In Words on the Move, John McWhorter begins by observing that no one complains about clouds moving in the sky, but they complain about language changing over time. For example, people these days often complain about the over-use of the word “like” and the mis-use of the word “literally.” However, as tempting as it might be to whine, he says, this is perfectly normal. Our language – and all languages – has been in a state of flux throughout its entire existence. This is the nature of language. Not only does it adapt consciously to incorporate new words, but changes subtly over the decades. He observes that old movies sound stranger with each passing decade partly because of the accents which are moving further from ours, and also to keys in our spellings that indicate the differences in pronunciation over the years – ie daughter is not pronounced like laughter, but it used to be.
He talks about our perception of words as having concrete meanings when, of course, they don’t. Dictionaries are misleading because they imply that a word has a set meaning that is fixed across time, but dictionaries themselves go quickly out of date. Amusingly, McWhorter observes that considering a word as its dictionary definition is like saying a middle-aged person looks like their high-school graduation photo. People change, and so does our language. Throughout this book, the author explains why words change.
McWhorter’s style is accessible and often witty, yet incredibly well-informed. He seems rather hip to modern culture (perhaps trying too hard at times) yet absolutely knowledgeable about the millennia of development leading up to it. The result is a quite readable, very interesting, and valuable book.