Word Matters : Watch Your Mouth

gettyimages 156485415 slide 9c6ebb4366367fa03c2933594cde1b96eca71fd6 edited scaled - Word Matters : Watch Your Mouth

These may seem like minor differences, but Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive science professor at the University of California, San Diego, argues that features like grammatical gender and reading direction can have a real effect on the way we think.

“Language can guide you to discover something about the world that might take you longer to discover if you didn’t have that information in language,” she says.

Lera points to studies she and other researchers have done that show language can shape how people think about time, agency, and gender.

But — language isn’t written in stone. In his book Words on the Move: Why English Won’t and Can’t Sit Still (Like Literally), linguist John McWhorter shows how the words we use today may hold completely new meaning tomorrow.

“It’s the nature of human language to change,” McWhorter says. “And there’s never been a language that didn’t do that.” This, he says, is how Latin became French. It’s how Old English became Modern English. “Nobody wishes that we hadn’t developed our modern languages today from the ancient versions,” McWhorter says.

This week we explore how the constantly evolving nature of languages can give us different ways of understanding ourselves as well as the world we live in.


This is Hidden Brain. I’m Shankar Vedantam. If you grew up speaking a language other than English, you probably reach for words in your native tongue without even thinking about it.

VEDANTAM: There are phrases in every language that are deeply evocative and often untranslatable. If you’re studying a new language, you might discover these phrases not in your textbooks but when you’re hanging out with friends.


JENNIFER GEACONE-CRUZ: My name is Jennifer Geacone-Cruz.


VEDANTAM: Jennifer moved to Japan for graduate school.


GEACONE-CRUZ: And I ended up living there for 10 years.


VEDANTAM: It took just one week of living in Japan for Jennifer to pick up an important new term.


GEACONE-CRUZ: Mendokusai.


VEDANTAM: Here’s what she says it means.


GEACONE-CRUZ: It’s this phrase that describes something between I can’t be bothered or I don’t want to do it or I recognize the incredible effort that goes into something, even though it shouldn’t be so much of an effort.


VEDANTAM: Still don’t have a clear picture? Imagine this.


GEACONE-CRUZ: It’s a Sunday afternoon, and it’s raining outside.




GEACONE-CRUZ: And you’re at home in your pajamas, all nice and cuddly and maybe watching Netflix or something. And you suddenly get a craving for potato chips, and you realize that you have none in the kitchen, and there’s nothing else you really want to eat. And maybe the convenience store or the shop is really not that far away. Maybe it’s even less than a hundred meters away, but you just can’t bring yourself to even throw your coat on over your pajamas and put your boots on and go outside and walk those hundred meters because somehow it would break the coziness. And it’s just too much of an effort, and you can’t be bothered to do it, even though it’s such a small thing. So it’s mendokusai.


VEDANTAM: The moment she heard it, Jennifer realized mendokusai was incredibly useful.


GEACONE-CRUZ: It describes this feeling so perfectly in such a wonderfully packaged, encapsulated way. And you can just – it rolls off the tongue, and you can just throw it out. (Speaking Japanese). I just don’t want to do it.


VEDANTAM: If you’re bilingual or you’re learning a new language, you get what Jennifer experienced – the joy of discovering a phrase that helps you perfectly encapsulate a feeling or an experience. The phrase brings an entire world with it – its context, its flavor, its culture. Today, we explore the many facets of this idea. Languages are not just tools to describe the world. They are ways of seeing the world.


LERA BORODITSKY: The categorization that language provides to you becomes real – becomes psychologically real.






VEDANTAM: …How the languages we speak shape the way we think and why the words we use are always in flux.




VEDANTAM: My guest today is – well, why don’t I let her introduce herself?


BORODITSKY: The way to say my name properly in Russian is (speaking foreign language), so I don’t make people say that.


VEDANTAM: Well, that’s kind of you, Lera.




VEDANTAM: In the English-speaking world, she goes by Lera Boroditsky. Lera is a cognitive science professor at the University of California, San Diego. Long before she began researching languages as a professor, foreign languages loomed large in her life. When she was 12, her family came to the United States from the Soviet Union.


BORODITSKY: My family is Jewish, and we left as refugees. I decided it was very important for me to learn English because I had always been a very verbal kid, and I’d – was always the person who recited poems in front of the school and, you know, led assemblies and things like that. And to arrive in a new place where you can’t tell a joke and can’t express an idea – oh, it’s just really painful because you feel like your whole self is hiding inside and no one can see it. And so I set myself the goal that I would learn English in a year, and I wouldn’t speak Russian to anyone for that whole first year. And I did that.


VEDANTAM: Lera now tries to understand languages spoken all over the world. She once visited an aboriginal community in northern Australia and found the language they spoke forced her mind to work in new ways. Just saying hello was difficult.


BORODITSKY: I had this wonderful opportunity to work with my colleague Alice Gaby in this community called Pormpuraaw in – on Cape York. And what’s cool about languages, like the languages spoken in Pormpuraaw, is that they don’t use words like left and right, and instead, everything is placed in cardinal directions like north, south, east and west. So the way you say hi in Kuuk Thaayorre is to say, which way are you heading? And the answer should be, north, northeast in the far distance; how about you?


VEDANTAM: (Laughter).


BORODITSKY: So quite literally, to get past hello, you have to know which way you’re heading. And in fact, speakers of languages like this have been shown to orient extremely well – much better than we used to think humans could. We always knew that certain species of animals had abilities to orient that we thought were better than human, and we always had some biological excuse for why we couldn’t do it. We’d say, oh, well, we don’t have magnets in our beaks or in our scales or whatever. But it turns out humans can stay oriented really, really well, provided that their language and culture requires them to keep track of this information.


VEDANTAM: I understand that if you’re in a picnic with someone from this community and you notice an ant climbing up someone’s left leg, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to tell that person, look, there’s an ant on your left leg.


BORODITSKY: Well, there may not be a word for left to refer to a left leg. In a lot of languages, there isn’t. So you might say, there’s an ant on your northwest leg. The fun example I give my students is imagine playing the hokey pokey in a language like this. You know, there’s no left leg or right leg. As soon as you move the leg, it becomes a different leg. So you may start with moving your southwest leg in, but then you have to move your northeast leg out.




ADAM COLE, BYLINE: (Singing) You put your southwest leg in, and you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about.


VEDANTAM: So I find that I’m often directionally and navigationally challenged when I’m driving around, and I often get my east-west mixed up with my left-right for reasons I have never been able to fathom. So – but if I understand correctly, I would be completely at sea if I visited this aboriginal community in Australia because I have often absolutely no idea where I am or where I’m going.


BORODITSKY: Well, you would be at sea at first. But actually, it’s something that’s not so hard to learn. Many people have this intuition that, oh, I could never learn that; I could never survive in a community like this. But actually, that’s exactly how people in those communities come to stay oriented – is that they learn it, (laughter) right? You have to do it in order to fit into the culture and to speak the language. I had this cool experience when I was there. You know, I was trying to stay oriented because people were treating me like I was pretty stupid for not being oriented, and that hurt. And so I was trying to keep track of which way is which.


And one day, I was walking along, and I was just staring at the ground. And all of a sudden, I noticed that there was a new window that had popped up in my mind, and it was like a little bird’s-eye view of the landscape that I was walking through, and I was a little red dot that was moving across the landscape. And then when I turned, this little window stayed locked on the landscape, but it turned in my mind’s eye. And as soon as I saw that happen, I thought, oh, this makes it so much easier. Now I can stay oriented. And I kind of sheepishly confessed this to someone there. I said, you know, this weird thing happened. I saw this bird’s-eye view, and I was this little red dot. And they said, well, of course. How else would you do it? Of course that’s how you…


VEDANTAM: (Laughter).


BORODITSKY: And so what was remarkable for me was that my brain figured out a really good solution to the problem after a week of trying, right? So I think it’s something that is quite easy for humans to learn if you just have a reason to want to do it.


VEDANTAM: Time is another concept that is also central to the way we see and describe the world. And you’ve conducted experiments that explore how different conceptions of time in different languages shape the way we think about the world and shape the way we think about stories. How so?


BORODITSKY: One thing that we’ve noticed is this idea of time, of course, is very highly constructed by our minds and our brains. So you can’t see time. You can’t touch time. You can’t smell or taste time. But it is a completely crucial part of the human experience. Of course, you also can’t experience anything outside of time. It is the very fabric, the very core of your experience. So the question for us has been, how do we build these ideas? And it’s not just about how we think about time. It’s how we think about anything that’s abstract, that’s beyond our physical senses. And one thing that we’ve noticed is that around the world, people rely on space to organize time.


So for example, for English speakers – people who read from left to right – time tends to flow from left to right. So earlier things are on the left. Later things are on the right. If I give you a bunch of pictures to lay out and say this is telling you some kind of story and you – and they’re disorganized, when an English speaker organizes those pictures, they’ll organize them from left to right. But if I give that same story to a Hebrew or an Arabic speaker, they would organize it from right to left. That is the direction of writing in Hebrew and Arabic, going from right to left.


But time doesn’t have to flow with respect to the body. So to go back to the example we were just talking about – people who don’t use words like left and right – when I gave those picture stories to Kuuk Thaayorre speakers, who use north, south, east and west, they organized the cards from east to west. And so what that means is if someone was sitting facing south, they would lay out the story from left to right. But if they were sitting facing north, they would lay out the story from right to left. And if they were facing east, they would make the cards come toward them, toward the body. So that’s an example of how languages and cultures construct how we use space to organize time, to organize this very abstract thing that’s otherwise kind of hard to get our hands on and think about.


VEDANTAM: If languages are shaped by the way people see the world, but they also shape how people see the world, what does this mean for people who are bilingual? If you can speak more than one language, does this mean that you’re also simultaneously and constantly shifting in your mind between different worldviews?


BORODITSKY: That’s a wonderful question. So one possibility for bilinguals would be that they just have two different minds inside – right? – so one skull but two different minds, and you shift from one to the other. Another possibility is that it’s a fully integrated mind, and it just incorporates ideas and distinctions from both languages or from many languages if you speak more than two. What turns out to be the case is that it’s something in between – that bilinguals don’t really turn off the languages they’re not using when they’re not using them.


So even if I’m speaking English, the distinctions that I’ve learned in speaking Russian, for example, are still active in my mind to some extent, but they’re more active if I’m actually speaking Russian. So bilinguals are kind of this in-between case where they can’t quite turn off their other languages, but they become more prominent, more salient when you are actually speaking the language or surrounded by the language.


VEDANTAM: So I want to talk about a debate that’s raged in your field for many years. There are many scholars who would say, look, yes, you do see small differences between speakers of different languages, but these differences are not really significant; they’re really small. How big are the differences that we’re talking about, and how big do you think the implications are for the way we see the world?


BORODITSKY: Yeah. So there are some differences that are as big as you can possibly measure. For example, when we started talking about navigation, that’s an example where a 5-year-old in a culture that uses words like north, south, east and west can point southeast without hesitation. They know which way is which. And very competent adults of our culture can’t do that. So that’s a measurement difference of 100 percent of performance. There’s not a bigger difference you could find than 100 percent of the measurement space. You also see huge differences in other domains like number. So some languages don’t have number words. And if you don’t have a word for exactly seven, it actually becomes very, very hard to keep track of exactly seven. And that is an example of a simple feature of language – number words – acting as a transformative stepping stone to a whole domain of knowledge. Of course, if you can’t keep track of exactly seven, you can’t count.


You’re also not going to do algebra. You’re not going to do trigonometry. You’re not going to do any of the things that are seen as a foundation of our technological society. So that, again, is a huge difference. So in terms of the size of differences, there are certainly effects that are really, really big. But things can be important not just because they’re big. They can be small differences but important in other ways. So for example, grammatical gender – because grammatical gender applies to all nouns in your language, that means that language is shaping the way you think about everything that can be named by a noun. Well, that’s an incredibly large set of things, so that’s a very broad effect of language. So to give you a very quick wrap-up is that some effects are big, but even when effects aren’t big, they can be interesting or important for other reasons – either because they are very broad or because they apply to things that we think are really important in our culture.




VEDANTAM: Languages orient us to the world. They shape our place in it. When we come back, we dig further into the way that gender works in different languages and the pervasive effects that words can play in our lives. Stay with us. I’m Shankar Vedantam, and you’re listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. And this is NPR.


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I’m Shankar Vedantam. We’re speaking today with cognitive science professor Lera Boroditsky about language. In many languages, nouns are gendered.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking foreign language).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Speaking foreign language).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Speaking foreign language).


VEDANTAM: The word chair is feminine in Italian.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Speaking Italian).


VEDANTAM: …But masculine in German.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Speaking German).


VEDANTAM: I asked Lera how describing the word chair or the word bridge as masculine or feminine changes the way that speakers of different languages think about those concepts.


BORODITSKY: Actually, one of the first people to notice or suggest that this might be the case was a Russian linguist, Roman Jakobson. And he started by asking Russian-speaking students to personify days of the week. So act like Monday.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Speaking Russian).


BORODITSKY: …Or act like Wednesday.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Speaking Russian).


BORODITSKY: And Russian is a language that has grammatical gender, and different days of the week have different genders for some reason. And what he noticed was that when people were trying to act like Monday, they would act like a man.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: (Speaking Russian).


BORODITSKY: And when they were trying to act like Wednesday, they would act like a woman…


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Speaking Russian).


BORODITSKY: …Which accords with grammatical gender in Russian. And so he suggested it might be the case that the arbitrarily assigned grammatical genders are actually changing the way people think about these days of the week and maybe all kinds of other things that are named by nouns.


So we’ve done a lot of studies looking at how speakers of Spanish and German and Russian actually think about objects that have opposite grammatical genders. Take the word bridge – if it’s feminine in your language, you’re more likely to say that bridges are beautiful and elegant. And if the word bridge is masculine in your language, you’re more likely to say that bridges are strong and long and towering – these kind of more stereotypically masculine words. And, of course, you always have to wonder, well, could it be that speakers of these different languages are actually seeing different kinds of bridges? So maybe they’re saying bridges are beautiful and elegant, not because they’re grammatically feminine in the language, but because the bridges they have are, in fact, more beautiful and elegant.


And so to address that question, what we do is we bring English speakers into the lab, and we teach them grammatical genders in a new language that we invent. We call this language Gumbuzi. And we teach them, for example, to say that bridges and apples and all kinds of other things have the same prefix as women. So the word for the is different for women than for men, and it’s also different for forks versus spoons and things like that. And what we find is that if you teach people that forks go with men grammatically in a language, they start to think of forks as being more masculine. And if you teach them that forks go with women, they start to think that forks are more feminine. The categorization that language provides to you becomes real, becomes psychologically real.


One study that I love is a study that asked monolingual speakers of Italian and German and also bilingual speakers of Italian and German to give reasons for why things are the grammatical genders that they are. And so for example, if the word chair is masculine in your language, why is that? If you’re a monolingual speaker of one of these languages, you’re very likely to say that the word chair is masculine because chairs are, in fact, masculine, right? So these speakers have internalized this idea from their language, and they believe that it’s right. They believe that their language reflects the true structure of the world. But if you ask bilinguals, who have learned two languages and now they know that some genders disagree across the two languages, they’re much less likely to say that it’s because chairs are intrinsically masculine. They’re more likely to say, well, it’s a formal property of the language. They’re more likely to see through this little game that language has played on them.




VEDANTAM: I understand that there’s also been studies looking at how artists who speak different languages might paint differently depending on how their languages categorize, you know, concepts like a mountain or death.


BORODITSKY: Yeah. So we did an analysis of images in Artstor. This is a database with millions of art images. And we looked at every personification and allegory in Artstor and asked, does the language that you speak matter for how you paint death, depending on whether the word death is masculine or feminine in your language? And to our surprise, 78 percent of the time, we could predict the gender of the personification based on the grammatical gender of the noun in the artist’s native language. So if the word for death was masculine in your language, you were likely to paint death as a man. And if it was feminine, then you’re likely to paint death as a woman. The size of this effect really quite surprised me because I would have thought at the outset that, you know, artists are these iconoclasts. They’re supposed to be painting something very personal. But, in fact, they were reflecting this little quirk of grammar, this little quirk of their language and in some cases, you know, carving those quirks of grammar into stone because when you look at statues that we have around – of liberty and justice and things like this – they have gender. You know, it’s Lady Liberty and Lady Justice. Those are quirks of grammar literally in stone.


VEDANTAM: Our conversation made me wonder about what this means on a larger scale. Does a speaker of a language, like Spanish, who has to assign gender to so many things, end up seeing the world as more gendered? Lera said there’s still a lot of research to be done on this. But she told me a story about a conversation she had with a native speaker of Indonesian.


BORODITSKY: I spoke really terrible Indonesian at the time, so I was trying to practice. And I was telling this person about someone I knew back in America. And they asked me all kinds of questions about them. And then question 21 was, is this person a man or a woman? And I thought, wow, first of all, it would be almost impossible to have a conversation like that in English where you hadn’t already revealed the gender of the person because you have to use he or she. But also, I started wondering, is it possible that my friend here was imagining a person without a gender for this whole time that we’ve been talking about them, right? So when I ask you to, say, imagine a man walking down the street, well, in your imagery, you’re going to have some details completed and some will be left out. So for example, you might not imagine the color shirt that he’s wearing or the kinds of shoes that he’s wearing. That kind of detail may not appear. So it’s easy to think, oh, I could imagine someone without thinking explicitly about what they’re wearing. But can you imagine someone without imagining their gender? And so for me, that question was born in that conversation of are there some languages where it’s easier to imagine a person without their characteristics of gender filled in? So you can think about an un-gendered person in the same way that I might think about a person without a specific age or specific height or specific color shirt. I think it’s a really fascinating question for future research.


VEDANTAM: So this begs the question, if you were to put languages on something of a spectrum, where you have, you know, languages like Spanish or Hindi where nouns are gendered and languages like English where many nouns are not gendered but pronouns are gendered, and on the other end of the spectrum, you have languages like Finnish or Persian where you can have a conversation about someone without actually mentioning their gender, it would seem surprising if this did not translate, at some level, into the way people thought about gender in their daily activities, in terms of thinking about maybe even who can do what in the workplace. Could this affect the way, you know, sexism, conscious or unconscious, operates in our world?


BORODITSKY: It’s certainly possible. I think language can certainly be a contributor into the complex system of our thinking about gender. There’s been a little bit of research from economists actually looking at this. So they’ve compared gender equality, gender parity norms from the World Health Organization, which ranks countries on how equal access to education, how equal pay is, how equal representation in government is across the genders. And they have correlated this with gender features in the language, just like the ones you were talking about. And they suggest that differences across languages do, in fact, predict some of these measures of gender equality across countries.


VEDANTAM: I understand there’s been some work looking at children and that children who speak certain languages are actually quicker to identify gender and their own gender than children who are learning other languages in other cultures.


BORODITSKY: Yeah, that’s true. So there are these wonderful studies by Alexander Giora where he asked kids learning Finnish, English and Hebrew as their first languages basically, are you a boy or a girl? This takes kids a little while to figure out, and he had all kinds of clever ways to ask these questions. For example, he might take a bunch of pictures of boys and girls and sort them and say, OK, this is a boy. It goes in this pile. And a girl goes in this pile. And then he would take a Polaroid of the kid and say, well, this is you. Which pile do you go in, right? And what he found was kids who were learning Hebrew – this is a language that has a lot of gender loading in it – figured out whether they were a boy or a girl about a year sooner than kids learning Finnish, which doesn’t have a lot of gender marking in the language. Of course, eventually, the Finnish kids also figured it out because language isn’t the only source of that information, otherwise it would be quite surprising for the Finns to be able to continue to reproduce themselves. But somehow they’ve managed, not just by randomly bumping into each other. But it’s a lovely example of how language can guide you to discover something about the world that might take you longer to discover if you didn’t have that information in language.


VEDANTAM: Languages seem to have different ways of communicating agency. So in English, I might say that Sam (ph) broke the flute. But I understand that in Spanish, this would come out quite differently.


BORODITSKY: Yeah. Lots of languages make a distinction between things that are accidents and things that are intentional actions. So for example, if Sam grabbed a hammer and struck the flute in anger, that would be one description, like, Sam broke the flute. But if he just bumped into the table, and it happened to fall off the table and break, and it was an accident, then you might be more likely to say, the flute broke, or the flute broke itself, or it so happened to Sam that the flute broke. You would give a different description to mark that it was not intentional.


In English, actually, quite weirdly, we can even say things like, I broke my arm. Now, in a lot of languages, you can’t say that because unless you were crazy, and you went out looking to break your arm, and you succeeded – right? – you would have to say something like, my arm got broken, or it so happened to me that my arm is broken. It’s not something that you typically go out trying to do intentionally. And there are consequences for how people think about events, what they notice when they see accidents.


So for example, English speakers, because they’re very likely to say, he did it or someone did it, they are very good at remembering who did it, even if it’s an accident. Whereas speakers of a language like Spanish might not be quite as good at remembering who did it when it’s an accident, but they’re better at remembering that it was an accident. So you have speakers of two different languages look at the same event and come away with different memories of what happened because of the structure of their languages and the way they would normally describe them.


VEDANTAM: Around the world, we often hear that many languages are dying, and there are a few megalanguages that are growing and expanding in all kinds of ways. What do you think the implications are – if you buy the idea that languages are a very specific and unique way of seeing the world, of perceiving reality, what are the implications of so many languages disappearing during our time?


BORODITSKY: Well, I think it’s a terrible tragedy. Each language comprises the ideas that have been worked out in a culture over thousands of generations, and that is an incredible amount of cultural heritage and complexity of thought that disappears whenever a language dies. And MIT linguist Ken Hale, who’s a renowned linguist, said that every time a language dies, it’s the equivalent of a bomb being dropped on the Louvre. That’s how much cultural heritage is lost. And some people would say it’s a lot more because it’s, you know, irrecoverable and not reduplicated elsewhere. And there are all kinds of interesting, useful, eye-opening ideas that exist in all of the world’s languages. So I think it’s an incredible tragedy that we’re losing all of this linguistic diversity, all of this cultural diversity because it is human heritage. It’s testament to the incredible ingenuity and complexity of the human mind that all of these different perspectives on the world have been invented. And it’s sad that we’re not going to be able to make use of them and learn them and celebrate them.


VEDANTAM: Lera Boroditsky is a cognitive science professor at the University of California, San Diego. Lera, thank you so much for joining me on HIDDEN BRAIN today.


BORODITSKY: Thank you so much for having me.




VEDANTAM: If you have teenagers or work closely with young people, chances are you’ll be mystified by their conversations or even annoyed. Young people have always used language in new and different ways, and it’s pretty much always driven older people crazy. All of the likes and, like, literallies (ph) might sometimes grate on your nerves, but John McWhorter says the problem might be with you, not with the way other people speak. John is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He’s also the author of the book, “Words On The Move: Why English Won’t – And Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally).”


John McWhorter, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.




VEDANTAM: Many of us have dictionaries at home or at work, John. And you say that dictionaries in some ways paint an unrealistic portrait of a language. They give us a sense that the meanings of words are fixed, when in fact they’re not.


MCWHORTER: Yeah. Dictionaries are wonderful things, but they create an illusion that there’s such thing as a language that stands still, when really it’s the nature of human language to change. Each generation hears things and interprets things slightly differently from the previous one. And, I mean, just in terms of even sounds changing and the way that you put words together changing bit by bit, and there’s never been a language that didn’t do that.


VEDANTAM: I love this analogy you have in the book where you mention how, you know, thinking that a word has only one meaning is like looking at a snapshot taken at one point in a person’s life and saying this photograph represents the entirety of what this person looks like.


MCWHORTER: Exactly. It’s as if you saw a person – I’m not going to say at 4 because then the person is growing up, and if I use that analogy then it seems like I’m saying that language grows up or it moves toward something or it develops. Imagine you meet somebody, they’re 39 and you take their picture. And then 10 years later when they’re 49, you say, well, that picture of you at 39 is what you really are and whatever’s happened to you since then is some sort of disaster or something that shouldn’t have happened. How come you aren’t exactly the way you were 10 years ago? That’s the way words are, too. But it’s so hard to feel that partly because our brains are on writing, as I say in the book. We can’t help, as literate people, thinking that the real language is something that sits still with letters written all nice and pretty on a page that can exist for hundreds of years, but that’s not what language has ever been. Only a couple hundred languages – or if you want to be conservative about it, a hundred languages – are written in any real way and then there are 6,800 others. Language is something that’s spoken, and spoken language especially always keeps changing. It’s inherent.


VEDANTAM: One of the points you make in the book of course is that the evolution of words and their meanings is what gives us this flowering of hundreds or thousands of languages. Mistakes and errors are what turned Latin into French.


MCWHORTER: Yes, that’s exactly true. What we think of today as a word undergoing some odd development or people using some new construction is exactly how Latin turned into French. It’s exactly how old English turned into modern English. And I don’t think any of us are thinking that it’s a shame that we’re not using the language of Beowulf. So I think that nobody would say that they don’t think language should change. But what most people mean is that there’ll be slang, that there’ll be new words for new things and that some of those words will probably come from other languages. But I don’t think that it’s always clear to us that language has to change in that things are going to come in that we’re going to hear as intrusions or as irritating or as mistakes, despite the fact that that’s how you get from, say, old Persian to modern Persian. And nobody wishes that we hadn’t developed our modern languages today from the ancient versions.


VEDANTAM: I want to talk in the second half of our conversation about why the meanings of words change, but I want to start by talking about how they change. Let’s start with the word literally. It turns out, as you point out, that in common usage, literally literally means the opposite of literally.




JERRY SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) The second button literally makes or breaks the shirt. Look at it. It’s too high.




ROB LOWE: (As Chris Traeger) Dr. Harris, you are literally the meanest person I have ever met.




JOE BIDEN: In the first days, literally the first days…


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Literally stood…




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: We’re literally making…


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: We’re literally on the verge…


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Not figuratively, it’s literally…


MCWHORTER: Yeah. And it irritates people, but there’s a different way of seeing literally. If you take literally in what we can think of as its earliest meaning, the earliest meaning known to us is by the letter. And so somebody says something literally, somebody takes a point literally. Well, if you have a word like that and if it’s an intensifier of that kind, you can almost guess that literally is going to come to mean something more like just really. So what happens is that once literally comes to feel like it means really, people start using it in figurative constructions such as I was literally dying of thirst. Now, many people hear that and they think, well, that’s no good because now literally can mean its opposite. But we have plenty of words like that in English where it doesn’t bother us at all. For example, if you take seeds and put them in the ground, that’s one thing. But if you seed a watermelon, nobody assumes that you’re taking seeds and putting them in the watermelon, you’re taking them out.


VEDANTAM: (Laughter).


MCWHORTER: Those are called contronyms, and literally has become a new contronym. It should be thought of as fun.


VEDANTAM: One of the things I found really interesting is that the evolution of words and language is constant. So new words are as likely to evolve as old ones. So LOL was an internet abbreviation meaning laugh out loud or laughing out loud, but LOL in common usage today doesn’t necessarily mean hysterical laughter.


MCWHORTER: No, because LOL was an expression; it was a piece of language, and so you knew that its meaning was going to change. The only question was in which way. And it ended up becoming less a direct reflection of hearty laughter than an indication of the kind of almost subconscious laughter that we do in any kind of conversation that’s meant as friendly. It can be almost counterintuitive to listen to how much giggling and laughing you do in ordinary – actually rather plain exchanges with people. It’s part of a general running indication that everything’s OK between you and the other person, just like one’s expected to smile a little bit in most interactions. So LOL starts out as meaning hardy-har-har (ph), but then it becomes something more abstract. But the reason that it seems so elusive is because we don’t really think about the, quote, unquote, “meaning” of things like our conversation-easing laughter.




VEDANTAM: As someone who spends a lot of his time listening to language evolve, John hears a lot of slang. He’s a defender of language on the move, but I wanted to know if there were things that irritated even him.


MCWHORTER: Oh, yeah, I’m a human being. And so even though I insist that there is no scientific basis for rejecting some new word or some new meaning or some new construction, I certainly have my visceral biases. And so, for example, can I get a hamburger? Can I get some chicken? I’ve always found that a very grating way to ask for something at a store. It seems kind of elliptical, like, would it be possible that I obtained? And then if you are going to be that elliptical, why use the casual word get? And it sounds a little bit abrupt and grabby like you’re going to get something instead of being given. All of these are very subjective things. It’s not necessarily may I please have, but may I have, I’ll have, but not can I get a. I find it just vulgar for reasons that as you can see I can’t even do what I would call defending. It’s just how I feel. And we’re all going to have feelings like that. And when I listen to people having their peeves, I don’t think, stop it. But what I am thinking is, you should realize that even if you don’t like it, there’s nothing wrong with it in the long run because, for example, Jonathan Swift didn’t like it that people were saying kissed instead of kiss-ed (ph) and rebuked instead of rebuk-ed (ph). He didn’t like that people were shortening the words. How does that sound now? We don’t want to be like that.


VEDANTAM: (Laughter) All right, I think it might be time for me to confess one of my pet peeves. It has to do with the word momentarily. Growing up, I understood this word to mean for a very short time, as in John McWhorter was momentarily surprised. But I find that people now usually use the word to mean very soon, as in we’re going to board the plane momentarily. The dictionary says both uses are correct. But, you know, John, something gnaws at me every time I hear the word used wrong. And after listening to you, I realize I might have to finally give in. When we come back, I’m going to ask you about why languages change and whether there are hidden rules that shape why some words are more likely to evolve than others. We’ll be back momentarily.


MCWHORTER: (Laughter).


VEDANTAM: Stay with us.




VEDANTAM: I’m Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I’m Shankar Vedantam. If you’re just joining us, I’m talking to John McWhorter. He’s a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of the book “Words On The Move: Why English Won’t – And Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally).”


John, you’ve noted that humans have been using language for a very long time, but for most of that time language has been about talking. Writing has come along relatively recently. Are the spoken origins of language one reason that words so often seem to be on the move?


MCWHORTER: Yes, Shankar, that’s exactly it. Language as it evolved was just talking to an extent that can be very hard for we literate people to imagine. There was no way of transcribing an approximation of what people said and nobody would have thought of doing it. Language was talk. When language was like that, of course it changed a lot – fast – because once you said it, it was gone. And if people heard the sounds a little differently and produced them a little differently, if there were new meanings of words – very quickly whatever the original meaning was wouldn’t be remembered. There was no such thing as looking up what it originally meant. And so language changed just like the clouds in the sky. But then you start writing things down and you’re in a whole new land because once things are sitting there written on that piece of paper, there’s that illusion. And it really is an illusion that what language is, is something that sits still. There’s a way of speaking right. And the way you speak right is not by speaking the way that people around you in your life speak, but by speaking the way the language is as it sits there all nice and pretty on that piece of paper where its reality exists.


VEDANTAM: Would it be possible to use what we have learned about how words and languages evolve to potentially write what a dictionary might look like in 50 years or a hundred years?


MCWHORTER: You could have fun doing such a thing. The fact is that language change can always go in one of many directions, there’s a chance element to it. So you can’t know how the words are going to come out, but you can take good guesses. You know, endings are going to tend to drop off. So if you took a bunch of those tendencies, you could make up, say, the English of 50 years from now, but some of the things would just be complete chance. You would never know, for example, that – give you an example I’ve actually been thinking about. Women under about 30 in the United States, when they’re excited or they’re trying to underline a point, putting uh at the end of things. And so somebody will say, well, who was it who you thought was going to give you this present? You-uh (ph). And, I mean, really, it sounds exactly like that. I know-uh (ph) is there, or something along the lines of babe-uh (ph).


And as odd as that sounds, I can guarantee you if you watch any TV show with women under a certain age or if you just go out on an American street and listen, you’ll find that that’s a new kind of exclamatory particle. That is the most random thing. And I would really guess that in a few decades men will be doing it, too. Those sorts things tend to start with women. You couldn’t have predicted this I know-uh move-uh (ph). You can’t know, but you can certainly know that if could listen to people 50 years from now, they’d sound odd. Something new will have started by then, just like if we listen to people in 1971, they sound odd in that they don’t say like as much as we do. That hadn’t started then. Imagine how we would sound to them if they could hear us.




UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) If you’re so upset about it, maybe you can think of a way to help her.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Right. You know, lots of people blow off steam about something they think is wrong, but very few people are willing to get involved and do something about it.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I’m willing to get involved.


VEDANTAM: So all this raises a really interesting question. You know, we spend years teaching children about how to use language correctly. As someone who works in media, I often find that people who can write well are often people who know how to think well, so I often equate clarity of writing with clarity of thought. How do you balance the imperative of teaching correct usage? Which I think is probably important with the reality that this edifice that you’re teaching is constantly crumbling.


MCWHORTER: It’s a matter of fashion, pure and simple. People do need to be taught what the socially acceptable forms are. But what we should teach is not that the good way is logical and the way that you’re comfortable doing it is illogical. It should just be, here is the natural way, then there’s some things that you’re supposed to do in public because that’s the way it is, whether it’s fair or not. And you can even teach people to have a little bit of fun with the artifice. But it’s exactly like – it was maybe about 20 years ago that somebody – a girlfriend I had told me that if I wore pants that had little vertical pleats up near the waist, then I was conveying that I was kind of past it. That was somehow a dad’s fashion, and that I should start wearing flat-fronted pants. That is utterly arbitrary that those little slits in American society look elderly, but for various chance reasons, that’s what those slits came to mean, so I started wearing flat-fronted pants.


That is exactly why you should say fewer books instead of less books in some situations and, yes, Billy and I went to the store rather than the perfectly natural Billy and me went to the store. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. But I think that we should learn not to listen to people using natural language as committing errors because there’s no such thing as making a mistake in your language if a critical mass of other people speaking your language are doing the same thing.


VEDANTAM: You make the case that concerns over the misuse of language might actually be one of the last places where people can publicly express prejudice and class differences. And as you point out, it’s not just that people feel that a word is being misused. They often feel angry about it, and you think this anger is actually telling.


MCWHORTER: Yeah, I really do. I think that the tone that many people use when they’re complaining that somebody says Billy and me went to the store is a little bit incommensurate with the significance of the issue. And I can’t help surmising that part of it is that the educated American has been taught and often well that you’re not supposed to look down on people because of gender, because of race, because of ability. But might we allow that there’s probably a part of all human beings that wants to look down on somebody else. What a cynical thing to say, but that doesn’t mean that it might not be true. And if that is true, then the educated person can look down on people who say Billy and me went to the store or who are using literally, quote, unquote, “wrong” and condemn them in the kinds of terms that once were ordinary for condemning black people or women or what have you. So I just think that it’s something we need to check ourselves for. It might irritate you slightly to hear somebody say something like, I need less books instead of fewer books. But does a person who says that really deserve the kind of sneering condemnation that you often see? There’s a lowlier part of our nature that grammar allows us to vent in the absence of other ways to do it that have not been available for some decades for a lot of us.


VEDANTAM: One of the ultimate messages I took from your work is that, you know, we can choose to have languages that are alive or languages that are dead. And dead languages never change, and some of us might prefer those. But if you prefer life – the unpredictability of life – then living language in many ways are much more fun.


MCWHORTER: Language is a parade, and nobody sits at a parade wishing that everybody would stand still. If the language stayed the way it was, it would be like a pressed flower in a book or, as I say, I think it would be like some inflatable doll rather than a person. I think that it’s better to think of language as a parade that either you’re watching, or frankly, that you’re in, especially because the people are never going to stand still. It’s never happened. It’s never going to. And if you can enjoy it as a parade instead of wondering why people keep walking instead of just sitting on chairs and blowing on their tubas and not moving, then you have more fun. I want everybody to have the fun I’m having.




VEDANTAM: John McWhorter, thank you so much for joining me on HIDDEN BRAIN today.


MCWHORTER: Thank you for having me, Shankar.


VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Rhaina Cohen, Maggie Penman and Thomas Lu with help from Renee Klahr, Jenny Schmidt, Parth Shah and Chloe Connelly. Our team includes Laura Kwerel, Adhiti Bandlamudi and our supervising producer Tara Boyle. Special thanks to Adam Cole, who wrote and performed our rendition of “The Hokey Pokey.” I’m Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.



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