Of all the traditional humanities disciplines, only one has consistently grown: linguistics. Sure, the number of philosophy majors has remained fairly steady, but linguistics flourishes, even as the number of English and history majors has fallen by half and as computer science now enrolls as many undergraduates as all the humanities majors combined.
Interest in language is also growing outside the academy. Etymology is in vogue and the reading public seems fascinated by the facts that language mutates, grammar evolves, meanings modify, and syntax shifts.
The growing interest in philology and etymology is evident in certain segments of popular culture:
- In the popularity of the book and film The Professor and the Madman, which brought James Murray, the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the researcher William Chester Minor, out of obscurity.
- In the revival of interest in Friedrich Nietzsche, including his use of philology to discuss the genealogy of morals – the transvaluation of values, Christianity as a life-denying force, the tension between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and the questioning of the notion of objective or factual truth.
- In popular fascination with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and linguistic relativity, that the structure of a language determines a native speaker's perception and categorization of experience.
Some of the public’s interest seems to reflect a prurient interest in vulgarities, invectives, euphemisms, obscenities, slurs, and swear words. Suzannah Lipscomb, an early modernist and Professor Emerita at the University of Roehampton, has written an especially engaging essay (published in History Today) that traces the shift over time in the nature of offensive words, from profanities that disparage the name of God, to defamations that besmirch a reputation, the crude, lewd obscenities that refer to sex or defecation, and the slurs that disparage groups of people.
The take-away: What’s considered rude or odious has shifted dramatically over time.
A recent book by the poet Deborah Warren, entitled Strange to Say, certainly responds to the growing popular interest in etymology. Her focus is on language’s mutability and English’s remarkable absorptive power. With wit and brevity, she traces how words like chivalry, doctor, dollar, lunatic, pot (i.e. marijuana), potpourri, and salary evolved, and how phrases like getting a dressing down or man of the cloth received their contemporary meaning.
She shows how England and angler shared a common source, the humble fishhook, and how the acquisition of Latin-based words resulted in two different words for similar phenomena (fieldwork and agriculture, sweat and perspire, dirt and soil, rug and carpet, dish and plate. She also shows how the word muscle evolved from mouse, and how limousine, which originally referred to a cloak, came to refer to a luxurious car driven by a chauffeur.
Perfect for cocktail party conversation are Warren’s digressions about clothing (balaclava, brassiere, cardigan, pants, tutu), food (avocado, bagel, doughnut), geographical terms (town, pond, forest), and sports (arena, ball, squash, tennis, umpire, volleyball). Her book brings to life the Scottish poet Don Paterson phrase: “Words are locked tombs in which the corpses still lie breathing.”
No one has played a more critical role in whetting the public appetite for books about language than John McWhorter. Through his New York Times newsletter, his Lexicon Valley podcasts, and more than a dozen books, he has fed the public’s interest in the historical development of language and the origins, pronunciation, spelling oddities, and shifting meanings of specific words.
His highly opinionated books and columns occupy an especially alluring middle ground between those who apply the scientific, computational, psychological, and sociological method to the study of language and to dialects, morphology, phonetics, semantics, and syntax, and those popularizers, like Warren, who are primarily interested in languages’ oddities, quirks, eccentricities, and slang. His bookcase full of books do an impressive job of introducing non-specialists to a host of ongoing scholarly debates.
- His Language Hoax, a critique of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, dismisses the notion that language is a kind of lens that limits and shapes what people perceive or think. He is no doubt right to question the most extreme versions of the hypothesis. But if language itself reflects culture, worldviews, ideologies, and thought processes, then there is a kind of conjuncture or linkage between language and perception with the lines of influence interacting in exceedingly complex ways.
- His The Power of Babel treats language not as “immutable and hidebound, but [as] a living, dynamic entity that adapts itself to an ever-changing human environment” – including interactions among diverse peoples, shifts in status and power, and the emergence of new technologies and modes of production. He also explores how various dialects emerge in highly differentiated and stratified societies and how the process of national consolidation based on a so-called common language has had the effect of stigmatizing subgroups’ dialects, contributing to the extinction of many indigenous languages, and slowing a much needed process of adapting language to new circumstances.
- In Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, he traces what he sees as the erosion of formal English in the wake of the 1960s Counterculture. In his view, informal, casual, idiosyncratic, colloquial, even vulgar speech supplanted the artificial formal, highly stylized, unabashedly literary, even poetic, written and oral forms of expression, and this, in turn, has contributed to a decline in literary flair and in the quality of song lyrics and made it more difficult for politicians and others public figures to articulate complex ideas.
- Anything but a pretentious cultural elitist, McWhorter, in Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English and Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America's Lingua Franca, extols the power of Black English vernacular, which possesses distinctive verbal expressiveness, vocal cadences, rhythms, and intricate imagery that are too often absent from the “dressed-down” English spoken by many whites.
McWhorter’s prolific writings convey certain consistent messages:
- That there are no objectively correct rules in our or any language; rather, language is a collection of dialects, one of which is upheld as the dominant standard.
- That there is nothing inherently wrong with deviations from traditional grammar, syntax, and usage.
- That the way adults often learn second languages, by memorizing various rules and tables of verb conjugations or noun declensions, contributes to the misleading view of languages as highly regular systems that are fixed or static.
- That language is a living organism that constantly evolves, mutates, and interbreeds, and that, accordingly, neologisms and shifts in meaning, pronunciation, usage, and grammar are to be expected and should be accepted.
- That rather than treating various non-standard dialects as defective or primitive, we need to see them as distinct communication modes, and recognize that the interaction of various parlances, idioms, dialects, and vernaculars enriches language.
- That “diglossia," the tendency to speak a standard version of the language in public but distinct dialects at home or within one’s community, is widespread, and therefore most people (not just immigrants or marginalized groups) engage in code switching.
- That “creolization” – the blending of multiple languages as a result of contact and interaction -- results not in some kind of linguistic mishmash or pastiche (or put crudely, bastardization) of languages, but in the creation of distinctly new vernaculars, each with their own structure, grammar, vocabulary, syntax, speech patterns, accents, formal rules, and modes of expression.
- That over time languages tend to eliminate irregularities, reduce complex sound systems, and seek greater simplicity.
- That the dictionary definition of words tends to underestimate how words are used for expressive purposes: to convey emotion, affirm feelings and beliefs, and to contradict an argument.
His overarching objective is to chart a middle ground between the grammar police, the vocabulary czars, and the snobbish defenders of “standard” English who fear that the language is degenerating and their opponents, who champion linguistic transformation, defend the integrity of various dialects, and seek to rid language of senseless accretions and implicit biases that reflect ableism, agism, Eurocentrism, racism, sexism, or many other -isms.
There is no doubt in my mind that the growth of public interest in etymology and popular linguistics and philology is a recognition that language has become a key cultural, ideological, and political battleground – yet another arena in which the culture wars are playing out.
Let me offer three examples:
- A dawning recognition that controversies over “proper” grammar and usage, for example, evident in the contention surrounding Ebonics, have a social or political dimension. In Words on the Move, McWhorter insists that: "...rage over language usage may be the last permissible open classism” or cloak racism.
- Then there are the debates surrounding concept creep – the semantic expansion of words related to abuse, addiction, bullying, disability, and trauma to refer not only to physical abuse or behavior but to psychological and emotional harm – and to the labeling and pathologizing of what was once considered normal human behavior through the application of medical and psychiatric terminology.
- There is also the conflict over whether words can inflict violence. This isn’t merely the older notion of “fighting words” -- those offensive, insulting, hateful, abusive, or deliberately provocative words that can incite violence – but, rather, the idea that verbal statements and microaggressions that invalidate another person’s feelings, trigger past trauma, or that indirectly, subtly, or unintentionally harass, insult, inflict stress, or express prejudice are the emotional equivalent of physical violence.
Today, we frequently communicate without words – through emojis, emoticons, smileys, memes, and short-form Tik Tok-like videos. We should ask: Do these modes of expression enrich communication, or, conversely, do they degrade our ability to convey emotions and ideas in articulate, sophisticated, and expressive ways?
I’m of the view that we as a society need many more “middlebrow” works, like McWhorter’s, that make sophisticated scholarship accessible to a broader audience in an entertaining yet thoughtful way. We should applaud such efforts rather than dismissing them as simplifications or popularizations.
As an instructor, one of my primary goals is to help my students develop verbal expressiveness: not just to be able to communicate clearly, but to recognize the importance of word choice and be able to add style, flair, and personality to their writing.
I can’t think of a better way to attune students to language’s communicative power than to reflect, as John McWhorter and Deborah Warren do, on how language evolves, changes, and mutates in response to shifting social circumstances. If we want students to write and speak well, encourage them to fall in love with language. As the blogger Ruthanne Reid has put it, inspire them to fall “in love with the rhythm of a sentence, with the power of word-placement, and the power of connotation.”
Harper Lee was right: To write and speak eloquently, forcefully, and meaningfully, there is no substitute, “for the love of language.”
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.