Words on the Move

Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally)
Narrated by: John McWhorter
Length: 7 hrs and 2 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (1,075 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A best-selling linguist takes us on a lively tour of how the English language is evolving before our eyes - and why we should embrace this transformation and not fight it.

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, as John McWhorter shows in this delightful and eye-opening exploration of how English has always been in motion and continues to evolve today. Drawing examples from everyday life and employing a generous helping of humor, he shows that these shifts are a natural process common to all languages and that we should embrace and appreciate these changes, not condemn them.

Words on the Move opens our eyes to the surprising backstories to the words and expressions we use every day. 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?

McWhorter encourages us to marvel at the dynamism and resilience of the English language, and his book offers a lively journey through which we discover that words are ever on the move, and our lives are all the richer for it.

©2016 John H. McWhorter (P)2016 Audible, Inc.

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    4 out of 5 stars

McWhorter Explores Language

I really enjoy listening to John McWhorter's books and lectures. This book was well narrated and contained many fascinating facts about language, which I appreciate. John McWhorter's narrations are pleasant to listen to and consistently bring the subject covered to life.

The only negative comment that I can make is that I found the chapters lacking in clear organization. I felt they were not crisply themed and were a little rambling to follow. I did not enjoy that aspect of this book. However, that said, Words on the Move contained a good deal of engaging and helpful information. Speaking in defense of the slightly rambling organization, I might say that for some that style might evoke a conversational and informal feeling.

This book did not disappoint, overall. Even with the above noted limitations or really quibbles I enjoyed the book so much that I finished it at a much faster rate than normal. Recommended if you like reading about linguistics and how language changes over time.

10 people found this helpful

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Literally A Great Listen

John McWhorter has an knack for explaining linguistic concepts engagingly. This time, he's focusing on how language changes over time--words changing meaning and pronunciation.

In a relatively short book, the reader/listener learns quite a bit. I also learned to relax a bit about the "right" way to say things. It still jars me to hear someone say, "I literally died!," but I don't get so irritated (or even aggravated).

The subject matter lends itself perfectly to the audio-book format, and McWhorter's narration is clear and enjoyable. I read some of the book, but it was so good to listen to that I didn't skip ahead after reading--I listened to the same parts that I had just read.

43 people found this helpful

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Review By a Fan

I follow Prof. McWhorter--listen to his books, watch his Ted Talks; if he were to give a lecture in my town, I'd buy a ticket. He has several themes he returns to over and over again: that languages evolve, that English is not spoken correctly vs. incorrectly, but in dialects, the effect of texting on the language and so on. He hits them again in Words on the Move.

Some people might eventually find this slightly repetitive, but not me. I like his jokes, his anecdotes and--occasionally--his total goofy nerdiness. (His comprehensive knowledge of vintage sit coms, for example.) So I'm giving this five stars because I enjoy all of the above. If you don't, you'll still like the book, but you may not feel motivated to award five stars. I totally get that. You do you, I do me...

Recommend.

53 people found this helpful

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Listening is better

The author/narrator pronounces the subtleties of language so well and so interestingly that I cannot imagine the printed page could capture the experience. His delivery is delightful, his content is marvelous.

32 people found this helpful

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Funny and insightful. Some material reused.

Entertaining and informative material and great reading as expected, but there's a fair amount of overlap in material with McWhorter's previous books and Lexicon Valley podcast, and it's a bit shallower than his previous books. Wouldn't get it in hard-cover, but the audio format is worth it.

37 people found this helpful

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For Word Lovers

The author provides great examples of the depth of meaning that words can have. For example, "well, frankly no" has a different meaning than "frankly no" and "he didn't even bring a gift" is different from "he didn't bring a gift." A non-native English speaker may not understand why one word gives the sentence a different meaning. In fact, an English speaker might find it hard to explain what that one word means in those sentences. Word usage is changing as we speak. LOL used to mean laughing out loud - a text so funny that you're letting the recipient know you're literally laughing. Now, LOL = chuckle = haha = amusing, but rarely does it actually mean laughing. These things make you think, "Hum, I've not thought about that before. Interesting."

16 people found this helpful

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Best to listen to, not read, this book

For those who are familiar with - and enjoy - McWhorter's lectures on Great Courses, you will want to listen to all his quirky tangents, fun affected accents, and crucial pronunciations. Trying to get all of this from the written page wouldn't work in my opinion. And the limits of written language is, like, one of his points. Found the content very interesting, but I am not a linguist and am not in position to judge the validity, novelty, etc. Certainly a fun listen though.

21 people found this helpful

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Like I'm a language dork

I so like John McWhoter's take on language and how it changes. It always beautiful or fascinating and never wrong.

It might not be practical but I sure enjoyed it.

13 people found this helpful

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Accessible Textbook

If you're a student of the English language, and I mean a serious student, you'll likely find this fascinating. John McWhorter offers a dazzling level of erudition leavened with wit. If you're not a serious student of the English language, and listening to this confirmed that I'm not, then it's much too academic despite his stabs at humor. Here's a summary: words and grammar move and change and this can't be stopped nor do we want it to stop. If he says this once he says it 500 times. I was grinding through the book in spite of its density until the chapter on how vowels have moved in the mouth. Oooo. Just oooo. Too much. Too thick for me. For the rest of you: have at it.

17 people found this helpful

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Another McWhorter Gem

Professor McWhorter remains a lively, humorous, and knowledgeable guide through the linguistic evolution of English. As in his earlier books, he underscores that linguistics, as the study of language, does not decry the ever-changing nature of language -- in fact, it is the erosion, expansion, and transformation of vowels, meaning, and usage that makes such study fascinating. As such, he again stresses that the heart palpitations suffered by some over the "degradation" of language, the proliferation of slang, the ubiquitous use of "like", the use of "incorrect" grammar and the like have nothing to do with linguistics. And moreover, are not rooted in any necessary truths and ignore the history of language. That is, that language is always on the move and won't and can't sit still (as McWhorter declaims in the title).

In exhorting the reader to look to language changes (including changes in meaning and pronunciation) without clutching their pearls, McWhorter uses ample examples of how English has changed over the centuries. As discussed in earlier books, we are shown how Old English morphed into the English used by Shakespeare, and how it continued to change to present day (including how up to 10% of the words used by Shakespeare have changed -- making modern audiences' inability to fully grasp what is being said utterly explicable). The proliferation of the written word helped stabilize the language, but still it evolves over time. In prior books he has had extensive sections explaining how certain consonants are vulnerable to being dropped or morphing into other sounds, and to how vowels change. Here such discussions are more truncated, though he has an entertaining section on how the pronunciation of "bitch" has morphed to "betch" in certain areas of California. Between changing pronunciations (with explain many of the bizarre spellings of words in English that seem to bear no resemblance to how we say them) and changing meanings, any person feeling aghast at the the changes in English should take a deep breath. Such constant evolution is the rule, not the exception, and much of the effort expended in annoyance would be better served by realizing this is inevitable and necessary.

All in all, McWhorter remains one of my favorite academics, willing to make silly jokes and find the humor in his subject. And pointing out the elitist nature of much of the criticism of language in its present form. Learning more about language and how it grows and transforms over time is nothing short of fascinating, and well worth any person's time.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Kira Adams
  • 08-30-19

Good but not as good as the Great Courses

I have listened to all of John McWhorter’s Great Courses recordings, so naturally I was drawn to this audiobook. And while it was good, detailing the ways in which the English language has been — and forever will be — in a constant state of change, I just found that it wasn’t the same. Maybe it’s just because this book focused on English rather than looking at fascinating little-known languages from around the world, but I found that I already knew a lot of the stuff McWhorter was talking about, so it just wasn’t as stimulating. There was also a notable difference in entertainment value, due to McWhorter reading a book rather than lecturing a live audience, so it didn’t have the same variety of jokes and wacky voices (although his “snooty dowager” and “pedantic nerd” voices do make brief cameos.)

Overall, this book was still decent, and it’s always nice to listen to John McWhorter talk about a subject he loves. But if you haven’t listened to all of his Great Courses, pick one of those instead as they are funnier and more interesting.

1 person found this helpful