Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally), by John McWhorter

This latest book on the English language by John McWhorter offers the idea that all languages are flexible and reflect the times in which they’re used. This makes keeping hard and fast rules about what constitutes proper grammar nearly impossible. It’s a beast that can’t be contained and needs to be appreciated for its ever-changing beauty.

McWhorter brings in insights about the pronunciation of a language: how the tongue shifts to give a language a different sound over time. Sometimes this is a simplification, such as words changing from Elizabethan pronunciations of words like make from Ma-kuh to the present version. (I always wondered where the silent e at the end came from. It wasn’t always silent.)

In addition to drifts in pronunciation words go through changes in meaning, to the point that McWhorter joins some others in the belief that Shakespeare should go through modern translations. An example he offers is Polonius’ “neither a borrower nor a lender be” speech from Hamlet. It contains the line: “And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character.” The “character” doesn’t relate to personal character but to writing the characters down to remember them. He believes that people only understand a portion of the text of Shakespeare today, and that the language can be altered just enough to make it understandable without harming the poetic flow.

He also uses examples from 30s films to show how English is pronounced differently just in the course of 80 or 90 years, and shows how words that were just being introduced with a new meaning (usually a verb changing to a noun) will alter pronunciation under some specific rules.

This is the type of book that may make some grammar nazis cringe, but may convert others to a more relaxed attitude about new introductions to the mother tongue. It’s a pleasant and blessedly jargon-free approach to grammar, pronunciation, and word selection that puts language in a different perspective than what your high school English teacher probably offered. A world where understanding is more important than perfection and that offers insights on regional and racial approaches to the language.

It’s interesting to learn things such as the fact that “literally” has been “misused” for much longer than just the past century, that some words are nearly impossible to define but still add meaning to the language, and that we still don’t know why women tend to say “um” while men tend to say “uh”. If you have an interest in language McWhorter will offer some new perspectives and fascinating factoids to make your reading and listening to your own language more of an adventure.