Do you pride yourself in your ability to speak English? Do you avoid using impact as a verb? Do you shudder when someone redundantly says close proximity or spews out business jargon like actionable and incentivize? Do you grit your teeth when someone says literally when they mean figuratively? Do you despair when someone says, “What are our asks?”
Yep, so do we. And we’re affronted daily by violations of what we smugly know, with absolute certainty, is the correct use of English. But we learned an important lesson from a great book by John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, called The Power of Babel: The Natural History of Language: Language evolves, so get used to it.
For example, take the word awful. It used to mean “awe inspiring,” but it evolved into its current meaning before you were born. And if you hate hearing “ask” used as a noun, you should know that it was common usage two hundred years ago.
So it’s time to abandon your attachment to correctness and acknowledge the inevitable, inexorable transformation of language. As McWhorter says, “everything about a language is eternally and inherently changeable, not just the slang and the occasional cultural designation, but the very sound and meaning of basic words, and the word order and grammar.”
Although more than 6,000 languages are spoken around the world today, they all evolved from a single proto language that began in East Africa more than 150,000 years ago. McWhorter explains how as humans migrated around the world, that single language gave way to thousands of others. The rise of these distinct languages was the result of a variety of factors, including sound change and grammaticalization, two of the key processes of language evolution that the author skillfully illustrates with a variety of English and French examples.
On every one of its more than 350 pages, you’ll find a new nugget of knowledge that will entertain or intrigue you. For example, did you know that only one percent of English words are not borrowed from some other language? Or that most of the languages that now exist will become extinct within a century? Or that as languages evolve, the unaccented parts of words tend to erode and disappear (as the Latin word femina “degenerated” into the French word femme)?
McWhorter also explains how the meaning of words can change, citing the 1935 movie Top Hat to illustrate his point. In it, leading lady Ginger Roberts tells a friend about her relationship with Fred Astaire, saying that “He made love to me.” Those words surely would have been scandalous at the time if they had the same connotation then that they do today. In fact, in the 1930s “make love” could mean any kind of physical involvement, including kissing, as was the intended meaning in the film.
Throughout The Power of Babel, McWhorter delves into numerous other aspects of language that most of us don’t take time to consider. For example, what’s the difference between a language and a dialect? That turns out to be difficult to answer. The difference could even be merely political: Bulgarians traveling in Macedonia can easily communicate with the locals, but you better not tell the Macedonians that their language is just a dialect of Bulgarian.
What the author does particularly well is open his readers’ eyes to the diversity of languages all around the world. In New Guinea, for instance, there are languages that have no tenses, while in Australia there are aboriginal languages that only have three verbs (in case you’re wondering, they are: come, go, and do). He also points out how some of the most complicated languages in the world are spoken in cultures and societies many of us consider to be primitive. Fula, a language spoken across 20 countries across Central and West Africa, is a prime example. McWhorter explains:
If the Romance or Germanic genders are a nuisance for non-natives, Fula is an absolute nightmare. In French, German, Spanish, or Russian, we must cope with two or three classes that nouns can belong to, and in the first two languages, gender membership is fitfully suggested by the shape or meaning of the word. In Fula, there are sixteen ‘genders’ that a noun can belong to; except that one of the genders is for people (there is no masculine-feminine distinction), they correspond only occasionally and broadly to classes of meaning.
This is just one of several daunting challenges both native and non-native speakers must confront when learning Fula. Of course, all languages have their unique quirks — the placement of verbs and pronouns, the existence of unique tenses not widely used in other languages, or the use of tones or even clicks — which is what makes each one so interesting.
McWhorter provides a fascinating account of how language has evolved, changed, and morphed millions of times over the course of human history. For anyone who’s interest in language or linguistics, The Power of Babel is well worth a read. As a bonus, you’ll realize some degree of humility about your command of “correct” English.
But what do you think? Could you ever overcome your disdain and start abusing your own language?