positive. And yes, that’s happened many times; … {examples}… –it’s that same process. And so, yeah, you can create a contronym out of whole cloth all of a sudden, then there’s a certain drama in it.

It is true that language is malleable and humans are clever enough to create changes and to pick up on new words and new meanings of existing words. Those facts actually support the proposition that when we choose to create changes in language to satisfy some communication purpose, we are acting by personal design.

The combined effect is that language change is an example of Dynamic Distributed Design.

Sue G
Sep 7 2017 at 1:08pm

Interesting discussion.

Regarding paper towel and paper clip and the difference in emphasis, perhaps it is as simple as the fact that a paper clip is a clip for paper, but a paper towel is not a towel for paper.

Sep 10 2017 at 9:12pm

It seems that the reason Dynamic Distributed Design works very well for languages is the same reason it works very well for economies.

No single bakery owner can dictate the design that all bakeries must follow. However, though governments may set some restrictions, each such owner has some authority to design how their own bakery will operate, such as with deciding what products they will offer, choosing suppliers, setting prices, and even creating product innovations. If an innovation is successful, other bakeries may choose to copy the innovation.

No single speaker of a language such as English can dictate to all other English speakers the design of how that language must be spoken or written. However, although a government might try to specify details of a language (looking at you France), each speaker is actually designing and developing their own use of that language. Just as there is no one single bakery plan, there is no one single version of English. Each person is making choices about how they will modify and use their words to communicate what is on their mind. If they make an innovation and others find it effective, others are free to choose to copy the innovation.

For example, it is a certainty that at least one person (and probably many people independently) decided to use the noun Google as a verb — even though they had never before heard anyone else do that with that word. That small innovation was copied by many others who are likewise designing their own use of English. Through making or copying language design revisions and innovations, language changes.

Though people may talk of “emergent order” as if it were not designed, it seems that whenever we look into the details of these complex human systems, we cannot avoid the fact that humans are continuously acting intentionally and making designing decisions within the scope of their distributed personal authority to fulfill goals and purposes.

Whether for the economy or even with the evolution of a language, that’s Dynamic Distributed Design.

Sep 16 2017 at 4:40pm

Fun topic, lots of insight.

However, like others above, I disagree with the discussion around the use (misuse) of the word “literally.”

A commenter above suggested that “literally” might be hyperbole rather than a contronym, and that might be right. My objection, and probably the objection of many people, is not that it’s a contronym, but that it decreases the efficiency of communication.
“After the locusts I had to dust my crops.” From the context you already know that I was applying dust to the crops, not removing dust with a feather duster, which would be absurd. Not so with current usage of the word “literally”:
“That meal literally made me sick.” Did you vomit, or did you just not enjoy the taste? Either is quite believable, and the usage creates confusion. Before the current trend of misuse I would have taken it to mean that you were actually sick, and not just disgusted, but now I can’t be certain. No amount of experience with you or the situation will tell me whether you got salmonella from the meal, or just don’t like the taste of hollandaise sauce, and the distinction is pretty important. By contrast, common knowledge will tell you that when I get my cat fixed, he’s castrated rather than repaired.

By the nature of the word literally, you can’t ascertain from context whether it’s being used correctly or not, because the original use is to accentuate the fact that the statement is not hyperbole. If your statement is intended as hyperbole, and then you include a word to indicate that it’s not hyperbole, then it better not be hyperbole or the usage is wrong.

Let’s not encourage people to make language less efficient.

Ralph Casale
Sep 20 2017 at 12:24pm

Enjoyable episode. Favorite example is goodbye (god be with you).

Comments are closed.


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Podcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: August 8, 2017.]

Russ Roberts: Today we'll be talking about John McWhorter's book Words on the Move: Why English Won't--and Can't--Sit Still (Like, Literally).... Emergent order is a common topic here at EconTalk; and Thomas Sowell and others, clearly myself, have used language as an example of emergent order. Language is undoubtedly the product of human action but not human design. And, your book, John, brought that alive for me in an incredibly rich way. So, you write, for example,

One of the hardest notions for a human being to shake is that a language is something that is, when it is actually something always becoming. They tell you a word is a thing, when it's actually something going on.

Isn't a word a thing? Explain.

John McWhorter: Um, what I mean by that is not what many people would think: which is that I'm trying to make some vague appeal to something called 'the dynamic' or that it has something to do with the fact that social context is always changing. It's actually more mundane but in its way, more fascinating than that. And it's simply that sounds in a language are always changing. One sound is always slowly on its way to becoming what will be another sound in the language at some point in the future. And that means that the way a word sounds is always in the process of moving along to something else. And, meanings of words are always changing, not just because we invent new things, but just because meanings drift along--something that only implies the meaning today might actually be the meaning later. So, what that means is that while our own sense of the immediate is so immediate--so to speak--that we think that the language is something that stands still, that we're calling upon. And that's an illusion that is encouraged even more by the printed page and dictionaries. The truth is, what we're doing is just one snapshot in the whole life of the language. And there's nothing privileged about the one point on the timeline that we happen to be on. So, Words on the Move is trying to get across to people the basic fact that a language is like clouds in the sky--always changing. If there is no change, then you know something's wrong. If the clouds aren't moving and they aren't changing shape, then there's something dire going on. And of course, that would never happen. That's not the way precipitation happens over a planet. Same thing with language.

Russ Roberts: So, listeners know that I like to talk about how some words catch on and some words die out. I've always liked the word "eleemosynary," which Milton Friedman--I heard him use it in person. It means charitable. It's not used in English other than in a legal context. So, it's a word that's dying out. There are words like "behoove" that are in trouble. You do hear it every once in a while. "Ruthless" is a word, but "ruth," which used to be a word, isn't. So, that kind of thing, that words catch on and other words die out--I was aware of that. But, your book just opened my eyes in an incredible way. Especially, since I have to confess, I'm a bit of a language snob. And, I like dictionaries. In fact, I love dictionaries. I love The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester's story of the OED [Oxford English Dictionary], which is an incredible book. But, one of the problems he faced--which is, that, by the time he finished Volume 8[A?], he was in trouble, because the language was changing. So, talk about some of your favorite examples of how words morph in meaning.

John McWhorter: Well, for example, if you are listening to Shakespeare, if somebody uses the word "generous," it can often seem a little strange. And so, Edmund, in King Lear, is defending himself as somebody who shouldn't be looked down upon as lowly-born. And at one point he says, 'Well, and I'm generous.' And you think to yourself, 'Okay. Generous is a good trait.'

Russ Roberts: It's a compliment.

John McWhorter: Yeah. But would you bring that up if what you are talking about is that people should not look at you as lowly-born? And it actually made perfect sense in Shakespeare's time. 'Generous' meant 'noble.' So, he was saying, 'I'm noble.' Now, if you are noble, especially in earlier contexts, then chances were that part of what you did was give a certain amount of your goods to the surrounding populace as part of, basically, ruling the roost. And so, the idea of a kind of uncalled-for generosity attached itself to nobility. And it was just a kind of overtone hanging for a long time; but after a while, 'generous' came to mean to be magnanimous. And so, words like that, words change like that all the time. 'Silly' started out meaning blessed. And for those of you who know German, you'll know that there's a word, 'selig,' in German, which is the same root that 'silly' was. But, if you are blessed, then you could be argued to be innocent. And so after a while, innocent. If you are innocent, then one could say that there's a certain weakness about you--that you are not out there being Thrasymachus[?], and being strong. And so that means that maybe you are weak. And, if you are weak, one kind of being weak would be if you are weak-minded. And so, after a while it means that, in written sources. Well, if you are weak-minded, then it could be that you are kind of a silly-billy. And, next thing you know, a word that started out having to do with religion was a word that you used for a fool. And what's important to realize is that some words change within a given frame of time more than others. But, almost no words stay in the same meaning for hundreds of years. And so, the words that we are using are always in a process of moving on to come to mean new things.


Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about Shakespeare for a minute. Because you have many examples of words in Shakespeare that challenge our modern understanding--because they are words that we still use. They just don't mean what they meant in Shakespeare's time. And, you actually suggest the possibility--and I'm not only a language snob but a purist--you actually--so I was offended initially about the idea but then kind of enchanted by the idea--that we could re-word Shakespeare, taking the words that have changed radically--and substitute words for them. And make them, Shakespeare, more understandable to a modern audience. Defend that seemingly blasphemous claim.

John McWhorter: Yeah. That makes a lot of people very upset, because the words that Shakespeare uses are, for the most part words that we use. So, we think, 'Well, he's using English.' So, the idea tends to be that Shakespeare's language may be challenging, but it's because you have to rise to the occasion. That, the language is complex--

Russ Roberts: It's poetry--

John McWhorter: or it's poetic, yeah[?]--

Russ Roberts: Syntax is a little different--

John McWhorter: Yeah, and you have to learn the syntax; and there's an idea that the British are better-trained to get across, which is not true in my experience but people say that. But what it really is, is that a whole lot of the words Shakespeare uses have changed so much in their meaning that, today, we can't understand them when spoken live. And this is what's important. Many people seem to think that I mean that if you are sitting there reading it that you should have some sort of translation: like NoFearShakespeare that is online. I don't mean that. When you are reading, you can deliberate. You can have time to look at the footnotes. But, let's face it: What Shakespeare was expecting us to do was to experience the plays delivered on stage in real time. You don't have time to look anything up. And the truth is that much of why Shakespearean language can be so hard to process is because we have no way of knowing what the words mean, and we can't look it up when we are sitting in the theater. And I mean things such as "generous," such as, meaning, "noble" or "a haggard" meaning falcon. Or, when somebody says "wit" in Shakespeare--usually what he means is knowledge. He doesn't mean fizzy humor. And, you multiply that by, you know, by a large number--something like that is coming at you once every 5 or 6 lines. That is why Shakespeare can be so difficult. And so I say that--after this many centuries, there is an argument that there be two versions of each Shakespeare play. You can have the original, for those who desire the original, and optimally those who have read it beforehand and can actually take it in as a serious piece of theater instead of as a kind of spectacle of poetry. Which is not what Shakespeare meant. Then, there should be another version, where only the words that we can no longer understand without scratching our heads and doing some philology are replaced by some word--optimally with the same rhythm--this is quietly done. There are, to my knowledge, two versions of Macbeth that work like this. And the result is that it isn't pure Shakespeare. But it's still got the [?] syntax; it's still got the poetic diction. But, words aren't used in ways that somebody in our times has no way of understanding. And that makes for a much richer experience. And, to tell you the truth, Russ: I firmly believe that if Shakespeare were with us today and we asked him whether or not he would prefer that we do that instead of having the plays be what he wrote, if he understood how language changes, I'm sure he would say, 'Oh, yeah. Go ahead. Fiddle with it. Because I want people to understand what I said, not to think of it as just poetry washing over their heads.' So, that's the case that I make.

Russ Roberts: Well, your book--we're going to get to some of the other places where you open my mind. But this would be one of them. Because--I mean, I really, if you had said that to me, that paragraph just now, I would have been horrified: 'That was the worst idea I've ever heard. It's offensive, even.' But being open to the other points you made me be more open to this one. And I thought about it, and I thought: If Shakespeare peppered his plays with Italian because, let's say his audience knew Italian, we would think nothing--in fact, we would encourage those words to be translated. Artfully, of course. You wouldn't use a robot, an artificial intelligence program, a Google Translate, say, to render Shakespeare's words into modern English. And again, as you point out, we are not putting Shakespeare's play into modern English. We're putting some of Shakespeare's words into modern English. And we'd want another poet or thoughtful person to do that artfully. But we wouldn't think anything about--most of us don't think anything about reading books in translation. We don't say, 'Well, that's not what Dante wrote.' And, 'That's not what Tolstoy wrote.' Although, there are of course snobs would say, 'You can't read a book in translation. It's immoral.' But, I'm not one of those. So, I need to concede that you are probably right about Shakespeare.


Russ Roberts: I have to ask you, though--I was thinking about this, reading your argument. When you are listening to a Shakespeare play, or watching a Shakespeare play, are you processing it the way you would an Italian speaker watching an Italian play? Excuse me. You know what I mean. Is it easy for you? It's hard for me. I love Shakespeare a lot. But, is it easy for you? Or easier?

John McWhorter: No, it's not easier. And that's why I've gotten on a soapbox about this, because I frankly am a theater person in general. I'm also the kind of linguist whose specialty is studying earlier forms of language. And so I would call myself fairly well-informed about earlier stages of English, especially, you know, in Shakespeare's time, which wasn't all that long ago. And yet, I remember when I was in college and grad school, I would go to Shakespeare productions; and okay, these people were not trained at the Old Vic. But they were doing their best. And I remember seeing productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and All's Well That Ends Well and The Tempest, where I frankly might as well have been at an Italian play. You know--my Italian isn't bad. And my friends would say, 'Oh, I got all of it. It was wonderful.' And you don't get everything, but 'I got it, because they are good actors; it was wonderful.' And I started thinking to myself, 'You're lying.'

Russ Roberts: Yep.

John McWhorter: [?] the Tempest. And I thought, 'No.' My friends at The Tempest were engineers. I thought, if I didn't get this, you didn't either. And so, no, I don't go unless I've read it. Or, if I go to a Shakespeare play and I haven't read it within the past couple of years, I just assume that I am going to be attending something in Italian and the costumes had better be good.

Russ Roberts: But is it easier now than when you were younger? Because you know more of those words? Or is it your brain still struggles to process them in real time?

John McWhorter: No. I would have to have still gone through the play and gotten a sense of when the words were coming, in order to genuinely enjoy it as a play. Now, maybe, if I don't do that, there are things that I could enjoy. But I always know that, even often when I'm thinking I'm understanding, if I haven't gone through it, I'm not really. And often the actors' expressions and various other random things can make something enjoyable, and it can connect to you. But I'm always thinking to myself, 'I haven't had a chance to go through this text: it's not an English that I speak; and so I'm missing a whole lot.' And I know that for many people that's enough. But I don't think that's what Shakespeare meant. And I think you and I both know that Shakespeare is better when you genuinely understand what they're saying up there. It's just how you go about understanding.

Russ Roberts: Totally agree. You're winning me over. It's hard for me to concede it. But, I will concede that--it's alive.

John McWhorter: Yes.

Russ Roberts: Your case is alive.

John McWhorter: Thank you.


Russ Roberts: One of my favorite things in the book is your insights into how words often convey emotion rather than what we would call meaning--a dictionary meaning. And, a beautiful example is the phrase, 'Horses run fast.' We understand all three of those words pretty well. But in the sentence, 'Well, horses run fast,' that sentence, the word 'well' doesn't mean a place that holds water. It doesn't mean good. It means something very strange. So, talk about that.

John McWhorter: There are words in a language that don't mean anything in the way that we naturally think that words mean something. And, in Words on the Move, I devote a chapter to that wing of what language is, because so often, if we have reason to zero in on those words, we think that there's something wrong with them because they don't "mean anything." When really, there's a whole magic layer of language that traditional ways of teaching grammar tend to ignore, and therefore we don't think of it as real language. But, 'well' is one of those things. Somebody says, 'Well, horses run fast.' That means, 'I acknowledge that you were talking about some other animal running fast,' or, some other phenomenon, which I have to gently contradict or add to in a way that makes what you said seem incomplete by saying 'Horses run fast.' All of that is contained within that little word. And so, if somebody asks you, 'What does "well" mean?' and you go past, you know, the thing that water is in, or doing something in a good way, you realize that 'well' doesn't have a meaning. It has a function. It's part of having a civilized conversation. So many of the words we use are of that kind. And, they make a lot more sense when you realize that there's a certain collection of words, a certain collection of expressions, there are certain collection intonations that don't mean anything: they do something. They are part of managing the traffic of conversation. Linguists call this Pragmatics. That's one of those clumsy, in-house terms that is hard for even junior linguists to wrap their heads around, so I try not to use it. It's the difference between semantics--which is meaning--and pragmatics--which does something. But that jargon term is less important than realizing that words like, 'well,' or 'like' that young, or I should say today, younger people are using so much; the 'literally'--literal meaning that drives people so crazy--all of those are doing something rather than meaning something.

Russ Roberts: Talk about 'like,' because that's a phrase that, again, as a snob and a purist used to drive me crazy. But you kind of opened my mind on that one, too. What's it doing? What's its purpose?

John McWhorter: Well, you know, 'like' is so complicated that there is a whole book that's come out, that's mainly written for linguists, but comprehensible to everybody else, by Alexandra D'Arcy, who is a wonderful linguist in British Columbia. But, 'like' is a whole lot of things. And only one of them is hedging. So, we listen to people saying 'like' and we think that they are saying, 'Well, something is like something rather than being itself.' And it seems irritating, because we wonder why people won't just stand with their feet on the floor and make the statement. But that is one thing that 'like' means. And you could think of it less as a matter of hedging than as a kind of politeness--that you don't want to stomp on people's faces and assert exactly what you think. But, then, 'like' can mean all sorts of other things. It's actually useful for emphasizing things, depending on how exactly you use it in the sentence. It can be used to indicate that you know what's going on in someone else's head and you acknowledge it but you are saying something else--something that's rather related to the 'well.' And the truth is this: 'Like' exists in the real world. And all of us have a certain core sense of 'like' as meaning 'similar to.' And that's not going to change. And what that means is that people who are given to using 'like' every six words--and there really are such people; and these days they are not 17: I've heard this in people 45. It's been around a lot. People who are doing that should be told that, 'If they want to be taken seriously, they should cut way back on the 'like's' in public speech, or in any kind of speech where they are hoping to have an affect, to be heard as authoritative. Now, how they talk in their kitchen, how they talk in their car, how they talk at a party even if they are wearing a nice pair of pants or a nice dress, that really doesn't matter. But, 'like' cannot help but sound a little sweat-sock. And so people should realize that language is always changing. There's no such thing as language that's inherently bad or illogical. But there will always be some language that works better in formal contexts than informal contexts.

Russ Roberts: So, the transcript of this, the Highlights that we put out after every episode, will reveal that earlier in this conversation you slipped in a 'You know.' Now, talk about 'you know.' Which is a version of 'like,' to me.

John McWhorter: Yeah. Um, there's a kind of a typology of these pragmatic markers. And, 'you know' is one of the ones that's an acknowledgment marker. So, part of having a civil conversation--and not civilized, but I mean, among any human beings in any context--civil conversation is that you are regularly checking to see that the other person is with you. The way that you do it is not to stop in the middle of what you are saying and say, 'Do you understand and sympathize with what I mean?' The way you do it is you say, 'You know?' So, you are kind of opening up their brain for a second and looking to make sure that they are with you. So, that's what 'you know' means. It's not an actual question. It's a way of maintaining connection. So, that's an acknowledgment marker. Another acknowledgment marker--these things take all sorts of forms--is 'and stuff'--or, frankly what people probably say more often although I'm not going to use the word, that 'and blank' expression means, 'Well, then they got married and stuff.' Well, the 'and stuff' is all the things that you and the person you are talking to associate with marriage--be that rice or getting your own house or boredom or whatever it is. The 'And stuff.' When you say that 'and stuff' or other thing, what you are doing is you are indicating that you and the other person are on the same page. It's a function: all languages have those acknowledgment markers. They tend to take many forms, but no language doesn't have it. 'You know' is probably the most prominent of ours in English.


Russ Roberts: And so, how is your Yiddish?

John McWhorter: Um, I can read a little of it, but pretty awful.

Russ Roberts: So, there is a word in Yiddish, which I'm sure you know, which is 'nu'--which is spelled in English N-U-question mark--it almost always has a question mark, but not always. And it always--Yiddish speakers, or people like myself who have a cultural Yiddish flavor-experience, know somebody who speaks Yiddish or loves Yiddish--we always like to say, 'Oh, that word's untranslatable.' And, one of the worries, since it's untranslatable, is that it has many meanings, and depending on context. But I realized, because of your pragmatics discussion, the other reason it's untranslatable is that it does a lot of things that are not definitional--that aren't things you look up. It conveys emotion. It conveys sympathy. It conveys skepticism. And that's why it's untranslatable. Not because 'It means whatever you want,' or 'It depends on the context.' It's an emotion word.

John McWhorter: Oh yeah, definitely. 'Nu' is one of these pragmatic markers. And so, somebody says, 'So, I came home. Everything's okay.' So, 'nu,' when that person says, 'nu?' they are looking into your soul. What that means is, 'We're on the same page, right? You understand, right?' And that subsumes a lot of the ways that a person speaking Yiddish or Yiddish-inflected English would use 'nu.' And so, it's your first clue when somebody says, 'Oh, it has no meaning.' That means that: Yeah, it doesn't have a meaning. It has a function. It's going to be one of these pragmatic markers.

Russ Roberts: So, when someone comes back from, say, a meeting, where something important was riding on the meeting--a promotion or a deal, whatever--and that person comes to me and I say--and they don't tell me about the meeting--and I say, 'Nu?' That doesn't mean, 'What happened at the meeting?' Well, it does. But what it really means is: Aren't you going to tell me about what happened at the meeting? And that sentence, actually you use an example of it in your book, that question is not really a question: 'Aren't you going to tell me what happened at the meeting?' Because the answer to that is probably, 'Yeah, I am.' It's really, 'Why aren't you going to tell me, and why haven't you told me already? And I'm a little bit surprised.'

John McWhorter: That. And it also connotes that what you are going to tell the person about the meeting is something that the other person is going to find interesting.

Russ Roberts: Correct.

John McWhorter: So, you are not talking about what food was served. There's kind of a mutual understanding between you that what you want to know is what more a schenkman[?] finally said. Something like that.

Russ Roberts: That's right.

John McWhorter: So, all of that is conveyed. Those are people opening up the doors of their minds to each other.


Russ Roberts: So, I want to read a longish paragraph in the book, which I loved--because I've thought about this myself; but you really say it well. You say,

If fast means "speedy," then why can hold fast and be fast asleep? And did it ever bother you? Dusting can be removing something by dust or laying it down like fertilizer or paprika. No T-shirts about that. You seed a watermelon to get the seeds out but when you seed the soil, you are putting the seeds in. You can bolt from a room (running fast) in which the chairs are bolted to the floor (stuck fast).

Examples go on and on. And notice they matter not a jot. They are called contronyms. And the only reason nobody goes around with a shirt reading AGAINST THE MISUSE OF FAST MEANING "RAPID," I SIT STEADFAST, is that the bifurcation happened before there were thinking of English words as held fast in dictionaries. The question is: do contronyms actually create ambiguity, or are they construed as possibly creating ambiguity via willful over-analysis?

So, talk about contronyms.

John McWhorter: Well, contronyms are interesting first, because it shows how much context matters in how we speak. And so, you'd think that 'fast' would be very confusing, because the first meaning we think of is probably Bugs Bunny running. But then, it also means 'hold fast,' or 'fast asleep.' It means being perfectly still. And yet, none of us would ever think of that until somebody strange like me pointed it out. It doesn't give us any trouble. The reason that contronyms are interesting, other than just giving a list--and I really think that giving lists is the last resort of the teacher--the point of the list is that 'literally' is a contronym; and people are very upset about it. So, 'literally' can actually mean by the letter. But then, literally can also mean figuratively: as in, 'I was literally boiling up, I was so hot.' And people say, 'Well, it isn't correct that you can use that word to mean both itself and its opposite.' But then again, nobody's ever complained about the other ones. 'Literally' gets picked on just because, by chance, certain people, and we'll never know exactly who the ones who originated this were, started complaining about 'literally' at a certain time; and it caught on. In the book I analogize it, I think, to that kid in 6th grade who everybody picks on for no particular reason when you look back on it--and it really could have been somebody else. And it's just because people can be mean. And so there's one kid has to suffer all year. 'Literally' is that kid.

Russ Roberts: As I'm one of those people--I'm very uncomfortable saying 'very unique' because things are either one of a kind--which is what I think literally, means. And yet, everyone says 'very unique' except me and few other snobs. And I'm starting to think I've got it wrong after reading your book.

John McWhorter: He, he, he, he.

Russ Roberts: 'Hopefully' is another one of those words that snobs like to say people misuse. There are many, many such words; and yet you make the case that, um, if you are going to complain about 'very unique' or 'hopefully' or 'whatever'--which is another word that covers a lot of ground--you have to stop using the word 'merry' to be happy. Words are always changing their meaning. And, contronyms are just an extreme example.

John McWhorter: Yeah. It's interesting, these cases. It's, for example, very unique. I completely understand the logic behind someone who ways, 'But unique' can't be very, because 'unique' is the superlative in itself. That's true. That's the way it was, once. But I think as you're catching onto, 'unique' is drifting into meaning 'unusual.' And, therefore people tend to process it as being able to take a 'very.' And, it's hard to deal with these things in real life. But, we have to, because it's just like--I forget whether I use an anecdote in that book about--my sister started dating; and it felt really weird to see her with men, because I'm a man, and I know what, you know, what I did with people who I dated. But, I thought, you know, if people didn't start dating, then what kind of lives would they be leading? And frankly, none of us would be here. That's the same thing with all of these words. What we're speaking now came from the exact same processes that feel so funny to us today. And so, 'Hopefully, she'll come,' and you say, 'Well, you don't mean that she's going to come with hope in her eyes?' But there are so very many adverbs that are exactly like that. And, you can be pretty sure that nobody was ever told: You don't mean that you are thinking this in an actual way when you say "I really think this." It's just that there are certain kinds of adverbs that end up taking on different functions than what their actual, literal, core, original meanings were. And that's how you get a language. And so, so very many of the things that we're told to attend to--which if you are certain kind of language-headed person you enjoy learning--the Strunk-and-White sorts of things; the black program[?]--

Russ Roberts: I like Strunk and White.

John McWhorter: Yeah, and it's hard not to like it. Almost all of that stuff are things that somebody made up--usually about 250 years ago--because they didn't know as much about language as we do now, and they had a notion that all languages should work like Latin. And that is so hard to accept, in a way, because we are proud that we learned all those rules. And, it's a way of feeling like you are wearing the right clothes. It's a way of feeling like you are intelligent. You know? Most of that stuff was just made up. Now, Russ, this is the point: With most of those things--once again, we live in a society. So, for example, you cannot say, 'Billy and me went to the store' and be taken seriously in many public settings. So, everybody has to learn that there are times when you have to say, 'Billy and I went to the store.' But, that does not bely the fact that that whole rule was something somebody made up who didn't know how English worked. So, that's a point I actually don't stress that much in Words on the Move, as opposed to other books. But it is definitely true. Yeah, I was going to bring that one up, actually. Because, there's a set of things that my children, who are pretty articulate, struggle with. 'Billy and me' is one of them. They also struggle with the difference between 'less' and 'fewer.' And, I correct them. And I keep correcting them. They are teenagers and in their 20s now, and I'm starting to think, 'You know, it's not working.' Is that a result of their brains--is it because their friends use it more often than they hear me use it?

John McWhorter: Yeah. They talk the way [?]

Russ Roberts: I use it--I'm in trouble, myself. I'm in trouble.

John McWhorter: [?] You talk based on the language that you hear around you. And to be a speaker of modern English, an educated speaker of modern English, is to know that a great many of the things that you feel most comfortable saying are considered wrong by certain--first of all, people in school, and then some people like maybe one of your parents, maybe both of your parents--people who seem rather uniquely concerned with such things. But, yes. Given that people all around them are always saying, 'We're going to have less books this year,' they are going to say 'less books.' You can teach them that fewer books is what you want to say in a formal context. But, I hate to say that they really are no neurological grounds for the idea that 'fewer books' is proper and logical, while 'less books' is somehow broken. Just something somebody made up because that's the way they like it. And we might like it, too. I frankly always like shag carpeting. I wish it hadn't gone out. I enjoyed how it felt. I like how it smelled.

Russ Roberts: You're an honest man, John.

John McWhorter: There are other people like that. But it's not a matter of logic. And I know how odd it seems to hear that. But it's just--it's just true. It's simple truth.


Russ Roberts: So, this example we were on a minute ago, contronyms, really drove home a point that you make elsewhere in the book. I don't know if you make it elsewhere with respect to contronyms. But, we are always looking for ways to make language more vivid. And I've noticed this again after reading your book--in my own email habits, I find myself using exclamation points. I think if you went back to my own emails of, say, 2000-ish, I don't think I ever used an exclamation point. I now use it to convey an emotional--a bunch of emotional things. It doesn't just convey enthusiasm. It conveys lots of things. And you give other examples where language evolves in order to convey that vividness. And I don't know if this is accurate--you can tell me--but it seems to me that's a lot of what contronyms are doing. So, you give the example of how 'awesome' and 'awful' are very similar, and yet they mean opposites.

John McWhorter: Right.

Russ Roberts: It seems to me contronyms are to some extent a way to--in other words: This thing is so much this thing, I'm going to use the opposite to convey it.

John McWhorter: Right. Yeah, that's part of a larger issue, which is that in a language you are always seeking something that you can convey really red-hot enthusiasm with. And, red-hot enthusiasm tends to cool the novelty of the term, the novelty of the term tends to cool. And so you have these rolling words that fulfill that function. One way that you can do it is the shock value of using what's conventionally thought of as a pejorative word to mean something positive. And yes, that's happened many times; the example that's brought up so much now that I think is boring is the use of 'bad' as good. Which started[?] in the black community and then spread somewhat. But then there's 'wicked,' which I remember hearing people saying, particularly starting in the late 1970s in the Northeast--at least that's where I heard it. Today, it's 'sick.' And so what the kids are saying is that if something is sick--it's that same process. And so, yeah, you can create a contronym out of whole cloth all of a sudden, then there's a certain drama in it. So, to say, to use 'revolting' to mean that something is great--and you can imagine in an alternate universe that could happen--that sticks out because whatever 10 years ago's version of that was is starting to wear out. 'Fierce' had a fiercer meaning 20 years ago than it does now, even among young people. You need to keep replacing those words.

Russ Roberts: So, when I think about--and I just started that sentence with 'so,' which is something that listeners know that I do a lot, and didn't realize it until fairly recently; and in your book, you explain how 'so' is a pragmatic word that conveys, 'I'm changing the subject. May I?' And, it's sort of my tip of the hat to you to say, 'I hope you recognize this.' So, when I talk about language as an example of emergent order, I often point out that, unlike the market for, say, bread, in the market for bread there are these feedback loops of profit and loss, prices going up and down that send signals to people. And, in language, those signals are very, very muted. You don't get any profit from coining a new word. You might, if you use a word before--you might seem hip or cool. And it can be fun[?] to think of how many words 'hip' and 'cool' can be, or synonyms for those words. But, you get some hipness factor when you use a word like 'sick,' say, early on and you show that you are in-the-know. But, the feedback loops for English to make it more effective, say, aren't there the way they are to make, say, the process of creating a silicon chip--profits for people who make it more effective or more productive. So, English doesn't evolve in a particularly useful--'useful' is not the right word. But, it evolves in a very different way than lots of other parts of human interaction that I would call emergent. But there's one place where it's very, where this is a little bit different, and that's suffixes. So, suffixes, or cases--I learned from your book--such as the past tense, where two words get mushed together, or, the word 'like' at the end of a word to mean similar to; and then the 'ke' drops off and you get the 'ly.' And so there's a process in English--and I assume other languages--to make them shorter, because shorter is better. It's quicker, it's easier, it doesn't take as long. Talk about how that works, and the limits to that: because you obviously can't just have everybody using the word 'a' to mean whatever the context suggests it is.

John McWhorter: Um, yeah. Um, there is--

Russ Roberts: Is that a long-enough, complicated question for you?

John McWhorter: No; that's perfectly fine. Language is two processes that end up working in a complementary way. And so, definitely there is a drive towards economy. Language is spoken very quickly; there's a tendency for words that are used together a lot to come together and often become one word. And so, for example, 'slow-like' becomes 'slowly' after a while. And so certainly that's there. Now, you could say--and I know that we seek analogies between language development and economics here--but you could say that the shortness just kind of comes for-free: that it's because you are talking quickly and so you have the habit of drawing things together. The idea that you are seeking the economy--some people would agree with that; some people wouldn't. But, more to the point is that if a language kept doing that, then after a while you would start to suspect there was some kind of problem with comprehension, because if things are too short and too elided, then it interferes with comprehension. So, for one thing: Comprehension must be able to receive the signal. And, also, things like 'like' becoming 'ly' are happening all the time. And so, new things are being brought into the language that aren't as short, yet, at all times. And so it's this kind of churning process. So, for example, 'slowly.' But, we are using 'like' like that again, and you can say, 'slow-like' even now. Which, if you think about it, is different in its meaning from 'slowly.' 'Slowly' and 'slow-like' differ with a nuance that only a native English speaker could understand. But 'slow-like' is basically trying to do that again. So, language gets shorter. Language becomes more economical. But there are limits on it, because if we are too economical, nobody could understand. And, there's always new material being brought in to be fed back into the maw of this sort of boiling-down.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I didn't mean to suggest that people are sitting around thinking, 'How can I make English more efficient?' the way, say--

John McWhorter: No, not consciously--

Russ Roberts: Right--the way an entrepreneur might try to improve a process. But what is similar, I think is the idea that: If I enter a new field in business, say, or some industrial process, I kind of--'kind of,' there's one of those words. You've made me very sensitive; I'm really enjoying it, and listening--

John McWhorter: It's an ordinary[?], an easing word, as I say in the book.

Russ Roberts: Yup. And it really is. So, when you enter a new field or a new area, there's a certain set of received things that you have to provide, or you are just not going to succeed. And so, what I love, for example, about Uber is that, when I get into an Uber I am often offered a thing of water, or a charger for my iPhone. That's just sort of standard. Now, I don't think people sort of sit around, drivers, and think, 'I wonder what I can offer.' It's just that, well that's sort of standard. And you know that if you want to compete and be successful and get your 5 stars, there's a certain minimum level of customer service you have to offer. And I think similar in English, if something is shortened, it can mean it useful: you just start using it. You don't think say, think, 'Oh, this would be good: I won't have to talk as long.'

John McWhorter: Right.

Russ Roberts: So, as you point out, though, you lose some richness when you do that. And so there is that constant tendency to add back in longer phrases. It's just a beautiful example of dynamism in evolution. It's just--it moves me, which is--um....

John McWhorter: And I know what you mean; and it's that kind of thing that I'm trying to get across to readers, because I think that that is really what language is about. And instead, we are taught to hang up on things like whether people are using a certain word wrong. Or, whether people are getting some new word from this place as opposed to that place, when really there is so much beauty that's going on in terms of how this thing is changing right before our very ears. We can miss so much; and it's because linguists have not done enough to try to teach the public about these things until relatively recently. Linguists complain, 'Oh, the general public just doesn't understand.' And one side, I was a grad student [?] I started thinking, 'Well, part of the reason is: How would they know, if we only write about these things in ways that only we can understand?' And I think that's changing. But I'm glad that you get that there is something gorgeous going on, rather than just that your kids are saying 'Less books,' instead of 'Fewer books.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah: linguistics is the only field with this problem. So you really should work hard to make it better. Every field has this problem.

John McWhorter: Oh, yeah.

Russ Roberts: And of course, to me, the saddest part of this--just to get on a soapbox that I like to climb on occasionally: The temptation to teach undergraduates the dumbed down version of the graduate class, rather than the one time you have to inspire them to go through life to be aware of something beautiful, something that will make them--not richer in monetary terms, but richer in living terms--is missed. Because they teach as if they are talking to somebody who might be going to graduate school--which might be 1 or 2 people in that class. The rest of them are going to get very little out of it except a grade. And that's a shame.


Russ Roberts: You talked--you mentioned about words combining. The incredible examples you give in the book, which just, again, grab me so much, are words like 'breakfast,' words like 'blackboard,' which used to be two words. They become one word. And even when they stay two words, there's this phenomenon you point out called the 'backshift.' Talk about the backshift, which is one of the coolest things I've read about in a long time.

John McWhorter: You know, the backshift is a lot of fun. Basically, when you put two words together--if you are talking about, say, a board that's black--first you are going to say, 'Well, that's a black board.' But, suppose there are is some particular kind of board that's black, that is very specific and has very particular function--it becomes what we call a thing in society: suppose what you have, for example, the board that's black, that you hang on the wall, and you write on with chalk. Well, if you are going to say, 'Black board,' enough, because it's something so well established, then the accent shifts to the first one instead of the second one. And so you say, 'A blackboard.' Notice that you would never say, 'Go write that up on the black board.' Or, you imagine somebody writing it on a wooden plank that is painted black. It's the black board. And that shift backwards, which I call the backshift--that is not an official linguistics term, but I almost wish that linguists would--

Russ Roberts: It may catch on. It may.

John McWhorter: I hope so. The backshift means that something has become a thing. And you can hear that going on, even in our own lives. When something becomes and established concept and it's made up of two or more words, then you, very often have that shift, have that shift to the back of the word. So, for example, if we are in a society where there is this new organization that dresses boys up as Scouts and has them do various activates--you are at first going to call that, 'Oh--it's the 'Boy' 'Scouts.' But if you say that enough, you are going to call it the 'Boy Scouts.' That's why we say that. Whereas you can hear a vaudevillian in a 1930s movie like Eddie Cantor calling them the 'Boy Scouts,' or talking about eating a 'Hot Dog' rather than a 'hotdog.' And what's fun about that backshift is that after a while, when the sounds start mushing around, you can lose what the original two words were. So, for example, what's above my eyebrows, to me is not my--it's certainly not my fore head. And it's not my fore head. It's my forehead [sounds like farhead--Econlib Ed.] That's the way I say it. So you wouldn't even know. Or, also, cupboard. We all know what a cupboard is. But it should be spelled 'c-u-b-b-e-r-d.'. The idea that it's actually a cup board is something you learn when you learn how to read and to write. I'm not sure I knew that a cupboard was a cup-board until I was 8 or 9, because the word isn't used much in the Philadelphia dialect region; and we use 'cabinet' instead. So, 'cupboard.' You hear people say it. I didn't know that it was a board for cups. Especially because it isn't. Too much time has passed. So, yeah: the backshift is a kind of language change that you can hear going on in our lives. This is my favorite example, which I didn't use in the book: Listen to early NPR [National Public Radio] interviews about the Internet. If you go way back into the 1980s, you can hear people referring to their web sites: 'Oh, I have a web site.' Today we say website, because it is the very center of our existences. So, it's happening all the time. It's called the backshift. And I urge your listeners to call it that and to spread the word, because we need to know about the backshift as much as we need to know that a noun is a person, place, or thing. [More to come, 46:34]


Russ Roberts: So, one of my children--I mentioned the backshift at the dinner table the other night in prepping for this--not prepping. In sharing[?] my excitement in reading your book, I can't say, I don't use my children to prep for episodes. But one of them said it has always bothered him and his friend that it's paperclip, but it's paper towel. So, paper towel is a compound phrase--a two-word thing--where the backshift didn't just seem to happen. What's going on there?

John McWhorter: You know, it's one of those things where there's a certain amount of chance. There are some cases where the backshift just has not happened. Whereas it's difficult to say why not. And so, for example, 'Broad Street.' You would never say 'Broad Street. Broadway--whereas it used to called the 'Broad Way.' But Penny Lane. And it's not because of the Beatles. Allen's Lane. Marion's Lane. You would never say "Penny Lane.' 'Marion Lane.' It's hard to say exactly why 'lane' is immune. 'Paper towel,' is interesting because it's toilet tissue; whereas you can be quite sure that it used to 'toilet tissue,' just like it used to be 'French fry.' Or 'paper clips.' Or certainly 'safety pin.' But then it's a paper towel; and that just sticks. You know, something Russ, I've never thought about that--but I'll just bet you, and you are maybe going to hear from listeners, that there are people who say 'paper towel.' I'm sure that there are some people who do say it. But why there aren't more, I really could not say. It might be because 'towels' themselves that you dry yourselves with are such a prominent part of existence that you do feel like you are saying a 'paper towel'--a paper towel. But, see, I'm just guessing, because there are all just exceptions to that. I never thought about it, and it's one of those things that, to sound sophisticated, linguists in the old days used to say, 'Well, all languages leak.' So, I'm going to have to say that.

Russ Roberts: That's safe. Have you seen My Fair Lady, the movie or the show?

John McWhorter: I have.

Russ Roberts: Do you like it, or do you hate it?

John McWhorter: I like it because I am one of the world's biggest straight musical fans; but I am also--it's one of those things where it gives unrealistic expectations in that you could not change somebody's speech to that degree and/or that quickly. And I think that that whole scenario makes it sound like people can change their accents more quickly or more easily than they can. Whereas in real life, to do it that completely, especially in our very informal age, is difficult. Now, of course, Higgins's idea that make one another despise--other people despise them because of the nature of their accent--is definitely true. And, his notion that you could solve that problem by just making people use classier accents is logically true. But, of course, there's a classicm that's caught up in the way that he's thinking about these things. He naturally assumes, also, that certain forms of speech are inherently better. And so you don't want to be too literal about these things; but to say 'Aaaouw' and [?] are what put her in her place, as if 'Aaaouw' and [?] are all that Cockney English is--so it's a wonderful confection; I wish I could play Henry Higgins one day, but I get the feeling I'll never be allowed to. But, no: there are certain assumptions in it that I think distract people from the reality of language.

Russ Roberts: I played it in the 8th grade, actually.

John McWhorter: So you got to do it?

Russ Roberts: In Miss Kineen's class, yes. I've mentioned Miss Kineen before, God bless her. And that's one of the things I'm grateful for, because I love that show. I just like the show generally. But I'm curious--the other part of it that I was interested in hearing from you is whether the ability--Higgins's ability to, say, I would call it a parlor trick, identify where people grew up or that they spent 6 weeks in the Great Lakes with their parents or whatever: Is that plausible? Or is that just for show?

John McWhorter: Well, you know, it's easier in some ways in some parts of England, because English has been there for, depending on how you count it, 2000 years; and it has developed into a great many very different varieties. There are Englishes that are more different from one another there than pretty much any English that you hear as an American unless you happen to hear the Gullah Creole of the Sea Islands or the Hawaiian Pidgin, which is actually not a pidgin but a full language, in Hawaii. So, there's an extent to which you are familiar with all the different varieties of English you could place somebody within a region because there are such stark differences. Here in the United States that can be harder, because those dialects all came here and just mixed, and they haven't had a chance to become that divergent because that kind of divergence takes time; and here, we've only had a few hundred years. But, there are, you know, there's that beautiful test that went around online a few years ago--there are certain traits of American English where if a person has a certain cluster of them, it's almost certain that they grew up in a certain place, and not that their parents were from it, but that they grew up in it. Could there be an American Henry Higgins? Yes, but the features would be a lot less dramatic and a lot less harder to make theatrically interesting than in England. However, could anybody be as good as Higgins was? No. That's good show, but humanity is too variegated for it to be a matter of your having spent 6 weeks in a certain place. Or, getting you down to the city block. No. But, what somebody like him really could and can do is impressive enough.

Russ Roberts: So, I just heard you say 'harder' [flatter 'ar' sound, closer to the 'ar' in Midwestern speech--Econlib Ed.] in a way that I would not have said it. I would say 'harder' [more rounded 'ar' sound, with the 'a' closer to the 'ah' and the 'r' less prominent as in Boston or some Northeast Coast speech--Econlib Ed.]

John McWhorter: Right.

Russ Roberts: Is that--well, two questions. Does that speak to where you grew up? And, secondly, in your casual conversations with people, are you constantly hearing those differences and processing, 'Oh, that's an interesting pronunciation. That word's drifting in how it's pronounced'?

John McWhorter: Um, my 'r' has occasioned a lot of comment from people when I've been doing my podcast at Slate. I had never thought about it before. And, you know, I'm not sure. I know that there are some people who would say that it had something to with me growing up in Philadelphia in the 1970s and 1980s, but I'm not sure that I can link it to that. It might be just a weirdness about me. We've all got our weirdnesses. I definitely have 'would 'er'--which is something that places me immediately in Philadelphia and the surrounding area, if not Baltimore. And other, or subtler sorts of things. But the 'ar'--I think that's just something weird about me. As to whether I'm always listening: Definitely. And, I'm never listening for, 'Oh, that person sounds terrible.' But, yeah, I'm listening for pronunciations; I'm listening for new ways of using grammar. Just because it's interesting to listen to people. And I find myself thinking: So many people are trained to listen to people waiting for something to call a mistake. Whereas, I'm always listening to people and thinking, 'What's going to be the news? What are they going to say that sounds a little odd to me, that almost certainly will mean that the language is changing in some new way that nobody was thinking about 10 years ago?' Words on the Move is about how language, and modern English in particular, is supposed to be fun.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, it is fun.


Russ Roberts: How many languages can you read?

John McWhorter: I can read about 12.

Russ Roberts: And, how many can you speak?

John McWhorter: Um, these days, I don't like to say that I can speak any language but English in a way that I would like to: because time passes; I've got kids; I don't travel as much. And if you don't use a language, you lose it. If I have to, such as in an academic setting in Europe, I can speak French and Spanish well enough that nobody's going to smack me in the face. I can get along. But, it's at the point where I'm not as comfortable as I used to be. My German was never quite that good, but even today I can go to Germany, and, as they say, 'Get around, and then some.' I understand most of what I'm hearing but I've lost my ability to produce on anything like a respectable level. I can speak Russian like a chimpanzee.

Russ Roberts: Is that good or bad?

John McWhorter: That's bad. That's horrible. And I'm trying to teach myself Mandarin, and I'm trying to get to the point where I can talk, like, roughly a 6-year old--that's about as good as I can imagine getting. Reading, I retain, and I have to do it a lot. Speaking: Use it or lose it. And in my life, you live[?] in New York City, I'm losing it.

Russ Roberts: You refer to a lot of different languages in the book. It's really fun. I took 10 years of French, 3rd-12th grade, and learned virtually nothing, except a few decent, structure-sort of things that helped me recognize some English words. But, I can--if I went to France, I'd speak it more quickly than if I went to China. I go to Israel; and my Hebrew is very mediocre. But one of the things--and I bring that up because: Hebrew generally has no pronouns. There are pronouns, literally. But when you speak in Hebrew, if you say, 'I went to the store,' you would say, 'Went to the store' in Hebrew. You would never say, 'I went to the store.' It also has the strange practice that in printed Hebrew there are no vowels.

John McWhorter: Right.

Russ Roberts: Which is interesting that that hasn't caught on in printed English. It, again, would make newspapers and magazines much shorter.

John McWhorter: Right.

Russ Roberts: But, I notice that with texting and email, English is losing its pronouns. So, I will say, 'Wanted to let you know' in an email. Or, 'Went to the store.' And, that would never be something I would have written in a letter, 25, 30 years ago. And I wouldn't have generally--I don't know if I would have spoken that or not, but I see email affecting English pretty dramatically. Do you agree? And, if so, what do you think of that?

John McWhorter: Well, I don't see email affecting the way we talk. But email certainly changes. You mentioned the exclamation points: I use them much more now than I did 20 years ago, in emails, because you want to convey a certain chipperness, a certain engagement, a certain salutation. And, just, using email at all 20 years ago conveyed that. Now you need something extra. You and I might be using two exclamation points in another 20 years. And, as far as the pronouns: Partly that's economy. Partly that's because we've always spoken that way, to an extent. And so, you can say, 'Well, it was a terrible party. I went there. I didn't have enough clothes. Uch. Never want to go there again.' That's ordinary colloquial speech; and so that's just reflected in the email. Hebrew is a different matter, because languages where you have prefixes or suffixes that indicate what person and number you mean, mean that you need the full pronoun less. And so, 'halakti[?]' means you don't need the 'ani'. With English you are just relying on context completely. And that's a different matter. And part of that is just the telegraphicness of rapid speech, with, as we always know, context. Language is always used within a context where it's pretty much always clear who the participants are and what their relationship to each other is. Which means that often you can leave out the pronoun without destroying the logic. And therefore, we do.

Russ Roberts: Is Hebrew one of your 12 languages?

John McWhorter: I read it very well. I never have any reason to speak it.

Russ Roberts: You just tossed in that 'halákhti,' which means, 'I went.' I thought that was lovely.

John McWhorter: Oh, thank you.

Russ Roberts: The 't', for non-Hebrew speakers, the 't' at the end of halákhti conveys 1st person. So, you don't need to say, 'ani halákhti'--I went. That would be almost redundant. But, as you point out, there is a pronoun built into the verb.

John McWhorter: Exactly. Right.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about--we're almost out of time. Let's talk about language and what you speak about it getting personal; and you use Black English as an example; and you use other examples. What do you mean by getting personal, and how does Black English and other forms of language affect that, do that, bring that about?

John McWhorter: I use 'getting personal' within the context of what I call, 'easing,' which is one of the kinds of these pragmatic markers. And, part of speaking the language is putting the other person at ease. At all points, we are basically saying, 'Everything's okay; everything's okay.' One way that we do it is with the little giggles and chortles that are part of having a conversation with somebody, even when nothing is particularly funny. If you listen to ordinary conversation, the amount of meaningless joking and laughing can be bizarre. If you think about the fact that often nothing humorous is being discussed, we spontaneously are always putting one another at ease. And, there are various ways that you can do it. One of them is, if you speak some kind of language that's slightly different from the standard one, that's only used in your in-group, chances are there that you speak the standard language, but the in-group language is what you use to convey a familiar, comfortable tone. And so, that's pretty much the only place that Black English comes into Words on the Move, in particular, where what I am saying is that the way a lot of black people use the dialect is as an easer, in the same way as you use those laughings that I talked about, or in the same way as you would say, 'Hey, you want a little bite?' even if the bite wasn't supposed to be that small. And so, using Black English or Appalachian English or a colloquial dialect of German, or your local kind of Chinese instead of Mandarin--all over the world people are using nonstandard but not noncoherent, nonstandard language as an easing, an easing strategy. That's what I meant by that.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. When my parents grew up in Memphis--and my Dad loves to throw in an 'ain't'--a-i-n-t--every once in a while--which drives me crazy. But that's--again; you are helping me here, John. That 'ain't' is just his way of saying 'We're just kind of hanging out here. Nothing special. I'm not trying to lord anythin' over you. And I'm going to drop the 'g'--anythin'--over you. I'm not gonna, I'm not going to, I'm going to speak the Queen's English because I don't want to feel like the Queen in your presence.' It's a really deep insight about the dance of conversation.

John McWhorter: That's a good way of putting it. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I just want to mention: We talk a lot here about Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments because it's a book I'm in love with and have written a book on, as listeners know. But a lot of that book is about our face-to-face interactions as opposed to our marketplace, at-a-distance interactions. And your book really brings to light the way that our conversations are so much more than just the words we use. You use an example of the words that I use in my book, also, which is, 'How are you?' 'How are you' does not mean, 'How are you' in America. In Russia,--I've mentioned this story before, I think; but I have a friend from Russia, when I say, 'How are you,' he says, 'Fine. Like all Americans.' And that's because 'Fine' is my way of saying, 'Gee, I am listening; I'm alive; I understand you want to initiate a conversation by the phrase "how are you?" rather than asking me how I'm doing.' And that's just an amazing thing.

John McWhorter: Yeah. That's how language works. There's often very much of a slip between the literal meaning and how we are actually using something. So, for example, many people these days--this is becoming the new 'literally,' don't like that a lot of people say, 'I feel that the economy dah-dah-dah,' or 'I feel that we should actually have Japanese food tonight'--as opposed to 'I think that.' And the idea seems to be that if you say that 'I feel that something' that it means that you are not really asserting yourself or that you think everything is about you, and your subjectivity. And people link that to various ideological currents of the past 5 minutes of American life, when really people were using 'feel' in that way quite commonly way back in the Eisenhower era. And you can also find it as far back as early modern English. It's not really new. And, when we say, 'I feel,' if anything, it's more politeness. There's a way that you say that something is your opinion without saying 'Here, I'm going to contravene what your opinion is, darn it.' Instead, you say, 'I feel,' instead of 'I think,' because it softens things. It's a kind of easing, in its way. And so, there's always that slippage between the dictionary meaning and how we're actually using the language. Which, frankly, I think is often more interesting than the dictionary solely in itself.