AIF Blog

Language Evolution: John McWhorter’s Argument for Rewriting Shakespeare

Jan 10, 2019
CATEGORY: Society, Arts
John McWhorter is a professor of English, comparative literature, and linguistics at Columbia University, and author of the book "Words on the Move." He spoke with Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen at Aspen Ideas.
In his posthumous treatise on language, Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods.” 
It is certainly a city that John McWhorter would feel at home in. McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, focuses much of his recent work on the ever-changing English language. His newest book, Words on the Move, is an homage to its dizzying, miraculous evolution. He sat down with renowned linguist Deborah Tannen at the Aspen Ideas Festival to talk about words, the way they move, and why language evolution matters.
"A word is not just a thing sitting in a dictionary. A dictionary is just a polaroid snapshot. It’s an artificial thing," McWhorter explained. 
Even words used 125 years ago are nearly unrecognizable in their original use. “There are word meanings that [Herman] Melville indulges in that are subtly different from ours. He’ll talk about something being fantastic. But the idea that we have of fantastic—as in something being marvelous or great—doesn’t quite work, because what fantastic meant then was someone given to fantasies.” 
Or consider the last 50 years. In a shift largely led by young people, the word "ass" has become a suffix of sorts—an evolution McWhorter finds equal parts confusing and delightful. He sees it as an indication of a level of unexpectedness, of something that is not what it might seem. Upon reaching for cooking utensils that are too small, his friend might say, "You’ll need a big-ass pot to cook all this pasta."
His examples provoked hearty laughter from the audience. Surprisingly, the profanity was not the most polarizing of McWhorter's arguments. The book’s chapter that has received the most complaints, he said, includes his proposition that Shakespeare be rewritten in modern English. 
"I have seen The Tempest three times. I’ll openly admit I had no blessed idea what was going on. The reason Shakespeare is so difficult isn’t because we don’t know the words, but because so many of the words’ meanings changed. Generous doesn’t mean magnanimous. It means noble in Shakespeare."
Throughout McWhorter’s discussion with Tannen, he returned to the inevitability of the evolution of language. "It’s illogical to resist language change...
Language is like clouds: if the clouds are in the same position as they were when we came in, something is wrong. You expect them to move."
When you think you hear mistakes in modern English, McWhorter suggests re-examining the usage. Perhaps you groan at Silicon Valley jargon that has made the verb "follow" a noun, and "architect" a verb. English speakers 100 years ago might roll their eyes at the way words like copy, view, and sleep are used as verbs today, says McWhorter. (They used to be exclusively used as nouns.)
McWhorter says we lose something powerful when vernacular English is discouraged—when we teach our children not to use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or southern vernacular English, or anything not considered standard. "Language is power. Vernacular is power," he says.
"Part of the reason Mitt Romney isn’t president is because of the way he doesn’t talk. Part of the reason Obama became president, just part, is because he can strike a note."
The views and opinions of the speakers in the blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.
Written by Hadley Stack, public programs intern at the Aspen Institute
Related speakers: