Linguistic Evolution

9781627794718_2f2faA new book and an academic study on shifts in language investigate how it evolves over time.

Salon interviews Columbia University linguist John McWhorter on his book Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally) (Macmillan/Henry Holt; OverDrive Sample), asking him to explain current shifts in word choices and meaning – and why we are so resistant to those alterations.

Oddly enough, part of the answer lies in reading. He says, 

“we think of language as what’s on the page. That’s the real thing; speaking is just an approximation … [when] we hear new things … they’re processed as vulgar and as broken. We don’t understand that no language could ever sit still … It’s so hard to perceive this but the way Old English became this English is the same thing that’s happening to this English now. We wouldn’t have wanted those changes not to happen, so why do we want those changes not to happen now?”

In the video below McWhorter explains how reading, print books, and spoken language have evolved and challenge each other.

Proving the topic is in the air, The New York Times also reports on the use of language changing over time, specifically how it shifts based on the national mood. A new study finds evidence that the use of positive words such as “awesome,” “pretty” and “grace” “may change depending on objective circumstances, such as war and poverty, as well as subjective happiness.” The study looked at terms used in “1.3 million texts in Google Books and 14.9 million New York Times articles.”

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