Words on the Move | John McWhorter

Summary of: Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)
By: John McWhorter


Dive into the ever-evolving world of language with ‘Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)’ by John McWhorter. Explore the fascinating journey of English, how it adapts to our world, and the intricacies of its evolution. In this book summary, you will learn about the hidden emotions behind seemingly simple words, the rise of emoticons, and the dynamic nature of words’ meanings and pronunciations. Unravel the intriguing history of the English language and gain a deeper understanding of how it reflects the fluctuations in our culture and society.

Art and Language

The evolution of art and language is tied to the expression of emotions. Unlike medieval times when religion took center stage, art began to place emphasis on individuality during the Renaissance era. This change marked a new era in the arts where individuals and their feelings now held pride of place. Similarly, language has been used to express emotions for centuries, with words such as “well” being an expression of grace. Our emotional experience is embedded in the language we use, making language and art powerful tools for emotional expression. Further exploration of our subjective world of feeling in language is yet to be explored.

Emoticons and the Future of Writing

The rise of texting has transformed the way we write, making it more casual, quick, and emotional. Emoticons are an extension of this trend, injecting feelings into texts. Although some fear emoticons will replace traditional writing, they serve a specific purpose and add to the richness of language. They function similarly to words like “totally” and “like” and are a way to intensify meaning. Similar to how Germans use “mal” and Japanese add “ne” to express emotion, emoticons are a part of our ever-evolving language. However, if we only relied on emoticons, our language would be limited. So, while emoticons add warmth and personalization to communication, they will not replace writing altogether.

The Evolution of Language

Language is constantly evolving, and many words change their meanings over time. While some retain their original meanings for thousands of years, others can take on new definitions in just a few centuries. For example, “science” once meant knowledge in general but now refers specifically to the systematic study of the natural world. Similarly, “innumerable” originally meant something that couldn’t be counted but now signifies a large, uncountable quantity. These changes in language are often slow-burning, taking place over centuries or even millennia. But as society and culture evolve, so does the way we use words, shaping the meaning of our language for generations to come.

The Evolution of English

English is a language known for constant evolution, and one way it changes is by turning verbs into nouns. This phenomenon is unique to English as opposed to other languages like French and Spanish where verbs are clearly marked and don’t double as nouns. The article explores this transformation and shows that English doesn’t just invent new nouns, but these words also take on different meanings over time. The sentences like “What’s the solve?” or “the ask” might sound unfamiliar, but in the fast-paced world of business, they are a necessity.

The Rise of the Exclamation Mark

The once rarely-sighted exclamation mark has become commonplace in our everyday conversations, from emails and text messages to restaurant receipts. But why? It is not a sudden burst of enthusiasm from people, but a change in everyday usage driven by contact with different cultures. The exclamation mark has lost some of its power, no longer connoting great surprise but rather indicating attentiveness and politeness. This trend can be traced back to comic strips like Archie and linguistic cultures such as Scandinavians, where the exclamation mark has been used in a contemporary way even before Archie first appeared in 1941. In short, the exclamation mark has risen to become a sign of engagement in our daily communication.

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