October 19, 2016
“English is not going to the dogs.”
Simply put, that was the overall message delivered by Dr. John McWhorter, the featured speaker for ASU’s 2016 E. James Holland University Symposium on American Values.
A native of Philadelphia, McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, a linguist and a best-selling author. During his afternoon keynote address, “Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally),” and evening question-and-answer session, he discussed the constant change and evolution of language, as well as how that change is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Language is always morphing, just like a clump in a lava lamp,” McWhorter said. “You don’t look at the clump and say that the way it is tomorrow night is worse than it is now. It’s always different—a language is like a lava lamp in that way. We are trained to hear the way English changes as some kind of degradation because we don’t quite understand that any language always changes, no matter what.”
McWhorter also compared language to cloud patterns, stating that if cloud patterns remained exactly the same, we would find it strange, and the same can be said about language. Using analogies about works by Shakespeare and the changes in what is known as “slang language,” he guided students and community members through his presentations, showing how words have changed over hundreds of years.
“It’s not that language is getting any worse or better, so there is nothing to worry about,” McWhorter said. “Here in the modern world, we think we need to keep language the same. That’s an understandable idea, but no language could ever really stay the same. I try to just say that language always changes, and here’s the evidence in the language you are hearing.”
“We are trained to hear the way English changes as some kind of degradation because we don’t quite understand that any language always changes, no matter what.”
In addition to his symposium sessions, McWhorter spoke to both campus and public guests at dinner events and informal receptions on campus, had a private lunch with members of the ASU Honors Program and visited with several ASU classes.
“At a university,” he said, “there is a finite number of people working on various subjects. When somebody is brought in from the outside, that’s your chance to hear a new perspective or to develop an interest in something that you hadn’t had an interest in before. In our times, you can get a good dose of a person from another place with channels like TED Talks and YouTube, but there is something about being live.”
“You never know what inspirations are going to come from attending something where you’re not quite sure what’s coming,” he added. “My ideal for this symposium would be if every student understood that language change is inevitable and fun; that none of the students would walk away thinking the way ‘such and such’ is said is wrong. We are living at a particular time slice of a process of eternal transformation. So listen to language in a new way, and enjoy it.”