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Words on the Move

Thu, 11/09/2017 - 7:30pm
Room L140, Conrad A. Elvehjem Building 800 University Avenue
Speaker and Affiliation: 
John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University and host of Slate's language podcast Lexicon Valley

Language is always changing -- but we tend not to like it. We understand that new words must be created for new things, but the way English is spoken today rubs many of us the wrong way. Whether it’s the use of literally to mean “figuratively” rather than “by the letter,” or the way young people use LOL and like, or business jargon like What’s the ask? -- it often seems as if the language is deteriorating before our eyes. But the truth is different and a lot less scary. English has always been in motion and continues to evolve today, the shifts that can seem so unsettling are a natural process common to all languages, and they are ones we could easily embrace and appreciate rather than condemn. Did you know that silly once meant “blessed”? Or that ought was the original past tense of owe? Or that the suffix -ly in adverbs is actually a remnant of the word like? And have you ever wondered why some people from New Orleans sound as if they come from Brooklyn? When we fully understand that words are ever on the move, our lives are all the richer for it.

Dianna Murphy
Language Institute; Center for the Humanities; Department of Linguistics; Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic