The Secret Lives of Words – John McWhorter

The other day, I was skimming through the New York Times’s opinion piece column when I found an absolute gem of an article titled The Secret Lives of Words, written by Columbia University linguist John McWhorter. Today, I’d like to share McWhorter’s insights on why old books sometimes feel so incomprehensible, why our policies surrounding language use and documentation may need some correction, and why the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may need reconsideration.

The article begins with McWhorter describing his experience trying to read The Ambassadors, a dark comedy novel published in 1903. The book is considered a word of literary genius, yet its sentences feel odd and clumsy in today’s modern tongue, and even its author, Henry James, once recommended only five pages be read at a time. Logically, McWhorter poses the question: why is such a highly regarded text indecipherable to the eye of the 21st-century reader? The answer is rather interesting.

You see, all words have definitions, and those definitions are constantly shifting, evolving to fit the contexts humans need to use them in or simply becoming more or less popular over time. As psychologist Steven Pinker puts it in The Stuff of Thought, a word’s meaning is nothing more than a set of experiences that we associate with a sound – when those experiences change, the word’s meaning does the same.

For example, McWhorter notes that the word “wonderful” shows up so many times in The Ambassadors that one may think all the characters are about to break out into song. Of course, this is not the case. The discrepancy stems from the differing meanings of “wonderful” now (similar to marvelous) and “wonderful” when the novel was written (full of wonder). This phenomenon is also apparent in two different definitions of “incredible” – awesome (used now) and unable to be believed (used in the book). It is easy to see that when more and more of these words are read differently now than they were at the time of publication, the literary marvel of the story may be reduced in the eyes of all but the most careful readers.

So what does this mean in the larger context of human communication and linguistics? First and foremost, dictionaries lie. That is to say, while much can be learned by memorizing the carefully explained definitions listed next to every word, to attain a true appreciation for the way a language works in any given time period, one must hear the language’s words used in their modern contexts. Whether discussing language-related policy or linguistic analysis of ancient texts, this idea must be kept in mind.

Second, the fluid nature of meanings may shed some insight into a flaw with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. As the way in which we use language to describe the world around us changes, meanings of words change, but the words themselves tend to stay the same. Thus, the notion that a language can dictate a worldview seems to only be applicable if we see the language as a frozen document in which every word plays an important, unchanging role. For example, Thai speakers use the same word to describe tables and eels, and Mandarin speakers use different words, but going against the predictions of linguistic relativity, Thai speakers do not describe tables and eels as being any more similar to each other than do their Mandarin-speaking counterparts. The meanings of the describing words became irrelevant, yet the words remained as a grammatical necessity, elements of language that seem to have no impact on how its speakers see the world.

If these ideas have sparked your interest, I highly recommend you check out Professor McWhorter’s full article here:

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