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A podcast about language, with host John McWhorter.


Episode Date
The Rodney Dangerfield Pronoun
Comedian Rodney Dangerfield was fond of introducing jokes with a kind of redundancy, for example: “My wife, she told me I was one in a million. I found out she was right.” But those seemingly superfluous pronouns are filled with promise. John explains.

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This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Sep 28, 2022
Is Negro a Slur or Just Antiquated?
The racial reckoning of the past several years has altered the way we think about and use language, often for better but occasionally for worse. And sometimes, as John explains in this episode, what we tend to believe is at odds with what is most likely true.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Sep 13, 2022
One Is the Loneliest Number
Only, lonely, alone and even atone all derive from the number one, which, by the way, wasn’t always pronounced as if it began with the letter w. John explains.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Aug 31, 2022
Throw Up, Turn Out & Believe
Words like chit-chat, pitter-patter and wishy-washy are formed that way for a reason beyond the pleasing way that they sound. The vowel change actually signifies something more meaningful to our human way of thinking. John explains.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Aug 16, 2022
Why Fidget Poppers Are "Satisfying"
What does the proliferation of so-called ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos say about the nuanced use of the word satisfying? John explains.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Aug 02, 2022
Why Do We Dot Our i's?
As a guest on The Late Show, John told Stephen Colbert that there was nothing especially interesting to say about the word I. Well, he takes that back — there is, it turns out, much to say. Have a listen.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Jul 19, 2022
You Are SO Articulate. Really.
Do you remember learning — in grade school most likely — the difference between a count noun and a mass noun? Probably not, and yet chances are that you use them correctly. That’s because you’ve mastered your native language. John explains.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Jul 06, 2022
When Words Collide
We are frequently asked — often by young listeners who are fascinated by language — how English could possibly accumulate the many thousands of words that make up its vast vocabulary. It’s a topic that’s just too fun not to revisit now and again.

Please follow us on Twitter (@lexiconvalley) and leave a rating and/or review on Apple’s Podcasts app. Also, if you have a question that you’d like John to answer in his biweekly Q&A column, then send it along to BooksmartStudios@gmail.com. Thanks so much!

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Jun 22, 2022
The Haphazard History of C
Hi Valley residents! It's Bob Garfield, former LV host, begging asking you to subscribe to my Bully Pulpit column at bullypulpit.substack.com. It's free, unless you wish to be a paid subscriber, for which you receive not a single extra bonus but the satisfaction of helping to keep my work going and my voice in the world. Either way, I'd be honored and delighted to have you aboard. Meanwhile, check out my most recent installment, in which I share Some Personal News and announce my retirement from radio/podcasting.

And now, back to the Valley …

The letters C and K can both represent what we might call a Hard C — as in Cosmo Kramer or Calvin Klein. Not to mention Q, which usually indicates that same sound. Why does the English alphabet have this confusing redundancy? John explains.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Jun 07, 2022
JFK's Most Famous Sentence
On Jan. 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered — to an audience seated both outside at the U.S. Capitol and at home in front of their televisions — his inaugural address. Millions were stirred that afternoon by the rousing line: And so, my fellow Americans — ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. Every part of that exhortation, as John McWhorter explains, is a fascinating linguistic lesson.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
May 25, 2022
The Evolution of 'Woke'
What does it mean to be woke? Has the word problematic become problematic? Today in the Valley, John McWhorter talks with Banished host Amna Khalid about the fraught vocabulary of modern censorship.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
May 10, 2022
Reviving Dead Languages
More than half the world’s approximately 7,000 languages will have no speakers left in the coming decades. Some are working feverishly to preserve or maintain them. Others are asking: Why bother? John explains.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Apr 28, 2022
Let Sleeping Dogs Lay
Do you know that the past participle of the intransitive verb lie is lain and that its past tense is lay, not to be confused with the present tense of the transitive verb lay? Oh, and do you know that no one really cares if you use them all correctly? John explains.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Apr 12, 2022
Bonus: How Did Nigeria Get Its Name?
You might guess that Nigeria and Niger derive their names from the Latin word for “black,” especially since both countries were formerly colonized by Europeans. Guess again. John explains.

Bonus segments are normally for paying subscribers only, but we’re making this week’s free for all! To support my work, please consider becoming paying subscriber.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Apr 09, 2022
Where Is the Name Ketanji From?
President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee has said that her parents picked “Ketanji” from a list of West African names supplied by a relative. But West Africans speak hundreds of languages spread out across many hundreds of miles. Can we get more specific?

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Mar 29, 2022
The Ukrainian Language
As John likes to say, Proto-Indo-European — the original ancestor of many European and Asian languages — began on the steppes of Ukraine. This is his linguistic love letter to a region and a people under siege.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Mar 15, 2022
How About This Weather?
To describe inclement weather in English, we might say that “it” is raining, which seems natural to a native speaker. But does “it” refer to the sky, the outdoors, the god of precipitation? Maybe it’s not so natural after all. In fact, many languages do weather quite differently.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Mar 01, 2022
Joe Rogan and the N-Word, by Way of Kyiv
You may have noticed, among widespread coverage of looming Russian aggression, an unfamiliar pronunciation of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. What’s with the name change? And what does it have to do with Joe Rogan’s use of the N-word? John McWhorter explains.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Feb 15, 2022
Son of a B***h on a Hot Mic
A hot mic caught President Biden using the epithet to describe a Fox News reporter. Where did “son of a b***h” come from, and why are modern speakers increasingly choosing other insults?

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Feb 01, 2022
RIP: Sidney Poitier, Lani Guinier, Max Julien
Actors Sidney Poitier and Max Julien and law professor Lani Guinier — all of whom died this month — have last names that reveal fascinating stories about pronunciation, etymology and language change.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Jan 18, 2022
300 Years of Language Peevery
Self-styled language experts — and let’s face it, that includes all of us — have lamented the decline of English for centuries. From shifting pronunciations to newfangled words to evolving grammar, everyone from Jonathan Swift to John McWhorter has a pet peeve or two. What’s yours?

Happy New Year! In the warm and generous spirit of the holidays, we’re offering 30% off a subscription to Booksmart Studios until the end of the year. You’ll get extra written content and access to bonus segments and written transcripts like this one. More importantly, you’ll be championing all the work we do here. Become a member of Booksmart Studios today. Thank you for your support.


JOHN McWHORTER: From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and yeah, Christmas. A Christmas show, a show about Christmas words, but do you really want that? Think about it: “Here's where the word Christmas comes from, and there it went.” “What's the etymology of tinsel?” Do you really? I don't really, but I know that, well, Christmas did happen and podcasters are supposed to do this and so what I will do is: There are these albums, real albums. Well, not exactly real, but this is the era of the LP. And the Firestone Tire Company used to put out these Christmas Carol LPs to make you buy Firestone tires. This was back in the mid 60s, and my parents had some of the Firestone Tire LPs. They had beautiful covers. They look like, you know, classic Rudolph Christmas presents. And for people of a certain age — and I'll admit that I am at that point — the Firestone Christmas albums somehow often come off as what Christmas, as in tacky American Madison Avenue Christmas, is all about, at least sonically. 

And my favorite cut from the ones of those that I have had forever — this is what I remember my parents playing in the late 60s, early 70s, Charlie Brown Christmas, The Energy Crisis, and Firestone Christmas LPs — was Gordon McRae — yes, Gordon MacRae from the film of Carousel, etc. He's always pulling up his pants to show that he's masculine. Gordon MacRae, who was all over the variety shows back then, he's singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and he's trying to sound what they would have called in 1965, soulful. This cut is both bad for the reasons you'll completely understand, but also good. It's actually kind of a good arrangement, and Gordon is trying his best and I play this in my home every Christmas season. People who know me are familiar with it. This is Go Tell It with Gordon 1965. Here we go. 

[“Go Tell It On the Mountain” sung by Gordon MacRae]

So a little Christmas, okay. But, you know, I don't feel like doing a Christmas show; I just want to do some stuff. And what I've been thinking about lately, just randomly, is how utterly — talk about random — how utterly random people's linguistic pet peeves always seem, about ten minutes, literally, maybe, you know, five generations after they put them forth. You see it throughout history. And I want to share that with you because you really have to see how brilliant people have these notions about what they just don't like and feel like there's some authority behind it, and I can't pretend that I'm not one of those people sometimes. And yet you read these people later and they sound so — well, you know — and so I just want to give you some examples. We're going to go through some history very quickly. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, a wise person. It's 1712, when he writes a piece called A Proposal for Correcting and Proving and Ascertaining the English Tongue. (I'm not sure what that “ascertaining” means, but you know, the meanings of words change, you know, as Justice Scalia liked to show us.) 

So A Proposal for Correcting and Proving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, and Swift had a problem with the way people were beginning to speak English, which seems so deliciously, deliciously quaint today. Here's what he said: “What does Your Lordship think of the Words, Drudg'd, Disturb'd, Rebuk't, Fledg'd, and a thousand others, every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse? Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable” — in other words, drudged, disturbed, rebuked, fledged. He thought they should be drudg-ed, disturb-ed, rebuk-ed and fledg-ed, like we say bless-ed. So: “Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.” That's what he said. So he didn't like that people were leaving out the E sound in the past tense or past participle forms. So not disturbed, but disturb-ed. Not full fledged, but you're supposed to say full fledg-ed. You wonder why you say bless-ed now? It's because that's the way it was pronounced at a certain time. Here is Swift kind of straddling the errors, where you could say disturb-ed or disturbed; he thinks disturbed is slangy. “And a thousand others every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse,” he doesn't like what he's hearing. Can you imagine? Now, of course, very quickly, while he was living, the non-voweled pronunciations were becoming the standard, except in the occasional example of one of the verbs where the old pronunciation stayed when you're being kind of quaint. 

So: “he was blessed with an ability to do math very quickly.” You don't say “he was bless-ed” with the ability,” but “oh, well I am a bless-ed person, etc.” And you're thinking of [hums Amen chord] (that's supposed to be an Amen chord). OK? But generally it's no longer bless-ed and you certainly don't say rebuk-ed. And this is Jonathan Swift, who I think we can agree was quite the brilliant person. He wasn't an idiot. He was one of the smartest people who ever lived. But he didn't like hearing the past tense forms shortened because that was new to him then. 

And yes, I know some of you were thinking: that accent that I did badly, that plummy British accent — that didn't exist when he was writing in 1712. That British accent that we think of as so gorgeous, Stewie Griffin wonderful, that only really came in after 1800. Not to mention that Jonathan Swift was originally Irish, but still the way he wrote, it sounds like it was in that accent. That's my favorite example. So he's thinking that we're supposed to say, “Well, I was disturb-ed” and we're thinking, “No, sorry, Jonathan, it changed, and you must accept it.” But that made perfect sense to him at the time. He thought he was speaking from a mountaintop. That was 1712. 

1762, Robert Lowth. He's a bishop. He's an intellectual. He's a leader. He's British. He's about to be appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury. He's a very important man. He knows many, many things. He knows his Hebrew. He knows his English because he speaks it and of course, Latin and Greek. And in 1762, he writes what he calls A Short Introduction to English Grammar. This was the first classic grammar of English. There had been some before, but this one really got around and it set what people thought of as the proper English, to an extent, forever. There are things in this that we talk about now that really only started with him. But what's interesting about Robert Lowth and the short introduction to English grammar is that if you actually read it — and you should, because it's short, frankly — you know, this is when people have to write things in blood with a quill, so things don't usually get that long unless somebody really is obsessed with something, like Isaac Newton. And so you can read this in, you know, one third of an afternoon and every now and then you run across something that this person said — and it wasn't really that long ago. We're talking about 250 years ago, that is 10 seconds. I mean, people were already writing about this when it was less than 200 years ago. Here's this person, and he has these notions of how one should express oneself that now sound utterly ridiculous. An example: I spit if I must — never understood why some men feel the need to, you know, kind of go and spit on the ground. I've never felt the need to do that, but apparently — I get the feeling most men in the world need to kind of [makes phlegmy sound] spit. No, you take care of it more gracefully, but let's say that you're going to spit. So how did you do it yesterday? You spat. Now, if you're going to make it into a participle:  I have — and you probably pause a little — but it's spat. “I have spoken.” “I have spat.” No; Lowth thought it was spitten. “I have spitten.” Is that what it is? That's what he thought it was. I don't even need to check it out. There were people saying all sorts of things instead of spitten at the time. But he liked spitten. And so for him, it was, “Well, you know what? I have spitten.” And therefore, I have certain authority or vulgarity or something. 

This is even better; a chick, that's one hen or rooster or something. Chicken is two chicks. And so one chick, two, three or four chicken. And if that sounds stupid, remember: ox and oxen? So there are many oxen. Here's a chick [makes odd clucking sounds] whatever they do sound-wise. And then if there are two or three of them, then look at them chicken. That's what Robert Lowth thought. And remember, this is not some middle English from 4,000 years ago. This is like ten minutes ago. And he thinks that chicken is the plural of chick. That's not the way it is now. 

Now it's easy to get from, you know, chick to chicken being one thing. I once had a friend, a very literate friend who had this little problem. Like, I have problems like that. I do not know the difference between bought and brought. I know intellectually, but I cannot do it in fluent speech. I brought myself a Slim Jim at 7-Eleven yesterday. I bought the chair over. Both of those sound great to me. There's some kind of kink. There's some neuron. This person's version of that was that they were always saying that something was an oxen, an oxen instead of an ox. They didn't have that right. Well, same thing with with chicken, but with Robert Lowth, he still had the idea that there's one chick and then five chicken. And that's the way he thought that thing should go. Do we? I doubt it. And now here we are. 

And so: Christmas show, if we must. Let's do some Steely Dan. A lot of you like that. Let's do some obscure Dan. Let's do early Dan, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” back when they're this sort of post 60s rocky funky group. This is a very warm song. It has that family thing which, TMI, I never really had in the way that I wish, but I recall the approximation of it back in the 70s. And so you've got your family and you know how that goes on this album, which I think about when I talk about albums, an LP. I first had this on LP. I bought it from a Two Guys. That's how far back I go. It's “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again.” I've never known what that meant, either. This is that weird kind of Burrows-esque poetry of theirs, but it's a lovely, warm song. So let's hear about Christmas and family, although they're not talking about Christmas, but it gives me that feeling. 

[“Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” by Steely Dan]

All right, so 1700s. Well, that maybe feels like it's so long ago because you know those are people from the 1700s. Let's get into the 1800s and let's go well into them. There's a person I could stop for around 1825, but let's leave him out. And so let's do 1872. Richard Grant White. You know who that was. You don't need to know anything about that person, but from those three names, you know what Richard Grant White was in 1872, if he was a person with a certain authority. He was a Shakespeare scholar. Big surprise. What else would Richard Grant White be interested in in 1872? And he was a critic. He was a literary critic. I'm not always sure just what that is, but he was a critic, and that meant that he was authoritative and that meant that people listened to him about language. 

So here is an America in which there's an increasingly influential — in certain cities, and of course, what I mean by that is New York — but in certain cities, there is an increasingly influential bourgeoisie. Think about the — I should say play, but you know who does the play? Think about the movie, “Life With Father.” Think about, you know, William Powell and Irene Dunne, and they're living in a brownstone and it's the late 1800s. People like that were very self-conscious about the way they spoke. And so there were people like Richard Grant White who would tell them, this is very Edith Wharton. And if you actually read Richard Grant White, which you shouldn't, then you find all sorts of things that are delightfully non-sensible. Whereas he thought of himself with his walking stick and his —I'm just guessing that he took laudanum. He thought of himself as quite authoritative. 

For example, this is just how he felt about the word “standpoint.” I just love this. We use the word standpoint, we think nothing of it. We have problems with things like using “structure” as a verb, etc. But he didn't like standpoint, and you read him on it and it's just like, what the— now I'm not going to say it. Bt at one point, he says: “Granting for a moment that standpoint may be accepted as meaning standing point, and that when we say from our standpoint, we intend to say from the point at which we stand, what we really mean is from our point of view, and we should say so.” Oh, standpoint, which may be accepted as meaning standing point. Well, I don't know if that's what I thought it meant, but that's what he thought it meant. Maybe because it was newer and you're thinking, well, keep going, Richard Grant White, because you like Shakespeare, you must be smart. And so what else? So he goes on further: “stand-point,” — he has little dash between stand and point — “stand-point, whatever the channel of its coming to use” — in other words, he means people who are not classy. So “stand-point,” even if it's being used by people who aren't in like the House of Mirth, “is of the sort to which the vulgar words washtub, shoehorn, brewhouse, cookstove belong. The first four of which are merely slovenly and uncouth abbreviations of washing tub, shoeing horn, brewing house, and cooking stove.” 

So shoehorn, like if you must use one, is shoeing horn really the proper term? If you've got a washtub, none of us do now, but if we did have it would we feel like we were supposed to call it a washing tub? He thinks that you should call it that because maybe people called it that before. Or maybe he just, because he had three names and was Richard Grant White, thought that that's what it should be. And so you keep reading you — what the hell are you talking about? And so he gets down to cases. This is my favorite Richard Grant White: “Rainbow, bow of rain.” I never thought of it as that, but: “Rainbow, bow of rain. Breadknife, knife for bread. Housetop, top of house.” Now this is a little weird, but this is what he wrote: “Dancing girl, girl for dancing.” Kay. “And standing-point — point for or of standing and so forth — but by no contrivance can we explain stand-point as the point of or to or for stand.” Now to imagine how he talked, we have to do Richard Hayden the character actor, something like [does accent] “Dancing girl, girl for dancing. And standing-point — point for or of standing and so forth — but by no contrivance can we explain stand-point as the point of, or to, or for stand.” No, I don't know what that means. What's wrong with standpoint? And yet, this person was taken very seriously. He was not an idiot. He was just in and amidst his time and didn't like a newish word, just like somebody today saying, “Well, I don't like it when somebody says they're going to structure something because structure is a noun.” Well, OK, good for you. But people keep using it as a verb. Many, many people, and in a hundred years, anybody who sees old internet posts about not liking structure as a verb is going to think “Ooooh how quaint,” except they’re not going to express it that way. 

And so, more music! It's the Columbus Boy Choir. This is on these Firestone albums. Everybody had it; it’s not just me. In middle-class America, back in the 60s, 70s — I'm not even going to say into the 80s; you have to be a 70s person for this — quote unquote “everybody” had this, and I mean it race-neutrally because, you know, everybody had tires. I knew many Black people who had the Firestone albums, and because the covers were good, you would kind of have them in the living room. So it did shape what you thought of as a Christmas carol. And so you've got an-gels instead of angels. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” That's always been one of my favorite Christmas carols, and it's partly because of the way they do it [sings in castrato] with the Columbus Boy Choir in this, where these boys very well trained, very musically directed boys, before things have happened to them down below or up there, and they are singing in their little boy sopranos. And it's, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” To me, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” is this — this is actually from early in the Firestone LP I think most people liked the most, which is the ‘65 one. So here is “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” where you actually get what this song means, because it sounds so clear because these boys' voices — just listen. 

[“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” sung by the Columbus Boys Choir]

OK, so the 1800s, well, they didn't have electricity, you know, but what about the 20th century? Let's go in. This is risky here. It's 1946. It's in Columbia where I teach; Jacques Barzun. Jacques Barzun. This is one of my probably top four favorite scholars ever. Talking about critic, he could criticize anything. He knew everything. Historian literature, the book From Dawn to Decadence, where he just writes about basically everything with serene authority. He lived to 100 and either four or six. It might as well have been 138. He knew everything. He walked around on the campus that I walk around on. This man is the s**t. I mean, I am in awe of Jacques. I wish that I had, you know, been at Columbia such that I could have had lunch with him at the faculty club or something. He's amazing. Yet, Jacques Barzun had some feelings about language because anybody does. Anybody did. And there's one piece in the Atlantic where he lays out his views. And you know what? Even him, even him, I mean, this shows that it's not about brilliance. It's not about erudition. It's not about whether you're a good person. It's not about cultural sensitivity. This man knew all things. And yet, when he talks about the words that he likes and doesn't like, all of a sudden he's just one of us. He had a piece in the Atlantic, which I write for now. I didn't think about this. He taught at Columbia, and he wrote a piece in the Atlantic. So like, I'm walking around in his shadow and you read about what he likes and doesn't like. He's so smart about all of it, erudite, he's learned, he knows everything. Here are the words he didn't like. Get ready. Evaluate, absenteeism, finalize, directive, to implement, and he didn't like the word cheeseburger. It's not that he didn't like cheeseburgers, just he thought that was a vulgar term.

This is Jacques. This is the person who wrote From Dawn to Decadence. This is the person who wrote 700 other books. And yet the way he felt about language, he was caught up in the same sort of thing that I am where I cannot stand it. It happened even today, where somebody says, “Can I get a coke?” No, you cannot get it. No. “May I have a Coke?” “I'll take a Coke.” Not “can I get it?” It just implies that you already were deserving of it, or it's just a weird use of get? Or frankly, I find it vulgar. I hate to admit it, if I were a Richard Grant White, if I billed myself as John Hamilton McWhorter V, I would say you should not — oh, should do the voice [does the voice] — “You should not say can I get a Slurpee? Can I get a Philadelphia pretzel?” Which is what I actually heard it used for today. “ ‘Can I get’ — it is vulgar.” But no, people say it all the time. It's going to become ever more popular. I have hated “can I get” since I first heard it 25 years ago? I will hate it until I hypothetically — I don't think I'm going to — but hypothetically die. I would never write about it. I would never talk about it on a podcast because I know that it's just me. 

And we can bring this into our time. 1999, Charles Harrington Elster. Yeah, that's the name. This person is actually alive. And he wrote a book delightful in itself called, “The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Ultimate Opinionated Guide for the Well-Spoken.” All right, you want to be well-spoken? All right, let's try this. I'm trying to be well-spoken. Here's my attempt. I have created a hypothetical little segment based on some words that he pays special attention to. Here it goes: “The alumni decided over a salad with balsamic vinegar that to eliminate medieval studies will be about as worthy of congratulations as a gymnast would be in need of a yarmulke.” That's how I would say it. And there are people who tell me, “Oh, well, you know, you're articulate, etc.” I don't know about that, but I am not told that I am not good with the words. And I would say, “The alumni decided over a salad with balsamic vinegar to eliminate medieval studies would be about as worthy of congratulations as a gymnast would be in need of a yarmulke.” What's wrong with that? 

Well, apparently, what I should have said was [phonetically] “The alumnee decided over a salad with balsaamic vinegar that to eliminate med-ee-eval studies would be about as worthy of congratchulations — not congratulations — but congratchulations as gymnaast would be in need of a yarrrmulke.” As a gymnaast, this reminds me of Shirley Jones in the movie Oklahoma, saying a month “mudwaasp” instead of a “mud wasp.” But apparently I'm supposed to say a gymnast would be in need of a yarrrmulke, a yarrrmulke. OK, now that's what Charles Harrington Elster, who I don't know, thinks that one should say for reasons that are very charismatic, but I'm sorry, there's a little bit of Richard Grant White about it. 

So, for example, I'm a highly Jewish-adjacent person, have been my entire life. It started with my Montessori and Quaker schools, where in Philadelphia, at least in the 60s and 70s, there were a lot of Jewish kids at them. And as far as what you put on your head, I've said yarmulke [“yah-makah”] all my life and nobody has ever corrected me. “Yarrrmulke”. No, I learned that's how it was written. But everybody said “yah-makah.” Oh, by the way, what I'm saying in this paragraph is “to eliminate medieval studies would be about as worthy of congratulations as a gymnast would be in need of a yarmulke.” And what I mean is that a gymnast would not need of all things, a yarmulke. But are there Orthodox Jewish gymnasts who keep their kippah on while they're performing? I don't know. But you take my point. Most gymnasts would not say that I have to have a kippah on my head. I actually got to say that sentence once in my life. Orthodox Jewish gymnasts who keep their kippah—? Anyway, Charles Harrington Elster is a very interesting writer, but I'm sorry there's a little bit of Jonathan Swift there. There's a little bit of Jonathan McWhorter, although that's not my name, not liking “can I get.”

So yes, the thing about Porsche, the car, he thinks it should be “Porsch.” OK, but why? Because I don't want to call it a “Porsch.” I call it a Porsche. There was somebody in my neighborhood when I was a kid who had a Porsche, and I remember that all the kids, including me, would run after it and say, Oh, cool car, cool car, cool car, I was six. So 1971, I had been calling it a Porsche for 50 years. Here's why I'm wrong. This is Harrington Elster, who's a very good writer: “In my experience, how you pronounce this word/name depends largely on whether you own the automobile in question. Porsche does not appear in any of my references, so I must rely solely on the evidence of my ears, which tells me that those who own a Porsche or wish they did tend to prefer the disyllabic Porsche, while those who don't and could not care less tend to prefer the monosyllabic Porsche. Because the great majority of us don't own or aspire to own a Porsche, I recommend the monosyllabic pronunciation as less ostentatious.” No, no! I want to call it Porsche, partly because that's what it looks like to me on the page, because I have a relatively comfy relationship with the German tongue, I don't know. And so look at your Porsch, and yet I want to call it a Porsche, but I will likely never have one. Partly because I've never liked the way they look. Porsche. Now this business of Porsch is what you call it if you don't have one, and therefore that should be the more widely used pronunciation? I get it, Charles Haddington Elster. I get what you mean, but that's — that’s not legal. That's not absolute. We're going to call that thing what we want to call it because his ideas, as beautifully put as they are, let's face it, they're a little arbitrary. 

Ah, you linguists are so permissive. You know where I get a lot of it? From Steven Pinker, who I have always learned so much from. I don't want to call him a mentor, but I should. And talk about his book The Language Instinct, which one should, 1994. He wrote about prescriptivism: the idea that we should trim language, that there are ways that we should speak and ways that we shouldn't that have nothing to do with clarity, but just picayune issues of logic, things that people with three names prefer. Pinker is the one who taught me to resist that kind of reasoning. And in The Language Instinct, at one point, he says: “One can choose to obsess over prescriptive rules, but they have no more to do with human language than the criteria for judging cats at a cat show have to do with mammalian biology.” 

So here we are back at the Atlantic. Back in the 90s, Mark Halperin wrote in a really neat article in the Atlantic that really got around. He wrote against Pinker's anti-prescriptivism. Halpern wrote, “Cat fancier clearly have no grounds for telling mammalian biologists” — I bet people say mammalian — “cat fanciers clearly have no grounds for telling mammalian biologists how to go about their business. Have the biologists any more grounds for telling the fanciers that this shorthair is too cobby, that Siameses’ points are too dark and the whole show should be canceled anyway?” Good line, Mark Halperin, but you know what? Frankly, if you compare what Pinker said, and Halpern's retort — I went to a cat show once, and I didn't like it. It was in Red Hook, New Jersey, and I could tell the kind of cat I like, like my cats over the years, would never win the show. There were all these little fluffy f*****s. I'm sorry to put it that way, but these fluffy cats that they look like, they know that they would win at a cat show. I like a sleekish, like no-nonsense looking cat, that looks like it could write books and maybe, maybe it even thinks that it does. Not these fluffy little f*****s. And so this issue of the cat show having any kind of authority? Let's say that the person who is the scientist has questionable authority. But no, the cat show analogy doesn't work for me because I don't like what kind of cats win at the cat show, and you can't tell me that I'm wrong, just because I like patting a cat that doesn't make me sneeze because a bunch of fur comes up in my nose. 

In any case, here's a little more of Gordon MacRae singing “Go Tell it on The Mountain.” We're going to see out this cut because I have listened to it complete for almost 25 years every Christmas. And, you know, my parents played this straight. This was Christmas music. This is, you know, people drinking their high balls in 1965. This was it. I play it in fond irony, but it's tradition. (Notice that I have made this kind of Christmas show without meaning to — as if I planned all this.)

But this is how that cut ends:

[“Go Tell it on the Mountain” sung by Gordon MacRae]

[Lexicon Valley theme music]

So if you'd like to leave a comment or check out our other great podcasts at this thing called Booksmart — which is different from Slate — so Banished and Bully Pulpit, or just to subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org, just type it in and you'll get to it. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and as always, Mike Vuolo. Our theme music was created by Harvest Creative Services and wisely selected this year when we were starting this from, among other choices by my lady love. And notice, I just did kind of a Christmas show, and that's the best that I could do. But I hope you enjoyed what I took you through, which was what I was actually thinking about when it was time to plan this end-of-the-year show. I am, as you know, John McWhorter.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Dec 29, 2021
Four Calling Birds? Not Exactly.
Happy New Year! In the warm and generous spirit of the holidays, we’re making this week’s bonus segment free to all. But there’s more: Until the end of the year, you can get 30% off a subscription to Booksmart Studios. You’ll get extra written content and access to bonus segments like this one. More importantly, you’ll be championing all the work we do here. Become a member of Booksmart Studios today.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a slog. It's repetitive, replete with archaic imagery and long — and so one can be forgiven for getting a bit sloppy with the lyrics. That's what happened with the phrase “colly birds,” which eventually mutated to “calling birds.” Wait, what's a colly bird? John explains.

JOHN McWHORTER: For our bonus segment, I want to share something that I think is just a joy. The Twelve Days of Christmas — you know that Christmas carol that kind of goes on and on? You know, you’re singing it wrong and the kids are singing it right.

Think about it: You're standing there and somebody starts singing that song and you've got some eggnog, or hopefully something stronger. And you know that eight-year-old who's standing there next to you, and maybe they've got the lyric pretty much down? But there's something that you always hear them do. I'm almost sure I did this at a certain age. And so it's (singing): “fiiiiive golden rings!” Well, everybody does that. Then you hear the little girl next to you: “four colly birds, three French hens, two turtle doves,” because they don't know what a “calling bird” would be.

🎶 MUSIC (Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters) 🎶

So “four colly birds, three French hens,” right.

But you know what? Do you know what a “calling bird” is? And yet, if you were writing the lyric, would you put that? Like, OK, a bird that calls, but who ever says, “Ooohhhh, look, it's a calling bird.” That's not something anybody says. And you know what? “Colly birds” is right! Nobody wrote about calling birds! That's something that people thought it was, because nobody knows what a colly bird is anymore.

A colly bird is a bird that's black. It's coal colored, it's coaly. And then the sound changes. And so in earlier British dialects, you talked about, “Oh, that coaly bird,” except you'd say, “Well, it's a colly bird.” And so it's a colly bird!

So five golden rings and then four black birds — not that they're calling; if you think about it, when you give people birds, usually they're petrified. They're not calling unless it's a talking parrot, and you just know that this song is not about parrots. So it's not “five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens”; it's colly!

From now on, you should listen to that girl next to you — you know, let's call her Delia — and she's going “five golden rings, four colly birds, three French hens” and you say, “Oh no, no, no, Delia, it's calling birds.” No, it isn't.


You think about yourself. It's colly birds and then the French hens — why are they French? That's another story. Then turtle doves and then a partridge in, apparently, an entire tree. You can see that’s a show in this song itself.

But they're colly birds. Isn’t that nice? So there's the bonus segment for this episode.

If you'd like to leave a comment or check out our other great podcasts— Banished and Bully Pulpit — or subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and as always, Mike Vuolo, and I am John McWhorter.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Dec 21, 2021
Why Does the Letter "A" Look That Way?
An alphabet, one of humanity’s greatest innovations, is far from intuitive. Our own English lettering was borrowed from the Romans, of course, but where did they get it from? And where did the concept originate? John has answers.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Dec 14, 2021
BONUS: Lexiconundrum #1
To continue our celebration of the re-release of 10 original Lexicon Valley episodes with Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield, we’re making today’s bonus content free for everyone. Presenting the fan-favorite “Lexiconundrum” — a portmantastic puzzle for the ages. This week, an homage to Bob’s ancestors.


MATT SCHWARTZ: Hey, Matt Schwartz here, one of the executive producers at Booksmart Studios. This week's bonus Lexicon Valley is a remastered gem straight out of the archives: the short-lived but much-loved Lexiconundrum. I like to think of these not as mere word puzzles, but as a lexical challenge — a test of your linguistic wits. So without further ado, I present to you Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo.

BOB GARFIELD: Each week, for our listeners, you are gonna come up with what I call the Lexiconundrum. Tell us what this week's Lexiconundrum is.
MIKE VUOLO: This first Lexiconundrum is a kind of homage to you, Bob. Your name, Garfield was not your ancestors' original name. It used to be—

GARFIELD: Garfinkle.

VUOLO: So your ancestors, presumably upon arriving through Ellis Island, do you think somebody arrived at Ellis Island whose name was, like, Martin Garfield and he was like, “I wanna be called Hymie Garfinkle”?
GARFIELD: To Judaicize their names? (Laughs.) Yeah, I don't think you don't see much of that.
VUOLO: But maybe one reason that your ancestors settled on Garfield was that it preserved the vowel progression in their last name: A I E. So my challenge to the listeners is to find a name — a name of somebody relatively famous; not your cousin, not your nephew — whose first and last name has the vowels A I E in that order, and no other vowels. And just to make it simple for the purposes of this challenge, we will not consider the letter Y to be a vowel. So for example, Charlie Daniels of the Charlie Daniels Band, Charlie and Daniels both have A I E — and only those vowels — in that order. Daniel Radcliffe, he is the actor who played Harry Potter in the Harry Potter movies.
GARFIELD: Well that’s good, Mike. So you've not only given us the puzzle, but also the solution.
VUOLO: Well, those are two solutions which are now ineligible. You have to come up with another one.
GARFIELD: I’m on it. Well, that wraps up the shakedown cruise of Lexicon Valley. All right, Mikey, later gator.


SCHWARTZ: In the original airing, listeners had about a week to think of their answer and email it in. You have 10 seconds. But you can always hit pause while you think about your answer and tweet it to @LexiconValley. All right, ready for the solution? Here we go.

VUOLO: Last week, I revealed that your ancestors’, Bob, changed their name from Garfinkel to Garfield, and noted that both names have the vowels A I and E in that order. And I challenged our listeners to come up with a name of somebody famous whose first and last name has the vowels A I and E in that order, and no other vowels.
GARFIELD: And you gave a couple examples, which I had assumed had covered the entire universe of correct answers for this Lexiconundrum.
VUOLO: I gave the examples Charlie Daniels, of the Charlie Daniels Band, and Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter in the movies. And a lot of people submitted entries, many of which had the vowels A I and E in both names, but also other vowels. So they didn't count. The first correct submission was by John Delano with Xavier McDaniel, who is a former basketball player with the SuperSonics. Also a listener named Curtis Earhart was the first to submit Hattie McDaniel. Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an academy award for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. I didn't know this, but apparently half the population of this planet has the name Javier Martinez. So there were a lot of those entries. And, you know, half of those are, like, South American soccer players. A few other noteworthy entries: Clara Loganoff was the only person to submit Reiner Fasbender, the German filmmaker. Frankie Lane was actually the name that I had in mind when I issued the challenge. He's a singer with a bunch of hits in the 1940s and 50s. Stephanie from Alaska guessed that one. But perhaps my favorite submission is Charlie Laine. And I'll quote directly from the email: “Charlie Laine is an American porn actress with 177 credits on IMDB” — 177!* — “including Girls Kissing Girls 8, and curiously,” says the emailer, “Ashlynn Goes to College 3, this time for her PhD, I suppose.”
GARFIELD: Yeah, by the way, Ashlynn Goes to College 3? Not half as good as Ashlynn Goes to College 2, which — my view — masterpiece.
VUOLO: Really? I'm really looking forward to number four. I think that that's the one where they're gonna introduce 3D.
GARFIELD: (Laughs.) Okay. I think, I think this has to stop.

Editor’s note: At the time of this re-airing, Charlie Laine now has 222 credits on IMDB.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Dec 07, 2021
Happy Days Are Here
To celebrate the re-release of ten original Lexicon Valley episodes — remastered, ad-free and for paying subscribers only — Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield return as hosts for this special show about the word “happiness.” Please let us know if you’d like more episodes from the archives, or more Mike and Bob, or both! (As seemingly indefatigable as he is, John McWhorter does, in fact, require occasional time off.)

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Dec 02, 2021
But Wait, There's More!
We’re giving John McWhorter a well-deserved day off. But the show must go on, so we’re bringing back a couple of Lexicon Valley legends for a special reunion episode.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Nov 30, 2021
BONUS: In Language, Context Is King
The late philosopher Paul Grice formulated four brief maxims by which conversations are generally governed. Most humans find it relatively easy to observe them. Machines, on the other hand, not as much.

Normally, John’s Lexicon Valley bonus segments are behind the subscriber paywall, but we’re making this week’s bonus segment free for everyone. With more content now than ever before, we are deeply grateful for your attention and hope that you’ll become a Booksmart Studios supporter. Happy Thanksgiving week!



JOHN McWHORTER: So what we learned about today with the irony was, in broader perspective, about maxims. It's the maxims created by the philosopher of language Paul Grice — we linguists call them the Gricean maxims — and what the maxims are about are certain underlying assumptions that we make about conversation, about how we use language. These things are unspoken — nobody would teach them — but they are yet another way that we can see that speaking is not just about describing things and giving orders and asking questions. It's more than that; social interaction is weirder and richer than that.

So with irony, what goes on is that you are breaking one of the maxims, and it's called the Maxim of Quality. The Maxim of Quality is an unspoken agreement that we make as people to, when we are communicating, tell the truth. The idea is that the default assumption is that we are calling upon somebody's attention in order to tell them something that is true. If you flout, as we say, the Maxim of Quality, it means that you don't tell the truth. Irony is all about flirting with, flouting, the Maxim of Quality. So “very funny” when it wasn't very funny. You flout the Maxim of Quality in order to communicate something, but the idea is that you broke this maxim.

Now there are other maxims. The nice thing is that there aren't like 34. It's one of those things where you would imagine that Grice would have become one of these people to whom he has a hammer, and therefore everything is a nail. No, there aren't that many. There are only four. But another one — and one you end up thinking about after you think about the Maxim of Quality — is the Maxim of Quantity. What's the Maxim of Quantity? That is an underlying agreement that when somebody asks us for information, we tell them enough — not too much, and especially not too little. There's an agreement that we're actually going to give what the person was asking.

And so let's say you have two children and somebody asks, “Do you have one child?” You're not supposed to answer “yes,” knowing that you actually have two because of course, it is true in the strict sense that you have one child. If you have two, you have two “one childs.” Yes. But if somebody says, “Do you have a child?” and you have two, you don’t just say “yes”; you say “Yes. As a matter of fact, I have two children.” That is, if you were going to fulfill the Maxim of Quantity.

This reminds me of an anecdote somebody told me about being very far away and they were in a restaurant, and it had been a long day, and they asked, “Well,” [to] the waiter, “you have Kingfisher beer?” and the waiter says, “No, sir, we don't have Kingfisher beer.” So then he asked, “Well, do you have Sierra Nevada?” “No, sir. We don't have Sierra Nevada beer.” “Do you have an Amstel light?” “Sir, I'm sorry. We don't have Amstel Light.” “Wait a minute. Do you sell beer at all?” “No, sir. We don't sell beer.”

That's not the way it's supposed to go. If somebody says, “Do you have Kingfisher beer,” you don't say, “No, we don't sell Kingfisher” knowing that you don't sell any beer at all. That's underselling it. You are flouting the Maxim of Quantity. It's not quite the thing that one does.

And you know, there are two more of these maxims, and they're all about what it really is to talk. And this is the sort of thing that makes artificial intelligence hard, because how does the machine know that if it's asked, “Do you have one child?” — when its truth condition is that it has two children — that the answer is not “Yes, I have one child.” A machine is relatively easy to teach to answer a basic question, but how do you make the machine understand context? That is one of the massive challenges. And for reasons like this, actually, as the maxims go, quantity is the hardest one.

There's an interesting study that was done recently by Mako Okanda, Kosuke Asada, Yusuke Moriguchi and Shoji Itakura — I am not going to pretend that those four names were not lots of fun for Anglophone me to say — but they did a study where they show that in terms of these maxims, quantity comes in the latest. Some forms of flouting quantity and understanding that that's what happened and that that's how language goes, people don't get until they are about six. This was done with Japanese kids. And so not until about six are you fully getting that.

And if you think about it, that's about right. It's around six when your kids are understanding language completely in that contextual sense, where, within reason, you can use irony, etc. That is certainly the case with my two children. But that means that language is partly about maxims. We are in a Maxim House.

Maxwell House Coffee! Remember the old commercials?

Commercial Announcer: Mmm, smell good ground coffee!

Where they used to somehow get across that Maxwell House is better than other coffee because it's good to the last drop? What did that mean? You know, what are the coffees where: Well, these are some of the last drops and it's not very good ‘cuz these are the last drops, and for whatever reason that would be — backwash or something like that — how is that different with Maxwell House? And of course, Maxwell House is not what most of us would consider good coffee. But here, just to close it out, this is an early 50s TV commercial. And it's about how Maxwell House is good to the last *whoop!* drop. That's the way they used to do it on the radio.

Commercial Announcer: Pour a cup of this good smelling coffee. It will taste as good as it smells because it's good ground Maxwell House. Maxwell House Coffee is good to the last drop. Enjoy the rich, fresh taste of Maxwell House Coffee: The ground coffee that tastes as good as it smells every time. Maxwell House.


This bonus segment has been about maxim house, but it got me thinking about coffee, although I, of course, drink better coffee than Maxwell House.

If you'd like to leave a comment or check out our other great podcasts, Banished and Bully Pulpit, or subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and as always, Mike Vuolo, and I am John McWhorter.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Nov 23, 2021
That's Not What Irony Means, Alanis
Language is tricky. It doesn’t do what you think it should. It’s as messy as almost anything that’s created by natural selection. And that’s what makes it so fun.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Nov 16, 2021
Can You Play “Jew” in Scrabble?
Scrabble and other similar games have been the subject of an ongoing lexicographic debate in recent years, with some arguing that ethnic slurs have no place in the official dictionary or on the board. Many tournament players, however, decry the banning of words — the game, they say, is merely descriptivist.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Nov 02, 2021
A*#holes and B%tches
Dividing up nouns as “masculine” and “feminine” — like, for example, in Spanish — has not been a part of English for many centuries. And yet our language remains peppered throughout with gender, often overtly in terms like Mrs. and Mr., which evolved from “mistress” and “master.” Sometimes, however, it’s more subtle. John explains.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Oct 19, 2021
On the Singular 'They' and Slippery Slopes
English has been calling out for a gender-neutral pronoun for more than a century, with many failed attempts at invented words and portmanteaus. Singular "they" — once the scourge of schoolhouse grammarians — has now emerged to become the pronoun of choice for many outside the so-called gender binary.


From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter, and you know, these days, some of you probably know I'm writing pieces for The New York Times, and in The New York Times, not long ago, I wrote a piece about the new, new usage of “they.” And as you might imagine, I like it. Well, I've gotten a lot of very interesting feedback about my take on that. I wouldn't say hate mail, just mail from people very urgently telling me that I'm probably making a mistake, that I don't understand the full import of the call to use “they” in this new, new way. I'll let you know soon what I mean by “new, new.” I thought I would dedicate this episode to a response to people who just can't get with the new, new “they.” And it's not because they don't understand that language changes, but they see this as societally different from the way language generally changes. Folks, I get you, but let's talk about it. Let's talk about “they.”

It's a word that's been uniquely subject to transformation. There's always something going on with “they” in English, it seems. Way back in Old English, the word for “they,” for one thing, was not what you'd expect. You'd think that would be something like thag or something. No, it wasn't. The word for “they” was HEE-uh, of all things. Hee-uh. And so, you just had to make do with that. And I say “make do” because HEE-uh is “they.” “He” is hē and “she” is hēo. So all of those are a little ominously similar. Hē, hēo, HEE-uh is “he,” “she,” “they” in the earliest English that we know. And if you talked about “to them,” like, you know, “give them the log,” “give the log to them,” then it was hem, just as it was in the singular. And so hem, “to him,” hem, “to them.” So there was a lot of this similarity. And it got really bad because, as you might imagine, hē and hēo, “he” and “she.” There were people who would say, just, hē for “she,” but then you've got hē and hē, meaning both “he” and “she” — hardly unheard of in languages, but this was a language where it hadn't been that way before. And of course, these things are different from dialect to dialect.

So people would have known something is falling together. And then, HEE-uh. Well, after a while, you say that over and over and you might get hē, hē, hē. That was falling to sound like “he” and “she” too. This falling together would have felt funny to some people. And even if they weren't thinking of it consciously, it's the sort of thing where if English is the language that you're speaking — and English used to be a certain way — you might want to fix that. So you've got this HEE-uh that's just become hē and you've got the same word for “he,” “she,” and “they.” There are languages that do just fine like that, but English hadn't been one of them. 

Now, the old story about what happened to “they” in this situation is that English grabbed a word from Old Norse. The idea is that starting in 787 C.E. — I still think of it as A.D., but I'm told I have to say C.E. these days — the Vikings come, Scandinavian Vikings. They don't speak English, they speak Norse, and it's mostly men. They marry English speaking women. And next thing you know, there's this entire boatload of Norse words that come into English, including, you know, “get,” “happy,” “neck,” “skirt.” All of these are Old Norse words. They weren't originally in English. Well, it's supposed to be that something else came from Norse, and that is “they/their/them,” because in Old Norse, the word for “they” wasn't this HEE-uh thing. (Well, wrong voice for Old English.) HEE-uh — wasn't that. In Old Norse, It was þeir. Þeir. Not “they,” but þeir. Whole lot more like what we're used to than this HEE-uh thing. So it used to be thought (by many it still is thought) that English borrowed these pronouns from Old Norse. 

Now, I'm getting to something here. I'm not going into the weeds. I'm getting to this for a reason. It turns out that if you really look at that situation closely, and not many people had until relatively recently, the truth is that English didn't go grabbing pronouns from some other language. English used itself for this “they.” Old English had goofy gender, just like so many of the languages that you learn from English and are frustrated by. You had masculine, feminine and neuter. And for the most part, you just had to know. And then there was plural, which was all three. But this meant that you had four “thes.” “The” was different if you were in the singular, masculine, feminine, neuter. Then there was a plural “the.” That word was tha. And if you really look at how things appear in the documents and when and in what form, it's pretty clear that “they” came from this word for “the” that you use with a bunch of things. So “the ducks,” you know, “the Atari sets” or something like that. That “the” became “they.” 

So what happened is that the language, in a sense, needed or at least wanted a separate word for “they” and it lost it. And so, people were looking for some other one, and they went somewhere else in the language and they grabbed a word that roughly meant “the.” Or if you stretched it, it kind of meant “these” and “those.” This is a theory that is put forth most cogently (for those of you who are interested in these things and wondering where I'm getting it) by Marcelle Cole. But it is gaining increasing influence. I very much support it. And this is why I'm harping on it: Many people have written me that we need to create, for example, a gender neutral pronoun. So it can't be “he,” can't be “she,” shouldn't be “they.” We need to have something else. And so, there are  popular alternatives such as “ze.” And the truth is, people have been trying to create these for a very, very long time. There was a certain efflorescence in the 70s, one suggestion was, was “heesh.” That’s “he” and “she” put together.

It would be very interesting, but you know, the truth is pronouns are seeded so deeply in our cognition. We use them so much. They label something as elemental as the other people in our lives and their relationship to our us and our us-ness. It's really hard to borrow pronouns from another language or to just create a new one. How do you slide that in? How do you start all over again? Of course, there may be people or even subgroups who are particularly interested in using this new word, and they will put themselves to doing it. But especially in a large society, how do you create new pronouns? In terms of how languages affect each other, they affect each other all the time, but they don't usually share pronouns. That's kind of like people sharing the same toothbrush. And so, in a way, what really happened in Old English — which was not grabbing something from Old Norse but almost certainly grabbing something from Old English itself — it means that if we're going to solve our problems with pronouns no longer seeming to correspond to the way a critical mass of people see themselves in a modern society, probably we need to recruit something that's already in the language rather than trying to create something brand new.

Now, what I don't want to do here is repeat the show that I did on “they” before. I did an episode of Lexicon Valley, good while back now, 2018. It was called “The Rise of ‘They.’” I know that not many of you have listened to all — this is the 138th episode of Lexicon Valley that I've done, goodness gracious. Some of you have, and I am immensely flattered by your obsessiveness because you're like me, you're a completist. I listen to every episode of things, too. Most people haven't, and I can imagine most people weren't listening to this in 2018. But I did do it. And very quick summary is that the first “they” problem that people think of is what used to be called good old, singular “they.” And so, tell each student that they can hand their paper in when they want to. And that leaves you to not have to specify whether it is a boy or a girl or anything else. And you just have this generic reference. You're not being specific. And so, “a person can't help their birth,” that sort of thing. That was from Vanity Fair. And it's a hint that singular “they” isn't something that happened when apparently everything fell apart after the 60s, when people started using marijuana more openly or something. I don't know what's supposed to have happened recently that means that language just falls apart. But if Thackeray was already saying a person can't help their birth, you know that there's probably something about just the nature of English, where if you're looking for some sort of generic gender neutral pronoun, well, you take it from the resources of the language itself, and it is “they” for us. And it actually goes back to the 13 and 1400s. You've got it in Shakespeare. You've got it in Middle English, it doesn't even sound quite like English. Only in the 1800s, did certain, always self-appointed, grammarians decide that they didn't like singular “they” because “they” is plural. They're asserting this like it's something that’s undeniable and basic and unitary as the nature of protons and neutrons or something: “They” is plural.Well, you know, good for you. They said that. But in the meantime, people have kept on using singular “they.”

But now there's what I sometimes call the new, new “they.” And this is the one that I wrote the Times piece about, and that seems to be eliciting some emotional reactions. And again, not from people who don't like language change, but from people who think that this time it's different. And so, I refer to, “Roberta wants their hair washed now. They're waiting downstairs.” And this doesn't mean that Roberta is waiting for some unspecified people who aren't her to have their hair washed. But the “they” is Roberta. Roberta wants their hair washed. Now they're waiting downstairs. Roberta refers to themselves as “they.” Or you might say, Roberta refers to themself. I suspect that's the way it's going to go. Roberta refers to themself as “they.”

So, it's that new “they” that seems to really bother some people. And yeah, this is new. I didn't encounter it until not a few years ago, but a few more than a few. And you have to wrap your head around it if you didn't grow up with it. I should say that the kids are using it quite fluently, which shows that it's hardly incompatible with human cognition, but nevertheless this “they” is very, very different and it's ever more common. So sunny, non-prescriptive linguist like me says, “Well, this is wonderful. This is interesting. Things like this have happened in the past. Language always changes.” And then you get a whole bunch of mail saying, you know, “Professor McWhorter, I like blah, blah, blah, but on this one, I think that you're missing a larger context.” Interesting. Very interesting. And it's clear that the people who are writing this are very and genuinely upset. 

Oh, wait. Yeah. You're right, in terms of the pacing of a Lexicon Valley episode, it's time for a little break, not for a commercial, but for some sort of song. I have it as Roberta wants their hair. I don't know why, but whenever I think of the new, new “they” I think of Roberta. And it has nothing to do with any Roberta I know. Roberta D'Alessandro, if you're listening to this, it's not you. I've just got this generic new “they” person and her name is Roberta. Well, you know, there is a musical called Roberta, and it's from 1933. The words are by Jerome Kern and the lyrics are by Otto Harbach. Many of you know Roberta as a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film. And you might think that that was just written for them, but no, that was a Broadway property that was fashioned into a film for that. That's why they're kind of subsidiary in the film. But it was a show. And in any case, what didn't make it into the film, but what is in the lovely show score is this madrigal.  It's this choral piece. I've always liked this almost more than anything else in it, even though it's got a lot of songs in it that are famous if you like the American Songbook. This is the madrigal from Roberta. This is a newish recording of it in its original arrangement. Just listen to these beautiful voices doing this beautiful, plummy harmony together. This is the “Madrigal,” sometimes known as “Alpha Beta Pie.”

Madrigal: Alpha Beta Pie

Is this time really different? Well, one thing that you might insert here is that having the same word in the second person for the singular and the plural, that felt weird to people when it started. That was something that was going on in the middle of the last millennium. And the idea that you say “you” to one person as opposed to thou — that sounds so antique to us now. But that's how English originally was. In Old English, that word was thou. Thou. That was normal, as it is in languages in general if you think about it. What's a language you know where the word for “you” is the same in the singular and the plural? Note that you have to unlearn that. Now, some of you who speak Hindi might be thinking that it's that way with your language. And really, Hindi and English are the exceptions that prove the rule. Normal languages have a separate word for singular “you” as opposed to plural “you.” And so, there were people who didn't like “you” being extended to the singular in this way at first because it felt strange. And this is something that's important: A lot of people are telling me that they don't like the new, new “they” because it's being imposed, that it isn't a natural development among the population. Instead, certain people are saying that it has to be that way.

But you know, although the details are unclear, this use of “you” in the singular was something that came from on high. That is something that happened in the standard. Thou persisted and has persisted in very casual usage in a great many Englishs that are not prestigious in England, for example. A good example actually is if you read Lady Chatterley's Lover — I get the feeling that ever fewer people are actually reading it. But my mother, you know, as a young woman reading those sorts of five-foot bookshelf kinds of books (although that book was not one of them) had back in about 1960, before she married and had children and also had a whole career. But when she was a young woman and she had this copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover. It was a very nice addition. So I happened to read it kind of early because this book made you want to read it, and it's also a little bit dirty. And so, you find these things. And at one point, the groundskeeper says to Lady Chatterley, he says “'Tha mun come to the cottage one time.” Okay, so, “tha mun.” “Tha mun.” What the hell does that mean? It's thou must — “tha mun.” He speaks this Nottinghamshire dialect, and so, thou must come to the cottage one time. He wasn't trying to sound like he was in some silly play using archaic English. That thou was part of the local dialect. But no, in English, you know, the “you” ends up coming from the plural. And there were people who resisted it, including Quakers. Quakers continued using thou in the singular. They found it more humble than this idea that everybody would be exalted with this plural “you.” I went to a Quaker school as a kid, and I remember some of the teachers were using thou, thy, and thee. “Don't forget to put thy name on thy paper,” I remember that said to me. So, these things can be imposed, that's happened in the past.

But more to the point, many people find the new, new “they” to challenge ready online understanding. Yes, that's true, especially if you're not used to it. You can hear people using it that way and they're talking about “they.” And you're wondering, well, who? What two people, what three people? Or maybe you're waiting for it to be the generic, old fashioned, singular “they.” But that doesn't quite make sense in the context, and then you have to wrap your head around the idea that one person who you all know is being referred to as “they” instead of “he” or “she.” And people are sending me whole paragraphs where you have to work to figure out what “they” is. And I can understand that frustration. Context can take care of so much, though, as we know with “you.” Really think about how odd it is, compared to any other language you know, that we say “you” to one person and “you” to two or three, and admit to yourself that sometimes it's even a little confusing. I sometimes will say “you” and realize that in my language, I can't specify that I'm talking to one person rather than both of them, such as, for example, my two daughters. And you know, you get by because that doesn't happen enough to matter. And my horse sense is that it wouldn't happen enough to matter with the new, new “they” once we got used to it.

But, you know, maybe there is a transitional strategy, or maybe there is something practical that we can do to alleviate that feeling among people. And this is my proposal, and maybe it's been proposed elsewhere, but if it has been, I am definitely putting my hat into the ring for it. Maybe, in writing, the new, new “they” should be capitalized. This kind of capitalization can be quite arbitrary, for example, in the way we capitalize “I.” That's not necessary. If we didn't capitalize the pronoun “I,” and it was just lowercase, what else would we think it was? And yet we're used to that. Why don't we capitalize “they” when it refers to one person? In writing, you can't capitalize in speech. But if we're going to use it in writing (and we most certainly will, we must), then maybe we could capitalize “they” when it refers to one person. And here, we wouldn't be doing anything new because this is something that happens in various languages written in Roman. So in German, for example, you almost might wonder how they deal with the fact that sie, (that's s. i. e., sie) can mean “she.” It can mean “they.” And it's the formal way of saying “you.” Talk about how weird these things can get. Complain about how new, new “they” is different and it's confusing you, but think about German, and Germans seem to get along just fine. But sie is either “she,” “they,” or “you,” as in “sir” or “madam.” The way that you handle that in writing is that the formal sie is capitalized, so that helps a little bit.

Or another example is in Italian. Italian has lei. Lei is “she.” Then it can also mean formal “you.” Think about how odd that is. You know, those of you who've taken Italian, you're so used to it. But think about how weird that actually is. This is just the way pronouns tend to be. They don't accept being put in little cages, but if lei means “she” and then also means “sir” or “madam, you,” well, then the way that they handle it is that when it's the formal “you,” then it's capitalized. So you have a capital L. I wonder if we could use a capital T with “they.” Not to indicate formality, but to indicate this new usage of “they.” So it would be a singular usage. That's just my proposal. I think that might be something useful to consider, and I'm putting it out here now.

Let's get to what many people would think of as the meat of this issue. Many people are saying that they don't like this new, new “they” because a minority of people are insisting on being addressed in a certain way that everybody else finds quite counterintuitive. And the sociological tenor of society is such that if you don't do it, in many cases, you'll be given a very hard time. So people are saying, why should we do this just because people are demanding it? I feel manipulated. OK. This is how I feel about that. It seems to me, first of all, that having a pronoun to mark non-binary identity could be seen as pretty basic. It could be seen as something that a critical mass of people could agree is a moral advance. If you think about history, if you think about what seems to be the case in all cultures, there are people who feel like they are neither male nor female. There are people who feel like the categories of boy and girl just don't fit. Now, cultures vary widely, but just about any culture that I've ever had occasion to study has some room, usually some quiet room for people who just don't feel like that kind of categorization works — the non-binary person. Why can't our pronouns catch up with that?

And of course, many people seem to think, well in terms of basic plumbing, there's the boy kind and the girl kind. And it's clear that people are born (except under extremely irregular conditions) with one or the other kind of plumbing. And there you go. So why are we being asked to model our language based on something that some people feel we should look at despite the fact that it doesn't seem to correspond with the way Nature supposedly had it? or something along those lines. But you know what? That doesn't convince me either, because think about formality. Think about that in a language like French, you have tu in the singular informally, but then formally you use the plural form vous because there's vous, your teacher, as opposed to tu, your friend. OK. Well, that's based on these issues of hierarchy. Now, in a small band of humans, which is how we began, there's a tiny bit of that, but not much, because there are, you know, there are only 100 of you. The idea that you have people above and people below, you know, let's do our Rousseau, that's what happens with creeping modernity. And next thing you know, you have these codes as to how people address one another from up high down to below and from down below to up high, etc. That isn't the way things started. It's something that happens in society because of a kind of a gradual accretion that nobody ever plans. And yet, languages are full of ways of indicating formality, including the one that I'm speaking. We just accept that.

It seems to me that if that's seen as a refinement, just like, you know, the development of something called “cake.” Or like tea, how did anybody figure that out? We're going to take these leaves and burn them in the sun and then boil them in water, and we're going to pretend that's good. I just, that's — I actually like tea. But still, that's odd. Well, this issue of a non-binary orientation where you don't want to be a “she” or a “he,” that's a refinement. It wasn't something going on officially, certainly not in language 300 years ago, but frankly, look what happened to them. So it seems to me that it's a refinement.

However, I know that that's not all that people are thinking. People are also thinking this: They're worried about the slippery slope. If we allow the new, new “they,” then the next step might be for people to say that everybody should be addressed as “they,” unless otherwise notified. Or maybe everybody should just be a “they” and we should try to get rid of “he” and “she.” And there are some scattered calls for that, you know, the polite thing being that everybody's a “they” unless otherwise notified. And I can very much imagine some people saying, why don't we just have everybody be a “they” and get rid of the whole idea that we have to mark in language this distinction between people with boy parts and people with girl parts? OK. That would be an interesting proposal. I can wrap my head around somebody who would propose it, but to tell you the truth, I'm not sure that there's a slippery slope that we would need to worry about here.

This is my guess on this. If people called for “they” to be used in that way, it would be about as popular as the term “Latinx” is. “Latinx” is a very popular way of referring to Latino people without gender marking among a certain college town/activist group of people. And that's great, but it doesn't seem to be gaining any purchase beyond that. I live in a neighborhood where every second person lives in Spanish, and I have never once heard any of the people just walking around in the street using “Latinx” and you don't get the feeling they're going to. Surveys make it pretty clear that's the way it is. Calls to have “they” be universal and to marginalize “he” and “she” completely, that will get about as far as “Latinx.” And I don't think there's anything wrong with there being a register that is used primarily by highly educated people as opposed to the vast majority of people. The sky isn't going to fall if that happens, but I think that entities that call for “they” to be used that way would see their enrollments fall, and the bottom line would start to call the tune. I wouldn't worry about that slippery slope.

But then there is another one. There are people who are telling me (and I completely get what they mean) that this business of using new, new “they” isn't just some linguistic development, but it's part of a whole new mindset, a whole new approach to sex/gender, where not only is it about pronouns, but it's about kids making decisions about not only their identities, but their bodies before they're possibly of age to be able to make that decision responsibly. Decisions being imposed on kids by their parents for the same reasons. Issues of who should use which restrooms and why. Issues of what sort of person ought to be allowed to compete against what other sort of person in sports. Issues of how to deal with gender dysphoria. Whether gender dysphoria is something treatable by psychologists and psychiatrists, as opposed to something which is just so permanent that we should accept it as fact. These are very thorny issues, and I must say that as somebody who's hosting a language podcast, it's quite impossible for me to sound off with opinions about those sorts of things. All of it is very new to me, and I'm working it out.

But I would say this: I don't quite understand the argument that teaching people to use “they” in the new, new way must necessarily mean that you're opening the door to unconsidered approaches to all of these other things. And you know what it sounds to me like? It sounds like someone saying, don't teach slavery or racism in schools at all, because that could lead to people using the excesses of critical race theory and teaching students that if they're black, they're permanently oppressed, and if they're white, they're oppressors, and teaching students that all intellectual, artistic and moral endeavors should be about overturning power differentials and the like. I.e. the critical race theory that many people (and in my opinion, if I may give one, they are correct), are so worried about. Well, how about this? Teaching slavery and racism could under some circumstances be used as a gateway drug to teaching people that they live in hell when they're seven or eight years old, but notice how rash the argument sounds. Would that happen enough? Or is teaching slavery and racism important in other ways such that you could at least try that and just hope and maybe even work, depending on how societal consensus falls, to keep the excesses from following in their wake? To me, that's what's going on here. So, the new, new “they” does not mean that we're making decisions about how to handle gender dysphoria and what parents should allow their children to do to themselves and at what age. In general, I think, and I've sometimes considered writing a book about this and then realized nobody would read it, but it's a major issue. The slippery slope argument, in my opinion, is over applied and I just don't see it with these pronouns. Societal change happens via compromise, slowly and with a lot of fighting, but it happens via compromise. And I see “they” as a kind of progress that could happen without opening the gates to things that truly disturb and even appall other people. Society has to decide, but things happen slowly, and I think that the pronoun could happen even theoretically without any of the rest of it happening, depending on how society ends up falling on those questions.

You know, it's about change and endless change can feel disorienting. I know I'm supposed to say at this point that things are changing in our society faster than ever. But do you notice that people are generally saying that about American society at all times? And I'm not sure that it's ever not been true in my lifetime. But still, things are always changing, and it's disorienting. It's like buildings being constantly torn down and being thrown back up. It's like that happening in Manhattan. You could write a song about it. Irving Berlin did write a song about it. It was for the musical Face the Music in the Depression in 1931. It was called “Manhattan Madness.” I'm not sure why “Manhattan Madness” isn't sung more than it is, because it really is a great little song, and frankly, New York is still exactly like this 90 years later. So much has changed, but it's still all about things constantly being torn down and put back up, and you never quite know where you are.

Manhattan Madness

There's a bonus to this episode. To get the bonus you have to actually sign up and pay something at BooksmartStudios.org. And what's in the bonus is actually my opinions about the latest Native American archeological findings and their implications for language. Now, I started to put that as kind of a coda to this episode, but I think that’d be a little tone deaf. The new, new “they” issues are rather emotional for many. I can't then all of a sudden just do a hairpin turn. So you get it as a bonus, but you won't know what I think about language and the latest findings about Native Americans and where they were and when unless you actually join up with BooksmartStudios.org. But you know there's somebody who gets a free bonus, and that is Becky Luskin. Becky Luskin, it is your 40th birthday and your husband has asked me to let you know that I know it here. And so, yes, you and I are both turning 40 this year, except I'm 56 on October 6th. But happy birthday to you, Becky. This is your day and not mine, or I presume that it was rather recently.

In any case, if you'd like to leave a comment or check out our other great podcasts, Banished and Bully Pulpit, or subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and, as always, Mike Vuolo. That catchy theme music was created by Harvest Creative Services. Those sister podcasts, again, are Banished with Amna Khalid and Bully Pulpit with Bob Garfield, and this podcast is Lexicon Valley. And I am John McWhorter.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Oct 05, 2021
The Pandemic's Effect on Language
Turns out that some languages are less intelligible through a mask than others, and, believe it or not, it all depends on how often you use certain consonants. It’s called the McGurk effect and it’s the closest that linguistics comes to actual magic.


From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and you know, in line with the fact that the Booksmart version of Lexicon Valley is going to be somewhat more topical than the Grand Old version, I want to discuss something that I've tried not to get too much into because of my motto that life is always happy in the valley and that is the pandemic, especially since it could be argued that we're coming out of it. And I feel a little better about referring to it at length. And I want to discuss language and the pandemic and beyond the level that some people started asking back about a year and a half ago. What about all of these new terms? And, you know, the answer is, well, you know, what about them? So social distancing, you can't do a show about that. Yes, we learned a bunch of new words and expressions. But still, the question is — especially, you know, a year and a half out — what kind of effect has there been on language from all of this stuff that we've had to go through? And, you know, one of the first things that you might think about is these God-damned masks. What kind of effect does it have? For example, someone very near and dear to me was talking about how when she goes to a store and she has to tell them whether or not she's going to use credit or debit, well, when you're in there and everybody's masked, the cashiers have told her that it's hard to understand whether people are saying credit or debit because those two words differ only in their initial consonant, as we call it. So is it cr- or d-? There is no problem with that at all in normal life. But when you've got a piece of cloth in front of your mouth, it can be somewhat muffled and you can't make up for that by looking at people's mouths and doing a little bit of passive lip reading as we all do, whether we're conscious of it or not. So credit, debit, what did you say? And so, my sweetheart tells me that she walks into the store and she has to actually enunciate or shout credit or debit. What's going on with that?


Do these masks actually muffle speech in that way? Do they create a kind of a confusion? And, you know, we would expect that they would. They certainly are. And one way that we know it is that linguists are aware of something called the McGurk effect. And the McGurk effect is one of these things where you can have fun in a class showing people that linguistics can be magic. And what it is, is that if you show a video clip of somebody saying gah, but then what you play them saying is not gah, but bah — you have those two things going on — the person is with their mouth saying gah, but you play them saying bah, what an Anglophone does when they see that is they could swear to God that the person is saying dah. You watch somebody mouthing gah, you play them saying bah. Well then what you hear is not bah and you don't hear gah, what you hear is dah. And what's especially fascinating is that those consonants, the b, d and the g, have a certain relationship in terms of how pronunciation actually works. So forget the order that those things come in in the alphabet. It's not about b first and then d and then g. It's actually more interesting than that. And the alphabetical order is actually only accidentally consonant, haha so to speak, with how this works. B is with your lips, d is when you put your tongue on that alveolar ridge, that thing that you burn if you drink your hot cocoa too fast, then g is the soft palate. So front, middle, back, b front, d middle, g back. So what happens is if you see somebody speaking the back, gah, and then what's played is them doing the front, bah, you end up correcting it to what's actually in between, dah, which the person didn't say and you didn't hear. That is called the McGurk effect. Absolutely fascinating thing. It's funny with McGurk, I always find myself having the most random thought when I hear that. Does anybody remember that sitcom Dear John? This is way back about 30 years ago. Judd Hirsch is off of Taxi and Dear John was supposedly based on a British show, but really Dear John was a shameless attempt to put Judd Hirsch in Taxi again. And they had characters that almost all corresponded to the Taxi characters. And as you can imagine, the show was pretty good. It wasn't quite a keeper, but because it was more Taxi and because the actors were good, I must admit that back then when there was less to do because there wasn't really any internet yet, I watched it. And I remember Jere Burns had this character Kirk, and Kirk is this sort of Guys and Dolls-ish vernacular person. And the running joke was that he'd introduce himself as “Gurk.” My name's Gurk. And so I always think of “Gurk” when I hear about the McGurk effect. You know, why am I imitating this obscure character? Listen, everything's on YouTube. Here is Jere Burns. The first time, this is the first episode where he introduces this “Gurk” character.

KIRK MORRIS: The name's Kirk.
JOHN LACEY: Oh, hi. John. Nice to meet you.
KIRK MORRIS: All right, stick with me. You're gonna make out like a bandit.

The McGurk effect. And guess what has actually been shown in research that's now coming out in the wake of the height of the pandemic. It turns out that when people have these masks on their faces, young people are good at compensating. They stop relying so much on that passive lipreading and they get better at just distinguishing consonants based on hearing them. However, people who are older don't do that nearly as well. The ability atrophies. And so the masks have been less of a problem with the young than with older people. This was demonstrated by a very interesting paper in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and it was by Czech researchers. And to tell you the truth, I don't know much about Czech and I can't pronounce their names. But it was in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. It was recently. And if you want to check it out, you should check this out. You'd predict it. You wouldn't necessarily predict that there would be an age issue. But yeah, these masks make it harder to understand what people are saying, sometimes in really graphic ways. But just in general, we don't get to do that lipreading. The way we learn to deal with human language is that you don't have to see the person's face. We know that from, you know, the radio, et cetera. But it certainly does help. And if we've got people in front of us watching their face is part of how we accomplish comprehension. With the masks that's muffled, and so you have to adjust and we can. But adjusting, as with just about everything else, is harder as you get older.


And it's interesting, you think about other languages. The McGurk effect happens in lots of languages, more in some than in others. Although within a given language, the results are almost bizarrely consistent. But you can imagine there are places where these masks must have been more of a problem. And so, for example, I'm not aware of any article about how people are dealing with masks in the language Rotokas, which is spoken on an island off of New Guinea. But Rotokas is famous for one of the languages with the fewest sounds, period, of all. So there are languages that have like 148 different sounds. One of the click languages has that many because there are many, many, many clicks and then many, many other consonants and vowels. But then there are languages that have the fewest sounds and Rotokas is one of the ones with the very fewest. And so, for example, with consonants all Rotokas has — if we're going to be technical, it's the central Rotokas dialect — but all central Rotokas has is p, t, k, b, d and g. Now you can hear that as a pattern. So it's the b, d, g — front, middle, back — and then p, t, k have the exact same relationship. Really p and b are the same thing but different; t and d are the same thing but different; and k and g are the same thing but different. Feel it? So, p, b, and you're thinking well one is a B and that's close to the beginning of the alphabet and then P is somewhere in the late middle. No, that's completely irrelevant. P and b — b is just p with kind of some belly in it. So all Rotokas has is b, d, g and the related p, t, k. Nothing else. No nasal sounds. The way Rotokas speakers make fun of speakers of other languages is they start going mmmnnn, because that's how speakers of other languages seem to them. Now that doesn't mean that they have any problem with making themselves understood in normal conditions. But imagine if all you've got is p, t, k, b, d, g and now you've got these masks on, and there is this effect that you have where you are likely to hear a different consonant if you don't get to see the person's face. The McGurk effect must be a real pain in the ass on Rotokas in particular, in any language with that few consonants.


But then there are places where you would assume that it would be less of a problem. And that's because this issue is with consonants, not with vowels. The vowels come through the cloth pretty darn well. So that's not an issue. And that would mean that if you are a language with lots and lots of vowels, then this sort of thing isn't going to be as much of a problem in terms of comprehension. And I think, for example, of Cambodian. I'll just bet — and if any of you are Cambodian you can please let me know, I would genuinely like to know — I'll just bet that the masks aren’t as much of a problem in Cambodian. And that's because, this is a factoid that doesn't get around as much as that certain click languages have lots and lots of sounds, but just like there are languages that have lots and lots and lots of consonants, there are languages that have lots and lots of vowels, too. So, for example, depending on how you count it in English, you've got about 13 vowels. Cambodians got 30. It's really rather amazing. If you take the single vowels and then also the diphthongs — not dipthong as you want to call it if you see it on the page and you look by too quickly, but diphthongs — diphthongs like not aw but oi, not ah but ai. Diphthong. Those are still thought of as single sounds. Take the vowels that are single and then the diphthongs, Cambodians got 30 — you might say 29, you might say 31. And it depends on the dialect but they've got 30. It's funny how that happens. The only languages in the world that regularly have that many vowels are in Southeast Asia and they're ones that are related to Cambodian. And what that is, is the result of language change on tone languages. So I've talked about how there are languages where tone, the pitch that you utter a syllable on, is as important to indicating the meaning as what the vowel is itself. And so, for example, in Mandarin you can say, dah, okay but you've got to do the tone because dah is big, whereas dah is answer and dah is hit, and so on. Well, I'm always telling you that language always changes. Well, what about tones always changing? They can change into other tones, definitely. But another thing that can happen in a tonal language is that the tones wear away and just become different vowels. So where there once were four levels of tones and then a bunch of vowels, well, what ends up happening is you have just a big giant bunch of vowels. And so that's how Cambodian ends up having 30 vowels. Roll the tape back and it had some tones, just like a lot of the languages surrounding it — like Vietnamese, like, depending on what you call surround, Chinese. But now it's got 30. And that means that it's got so many vowels that speaking through a mask is probably less of a problem because the vowels come through loud and clear and they can help to distinguish what the consonants are that are being confused because you've got so many vowels to work with, and, well with context, you must be fine. So if you're a Rotokas speaker, and I'm sure I have many Rotokas speakers among my listeners, let me know how much of a pain in the ass the masks have been. And if you're Cambodian, let me know if you've noticed that with Cambodian, actually it's just not that much of a problem. It is, you know since we're talking about Cambodian, it's time for a song clip. And, you know, let's try this. It's Cambodia. It's hot there. In the summer of 1987, it was hot because it was summer, at least in Philadelphia. And I had this mind numbing but socially wonderful job working in the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia. And I remember this song was one of the pop hits, and I've always loved it. And I don't know anybody else who does. But one of the people who worked there, a woman in her 50s, I remember she said, you know, I like this one. I've been hearing this one on the radio. I like it. So well, Cathy liked it. So I'm not alone. I salute Cathy and Barbara and Antoinette, my summer coworkers, back at the Federal Reserve Bank in 1987. You know, actually, folks, for those of you who may have read Nine Nasty Words, this is the summer job where there was another coworker who used to yell motherfucker all the time. This is that job. In any case, the song is by ABC. Yeah, I know. But there was something about them and it's “When Smokey Sings.” It is one of my top ten favorite shitty pop hits of all time.

When Smokey Sings


You know who else has a problem with the masks and you kind of wouldn't expect it, people who use sign languages. Now, you kind of think that because they're talking with their hands that the mask would be less of a problem, but no. The truth is that facial expression is very important to getting across not only the things that we convey with facial expressions in spoken languages, but also grammar. There are grammatical things — and not just little nuances, but, you know, basic grammar — where you really have to have the face. And of course, the mouth and the nose are, for most people, part of the face. And so having the mask on when you're doing sign language is a problem. And in some ways it's more of a problem than it sometimes is in spoken languages, especially with Cambodian. And so, for example, you're trying to express yourself in American Sign Language, ASL and you do kind of a, a pout with your lips, a little bit of a pout, and you're kind of miming mmm. So that's what you're doing. That is one way of saying “regularly.” So whatever you're signing, whatever the verb is, when you do that little pout — as if to go mmm — that means that you do it on a regular basis. Now, if you think about it, that's not just making some facial expression. If I make my lips into a little pout and go mmm, nobody around me is going to say: oh, you do it that often? Doesn't look like that at all. In other words, it's arbitrary, like so much of language. There's no reason you call that thing a cat. That's not the sound it makes. It doesn't go cat. It's just arbitrary. Well, that kind of mmm, I'm sure there's some story as to how that came to mean regularly, but now it's just language. Well if you can't see your mouth then you can't convey that. Or you do the same pout but then you stick your tongue between your teeth a little bit, like thth. A little bit of th-ness. That means “carelessly.” Once again you can't convey it if you've got that damn thing on your face. Oh, by the way, I keep calling it that. I have masked along with everybody else, but goodness have I hated it. I don't like having that thing on. And it's partly because I'm weird. And I mean, I know none of us like it, but for example, I own not a single hat. I have never had a hat since I wasn't being made to wear one. I don't like something on my head and I have never felt, goodness my head is cold. And so only on the very, very, very coldest days will I put up a hood. I have various pairs of sunglasses. Never wear them unless I'm on the beach on my back with the sun right in my eyes. I get, most people put on shades. I don't want to. I don't want that in front of my eyes. I want to see the world as it is. Same thing with the masks, don't like them. That's why I keep on saying Goddamn, I have never gotten used to them, but I do read them. But if you are signing, then it's a problem to the point that there are these masks with windows in the front so that you can see and people who are signers like them quite a bit. Also, there's lipreading involved with sign language. It's to an extent. And once again, if the lips are covered up, you can't read them. And so the masks have not been fun for people who are using signed as opposed to spoken language, despite the fact that you might think that sign languages are all about the hands. That's what I thought at first. I thought, well, if there's one good thing about this, it's that people who are signing don't have to feel like they're being muffled by the masks for what I thought of as the obvious reason. But no, I wasn't thinking hard enough. They do.


Something else about the pandemic and language. You know, if you are somebody who, you know, for part of your living writes for the media, now and then you make predictions and it's very easy to never check up to see whether your predictions come true. You write it, and I don't know if all people are aware that if you write for the media regularly, you forget what you write the second you write it because you're on to the next thing. And a lot of people forget what you write the second you write because they're on to reading the next thing. And so pundits, as it’s sometimes called, don't get checked up upon enough. And so I decided to check up on myself. I said two things about language and the virus. I was wrong about one and I was right about another one. The one I was wrong about is that sometime back there, and I'm pretty sure it was on this show, I said that people were not going to take up the term Covid, they were going to call it Corona. Because there was a time — I'll bet we're almost already forgetting —  where you could talk about Corona. I remember that's what my kids were calling it for the first two or three months. And I was calling it that because Corona is a prettier word than Covid. You could call that arbitrary, but rrr, nnn, they don't stop — as opposed to covvv, which kind of has the kind of tire on the pavement then d. So it's like covvvv … d, it's like an accident. And so I kind of thought esthetically Covid is going to catch on because it sounds like the disease that it is, whereas Corona puts a kind of a corona of gentleness around it. I was wrong. Covid is what has caught on and to have people calling it Corona — they're going to have people doing that probably in movies about this in 20 years. And it's going to be a little, a little inaccurate, like showing people with water bottles in 1991 when it hadn't happened yet. But then I actually was right about something else. And this is something the same sweetheart is the one who came up with, it wasn't really me, but I jumped onto it and I wrote about it in the Atlantic. There was an idea that people who use a heritage language, as we call it, at home — s o people who say in the United States use English outside of the home, but then another language from another country in the home. The idea was that kids were going to get better at speaking those home languages during the lockdown because they weren't out being distracted by English as much. That was a prediction. It was something you could imagine and you couldn't be sure, but it looked like that was going to happen. And if you check up on it a year and a half later, it looks like that has definitely been true. Now, whether the effects will stick is a question. I would bet they won't. We should check up on that in the future. But nevertheless, a year and a half later, it's been shown that kids who have been under lockdown have been better at their heritage language because they aren't so distracted by English from the outside and English having that coolness effect, even if it does it through the media. Still your home with grandma, your home with your parents, you're using it more. There's a study by Li Sheng at U. Delaware. Li Sheng, and they were working with various other people. And it shows that if you are in a household these days, you're four to eight years old and English is the outside language, Mandarin is used at home. After the lockdown, these kids have been better at Mandarin than they were before. So their comprehension of English and Mandarin is the same, but they produce Mandarin. Their spoken Mandarin is a little better than their spoken English because it's been polished at home with native speakers of Mandarin such as their parents and their grandparents, and they haven't interacted live as much with English speaking peers. So that's a neat study. And similar things have been shown in Britain and Ireland and in Norway. And I also found a study in Uganda. Same thing. So we're not saying Corona, we're using that ugly word Covid, but it has given a little bump to kids retaining the language of their parents as opposed to big giant, nasty, dirty English. So language at home, language and love, love American style. There's your transition because I want the other song cue In this episode to be one of my favorite theme songs. Love American Style was a show that really does not travel outside of its time zone at all. It was this anthology show with these, you know, by today's standards, tacky little stories about love and hinting at sex about as much as Procter and Gamble could let you get by with at the time. But one of the best things about it was the theme song, which I remember. I found the show when I was seven and eight, about as incomprehensible as The Tales of Gilgamesh. But I did like the theme song and this is it. It's The Cowsills. If anybody remembers this, I know you liked it too, even if you didn't want to bother with the show.

Love American Style theme song

For the musicologists among you, what's good about it is the pedal point in the bridge, the way the note in the bottom is the same all the way through. It makes the bridge sound kind of nostalgic and, frankly, more sophisticated than it is. I love pedal point.


What about new words during Covid? Well, as I’ve told you, to be honest, I have not found anything terribly interesting about them except that the words are just new. As you know, I'm often kind of a grammar person, but there is something that's interesting. More about me and the predictions. And this one seems to be coming true. When I say that language is always changing and you should take it as kind of a spectator sport, this was one of those things. And so, for example, the word mash, as in The Monster Mash. I say that because, remember Count Chocula and Frankenbrry. Well, they release those at Halloween again, and I love Frankenberry. It is a marvelous cereal. Usually you only get it at Halloween. For some reason, I found it in up-ish-state New York for sale at a Target. And so now I have a box of Frankenberry the size of a child in my home, and on the back there's something about Monster Mash. So the word mash, originally it was maks. Okay, now that in itself is just an isolated factoid. But fish, the original word was fisk and then in some dialects it became fiks. So you see how something ks. But then that might become sk, and then that might become sh. There's this ks, sk, sh interchange in English just like ask, for example. Well, just as many dialects of English have said aks as ask, and that is why, yes, Black people in colloquial speech say aks, not to mention many white people. It's not because people don't know what order to put their consonants in. It's because way back in old English, there was an alternation between askian and aksian. And now we have that as ask and aks, and that's not special pleading because also mash and maks, fish, fisk, fix. Well, if that's true, then I've been listening to people talking about vaxing and people being antivax and I've been thinking we need about five minutes before you start hearing people say antivask because when you say ks, there's a part of we English speakers that wants to kind of switch it around. There's always that little alternation. And so you can aks, you can ask, it's a maks that becomes mashing, etc. I was thinking antivax, some people are going to say antivask because it feels kind of good and because we're used to words like mask and ask and wouldn't you know, it's true. There apparently is an expression that's making its way. It starts small and then maybe it'll spread, but it's making its way. You can be antivask, antimask. That's what people are saying. I've only seen it with antimask alongside. But still, I'll bet it's the beginning of a colloquial pronunciation of vax as vask because it feels right, because there's so many words that end in sk as well as ks. So there is a, a Tweet that I found.

Humans are generally like this. Hear/read something 1000X--e.g. anti-vask & anti-mask lies from Right Wing TV, radio, newspapers or social media

Or there's somebody who wrote, frankly sadly: I know anti-vask, anti-mask nurses. Well, the world is complicated, but that means that yes, vax … antivask. Say that enough, and there are going to be people who say antivask. I'm assuming that before long, if it hasn't happened already, there are going to be people talking about the antivask people and just, you know, letting it go by because that's how language goes. There's some words during Covid. That's the one I've been listening for. And so far, it's behaving the way I think it should. And of course, that's what it's all about.

If you'd like to leave a comment or check out our other great podcasts, Banished with Amna Khalid and Bully Pulpit with Bob Garfield, or if you want to subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and, as always, Mike Vuolo. And our theme music was created by Harvest Creative Services. You know what, if I may, unless your body really can't take it, you should get the vaccine. And in any case, your host has been John McWhorter.

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Sep 22, 2021
What Do They Speak in Afghanistan?
Dari and Pashto are the two major, official languages of Afghanistan, and are even siblings in the Iranian subfamily of Indo-European languages. One, says John McWhorter, is “disarmingly approachable” while the other is “deliciously intimidating.”



From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and here is our question for this episode. What do they speak in Afghanistan? Notice my melody. I put Afghanistan on the low pitch. I didn't say, what do they speak in Afghanistan? I don't mean that precisely. I mean, what do they speak in Afghanistan? The low pitch means that it's a concept that we already know. And by that I mean that we know why I'm talking about Afghanistan and that the reasons are extremely unfortunate. But because this is a language podcast, it occurs to me that we might want to cover, among all the sorts of things that we're thinking about Afghanistan, what is it that the locals there speak? What do they speak in Afghanistan?

You might reasonably suppose that it's Arabic. If I were a layman, I think that's the first thing that I would think. As a matter of fact, I remember when the Taliban first started making the news a good long time ago, I kind of wondered what language is all of that taking place in? And it isn't anything that kept me awake at night, but I didn't know as much of the time and I thought Arabic, I guess. But if you're looking at scenes in Afghanistan, no, they're not speaking Arabic, but then they're not speaking Afghan or Afghani either. Properly, there is no such language. You might think there was because, say, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan. In Turkmenistan, they speak Turkmen, among other things. In Kazakhstan, they speak the language Kazakh. But it's not always like that. So, for example, in Pakistan — our sister podcast Banished, which is hosted by Amna Khalid happens to come to mind — Aman Khalid is Pakistani. Originally, she speaks not some language called Paki, which doesn't exist to my knowledge. She speaks Urdu. She doesn't speak Paki. Same thing with Afghanistan. There is no Afghani language. Noticed that you've never heard of it. Have you ever heard anybody say, well, my original language was Afghan? There's a reason, there is no language like that. And that's because there are two main languages in Afghanistan. And, you know, we can go through our whole lives and never hear them if we don't happen to be people who live in Afghanistan or somewhere close to it. The two languages are Dari and Pashto, Dari and Pashto. Most people in Afghanistan, whatever they spoke on their mama's knee, speak Dari. About half of the population of Afghanistan speak Pashto. A great many people, of course, speak both. And there are other languages. But the big two, the official ones and the ones that almost anybody knows one of and quite possibly both are Dari and Pashto. And what in the world are those? I would say that I've met one Dari speaker in my life and I'm pretty sure I have never met anybody who spoke Pashto, not in any real way. And yet millions and millions and millions of people speak these two languages. What are they? As it happens, they come from the same linguistic family, technically subfamily. And as it happens, the two languages teach us a lesson because they're on opposite poles of the family in terms of an interesting contrast in the ways that languages can be languages. So let's take a look at Dari and Pashto, because that's what the people who we’re seeing in the news are speaking. They're not speaking Arabic.


Dari is Persian. I think we all know where Persian is spoken, in terms of its central location, but there are two other places that have truly massive numbers of speakers of Persian. It's just that it isn't called that there. So if you're speaking Persian in Afghanistan, it's called Dari. If you're speaking Persian in Tajikistan, then it's called Tajik. But Persian, Dari and Tajik are the same language. They are different dialects of the same language. No one would call them separate languages. They're all Persian. Of course, there are differences in vocabulary from place to place, differences in pronunciation, and sometimes a little bit more than that. But they are all the Persian language. It's a little lesson in how languages and nations do not have perfectly corresponding boundaries. Persian is spoken in a big giant splotch, and Iran is only one place where it's spoken. All languages, unless they're very small, are bundles of dialects. And so unless the language only has, say, a few million speakers, you can be pretty sure that it's not going to be spoken the same way in place A as it is in place B, and then there's going to be a different flavor of it in place C. Sometimes these different dialects will have different names. And so, for example, I've mentioned on this show and in many other places that really, in perfectly objective eyes, if no one knew anything about geography or history, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are one language you might call mainland Scandinavian. But for various reasons of history and culture, they are called the three separate languages of Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. So we have Persian, Dari and Tajik. They are all the same basic thing. And Persian, or Dari or Tajik, is interesting because it is a disarmingly streamlined language if you're trying to learn it. It's truly surprising to encounter Persian, or if you encounter it in its Dari or Tajik form, it's the same thing, and to find that you don't have the challenge that you associate with learning just about any other language that you've had to deal with. And so I remember way back before I knew anything about Persian, in the mid 90s, there was an elderly gentleman who was caught in the rain outside of my apartment. What you do is you let that gentleman in and what you do when you have absolutely nothing in common with someone, if you're me, is that you see what language they speak originally if you notice that they speak English with an accent. Turned out that he was a Persian speaker. And so we just started talking about how his language worked because I was genuinely interested. And that was about all we were going to manage a conversation with, given what looked like was going to be a long time because he had locked himself out of the apartment next door.


So the first thing that I noticed is that this language doesn't have gender. Like, of course, there can be a difference between a bull and a cow, but it doesn't have that business of silly gender that so many European languages and beyond have. No, you know, hat is masculine and moon is feminine, like in Spanish, just none of that at all. IT just struck me as unusual, given that Persian is an Indo-European language. It was different. But, you know, we all have our quirks. You never know what's going to happen. I, for example, I don't own a single hat, never have. Not since I was a kid when people would impose them on me. I don't wear hats. I'm not afraid of them, but I don't think I look very good in them. And I have never found myself thinking, oh, goodness, my head sure is cold. It's not my head that gets cold, it's my fingers, etc. So I don't own a hat. That's my quirk. Well, Persian doesn't have the gender, but then it kind of went on. So I said, well how do you do the plural? And he said, well often you don't. And so I was thinking, well what do you mean? Because an Indo-European language usually is quite anal about saying that you're not seeing leaf on the trees, you're seeing leaves, even though the chances of you only seeing one damn leaf on a tree are very small, you have to say leaves. And some of you may know that if you go beyond Indo-European, languages often are not that persnickety about plural. If you're doing Chinese or Japanese, you see leaf on the trees. Only if you're really being picky are you going to say that you see leaves because it's so obvious. Usually you mark something with plural when it's either human or when it's definite, and you really need to specify that there's more than one. That's the way a great many languages are. You don't have to be as draconian about marking that there's more than one of something that there almost always is in a great many languages beyond Indo-European. But all of a sudden you have Persian acting like it's Chinese or Japanese. And you might think, well, there's something about the air in Asia or something like that. But no, I knew that there was something really unusual when we started doing the verbs, and so what you want to know is how you conjugate verbs and you're thinking it's going to be like Spanish with the hablar. Why can't I use an accent, hablar “to speak,” comer “to eat” — COMER — and then vivir “to live.” You have to have those three classes and the endings are kind of different. So I'm just waiting for that because it would pass the time, because it kept raining and raining. And so I buy, mikharam, okay. You buy, mikhari, okay. He, she, it buys, mikharad, okay. And you just had these, these endings, so boom boom boom. Okay, that's good. Now what's, is there another flavor. That's buy. But what about one where it's going to be like instead of am, i, ad, it's going to be something like em, e ed, you know because all languages are going to be like Spanish. And he said no, that's it. And I said, well yeah, how about the past? You know, and the past is usually, you know, some s**t show in a language of this family. And well, mikharam, that's “I buy.” Now then “khar” is the “buy,” the “mi,” you drop that off. And so, “kha,” and then if it's “I bought,” you say “kharidam.” So it's that same “am” from “I buy,” mikharam, but you stick an “id” in between the verb and that ending. So kharidam, “I bought.” Okay well if “i” is the “you” ending, I said I'll bet it's kharidi. And he said yes you are right, you are talented. I don't think that demonstrated any talent, but I could see a pattern coming. And then it turned out that if you want to say, “he, she, it bought” then you just say kharid, and you don't have anything. Well, okay, and I kind of prodded him. I said, is that really it? Because this is just not the way Indo-European languages really are.


And you know what Persian is a lot like? It's a lot like English. If English and Persian were people and they met, they would bond. They would feel like they were similar cases amidst the norm of how Indo-European language works. And so, for example, here and there, I say English is the only Indo-European language in Europe that doesn't have crazy gender. Now, it's easy to listen to me saying that or read me saying that, and miss the Europe part. And smarty-pants always writes in or, you know, says something on Twitter where they say, no, no, you know, Persian doesn't have gender either and it’s Indo-European. I said in Europe, but they missed that. But the fact is, in Europe, it's English. Anywhere else it's Persian. They have that in common. And it's because of Persian, like English, having gotten beaten up, if I may. English is the way it is because, starting in 787 A.D., Scandinavian Vikings came to England and beyond in great numbers, married native English speaking women and Dad spoke funny English. And in a time when there is virtually no literacy, no such thing as school for all but very few people, no such thing as the media, language is all oral. The way Dad spoke his funny English affected the way new generations learned English. And that means that I'm right now speaking really shitty Old English in a way because it lost so much. And I shouldn't say shitty because there's nothing remotely shitty about Persian. But Persian is the same story in that Old Persian was much, much more complex. But Persian was a language of empire. And in order to build especially various monuments and various municipalities within Persia, Persia imported people from a great many other places. And one thing about those people from other places is that because they were from the other places, they did not speak Persian. And as a result, they came up with a simpler kind of Persian and passed that down the generations in a society that largely did not have literacy. And next thing you knew, you had a streamlined kind of Persian such as you have today. So both Old English and Old Persian went through the same process, and the result was the disarmingly approachable, for a foreigner, versions of the languages that you have today. So Persian has always fascinated me in that way. And by the way, some of you may be thinking, why isn't he saying Farsi? And the reason I'm not saying Farsi is because I don't call French Francais and I don't call Finnish Suomi. That's what it would be like. You may choose to do that, but Persian is what the language is called in English. Farsi is what it's called in the Persian language. And so in the interest of consistency, if you don't say I'm going to learn some Español, and you mean it outside of quotation marks, you don't say you're going to learn some Farsi either. I know that opinions may differ on that in some places, but that's actually what I was taught by a Persianist, and so I am going with him. But in any case, what this means is that you're learning Persian on a rainy day and you're finding that it's smooth, it's sweet, it's lovely. It reminds you of a song, say, of 1931. You knew it was coming. And the song was called Sweet and Lovely. I remember one day when I was living on the Lower East Side in grinding poverty as a grad student, I was walking my way to NYU and for reasons I don't even understand now, there was a 1920s band playing a 1931 arrangement out there on those Lower East Side streets. Why they chose there, I don't know. I remember it was a crisp fall day and all of a sudden this beautiful song is being played by this authentic band. And I remember I'm not that old. This is 1987. So this is already an antique sound. I don't mean: I remember how the bands used to sound. That's not what Imean, it was just like, wait a minute. And I loved the chords in this song, Sweet and Lovely. So I'm giving you Sweet and Lovely. The lyrics, frankly, are just treacly. Forget the lyrics, listen past the words and listen past the fact that that high tenor was fashionable at the time. It's a pretty tune. It reminds me of poverty, autumn and the Reagan administration.

Music: Sweet and Lovely


Dari has what we could call the bully pulpit in Afghanistan, in that it is the one that most people speak, you know bully pulpit reminds me that the other sister podcast of Lexicon Valley here at Booksmart is Bully Pulpit with Bob Garfield. Subscribe to Lexicon Valley, please, but don't forget Amna Khalid’s Banished and also Bob Garfield's Bully Pulpit. That just happened to come to my mind. In any case, what about Pashto? Well, you know, let's go back to English to understand how Pashto works. And so, Proto-Germanic was a language that was very complicated. It's got case endings all over the place. The verbs are so complicated you barely believe anybody could actually use them. There were those old Indo-European languages, like Sanskrit, like Latin, like Proto-Germanic. That language hits the continent and it spreads around and that language gets learned by lots of other people. And the result is, at the extreme, English, where Vikings beat it into the quote unquote, easy language that it is today. But even elsewhere, there were similar stories. And so, for example, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are all a lot like English in that way, not quite to that extent, but they’re a lot like it. And that's because speakers of Low German, which unfortunately is spoken above what is called High German and is really a different language. Speakers of Low German came to the Scandinavian area and they beat up the Old Norse that those languages originally were, which was one of these early Proto-Indo European languages. They beat it up in the same way as Vikings beat up old English. And so, Swedish and Danish and Norwegian are very approachable languages, Danish less so because of some eccentric things that have happened to its sound system. But those are, you know, relatively streamlined languages, as grammar goes. Dutch is a lot the same way and German could be worse compared to — it's no accident that the version of Proto-Germanic that’s spoken way up on a remote island like Iceland remains still that complicated. Icelandic is like Latin, Icelandic — it's not as difficult as Sanskrit, but it's that sort of thing because almost nobody bothered it. Some people. But for the most part, over the years, if you weren't a native Old Norse speaker up there, well, you didn't have much influence on the language. Same thing in the Faroe Islands, actually, but Icelandic is better known. So that's the sort of thing that happens where you'll have the easy member of the family. English is the extreme in Germanic compared to Icelandic. They both are descended from the same ancestor. Icelandic didn't fall far from the tree. English went to, like, Jupiter. There's Persian, then Persian has a sister, not a sister podcast, but a sister language. And that sister is none other than Pashto. Pashto is the Icelandic of the family that Persian and Pashto belong to. And it's not that Pashto went to Jupiter, but Pashto has not been learned by non-native speakers, not been learned by the naïve, over the age of 15 or 16 foreigner, to the extent that Persian was way back in its history. And so what happens is that Pashto suddenly is complicated the way languages normally are. So if the guy I had, you know, rescued from the rain had been a Pashto speaker, we'd still be sitting there figuring it out today. So, for example, Persian kind of doesn't want to mark the plural. And when it does, it does it with this one suffix. Well, in Pashto, the plural could make a grown man cry, like eyelashes, banugon. Okay? Hands, las, not gon, not lasgon, lasuna. Wolves, [native pronunciation], mothers-in-law, [native pronunciation]. I like that word too — [native pronunciation]. All those different plural endings depending on, you know, what gender and then what all sorts of other things. There are all sorts of plural endings and Pashto to an extent you just have to know. But then to an equal extent there's just a lot you have to know to know which one to use. And then, you know, don't even get into the verbs. And so, for example, fell, like I fell from the roof. So I fell, luedum. Okay, luedum. So the um is the I. No I didn't fall, you fell. Okay, luede. Okay, so far so good. Now, he fell, lueda. What happened there is that now the lued doesn't have the accent and you just have to know. It's not luEDa, it's luedA, and then it's this weird a sound. So I fell, luedum. You fell, luede. He fell, lueda. And then, you don't get away with he, she and it the way you do in Persian, you have to have a “she” of its own. And so luedella, she fell. And this sort of thing goes on and on. There all sorts of different flavors. It's deliciously intimidating. And on top of that, in Pashto, you've got case and so nouns are different depending on whether you're just using them in the vanilla way or whether they're possessive. And so, you know, something like the book's cover or if you want to say something like it's on the book, then it's a whole different form. If you want to say, oh, oh book — then it's the vocative. Usually you use it with people, something like Oh Cow! Or, Jared! Well, you have to use an ending. So you've got case in this language. Pashto is a completely different thing than Persian. It is related to it. It comes from the same original language, but it's a whole different thing because it has not been touched by non-natives’ grubby mitts the way Persian was. At Columbia, where I teach, there's a program called General Studies and General Studies is where students come and they get their undergraduate degree after having spent their late teens and into their 20s and sometimes beyond doing other things. And sometimes the other thing is, you know, being a ballet dancer. Sometimes the other thing, actually frequently the other thing, is serving in the military. And I have had a few students, more than a few GS, as we call them, students who served in Afghanistan. And unbidden, two of them independently told me that in their language training, they found that Dari was cherry pie. They didn't use that expression. But that Dari’s easy. And with Pashto, actually, one of them said, just forget it. And the other one just shook his head and looked out the window like he'd been through something awful. So Persian, real easy, but Pashto just insurmountable. And that's because of this difference between the two of them, Dari and Pashto.


Let's pull the camera back. They’re a family. It's actually a subfamily of Indo-European, is Iranian. There are languages spoken in, big surprise, Iran and also in Afghanistan and also Tajikistan. And this is the Iranian group. So we've talked about Germanic and there's Slavic. Iranian is another one. And the thing about the Iranian subfamily and the reason that I've never done a show explicitly dedicated to it is because most of us have never heard of any of the languages except Persian, you know, not even Pashto, really. Beyond Persian and Pashto, the one that you may have heard of in the news is Kurdish or if anything, you hear about the Kurds and their fate as a technically stateless group. They speak a language called Kurdish. And Kurdish is very interesting in terms of its difficulty. It would be in between Persian and Pashto. Then with the others, just forget it. They’re languages that you have no reason to have heard of beyond where they're spoken. The next biggest one is Balochi, for example. They have great names often. Yazgulyami is my favorite. Wakhi is fun to say. Ossetian. There's something fun about every one of those languages, but for me to talk about it would be to just give you a list of languages and factoids. And that's not teaching. That's just recitation. And I don't want to do that to you, but if you want to learn more about them, you have to know where to look because a lot of the description of these languages is in French or Russian. It can be tough to really get a hold on Iranian. I remember when I decided I needed to because of a project I was doing about 15 years ago, so much was in French or Russian. It was as if the whole group were just saying, fuckya. My father used to tell this story of how he watched — there was a woman that they were trying to evict from her apartment and she kept on opening the door and saying, fuckya, just fuckya. And the languages, I thought, you know, if you only read English, then they're just saying, fuckya. But the truth is, they are really a fascinating story. And you find that Persian is the easy one and Pashto, it’s like it's trying to be hard, and the rest are all in between. And by the way, of course, Pashto has gender. It divides things into, you could say, guys and dolls and, you know, Guys and Dolls was and is and will always be a Broadway musical. There was a delightful revival in 1992, beautifully recorded, unlike the original. The original Guys and Dolls in 1950, the Broadway recording sounds like it was done in somebody's basement. You get no sense of why people love the show so much. But in 1992, it just jumps, quote unquote, off of the turntable. This is just the title song, which I love. And, you know, one of these guys singing is J.K. Simmons. This is just before he becomes the favorite that we know him as in, you know, from the Coen Brothers films, et cetera. One of these people is him singing and what a great little song.

Guys and Dolls


Finally, what they're not speaking in Afghanistan. We have to go back to that because it's so easy, given the situation to not be clear on this. And, you know, people don't talk about it much. They're not speaking Arabic. Arabic is a Semitic language, as we've seen in this series. Semitic belongs to this Afro-Asiatic family, but Arabic is related to, for example, Hebrew, not to mention Amharic over in Ethiopia. But, the people who are in Afghanistan, they're Muslim, but they don't speak Arabic, because, as we know, all Muslims do not have Arabic as a native language. Now, what makes it even more confusing is the common idea that a language is what it's written in, that the script is the language. And Persian and Pashto are written in variations on the Arabic script. But that doesn't mean that they are Arabic or that they're even related to Arabic in the family sense. And so if you see German or Czech on the page, you don't think, well, that's some kind of English. Same thing here. So, without a doubt, Dari written and Arabic written, if you don't know either one of them — and sometimes if you're kind of familiar with both — they look like the same thing on the page because of that script, but they're completely unrelated things. Then what about Turkish? You might think, you know, based on, you know, aspects of physiognomy and the geographical contiguity — how does Turkish fit into this? Well, they're not speaking Turkish in Afghanistan either. And the thing is that you might think it because there's Uzbekistan and there's Kazakhstan, there's Turkmenistan and there's Tajikistan. They frustrate me. I learned my countries as a Montessori kid back in the early 70s with these wonderful maps, with puzzle pieces so you learned it in a tactile way. But my geography, to an extent, is frozen then. And those new Stans, that wonderful blossom of countries, well, there were no puzzle pieces of that. And so they're never in my mind as much as everything else. So Afghanistan to me, that is, you know, ABC. But Tajikistan, where is it? But, if you look at the map and you see those well, as it happens, Uzbek and Kazakh and Turkmen, those languages are all closely related to Turkish. And so you might kind of think, well, Afghanistan, well, maybe there's this Turkish language, Afghani or something like that. But actually, Turkish is a whole separate thing. Turkish is not related to Arabic either. Turkish is the sort of head honcho language of what's really a bunch. They're almost a kind of stripe. Turkish Uzbek, Uiger is another one, then there's Kazakh, there's Kirgiz, there's Turkmen, there's a bunch of them. And all of them are kind of like Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. They kind of run into one another. They all have very similar grammars. So that's Turkic, as it's often called, because sometimes it could be hard to figure out where the line is between Turkish and this one and that one and that one. But, Turkish is not Persian, Turkish is not Pashto and Turkish is not Arabic. Now, what makes this even more confusing is that Turkish is full of Persian words. And wouldn't you know, Turkish is also full of Arabic words because Persian is full of Arabic words and Turkish inherited the Arabic words from Persian as well as the Persian words. So Turkish has a very mixed vocabulary, used to be much more mixed. But even now you've got all this Persian and then Arabic stuff in it. And so you're thinking, well, these languages must be related, but no. Turkish’s grammar, the way you put the words together, is completely different from what's going on in Persian or Pashto or Arabic. And so Turkish is this language where the verb always comes at the end, where it's all about having not prepositions, but postpositions. It's a very interesting way of putting words and sounds together, completely different from Dari, Pashto or Arabic. And so, it's easy to think, even if you happen to be a Turk, that your language is related to Persian because it's got all those words. But it's just like with the script, the words is not the family relationship. So, for example, if I say: Officially, concerts present various problems. Officially, concerts present various problems. None of those words are originally English. And yet obviously that was a sentence in English. It wasn't in French, wasn't in Latin. That's the issue with Turkish. And so Turkish is itself in terms of what most of the words are, by most counts, and in terms of the grammar, even though it's got lots of Persian and Arabic words in it, Turkish is a whole different thing. And this Turkic group is part of a whole family called Altaic, which is different from Iranian, Indo-European and Semitic and Afro-Asiatic. And Altaic is not only Turkic, but as you move rightward, eastward across Asia, it's Mongolian and its friends. Then there's a language called Manchu and it has a few friends. And then possibly Altaic is Japanese and Korean. Now, in some circles, you could be banished. You can be banished from the room for insisting that Altaic is actually a family. Some people prefer to think of Turkic and Mongolian and the Manchu group and Japanese and Korean as separate families. And they think that all of these languages have very similar grammars just because they have been in contact with each other. I don't have a dog in that fight, but to the extent that anybody would ask me, which they shouldn't, there is an Altaic family and that's what Turkish is part of. So what do they speak in Afghanistan? They speak Persian, except it's called Dari there. And they speak a language called Pashto, which is a lot like what Persian would be if Persian hadn't gone through something similar to what English went through back in antiquity, when before there was much writing, a language could be profoundly changed by a certain critical mass of people learning it who were not natives. Dari and Pashto, that's what they are.

If you'd like to leave a comment, check out our other great podcasts, Banished and Bully Pulpit, or subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and as always, Mike Vuolo. And our theme music. Don't you like it? I like it. It was created by Harvest Creative Services. And I am John McWhorter.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Sep 07, 2021
The Morphing of Critical Race Theory
There’s a lot of passionate argument about whether “Critical Race Theory” should be taught in schools. But the meaning of CRT differs greatly depending on who you talk to. What did CRT originally mean, and what does it mean now? What are our children actually being taught? And why do some terms tend to become so thorny over time? Click play to find out.


JOHN McWHORTER: From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and we need to talk about something.


As I often do, I'm going to start from way outside and then I'm going to zero in. As you'll see, that is a general process that I consider very central to the passage of people and things and words through time. We need to talk about something. So let's start with something like audition. We all know what an audition is. You're picturing somebody nervous on stage. Think about what that word, quote unquote, should mean. The aud is about hearing. The reason that we say audition is because the original idea was that you would listen to someone recite something. Now, it was a natural drifting that you would go from someone reciting something on a stage or in a performance to someone playing an instrument or even someone doing a dance, something that doesn't involve sound at all. It could be a mime these days who auditions, but it started out being about hearing someone say something and then it changed. Words’ meanings change. No one today would say: How dare you use the word audition for dance? What's happening to language? Nobody says that because we all know that words don't always mean what they mean, that the form is often different from the content and that's just the way it is.

Lewd. Lewd used to mean that you were unlearned. It meant that you didn't know things. Now, no one who knows that says, how dare you imply that those people aren't intelligent, when what you're really talking about is issues of morality and sex or whatever lewd is about. You know, you can learn that it used to mean unlearned, but you don't wish that it still did. There isn't a sense that it's wrong that unlearned drifted into meaning that you can't keep your pants up or something like that.

One more, to get a little closer to what we need to talk about. Democratic, and no, I don't mean Greece. I mean the party here in the United States. Democratic once stood for very different things than it does now. Most of us know that Democrats were the party of segregation, for example. There's actually, there's a silly book, and I'm not going to name who wrote it or what the book's title is, because many of us write silly books now and then. I have once or twice, but a silly book that was basically saying that Black people need to stop voting Democratic so much because Democrats have often been quite racist in the past. And this meant things like the fact that Woodrow Wilson, you know, who was a straight up racist, that he was a Democrat, that Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Hugo Black to the Supreme Court and he had been an ex Ku Klux Klan member. All those things are true. But, you know, we think to ourselves, whatever racism we might find in the Democratic Party today, when we're talking about Wilson or what FDR’s priorities were, we're talking about a very long time ago. As history moves along, as conditions change, the parties change. What a Democrat is today is very different from what a Democrat was in 1920. Just like certainly being a Republican now is quite different from what it was in, say, 1865. So words’ meanings change over time. The sequence of sounds comes to refer to different aspects of this vale of tears called life than it once did, right? OK, we all know that. We've got that.


Words’ meanings don't only change, they often get more specific. They narrow. But it's not always about value, just they get more specific. It starts out general and then it gets down to cases. My favorite example of this is reduce. Reduce is from re, as in going back to, and then duce, leading. It used to be that reduce just meant going back to the way it was. That could be a good thing or a bad thing. That could be an increase or a decrease. It used to be that you could reduce something to its former glory. Get that? That it meant take it back to its former glory. Not that glory was somehow down in the dirt, but reduce just meant to take something back. Now, it could also mean to take something down into the mud, and that is what the word ended up meaning. And so we think of reducing as going down. But that is not what somebody would have thought of 500 years ago. The word changed. It got more specific. It happened to drift into a choice.

Getting a little closer to what we need to talk about today, how about diversity? We know what diversity means or don't we? Diversity, just difference, just willy-nilly. But we know that when we talk about diversity today, it tends to be much more specific than just talking about difference. You can talk about a diversity of mushrooms, but notice that you're already imagining that the word ends in ie rather than y, and it's probably in some ancient book that's falling apart. When we think about diversity, we are generally thinking about affirmative action policies, about even racial preference policies. And so, within the controversies over that, there is often someone who will say, well, you know, if we're looking for diversity, then what about Mormons and people from Idaho and somebody who has only one leg? What about that diversity? But no, we, we all know that what diversity means, in code, is Black Americans, Latinos and also Native Americans. That's what diversity policies are usually aimed at. And to be an American person is to know that that is the meaning that diversity has specified into. It’s narrowed.

And you know what's diverse in the real sense, as in the original sense, Beauty and the Beast, the Disney movie musical. And you know it's diverse when it's in Dutch. Yes. I spent about 15 minutes in Holland way back in 1992. And of course, when I was there, I wanted to at least be able to fake speaking Dutch. I could have a really, really bad conversation for about three minutes of the time I was there. And the way I learned it mostly was by listening to the Dutch soundtrack of the then new musical film, Beauty and the Beast over and over. This is the bon jour. And since this is so popular, most of you probably know basically what the words are. But yes, in the Netherlands, they dub these things — things like this, where kids, you know, they don't know English yet and so you have to do it in Dutch — and I enjoyed listening to it in Dutch. So here it goes.

MUSIC: Belle from Beauty and the Beast (in Dutch)

Daar gaat de bakker — there goes the baker — see how Dutch and English are related?


Let's get back to what we were talking about. So words’ meanings are always changing. Words’ meanings are getting more specific. Now, there's a term that we're using lately as if those two, frankly rather obvious, things weren't true. And that term is, get ready for it: critical race theory. We really need just some simple perspectives from linguistics to cut through a lot of one of the weirdest, messiest controversies I've seen in a long time, because nobody quite understands what the other person is talking about. And so critical race theory begins with obscure legal theory articles a good 35, 40 years ago. And they had a particular subject matter. They were about reconceiving our sense of how society works on the basis of power relations, which are so entrenched that we might reconsider the very philosophical foundations of the republic. That is one of the arguments in this body of work. And this body of work was, as legal scholarship, also about how we might reconceive our very notion of what justice is. So this is law school stuff. This is legal scholarship and it was titled Critical Race Theory. Now, today we're hearing that critical race theory is being used in schools and it's something quite different from what these legal papers were about because critical race theory has come to refer to different things than it happened to in, for example, 1985. This is what happens. So Democratic doesn't mean today what it meant in 1920. Diversity today doesn't mean what it meant as recently as, say, 1975. Critical race theory — what we mean by that has extended from what it originally meant into something that is different, related, but different.


So to take an extreme, and this is an extreme, there are schools where people are teaching a way of looking at things that's rooted in critical race theory, but certainly is not about exposing nine or 12 or even 15 year olds to articles written for legal scholars decades ago. But for example, there's the Dalton School in New York City and there is an anonymous letter from parents where they describe the sort of thing that has been going on at that particular school. It's something different from preaching from legal articles. So, quote:

Every class this year has had an obsessive focus on race and identity, racist cop reenactments in science, decentering whiteness in art class, learning about white supremacy and sexuality in health class. In place of a joyful progressive education, students are exposed to an excessive focus on skin color and sexuality before they even understand what sex is. Children are bewildered or bored after hours of discussing these topics in the new long format classes.

Now, that's not happening everywhere, but it is a useful peek at what is alarming many parents. What we have to understand is that when that is called critical race theory, we're talking about what that term has come to apply to in the wake of the original articles, but it doesn't refer anymore to the articles in question. So there's a pushback against that happening in the schools. And you should understand that my point here is only to be a linguist, not to editorialize about those things. As most of you know, I do that elsewhere. But my issue here is to say that if there's going to be a coherent debate about these things, we have to understand that the pushback against the kind of thing I just described is not against exploring the operations of power. It's not against students supposedly being introduced to a whole reconception of what justice should be. Almost nobody is teaching that to schoolchildren. The idea is the modern manifestation of CRT, as it's called, and that's less about legal theory than about, for example, separating students by race to teach them that race and power relations are deeply embedded in our fabric. It is having anti-racism be the core of pretty much all teaching in the schools. The people who came up with critical race theory weren't thinking about school pedagogy at all. This is the morphing of the term and what it applies to over time.

Or there's a general theme that you might teach that the whole American experiment has essentially been a kind of a, a crime spree. Now that, although the CRT people don't put it that way, it is a reflection of what those legal scholars thought. But the fact is, the package that is being taught in many schools today, and it really is, is not critical race theory as a legal scholar would have recognized it 30 years ago. Critical race theory as we discuss it today, is more specific than what these legal scholars were talking about. It's not about legal scholarship and the entire foundations of the nation. It's a particular pedagogical teaching program and a particular set of practices. So it's more specific.


You can do this with the word race. We all know what a race is. And it used to be that if it was a record, this is way back when there were records. This is back in the 20s and 30s. If there was a record of Black popular music, it was called a race record. Well, you know, there's the white race, the Black race and all the other ones. Why is it a race record when it's Black people? Well, that was because Black people were the nonwhite race who were most discussed. That's messy, but that was normal. And all this sort of thing means is that on the left to say that opposition to critical race theory is inherently racist is oversimplifying because the opposition might be to a specific way of addressing racism in these classrooms. So if there's a parent who's alarmed that the white kids are being put on one side of the room for activities and the Black kids are being put on the other side of the room within those activities, that doesn't necessarily mean that these parents are against students learning anything about race or even racism at all.

Then if you're on the right, you have to be clearer about your opposition to critical race theory, even if you're just in the center, because let's face it, many people in the center are against the sorts of things that are going on today. But if you say, well, we don't want any critical race theory taught in the schools, you have to realize that people are extremely unclear these days on just what critical race theory we're referring to. And there are great many people who are supposing that you're objecting to this legal theory being taught. And it's reasonable to suppose, if you don't want that being taught, you don't want people to learn about race and power and injustice at all. You have to make it clear — people on the right and even people in the center — that you're against specific things often going on at schools like Dalton today. That would make for a more constructive discussion, wherever the leaves fall, whatever happens, whoever turns out to hold the cards, whoever turns out to quote unquote be correct. The discussion could be more coherent if we allow that when you say CRT, you don't necessarily mean legal papers, especially if you're not a legal scholar or some other kind of graduate student. And what it means is that if somebody from the left says critical race theory isn't being taught in the schools, it's a little disingenuous because when a person objects to what they're seeing and calls it CRT, they're talking about a term whose meaning has morphed considerably over time.

Now, no doubt there are some people, especially on the right, I don't know any from the center, but especially on the right, who do want kids to not learn anything about race or racial difference or racism at all in the schools. There are occasional such people, and I should make it clear — here I am going to editorialize a little bit — I think that anybody who doesn't want racism or power relations or the dangers within them talk to students at all, I think that that's, narrow would be polite, frankly I think it's just wrong. So, for example, recently there was a case where Jacqueline Woodson, she is a Black woman author, she has this beautiful children's book called Brown Girl Dreaming. And there were parents who had a problem with that being taught out of the idea that that's critical race theory. No, no. There's nothing wrong with students being given a book that describes the experiences of that Black girl. Nevertheless, the left in saying if you don't like CRT, you're a racist, too simple. With the right, saying you're teaching CRT in these schools and being surprised when some people seem to think that you're talking about the legal theory of Kimberle Crenshaw, you have to understand the nature of this debate and realize that many people, and frankly they have reason to, suppose that people from the right don't want race taught at all. Most of you on the right don't mean that. Please make it clearer so that this debate can make more sense.

By the way, as you know, we like to stick mostly to linguistics and etymology and such here in the Valley. But if you’re interested in deeper dives on issues like Critical Race Theory, or what people mean these days when they talk about getting “cancelled,” here at Booksmart, we also have Amna Khalid at Banished and Bob Garfield at Bully Pulpit, both of whom deep dive on those topics every week. So subscribe to me too but collect all three. We are a family.


Let's get to what real people may really be thinking, not just getting more specific, but you might be thinking the new meaning is negative. So it's not just that it's more specific, but we have this business of thinking of critical race theory as a bad thing, all this stuff going on. Isn't that just the grand old story? The new meaning isn't only more specific, it's negative. It's a slur. Isn't that evidence of racism, of some kind of just general problem with Black people? It's that people are slamming it. But, you know, that is linguistically normal too. Words have a way of putrefying; pejoration is what it's sometimes called. So, for example, hierarchy. That word originally referred to the nine orders of the angels. It was an order of angels and angels are good and goodly. And I always imagined an angel smelling like honey, and if you licked an angel, they would have honey all over them, although they wouldn't mind. Nine orders of angels. Now think about how hierarchy feels to you now, just I say the word. Notice it's a little irritating. It goes a little down to your liver. Hierarchy. If anything, hierarchy tends to be bad. If you mention a hierarchy, there's at least an implication that there shouldn't be one or that the people who are on top of it have some explaining to do. Hierarchy’s kind of an “uh-huh” term. That's not the way it started. It used to be about angels.

Think about attitude. Attitude used to just mean your position, like you're standing in a certain pose. And then you could extend that to your position about any number of things in the emotional or the cognitive sense. But an attitude was how you held yourself. It was a position. Yet now notice, I say attitude, the first thing you think is bad attitude. If somebody has an attitude that means they have a bad attitude. You don't say somebody has an attitude and then picture that person smiling, or if they're smiling, it's a maleficent smile. Or you can say somebody has a positive attitude, but that presumes a contrast with a negative one and negative attitude feels redundant. Positive attitude is the attitude that you don't expect because having an attitude is negative. That is just normal. There's nothing that hierarchy and attitude have in common culturally that would make them both take that pathway. It's just that words have a tendency to putrefy. It's actually been shown that words develop negative meanings more readily than they develop positive meanings in the history of English at least.

Yeah, yeah. We need a song. And, you know, a lot of you liked Traffic when I did some Traffic in a recent episode. So how about more of that genre? So that kind of gritty, absolutely perfect music, kind of jazzy, fusiony, rocky stuff that a lot of people were doing in the late ’60s. That would have to be, for example, Blood, Sweat & Tears and my favorite from them. I don't know them that well, but my favorite from them is Spinning Wheel. It was on the radio long into my young childhood. Or maybe my father had it because it’s ’68 and I'm not remembering it from then. But Spinning Wheel, ride that painted pony. So how about a little of that, some of this music that's just God's music? It's like Duke Ellington. It's like Mozart. It's just good.

MUSIC: Spinning Wheel


McWHORTER: That negative business, that's especially likely with controversial topics, and so, for example, think about woke. Woke, like 10 minutes ago, was a compliment. It was this happy word, it basically replaced PC because PC had gone bad and it was this jolly thing. But I want you to listen to something. I don't want things to be all about me, but I want you to hear a certain person speaking on Colbertback in 2018 about the word woke. Listen to what I said back then when I was young and carefree.

McWHORTER: The one that's happening now is, you know, because I'm, I'm a stodgy person who tends to like old things and doesn't want things to change. And so I always learn about slang terms about 20 minutes too late. But, for example, woke. I'm not going to tell you when I learned that term, but when I learned it, it was still just the coolest thing. You are woke to the complexities of society and how injustice really happens. It was, it was cool. It smelled like roughly marijuana and lavender. It was that kind of word. And about two seconds later, a certain kind of person started sneering, oh, is that person woke? And it's at the point where woke is as in quotation marks in many circles as the word perky. You can't really say that anybody is perky. It's a word. It hasn't been a real word since roughly Bye Bye Birdie. Woke is the same thing. Now, woke is something that people from a certain side of the political spectrum are throwing at other people, the idea being that you're a smug person who thinks that your views are the ones that come from on high. That has happened during the time, roughly, that a certain person has become president and about six months before that. I've found it fascinating. Wokewill be all but unusable in 10 years.

Notice I said all but unusable in 10 years. What? It was all but unusable like 10 minutes after that taping. Here we are with woke being unusable outside of quotation marks at this point. That is what happens to words.

Oh, by the way, since it's all about me, just for a second. You know, folks, I would be a fool not to tell you here. I am doing a newsletter now in The New York Times, of all places, twice a week. So if you feel like it, you can also subscribe to me there. And it's not just columns. I don't feel like writing columns. It's like 700 words. I don't think in 700 words. I think in essays for some reason. They're letting me do an essay every three days. So, you know, 1200, 1500, I get to stretch out, but not too much so that I'm not taking up too much of your time as I might be here. But I did my first piece there on exactly this story of the word woke.

In any case, enough about me. Let's talk about neoliberals. Although come to think of it, I've been called one, but that's another one where it used to be that neoliberal was, quote unquote, good. So Walter Lippmann, you know one of those people very famous as a pundit at the time. Damned if you know anything he said then. It's such a fragile career, pundit. But Walter Lippmann, you know, he was the king, the Krugman, Brooks person, and he had this idea of neoliberal back in the day being a matter of “challenging the ruthless with an intuition of the human destiny, which is invincible because it is self-evident.” The way you could write for the popular press back then, it's the ringing 10 dollar words. I love it. That was Lippmann. And so that meant that in the late 70s, for example, if you were a neoliberal, you didn't like the free market or you were distrustful of it. You didn't like the National Review. But nowadays, when you hear neoliberal, it's often with a sneer. So there are people who have called it all about cutting expenditures for social services and it's about deregulation and eliminating the concept of the public good. Those are the sorts of things you hear about neoliberalism. In other words, as commitments have changed, as impressions have changed, as coalitions have changed, that term, neoliberal has turned upside down over the past nearly 100 years. That's normal. It would be peculiar if we meant today by neoliberal what people meant when there was no penicillin yet.

What is all this about? Controversy is inevitable about, for example, current developments in education. But to hear that some people don't like CRT being taught in the schools and to say nobody's teaching the work of Kimberle Crenshaw, or even to say, so you're saying you don't want these kids to learn anything about racism at all? You don't want us to stir that stuff up? That's crude, if I may. And I don't mean crude in the sense of vulgar, but I just mean that it's looking at these things too brusquely. It's not thinking about the fact that we mean different things by critical race theory. But all of us, no matter where we are on the spectrum, need to understand that there's a difference between what people meant by critical race theory in 1990, for example, and what people mean when they're worried about certain things going on in the schools here in 2021. Because the terms meaning has changed, we do have to accept that if somebody is angry about CRT in the classroom today, they don't necessarily mean that they think that nine year olds are being taught legal justice theory. They don't necessarily mean that they don't think that kids should learn about race and racism. They mean something more specific. And that's because critical race theory’s meaning has become more specific. And that's not a peculiar thing. This is what happens to terminology in this world that we live in.

In any case, if you’d like to leave a comment, check out our other great podcasts, Banished and Bully Pulpit, or subscribe, just visit BooksmartStudios.org. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and, as always, Mike Vuolo. Our theme music was created by Harvest Creative Services. And I am John McWhorter.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Aug 24, 2021
Mare of Easttown and the Philly Accent
In the 7-part crime drama, Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet plays a flannel-clad cop with a thirst for Rolling Rock, an appetite for hoagies and a tendency to pronounce water more like wooder. John McWhorter — who also, it turns out, grew up in Philly — discusses his hometown’s enigmatic accent and Winslet’s courageous attempt at imitating those impossibly difficult vowels. Most actors don’t even bother.


JOHN McWHORTER: From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and I want you to listen to this.

MARE: I doubt the thing’s gonna live very long.
STORE OWNER: Well, you'd be surprised. I mean, my mother turtle? Outlived her.
MARE: If it’s taken care of, sure. If you feed it and give it clean water and make sure it's not swimming in its own filth. It’s for my grandson, he's four and has trouble focusing on tasks.

That was from the newish series Mare of Easttown. That was Kate Winslet as the Mare protagonist talking. And, you know, if you want to be picky — and of course we don't, except just for this episode we do — there was something a little bit off about that line in terms of the pronunciation. And the reason we're going to be picky about that on this show is because finally, I want to do an episode devoted to the famous Philly accent, the Philadelphia accent. Finally, a Philadelphia show or movie actually takes the trouble to have people talking the way people actually talk in that city. Generally, if something's in Philadelphia, people either, you know, sound like they're from Los Angeles or there's this idea that people in Philadelphia must talk like New Yorkers because New York is close and, you know, you figure, well, Rocky must have sounded kind of like he was from New York because Sylvester Stallone looked like he was a refugee from a Scorsese movie. But no, there is a very distinct Philadelphia accent. And how do I know? Well, as many of you know, I grew up in Philadelphia. I grew up in Philadelphia in the 1970s and 80s. And the accent, the grand old accent is actually fading now. But I'm old enough to have been raised within it in its prime. And, you know, I have a fondness. I remember as late as the 90s, I’d call my mother's work and I'd get one of the the secretaries there on the phone, not the phone, but the phone. And one of them might say, oh, Shelly's out. My mother's name was Shelley. It would be Shelly's out. To me, that's warmth. That to me is a blueberry muffin. That to me is how people are supposed to talk. And to the extent that the white and the Black Philadelphia accent overlapped — and of course, they were different — but even now, I just love hearing either a white or a Black Philadelphian say now instead of now. Now we're going to do it now. That means that this is going to be a show about sounds, what linguists call phonology. And I don't usually go there partly because I'm not a phonologist, but mostly because it can be hard to make phonology fun without a whole lot of preparation. But this is about Philly and Philly is fun. And so I'm going to get this across to you. Mare of Easttown is in the news and it should be people, keep asking me how accurate it is, so let's do it.


And in order to do this, what we need to do, we've got to forget the alphabet. We're going to do vowels. I'm going to talk about Philly vowels. They're more interesting than the consonants. But we cannot have this idea that our vowels are a e i o u. Just forget that, that has nothing to do with the way those vowels are organized in your mouth, not even if you think about long a, short a whatever those are. It's not that. Here's how we do it. I want you to try something in your own mouth. Listen to me doing this: ēēē āāā aaa. Run them together: ēēēāāāaaa. Now, first of all, notice that when you go ēēēāāāaaa, you're going from up to middle to down. You're going downward: ēēēāāāaaa. Now, these things are both going from top to bottom, but they're also in the front. And you're thinking on the front of what. Because you know we're thinking of a e i o u, and we think well that's how vowels work. No, ēēēāāāaaa is front, because do this: oohōōōaah. Notice that not only are you going from top to bottom again, but they're further back: ēēēāāāaaa, up front; oohōōōaah, in the back. So that's how the vowels that we're going to talk about are actually arranged. So notice that āāā ōōō, they're both in the middle; ēēē ooh, they’re up at the top; aaa aah, that's not short a, long a or whatever. I was actually never taught what those were but they are on the bottom: aaa is the front version of aah. So, ēēēāāāaaa, oohōōōaah. Just remember that. Now what is the Philly accent? Often you read about it and it's considered so, you know, vague and strange and difficult and chaotic. Not really. You can think of it as something you do to a person. This is how I've often thought about it.


You are working with somebody — I don't know, you're trying to teach them how to breathe for singing or something like that — and you're trying to change their breathing patterns. People often say that in order to sing well, you have to think about your diaphragm. I don't know what that means. LAAAA. I am not thinking about my diaphragm, but suppose you tell somebody, OK, sweetie, now breathe deeply, breathe deeply. And instead of inflating their chest, they inflate their belly. So they go and they push their stomach out. And you say, no, no, no, not, not in the belly from the chest, come on, shoulders up. And you tell them to put their shoulders up and so their shirt rises in the back, but then it falls in the front. So it's like [mouth effect] like that. So you tell somebody, OK, breathe deep and they do it with their belly, so their bellies poking out in the middle. And then you say, no, no, no, no, no, no, shoulders up. And then they go up [mouth effect], but then the shirt goes down in the front like in a cartoon [mouth effect], like that. That is the Philly accent, because that's what happens to the vowels. And so if you think of the ēēēāāāaaa, that's the front; āāāis the belly, that's in the middle. So the person goes [mouth effect], instead of doing with their chest, and then you say up, your shoulders up. That's the back, that's the oohōōōaah ones. But then the shirt falls in the front [mouth effect], like that. OK, what the hell am I talking about? This. If you think about that person — to me it's this the hairy guy, you know, because I'm thinking about Rocky and the trainer, he's in a sleeveless shirt and the belly in the front. What do I mean by that? I mean this, let's stick with the Rocky. Rocky was made into a musical not too very long ago and, yep, I don't even need to tell you what that was like. But there was one thing, they made one salute to actually doing a Philadelphia accent. At one point somewhere in the late middle, they had some attendant tell somebody that something was closed and the person says it's closed. It's closed. That's the one time anybody used a Philadelphia accent and it was meant for a laugh. If you were from Philly, you got it immediately that that's how that person would actually have talked. Now, what he was doing was he was poking the belly out. And what I mean by that is this. Close, ōōō, remember our back sounds and so oohōōōaah, well, close gets pushed up front, ēēēāāāaaa. So the ōōō becomes more like āāā. Closed, closed, closed. You're pushing it up front. And so in Philadelphia, often you don't go, you go, you go. It's not just weird, it's that the ōōō … āāā is being pushed up front. The belly's going out and so [mouth effect], and so closed. You go. There's a lot of that belly in the Philadelphia accent. And by belly I mean that you have the vowels being attracted to that front middle. It's sticking its belly out. And so, for example, let's go back to ēēēāāāaaa; aaa is up front. Well, in the Philly accent the aaa often comes up a little bit. It comes towards the āāā, so ēēēāāāaaa … and so the aaa is more like an ehh. Just like closed becomes closed, aaa is more like ehh. And that's the same thing. It's just that there's this attraction to the belly. And so, for example, you don't take a bath, you take a bath, you take a bath. It's not half of an apple, it's half of an apple. You have a lousy house. Oh, it's a lousy house. That's pure Philadelphia. What that is, is not quote unquote nasal or strange. It's that laaa … ousy goes to lehh … ousy, because it's closer up to the āāā of the belly. Now, what's interesting about Philly, this shows you how random these things are, is that aaa, that cat sound, goes up to an ehh in that way before a lot of consonants, but not all of them. It only does it before the noisy ones, the ones that hiss like fffsss, and then the ones that are nasal, like mmm and nnn. So you have bath, half. It's a lousssy houssse. It's a mannn, OK. But, it means that not before the consonants that aren't noisy, not before just d, p, t, k. So you have somebody who is taking a bath and they're sad about it. Not sad. Somebody’s taking a bath, and if you do that you have to take off your cap, not your cap, your cap. You have a cat, you use a thumb tack. This is how things work. And so the Philly accent is that you have this lousy house, but you have a sad cat and one just internalizes this. And then there are these like crazy exceptions. Phonology has ridiculous kick you in the butt exceptions just like grammar does. And so before your d, p, t, k, the easy consonants that aren't hissy, that aren't nasal, the ones that just kind of mind their business? Well, you don't have the aaa going belly except in exactly three words, bad, mad and glad. If I were a real Philadelphian, I'd say bad, mad and glad. And what that means is that if you're a real Philadelphian, you don't walk around thinking about it, but if you're a real Philadelphian, mad and sad don't rhyme because sad behaves, you're sad. What's wrong with you Philadelphia person? I'm sad. But your actually, your brows are knit. You look more like you’re … what do you think, I'm mad? You're sad and mad and that is to be a Philadelphian that those two do not rhyme. Only with bad, mad, sad. It's kind of like with great, steak and break. Those are the words where that ea stayed ā, as opposed to lead, mead, seat. That's what was supposed to happen. But steak, break, great happened to stay the way they were. Well in Philly it's bad, mad and glad. So for example, here's how quirky these things are. Here's Lucy. This is Lucille Ball's third and worst sitcom. And at this point, basically, she's having a guest star every episode. Here's one where it's Eydie Gormé. And listen to Eydie Gormé, who grew up in New York, saying you don't want to go to bed when you're mad.

EYDIE GORMÉ: Aww, Steve, I said I was sorry and I never once doubted you when you explained how that dancer just happened to come into your dressing room by mistake.
STEVE GORMÉ: Then why did you keep needling me?
EYDIE GORMÉ: Because you look so cute when you're mad.

Right? Now if you hear her say that, then you also imagine to yourself that she would have said sad, and she would have said, so you don't go to bed when you're sad, but not if she were from Philadelphia, where it would have been, don't go to bed when you're mad, but you can go to bed when you're sad. That's Philadelphia. Isn't that interesting? To me, that feels perfectly normal. I never thought about it, but when learning about it, I thought, yeah, that person who has a Philadelphia accent — and for the record, this is an accent that has been more common among Italian and Irish Philadelphians, it's not everybody, but it's definitely there — with that person, if you've got that person in your ears, you can hear that they would say, I'm sad and I'm mad. That's the Philadelphia accent. It's just those three words that are different. But it's all about the belly. So you're closed, you're mad. It's closed, eh, the eh is the belly. So if we're talking about what happens before two people go to sleep, well, here is a song that actually fits that. This is called “Don't Fall Asleep” and it's from New Faces of 1952, which was a very smart and very successful Broadway review of well, I don't think I need to tell you the year. And there's a reason that they did a whole movie of it and they did it on TV. This song was not one of the quote unquote smart songs in it. And they didn't do this in the movie. They didn't do this on TV. But I've always thought it was very sweet. It appeals to the sentimental side of me. And I've actually played it for two normal modern people who actually found that they liked it, too. So I know that I'm not abusing you by playing it, but it's the old school soprano that's not to everybody's taste these days. But I think it's a pretty song. This is “Don't Fall Asleep” from New Faces of 1952. It is a young bride and her husband is passed out drunk.

Don't Fall Asleep


So the person sticks their belly out. And then you say, no, no, not the, not the belly. Stand up straight. This is about sticking out your chest, stand up, raise your shoulders up. And so you rise in the back. Now, what's the back? oohōōōaah, oohōōōaah. There's a rising in the back in the Philly accent. And specifically it's with the aw. So, oohōōōaah [mouth effect], aw is not an a and a w. That's the way we spell it. That's just nonsense. Aw is a sound all by itself. It's not two things and it's what happens if you're on the road in between ōōō and aah. You're at a motel, it's aw. So ōōōawwaah,right there. Well, in Philadelphia that aww has been rising to be more like an ōōō or even an ooh. And so not caught, but cawwt or even coohawwt. It's going up. Coohawwt,like that. And what that means is that something has not been happening in Philadelphia that's been happening in many other places, and that is that I talk about an army having cots. I wonder if they do. But you always think of that, cots. And then what I did to a fish was I caught the fish: cot, caught. More and more people in the United States do not make that distinction. And it's that there's an army that has a cot. And also yesterday you cot a fish. There's a lazy hock making circles in the sky. What's happening is that aw in many dialects of English is falling, not rising, and so awwaah. And notice why that would happen is because aww and aah, despite whatever you're thinking about the alphabet, aww and aah are very close and aww’s just becoming aah. And students are having a harder and harder time getting this when I try to teach these sorts of things in introductory classes. And so I used to say, OK, if you're one of these people who talks about, you know, that you cot a fish, we have to know that there is this other sound, aww, for many American English speakers. And so what would happen if you were in Helsinki and you went to a park where there were squirrels that will actually walk up to your knees asking for food (which is something that happened to me in Helsinki)? Well, I always assume that people are going to say aww, no matter what kind of English they speak, aww. But over the past few years, most of the class is now saying aah, so I can't even use that because people are saying, aah, what a cute little Finnish speaking squirrel. That is something that is happening. It's called the cot-caught merger. But it's not just those words. It's that aahand aww are falling together into aah. Not in Philadelphia because the aww instead of falling, it's rising. These things are chance. But it means that you'll hear a person saying that they caught something or, for example, with the word start, more like stoohart. Start can sound almost like Stewart among some speakers. It's going up: aahōōōooh. Stoohart, like that. And that means that in Philadelphia you have this raised aww, as we call it, and it means that in Philly there's still kind of a remnant of something that for many of us will just seem completely opaque. If you've got a horse like, like [neighing], and then you've got hoarse, and I’m like this [in hoarse voice], that to me is just horse and horse. And I think that's probably true of most of you. Earlier English, and I don't mean that much earlier, there's a horse that neighs and then you have a hooharse throat. Horse, hooharse. They're different. That is something that Philadelphia is trying to kind of hold on to. You cot something. You caught something. It's that sort of thing. But that little area, that aahaww, all of that is falling together in many Englishes. In Philadelphia it's a little more conservative, and that is why I feel older every year in saying caught and cot, that there's a hawk in the sky, that sushi is raw fish, not rah fish. It's not fish that's a cheerleader, and, you know, has pom poms: rah rah fish. It's raw fish. So Philadelphia, you've got the clothes rising in the back. And what I mean by that is that awwōōō is going up like that. That's part of the Philadelphia accent. You caught it. You did not cot it yesterday. You caught it.


So then the person with the shirt kind of rises up in the back and then it falls down in the front and you're thinking, oh, you're not, you’re not looking quite good. And what that is is, let's go back to the front. So ēēēāāāaaa, ēēēāāāaaa. Well, those ēēēāāā sounds are falling a little bit. It's almost as if it's because of what happened in the back. And so it's kind of choo choo, and then the train falls down in the front. And so that's why, for example, you can hear many Philadelphians calling the team, the sports team — they are a football team even I know that. What is it? Phillies is the baseball. The 76ers is basketball. The Eagles is football and hockey is the Flyers. That is definitely the only city where I can do that, and I may have even done it wrong. But the Eagles is the Iggles. The Iggles. Well, what that is is the ēēē fell a little bit: ēēēāāā, it's kind of in between, like another motel, the Holiday Inn. And so ēēēāāā, Iggles, the Iggles. Or, colleagues. My mother grew up in Atlanta, actually, in the 40s and 50s, but she spent most of her life in Philadelphia. And by the time I was a kid, she — my mother was kind of a language sponge — and she had taken on some Philadelphia vowels. She would talk about her colleagues at work, but the way she pronounced it was colliggs. I thought that the word was colliggs until I got a little older. That was Philly. Your colleagues become your ccolliggs, just like the Eagles are the Iggles. And then it's not only the ēēē, but you get down to the āāā, so you have a plague. Among many Philadelphians it's a plegue. Plague, it's a plegue because of the falling. In terms of the Philadelphia vowels that you would wanna think about, that really make it what it is, it means you tell somebody to breathe deeply, they poke their belly out. You say no, stand up and their shirt rises in the back and then falls in the front. That is exactly what it is.


What this means is let's go back to Mare of Easttown and let's do the test. And I want to reinforce it's not that I could do any better. I am in awe of Kate Winslet. She gets better every year and the way she can do an accent is remarkable. I couldn't imitate myself better than she imitates other people: Titanic, Mildred Pierce. You notice how she can rise above even crappy material. Have you ever sat through Wonder Wheel and actually make it sense and doing, you know, the accent there perfectly. So this is not me calling out Kate Winslet or the dialect coaches on Mare of Easttown. You can never get these things absolutely perfectly. But, because we're doing the Philly accent, it means that you can, if you're watching Mare of Easttown and you're probably a little obsessive and insane and you're from Philadelphia, you do notice little things that are off. So much is on. But every now and then, it's kind of like [screeching] and that's because there's a Philly accent and there are things that you're just not going to get every time if you did not happen to grow up there and you're trying to remember your lines. And so let's listen to this passage.

MARE: I doubt the thing’s gonna live very long.
STORE OWNER: Well, you'd be surprised. I mean, my mother turtle? Outlived her.
MARE: If it’s taken care of, sure. If you feed it and give it clean water and make sure it's not swimming in its own filth. It’s for my grandson, he's four and has trouble focusing on tasks.

Now, wooder for water is dead on. That's just an eccentricity, it’s not sounds, it's just the way that word happens to be pronounced. That's one of the strongest Phillyisms that I actually have. I try to make it different because people make fun of it when I'm with other people. But for me, that thing that comes out of the faucet is not water, it's wooder. And that overrated little desert that you buy that at least it's never overpriced. It's not a water ice. It's a wooder ice. To me, that sounds fine. So that's one of the first things you're going to think about. And then also own for own. That's right. Focus, not focus, focus in Philadelphia. But what's wrong is it's not a task. It's a task because it's before one of the hissy consonants. You ask somebody something, it's a task, not a task. Let's try another line.

MARE: Take him to Riddle. Then drive him to St. Michael's. Tell Father Dan Hastings I sent him. And call Peco gas. Let ’em know they’re breaking the law, and unless they want us to notify the Public Utilities Commission on their asses they’re gonna put his f*****g heat back on.
TRAMMEL: Got it Sarge.
MARE: Hey, you good?
TRAMMEL: I’m good.

Notify is dead on. That sounds exactly like you know me before I had any problems in the 70s. Gas, ass; no gas, ass. If you say notify you talk about turning off the gas and kicking somebody's ass. Now the accent is fading in most quarters. And you could say that Mare, who, after all, is not 90 years old, is losing some of it or that she never had all of it. That's true. But the thing is, you know, if you're doing the Philly accent, you probably don't necessarily know that. And in this case, if you're kind of doing the Philly test, it's on that sound where you have the occasional slip, because if you know that it's about the belly and then it's the shirt, it's rising up and the shirt's falling down, you know that with that belly, everything's all about eh. And it goes to the ehbefore the noisy consonants like th, s. Now, of course, Philadelphia isn't the only place where you have gas and ass. There are differences between Philadelphia and New York. But New York would have had that, too. And so how might somebody have sung, for example, a certain song in New York City in 1932 in a failed musical by the Gershwins? It didn't work, partly because there was an attempted guillotining in it. But this is Let ’Em Eat Cake. And this is a song called “Down with Everything That's Up.” And this is a rendition in the 80s. It's by Married with Children's Steve, David Garrison, whose main career has been in musical theater. He left that show to go back to what he really wanted to do. And it's actually it's a very obscure but great little song in a very obscure show. But listen to especially the end of this clip that I'm going to play of “Down with Everything That's Up.” I highly suspect that the original actor would have used different vowels than David Garrison did. And, of course, who cares? But if you're being, you know, recreationally picky, listen to the last few lines.

GARRISON: That's the torch we're going to get the flame from. If you don't like it, why don't you go back where you came from.
CHORUS: If you don’t like it, why don't you go back where you came from? If you don’t like it, why don't you go back where you came from?
GARRISON: Let's tear down the House of Morgan!
CHORUS: House of Morgan!
GARRISON: Let's burn up the Roxy organ!
CHORUS: Roxy organ!
GARRISON: Down with Curry and McCooey!
CHORUS: And McCooey!
GARRISON: Down with chow mein and chop suey!
CHORUS: And chop suey!
GARRISON: Down with music by Stravinsky!
CHORUS: By Stravinsky!
GARRISON: Down with shows except by Minsky!
CHORUS: Up with Minsky!
GARRISON: Happiness will fill our cup when it’s down with everything that's up!
CHORUS: When it’s down with everything that's up!
GARRISON: Down with books by Dostoyevsky!
CHORUS: Dostoyevsky!
GARRISON: Down with Boris Thomashefsky!
CHORUS: Thomashefsky!
GARRISON: Down with Balzac! Down with Zola!
CHORUS: Down with Zola!
GARRISON: Down with pianists who play “Nola”!
GARRISON: Down with all the upper classes!
CHORUS: Upper classes!
GARRISON: Might as well include the masses!
CHORUS: ’Clude the masses!

So do you notice? Classes and masses? No, classes and masses. Those were the real vowels.


Now, I should also mention, by the way, that every episode of the show here at Booksmart will have an additional morsel of four to five minutes, but that will only be accessible to the paying subscriber. So you get more of this, except not just about Philadelphia. You get to hear about how language would have sounded to a New Yorker in 1930 if you actually become a paying subscriber, had to mention that.


You're wondering, well, why? Why? Everybody always wants to know, well Philadelphia, it sounds funny, poking its belly out. Why? And the answer is really kind of dull. Vowels are always moving. They’re like bees in a hive, and you hear it in all kinds of Englishes. And it's funny about the sociological evaluation because closedand, you know, I'm thinking about a person standing there who probably, if it's summer, they probably are in a sleeveless shirt. But these things are so arbitrary. So, for example, let's listen to Queen Elizabeth before she was Claire Foy. Let's listen to her aaa, her aaa sound. And notice that the aaa is ehh. It is going up. So remember, it's ēēēāāāaaaehh. That is posh language. Listen to her here.

QEII: In wishing you all good evening, I feel that I am speaking to friends and companions who have shared with my sister and myself many a happy children's hour. Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated from your fathers and mothers.

So hear her on companion, happy and had; happy, had. It's the same thing. It's just that for her, it also happens before the quiet consonants. And so not just ask, but happy. Same thing. Now listen to her on the words no and most.

QEII: My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you, as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all.

No, most; it's the same thing. How come if it's in Philadelphia, it reminds you of a pretzel? Oh, the pretzels. I just. Any of you who can try one of those Philadelphia Pretzel Company pretzels, they sell them on the street. You know, often if they've been sitting for a little while, there's a kind of a mucoid quality. But boy, can it be fun to eat snot when it's one of those Philadelphia pretzels. My mouth is watering right now, woodering notice? It's one of my favorite things about that city, these spectacularly fluffy, thick-skinned, perfect color brown. They're kind of the color of me. I've always kind of liked that color, these wonderful mucoid pretzels. But why is it that you think about those pretzels, or at least I do, if it's in Philadelphia, but if it's Queen Elizabeth, well then you think about, I don't know, camisoles and cucumber sandwiches and well she's just so special. And so these things are quite arbitrary. The vowels are always moving around depending on the status of the people who are having that vowel movement. I couldn't resist. It's either posh or it's somebody in a sleeveless shirt telling you that something is closed. These things are quite arbitrary. Language is that way.


In any case, I want to do a correction of myself for last time when I talked about the first Black winner of the spelling bee. And the truth is, not only was this year's winner not the first Black winner, but I really should have said Black American winner because I was forgetting that in 1998, the winner of the National Spelling Bee was Jamaican. So African-American, if we must use that term, was the one that I should have used, not just Black. Thank you to my friend Ben Zimmer for pointing that out. If you'd like to leave a comment, check out our other great podcast or subscribe, please visit Booksmart Studios.org. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and, as always, Mike Vuolo. N’Dinga Gaba and Chris Mandra are our sound mixers and our theme music was created by Harvest Creative Services. You know what else about food in Philadelphia? The cheese steaks. And you know what? I am a Philadelphia boy. I have never understood it. I'm sorry. I know I'm going to get a lot of crap for that. I would more recommend those wonderful mucoid pretzels and the person who's saying that is John McWhorter.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Aug 10, 2021
English Has a Bee in Its Bonnet
Welcome to the new Lexicon Valley from Booksmart Studios! On today’s episode: What is a spelling bee, anyway? Why do spelling bees pair particularly well with the English language? And we’ll explore the tempting but complex prospect of spelling reform. Plus: A special subscriber-only bonus segment, to show you what you can get if you become a paying subscriber to Booksmart Studios.


JOHN McWHORTER: From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, I'm John McWhorter.

Earlier this month, a 14-year-old, Zaila Avant-garde from Louisiana, became champion of the 93rd annual, mostly annual, spelling bee — it went on hiatus for three years during World War Two and then again last year because of you know what — the mostly annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

AVANT-GARDE: Wait, what is the language of origin?

MODERATOR: It's formed in Latin from a Swedish name.

AVANT-GARDE: Murraya. M-U-R-R-A-Y-A.

MODERATOR: That is correct.

Avant-garde beat out the second-place finisher, Chaitra Thummala. She got tripped up by this compound word: neroli oil.

THUMMALA: Neroli oil?

MODERATOR: Yes, it's a fragrant, pale yellow essential oil that darkens on standing, is obtained from the flowers, especially of the sour orange, and that is used chiefly in cologne and other perfumes and as a flavoring material.

THUMMALA: Neroli oil?

MODERATOR: Neroli oil.

THUMMALA: Are there any alternate pronunciations?

MODERATOR: I see just the one.

THUMMALA: Neroli oil. Um, language of origin?

MODERATOR: The first part of the entry contains, consists of a French element derived from an Italian geographical name. The second part went from Greek to Latin to French to English.

THUMMALA: Neroli oil. N-E-R-E-L-I O-I-L. Neroli oil.

MODERATOR: Neroli oil is spelled N-E-R-O-L-I O-I-L.

THUMMALA: Thank you.

This 12-year-old Chaitra was composed up there on stage. But when you flub a word, when you're that close, that's gotta sting. And I know it does because the only spelling bee I was ever in when I was six or seven years old was one where I was so confident and frankly, I was a good speller. They asked me how to spell cement and I just rattled off S-E-M-E-N-T. It was just a mistake. I knew it was C and that took care of me and I never got to go again and I had frankly never gotten over it. Come to think of it, have you ever seen an Italian spelling bee? Have you ever heard of Russians doing spelling bees? I doubt it because there's something peculiar about English that makes it particularly bee-worthy.

Today on Lexicon Valley, English Has a Bee in Its Bonnet.


The spelling bee, the National Spelling Bee, has been in the news in particular because Zaila Avant-garde, the winner, is a Black young woman. We have a historic win by someone who seems to be in a great many regards a superhuman. So to spell, where does that come from? Well, originally, what the word spell meant was to tell, the idea being that by doing this spelling, we're making the words tell us what they mean. And so to spell was to recount, to explain, to tell, at a time when the word tell did exist, but tell originally meant to count. And so that's why we say to tell the time, and that's why a bank teller is a teller. The idea is that this person is counting money.

And then there's also bee. We're used to hearing about spelling bees and you kind of let it go by. But think about what an odd word that is. It's a spelling bee and it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the insects bees. So why is it a bee? And the fact is, you might know that you can extend that usage. Spelling bee is the most common, especially with modern life. But you can have a quilting bee where a bunch of people got together and made a quilt or a logging bee where people would, well I guess the idea was to gather the logs there on the river or something like that. You can see that I'm a city boy, but there used to be a logging bee where a bunch of, I presume, men would get together and do whatever they were going to do with those logs. Or a raising bee. How do you build a barn? Well, you have a raising bee? So the idea is a group of people come together in some endeavor and create or get something accomplished.

Why is that a bee? And the reason is almost certainly not because it's like a bunch of bees coming together. It's tempting. But why would people say that? Why would people say, let's have a bee? You know, you don't look at bees swarming and say oh look at the bees beeing. Or, oh look over there, it's a great big swarm, it's a big fat bee. So why would people say let's have a quilting bee, as opposed to, say, a bee in or let's have a quilting bees’ nest or something. It just doesn't work. And actually there is an obscure dialectal word been. And what a been is and not a bean as in that — is it a fruit or a vegetable, whatever it is — not that bean, but a been is also something someone does for someone else. And it did also refer specifically to what the people lower on the social scale might do for a lord during feudal times. And so it's a been that they do. It's related possibly to boon. So you can have a been. That is plausibly where this word bee would have come from.

But the problem is, why don't we call it a quilting been? Why don't we call it a spelling been? Why did the n drop off? Now, sounds drop off the ends of things all the time, but not all the time. And so, for example, if we're going to say that people first started saying, well, why don't we have a quilting been, and then they kind of leave off the n: quilting bee, whatever. Well, then why do we have words like clean and bean? That same person might say: why don't we have some beans tonight? I loves me a cranberry bean. And then after a while, cranberry bea. I don't know who this person is, but that kind of n doesn't drop off usually. And so what happened here? You have to go further and I'm not sure that anybody has. But I'm going to pick up the story here and take it further in a way that I think most linguists and etymologists would consider plausible. The way that you went from been to bee was because been would have felt like a plural word. And so people would have knocked the n off and just said bee. Stay with me. So, it used to be that in English, let's go back to Middle English. plurals were usually with s. And so you're talking about horses and chairs, et cetera. But then there were a whole lot of plurals that ended with n. We've only got a few now, like children and oxen. But it used to be, for example, that you had eyen and earen. You had in your mouth tonguen, if you happened to have two tongues. You talked about housen, you had shoen rather than shoes. You still do in some varieties of Scottish. You had not trees but treen. That sort of thing was common.

Well, if you have a situation where you hear words ending in n as possibly plural, then you have this quilting been and it's a whole bunch of people doing it and that leads you to think of plurality. Quilting been would have felt like it was a plural, especially in Middle English. And so some people would have said quilting bee to make it singular. So an analogy is that the original word for that little delicious green thing shaped like a ball, it was a pease. But because pease sounds plural, people started saying, well, why don't I take this one little pea in my hand? Nothing like slicing a pea. You don't usually deal with them singly, but if you did, that's where pea comes from. Or it used to be that you had, because in French it’s cerise for a cherry. You had a cherries, it was taken from French. So une cerise  and then a cherries. But that sounds like what it sounds like to us. And so you make up a word cherry. If you've got eyen and earen and tonguen and housen, well then if you've got been: well let's have a raising been. But shouldn't we be making that just one bee, right? And so that's how that would have arisen. And so that's why we talk about a spelling bee.


Another interesting thing about spelling bees is that, you know you think of it as something universal, like lemonade. You go to Helsinki and you spend six weeks in Helsinki and you get a yen for some lemonade. I was reading The Power Broker by Robert Caro to assuage my homesickness for New York and I wanted some lemonade. Couldn't find it. They had all sorts of other fruit ades, but they did not have lemonade. You'd think that you'd get it everywhere, but you can't. It's just that sort of thing. And in the same way, do you think you can get peanut butter and jelly everywhere? I haven't checked, but I am quite sure that if you spent six weeks in Bangkok, you'd find that people are very little inclined to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Spelling bees are something similar in that it's largely an Anglophone phenomenon because of English’s shitty spelling. If you think about it, a spelling bee doesn't make sense if you have a human and sensible spelling system. Let's take Finland again. Finnish is a language with a very regular, sensible spelling system. It's hard to misspell something if you're a Finn. So to have those little blond kids standing up and spelling things, it would be kind of boring because spelling itself just isn't that hard once you've learned the basics. Or, you know, many more of us, I'm sure, are familiar with Spanish. Imagine a spelling bee in Spanish. Some people would be better at it than others. But for the most part, it wouldn't be very exciting because Spanish’s spelling system has its wrinkles — there are things that you have to know, especially about the diacritics — but it makes sense. That is certainly not true in English. And so not only do we have words from a great many languages, but we have a spelling system that basically stopped moving in the 1400s, whereas the whole vowel system turned upside down. And that means that we have a system that lends itself to being able to spell really well, especially some of the more obscure words, is subject to being a contest. It's something that people will pay to watch happen and that somebody can get a prize for doing really well. So if you are in an Anglophone country, you were familiar with the spelling bee. If you're in many other countries, there's no such thing as that beyond kids just learning the basics of spelling. Nobody 14 is standing up there having to try to spell some uniquely difficult word.

Now, I know who I'm going to hear from when I say this, and it's going to be French folk. The French are going to tell me that they have something called the dictée and that that is a spelling bee. And indeed there is the dictée. And I think it's a great thing in itself, but it's different from the spelling bee. The dictée is about grammar that you need to know how to spell, as opposed to the brute business of having to master the sequence of letters that various words are written in. So French spelling can be irregular here and there. But for example, a dictée might test something like this sentence: Elle s’est fâchée. And that means: She got mad. Elle, that's she and we can leave that alone. But then s’est fâché. S’est is s and then est. Now, you have to know first of all to have an apostrophe after the s. And then is the s an s or a c? So is it the s that's analogous to the se in se habla español in Spanish? Or is it the c as in c-apostrophe-e-s-t, c’est? As in, you know, c’est la vie, that's life. Is it that, is it the s or is it the c? Well you have to know. And then fâchée. That's the getting angry part. The a has a little circumflex over it. Well you better know, you have to have that. So that feels like spelling, but then fâchée. You can't hear it but if it's a non male person then you have to have to e’s at the end — and never mind that the first one has to have a certain accent over, the accent aigu — but then you have to have this extra e to indicate that it's feminine. That has nothing to do with the way you pronounce it. You just have to know. The dictée is about that. That is interesting but it's not like the spelling bee.

You know, there's an English equivalent to this. Suppose you were going to say something like: I’d have bred its clams. I mean this is just a perfectly natural sentence. I'd have bred its clams. Let's say that there's some lake with clams in it, the lake’s clams, its clams. And you're a clam breeder and you're saying, well, I'd have bred its clams, but they spilled peach jello powder in the lake. Yes, we're going to keep that. And so the clams all died. I would have bred its clams otherwise, so I'd have bred its clams. In a dictée, you would say, for example, is it I'd have bred its clams or I'd of bred its clams, the way many people would spell it in an untutored way. Or I'd have bred. Do you spell it like Wonder Bread or is it b-r-e-d? You have to know, and then, I'd have bred its clams. Do you put an apostrophe in that its or do you leave it alone? That's the sort of thing that the dictée tests. We don't have that here. We call that learning or not learning grammar in school. The spelling is just can you spell Connecticut? And that's just what it is.


The spelling system that we have means that dyslexia is worse for Anglophone kids than for a great many other kids in the world. Dyslexia is much less of a problem, for example, in Finland, because it's just so much easier to read. You know, dyslexia is a funny thing. Seventy five percent of dyslexics are men. That probably corresponds to your experience if you have it. There's something male about it. And biologically, what dyslexia is is interesting too. The left brain is where most people process just vanilla sentences, you know, just ordinary words being put in order with grammar. The right brain is different. The right brain is more about creativity, the right brain is more about things like the tone of how you talk, as opposed to the content of how you talk. With dyslexics, the right brain is a little too active during the reading process. And that seems to have something to do with why people have trouble with the decoding. There's a region of the brain called Geschwind’s territory and Geschwind’s territory is connected to the two regions of the brain that are best known for processing language, the Broca's area and the Wernicke’s area. Geschwind was discovered to have something to do with language really only about 20 years ago. And the thing about it is that it's the last region of the brain to mature and it does it right around when most kids are learning how to read. And wouldn't you know, with dyslexics, Geschwind’s territory is a little bit underpowered. It's a little bit less active. But dyslexia is something that would be barely noticeable in a person if it weren't for this weird thing we do called reading. This means that Finnish kids do learn how to decode, to know what it is on the page, earlier than kids learning English. But what's interesting is that they don't understand the content of what they're reading any faster than Anglophone kids do. So they can recite what is on the page, but in terms of knowing the connection between that and content, that's something that is consistent. Nevertheless, dyslexia is a worse thing to have if you're dealing with English’s fucked up spelling.

In any case, here we are in our new place and some of you are worrying that we're not going to have songs anymore. Well, of course we're going to have songs. Of course we're going to have clips. And, for example, wouldn't you know, yes, there is a show tune called The Husking Bee. And so here, just because I have to, it's from Say, Darling, which is an obscure, actually a play with music. And the music was by Julie Stein of Gypsy and Funny Girl fame. The lyrics were Betty Comden and Adolph Green. And just because I have to, we have to hear a little bit of the unremarkable but kind of catchy Husking Bee Broadway tune.

(SONG: The Husking Bee)


You know, there was an interesting controversy about spelling bees back in about 2013. They started in certain parts of the test to require contestants to actually define the word as well as spell it. A lot of people didn't like that. And, you know, actually, I did. I kind of like the idea of people not only having to do the mechanical task of spelling these words, but actually having to say what they mean, because a language like English, because of the artifice of the dictionary, has a very richly preserved vocabulary. That doesn't mean that to be an English speaker is to just have more words because other languages have fewer words. It's all about whether you have words from the past preserved in a book or words that are from the present but that nobody ever uses that are nevertheless preserved in a book so that you can have the artificial situation of a language over a thousand years times lexicon preserved in a book. Now, to an extent, all of those things are trivia. However, there are all sorts of words that have very particular meanings that it can be somewhat mind expanding to know about. It certainly doesn't hurt to have many synonyms at your disposal. It certainly doesn't hurt to be able to take a look at all the words that have been within the history of your language. That can't happen if your language is oral, as most languages are. And as I always say, oral languages, especially ones that are lesser known and spoken by fewer people, tend to be much more complicated than English. And if you could preserve every word that they had had over a thousand years, you'd have a dictionary as enormous as the ones that we have for these very few languages that are written a lot. I kind of liked that idea of the vocabulary being embraced. It reminded me of something that I've seen in speakers of other languages that I just found, you know, here, partly charming, partly erudite. Partly there seemed to be a certain cultural pride, which is more diagonal with being an American person in general because of what America is. But still, I couldn't see it as a bad thing.

I once knew a Russian person who was talking about a boyfriend who she had had, and the boyfriend, frankly, sounded like a complete piece of s**t. And I said, well, what did you like about him? And she said, I loved his Russian. And remember she's Russian. And I just remember thinking that doesn't translate into at least modern American English. Nobody would say: Oh, I loved his English. You would say: I love the way he talked, but you wouldn't specify it was the person's English. You could write a whole article on that difference and you would have to include that in the even relatively recent past, Americans as well as Brits did refer to English in that way. So there's a passage in one of Maya Angelou's autobiographical volumes. You know, she has The Caged Bird Sings one and, you know, everybody reads that one. Everybody doesn't always know that there are six or seven others. It's a majestic series. And in one of them, and I frankly don't remember which one — come to think of it, I think I do. It's the one after Caged Bird. Maya Angelou was talking to some women she's met and one of them says, well, you speak such good English that you must have gone to college. Think about it. That's a funny way to put it. You would imagine a foreigner maybe saying that to her. But these are American people somewhere in California. They're all Black people at a bar. Well, you speak such good English that. It's just that's the way it would have been put back then in the 40s and 50s as opposed to now. Or the journalist H.L. Mencken once accused Warren G. Harding of having bad English. Now, notice that these days we may have had plenty of things — notice this we — we may have had plenty of things to say about the way a certain recent president talked, but people didn't usually say he had bad English. You would say that he spoke badly, that sort of thing. And so it used to be that way. But I think there's been a cultural change in America since the 1960s that makes us less likely to say I like your English and it's neither a good nor a bad thing. But to the extent that there's anything about English that one might admire, just as one admires words in other languages, I wouldn't mind the idea of somebody not only having to spell disingenuous, but to actually say what it means, not only having to spell expatiate, but to actually say what expatiate means, that kind of thing.


As neat as spelling bees are in themselves, the fact that they can even exist is a symptom of a problem about English in terms of the way it's written. And so you might think that what we need to do is fix our spelling system. Some might think that the charm of the spelling bee is not worth the fact that it's so hard to learn how to read in this language, that it's harder to be dyslexic in this language, that the spelling system just doesn't make any damn sense. And so you think, why can't we spell words more like maybe even not perfectly like, but more like it's pronounced. And the thing is, you have to think about what you're asking for and whether you really want it. And so, for example, you might read about how there are people who are trying to come up with umbrellas that actually work, because, you know, umbrellas don't really work well. But the truth is, if you look at any of the prototypes, they aren't anything that you would probably want to carry around. You read about how there are all sorts of different flavors of mustard, but there only seems to be one kind of ketchup. But do you really want other kinds of ketchup? Have you ever tasted another kind of ketchup or even noticed how if you're American, ketchup is a little different in Europe and you don't really like it? Do you really want more kinds of ketchup?

It's kind of like that with spelling reform. So, for example, I know my grandmother, to know, K-N-O-W. Well, what the hell is that k doing there? And then there are all sorts of other issues that we could get into. So, how would you spell know, as in K-N-O-W better? Are you going to spell it N-O, because then it looks like no as in yes and no. Now, there's nothing wrong with words that look alike. That's fine. So know is N-O. Now how are you going to spell knowledge? Now, however you're going to spell knowledge, notice that it's really far away from the word that we're used to. So it would take a real adjustment. It would be like carrying an umbrella that looks a little misbegotten. But then notice that however, you're going to spell knowledge, it's not going to start with an N-O most likely. I mean, that's part of the problem. And so knowledge wouldn't look like it was related to know. So we have know and knowledge and we can see the relationship and notice how when I point that out, there’s a little click, feels kind of good, like when you pull a little piece of dead skin off and you feel like it's an accomplishment. So know, knowledge, no more of that. Now you'd have no and something like nalidge. Okay, next. How are you going to spell known? Is it going to be N-O-N? You can kind of tell, no. So, is it going to be N-O-A-N? Well, why exactly? And however you spelled it, notice that it wouldn't look like it was related to know spelled N-O, because you wouldn't think of it because N-O is such a short and common little sequence. And then what about knew? I knew it was time to go. Okay, knew. Are you going to spell it N-E-W? For one thing, E-W — why is it pronounced that way? Don't we want to reform that too? So suppose we spelled it N-U but then once again it doesn't look like N-O, and then you have the issue of how would you spell, you know, something like the new in a new car.

These are hard things. Do you notice how difficult it would be to get any kind of consensus on these things or even if you were doing it by yourself, how would you decide? And the truth is, the Chicago Tribune, starting back in the 30s and actually into the 1960s, for a while started spelling some words sensibly. They had a feeling that this was the sort of thing was going to have to start slow, which if it ever happens it certainly will have to. But even starting slow looked really, really odd. So they would spell clue, C-L-E-W. Clew. And, you know, especially if it was about some important murder case or something like that, it almost seemed trivializing to be spelling it the way you'd expect it to be spelled in graffiti on some wall. Hockey was spelled H-O-C-K-Y, which looks like hocky, or it was something like hock’y with the uvular stop. It looked goofy. Frankly, it was an insult to the players. What do you do about these things? The truth is, if things are spelled differently, it just looks clumsy or cute. Maybe we just need to put up with it, but all of us would have to take a deep breath. And how many of us would be really up for holding our breath like that for the rest of our lives, even for the sake of a generation of kids who would grow up not knowing how stupid it looked because they hadn't known anything different and it would have an easier time. It'd be a tough one.

My younger daughter, she's six now — she knows that I love old okapis. They're these wonderful animals. If you don't know what one is, picture, really, picture a giraffe. Now give it a short neck. Got it? Now make that animal a lustrous mahogany, reddish tinged brown. Got it? And now give it zebra stripes on its butt. That is an okapi. I think they're wonderful animals. I've got stuffed okapis, I've got a plastic okapi and now I have a picture of an okapi where it is written that the animal is an O apostrophe C-O-P-Y. It's an o’copy. It's like this Irish Xerox. And that is extremely cute. It makes perfect sense. And I said to Vanessa, you know, you didn't spell this right. And she said, well, that's the way people spell o. And she's quite right. Clew, hock’y, know, knowledge, known, all of this is tough, tough stuff.


So spelling bees might be with us to stay and to bring all of this back around to the spelling bees and to the winner of this year's spelling bee, there's something that needs to be noted. You're hearing a lot that Zaila is the first Black winner of the National Spelling Bee. And that's true if you're talking about the National Spelling Bee as sponsored by Scripps. But in terms of a national spelling bee in general, before Scripps came into the picture, in other words, in terms of the National Spelling Bee in the United States, the fact is that the first winner was also Black. She was also, for the record, a girl. Her name was Marie Bolden, and she was 13 years old and she took it in 1908. We should know about Marie Bolden. It happened in Cleveland. It happened in a very different time. The New Orleans team did not like competing against the Cleveland team because the Cleveland team was integrated. And down in New Orleans, the Black YMCA wanted to celebrate Marie Bolden’s having won up in Cleveland and the mayor of New Orleans discouraged that as disruptive. So these were very different times. But the first National Spelling Bee was won by a Black girl. And now, the most recent one. And something else to remember in the same vein. It's Washington, D.C. It's 1899. Dunbar High School is an all Black school. The kids at Dunbar High School were outscoring white kids throughout the city on tests in 1899. Important to know about such things, but especially for this episode, Mary Bolden, 13, in 1908 in Cleveland she was the first kid to take the National Spelling Bee.

This is the first Lexicon Valley for BooksmartStudios.org. And as it happens, the very first Lexicon Valley that I ever hosted way back in 2016 was about spelling reform. And so I'm feeling a little bit nostalgic and I'm going to combine that with the whole Broadway clip routine. And so what I want to play is a clip that's about not only nostalgia, but about a spelling bee. This is from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical about a spelling bee that rather improbably ran for over a thousand performances back in the aughts. And this is a nostalgic little passage where a grown woman who is proctoring the spelling bee is remembering a previous one. And this is how Lisa Howard, who played the part and has one of the most beautiful voices in the United States, gets it across.

(Song: Pandemonium — Reprise)

Lexicon Valley is produced by Matthew Schwartz and Mike Vuolo. N’Dinga Gaba and Chris Mandra mixed the audio. Our theme music was composed by the team at Harvest Creative Services in Lansing, Michigan. Every episode of the show will contain one additional tidbit, and it'll be accessible to paying subscribers only. Today's extra segment will be free for all. So if you want to know about how whistling and what my daughter thinks about noodles and issues of things like warmth and mowed lawns all have to do with each other, you can listen to this extra segment. That's the way they're going to be, but ordinarily only paying subscribers get to hear that extra bit. If you'd like to leave a comment, check out our other great podcasts under Booksmart or subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org. This is Lexicon Valley. I'm John McWhorter.


So let's think about the suffix. Suppose somebody said, give me a suffix in English. What's the first thing that you might think of? Probably I would think of the ed that marks the past. Walk, walked. There's a suffix, okay? Or, if you are more sunnily inclined, you might think of ness as in happiness. Happiness is climbing up walls, or whatever that lyric is in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. So ness, happiness, okay. Or something like stinginess or warmness. Although no, notice warmness isn't quite right. You’d know what somebody meant, but it's not warmness. You'd say warmth. Now think about that. Warm. That's clearly a word. It's a nice adjective. But then what's the th? The th is what makes it a noun. The th is a suffix. Why don't you think about that? Why isn't that something that would occur to you regularly? You feel like it's not a real one. The reason you feel like it's not a real one is because you can't just add it to any old word. It's dead. You use it where you use it, but you can't spread it. You can say that somebody is holy. You can talk about their holiness. You can't talk about their holyth or something like that. You can talk about somebody being cool, but there's no such thing as their coolth. You can't add the th. In linguistics, we call that “not productive.” That doesn't mean that it's lazy. It means that you can't produce anything with it.

The word “productive” always makes me angry, and it's because somebody once attacked me in the little world of academic linguistics over whether or not a certain suffix was productive. Believe it or not, these things do happen. It was very annoying being called out on productiveness. Of course, I was right and he was wrong. But still, it was very tense at the time. These things are so random. It's like just today, actually, my older daughter was listening to me whistle. I whistle too much. [whistling] That's me. And she said, you know, Daddy, whenever you whistle like that, it reminds me of those yellow noodles that you get at a Chinese buffet. Why? Well, one of those things, I must have been whistling at one of those buffets. Well, “productive” always reminds me of fighting, but really it's just about the fact that ness is productive. Coolness. You can say it. It's a little funny, but it's English. Coolth is Martian and that's because th is not productive. It used to be though. It's actually much more common than you think.

It's one of those things where once you're made aware of it, you see it everywhere. For example, you can say warmth. That one's fine. Very often though, because this one is so old, suffixes stop being productive often when they just get old and frozen. They become these husks, and next thing you know you need a husking bee. But they're so old that even the vowel in the word that comes before has changed. But talk about long, length. Well, it's longth, but things have changed. Deepth? No, but depth, yes. So there are ones like that. Then there are others where you really have to squint to see the connection, but it's definitely there. And so, for example, you are young. You don't have youngth, but you have youth. It's just that the word's gotten all smudged around. Right? Or something like you have filth. Well, that's foul. Foulth, filth. And then for mirth, it's from merry, merryth. And sloth is from slowth.

Now, what am I getting to? I'm getting to my favorite example of this kind where you'd never know that it was this little dead suffix th. Aftermath, the aftermath. And you think, well, it has something to do with mathematics. I mean, you don't think at all. But in the back of your head, you think, well maybe it's the solution and the solution that comes after, the aftermath. But then if you think about it, that's not it. Because there was no word aftermathematics before. It's some other kind of math. You know what that is? The vowel has changed. Its mowth, as in when you mow vegetation, you mow a lawn, you mow grass, and then you've got this smooth, placid situation where once there was chaos. It's the aftermowth. Isn't that good? You'd never know. That th is everywhere. It's just not productive. Moth, no. That is not the suffix. That's just an accident. That comes from a word that was originally something like molth, and what that probably meant was maggot because actually that word that became moth only referred to baby moths that are chewing through your clothes in that worm stage that they're at. For whatever it's worth, an adult moth, up way into Middle English, was called a flinder. Aftermath is like health, which comes from hale, girth, which comes from God knows what, but there was some word that meant, you know, “substantial,” and then length, depth, warmth, all of those. Aftermath. It's the same thing.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Jul 28, 2021
Introducing Lexicon Valley with John McWhorter
Lexicon Valley offers a close examination of language, exploring its power to inform and misinform, to elucidate and obfuscate. Hosted by renowned Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, Lexicon Valley will analyze the words and phrases that dominate our discourse and make the headlines.

John H. McWhorter is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford. Professor McWhorter’s interests include American linguistic history, nonstandard dialects, the perceived legitimacy of languages, and the standing of language mixtures in media and education.

McWhorter has taught Columbia's Introduction to Linguistics and many other courses, including Languages in America, The Languages of Africa, Language in Society, Language Contact and the History of the English Language. He is the author of more than 20 books, most recently Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter — Then, Now and Forever. Others include The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black AmericaOur Magnificent B*****d Tongue: The Untold History of English; and Words on the Move: Why English Won't — and Can't — Sit Still (Like, Literally). He is also contributing editor at The Atlantic.

Lexicon Valley is coming this July!

If you haven’t yet, please consider a paid subscription to Booksmart Studios! It’s only $7/month or $70/year and will get you extra podcast episodes, extended guest interviews and an opportunity to engage directly with our hosts. Plus, you’ll be supporting all of the work we do here at Booksmart.

Lexicon Valley is just one of at least three shows that we’ll launch this summer. Others include:

Banished: An earnest and thought-provoking show about our reassessment of the many people, ideas, objects and even works of art that conflict with modern sensibilities. What can we learn about our present obsession with cancel culture by examining history, and what might it mean for freedom of expression?

Bully Pulpit: A wry and pointed take on politics, media and society from longtime public radio personality Bob Garfield. His astute cultural criticism, infused with wit and humor, has been called “absolutely necessary” and “very brave.”

And finally: As we craft the first season of Lexicon Valley, we want to hear from you. What topics do you want us to tackle? Which voices do you want to hear from? Simply comment below, or tweet to us at @BooksmartSocial.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit lexiconvalley.substack.com/subscribe
Jul 13, 2021