Logic, Evolutions, and Fashions of Language Usage – notes on lecture series

I’m starting a new blog post series here, based on John McWhorter’s Myths, Lies, and Half Truths of Language Usage audio lecture series available at The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company). Simply, my posts will be just a summary and some thoughts on each of the 24 lectures in course. (All posts will be found here) It’s a fantastic course, I’ve listened to it once before but wanted to go through it again to capture some of the information in my notes.

In the introduction lecture McWhorter explains that there is a distinction between language use that is considered mistaken and language use that is considered illogical. What I feel is meant by illogical is that language is intended to represent concepts and distinctions that exist in the actual world, apart from language – the more that language doesn’t represent actuality, the less logical it is. The logic function of language, concerned with clarity, is often separate from what public opinion might consider as the mistakes of language, concerned with issues of manner and fashion that come and go with time. Widespread acceptance of various irregular past tense verbs are an example of manner and fashion in language.

The examples of changing words made me wonder about the evolution of single words and discrete concepts in language and how they are represented, apart from the evolution of a language itself.

One of my favorite expressions that he uses throughout this course is that of “panning the camera back”, in which he means to extend the time frame in which language is considered so that we are looking at language with enough history to see its evolutionary change. This ‘panning back’ is important because it focuses on time periods that are generally longer than our own lifetimes, and longer than 2 or 3 generations of people (which we have direct access to, during our lifetime). Maybe language changes at a slower rate than humans, making a bigger picture necessary to gain a better understanding of how it works.

His lecture is full of great examples and, as always, he brings up the example of the word “do” which I’ve always found so difficult to explain to ESL/EFL learners. “Do you work?” vs “You work?”


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