The Futility of Standing Athwart Language Yelling ‘Stop!’

John McWhorter expects linguistic norms to change even faster in coming years—and he argues that we can be less bothered by attendant demands than we are today.

Tim Wimborne / Reuters

In American culture these days, the linguistic terrain is constantly shifting, says the Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter. Even people who think of themselves as enlightened, morally scrupulous actors feel that there are constant demands to adopt new, unfamiliar linguistic habits or to jettison words or constructions they’ve grown used to their entire lives.

He sympathizes. He generally dislikes change. But “we need to get used to the linguistic insecurity I think all of us are suffering these days,” he argued in a lecture Monday, “and open up to the fact that part of being a concerned, conscious speaker of American English in these times is to get used to constant change and constant demands that we revise what we thought before.”

In his view, the rise of social media, especially since 2009, is causing the sorts changes that have always characterized language to happen with increasing rapidity.

In the future he expects change will occur even faster.  “We’re talking to one another constantly, not just listening to Walter Cronkite talk to us.” But, he reassured his audience, “I think if we look at these things through a certain lens, we can actually learn to like it.” If attendees at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, were skeptical, he had three examples to persuade them.

First, consider the singular they.

It’s long been a common construction, if one upon which pedants look down, as in the sentence, “Tell each student that they can hand in their paper a day late.”

That’s natural for most speakers.

But lately, an effort by individuals to use “they” as their singular gender pronoun rather than he or she has taken off. “That’s different, and that takes effort,” McWhorter said, “if you’ve spent a whole life using ‘they’ in a different way.” He shared his own experience in a face-to-face conversation with an individual who wanted to be referred to with the singular third-person pronoun. While doing his best to comply, he said, he messed up a bunch of times. And he understands why some feel that it is an idiosyncratic, willful imposition.

However, he urged the audience to compare the trouble it takes to get used to that new way of speaking with a different counterintuitive rule most already try to follow.

“There is no child speaking English who naturally says, ‘Billy and I went to the store,’” he said. “They say ‘Billy and me.’” They are corrected by adults, even though, by McWhorter’s lights, “that rule is nonsense.” To purists who invoke the subjective and objective cases as they are used in Latin, he asked, “Who broke the lamp?” Anyone who answers, “I,” he said, sounds like they’re from another planet.

Still, he said, in lots of other cases we’ve all learned to catch ourselves, to use the less natural but formally correct word between “I” and “me,” even if we still often slip up. We could think of sentences like “They will join us for dinner, set one more place” the same way. “I think that we’re up to it,” he said.

Example two concerned “the euphemism treadmill,” the process by which a once not-disrespectful word like cripple takes on a negative connotation and is replaced by handicapped ... which takes on negative connotation and is replaced by disabled ... which is itself in the process of being replaced by differently abled.

When McWhorter was in college, he said, politically correct wasn’t a pejorative. By the time he reached graduate school, people had begun to say, “I’m not PC, but...” distancing themselves from a term that had taken on baggage.

Because of social media, he said, “the euphemism treadmill is going to start going faster, and I think we need to get used to it.” For example, it’s only recently that he noticed the term “woke” being used beyond black Americans in just the way that “politically correct” was used before it was a pejorative. And already, he observed, it is beginning to take on the same baggage as PC once did.

As he sees it, understanding why this happens, and that it will inevitably keep happening to lots of different words, can perhaps ease the perceived burden of keeping up.

Finally, he turned to profanity, an area where, in his estimation, American culture is lagging behind a way that language has already changed for the better.

He sees taboos against the familiar four-letter words, like damn, shit, and fuck, as antiquated vestiges of bygone times when religious taboos, or taboos against sex and excretion, were utterly different than they are today—they make little sense, he argues, in a society where it’s perfectly acceptable to be an open atheist and where many people revel in body positivity and sex positivity. The taboo words make no sense given the dearth of substantive taboos around that to which they refer. For that reason, he refuses to teach his young daughter that it is wrong to say “shit” but okay to say “poop,” or that it is wrong to say “fuck,” though he explains that she should understand the lingering sensitivities of others to those words and take care when and where to use them.

In contrast, he argued, today’s truly profane words—and rightly so—are the n-word and the c-word, words where he is glad to see locutions like the ones I just used because he can make a strong logical and moral case for using them. “That is not something you want The New York Times to have on top of the page. I wouldn’t want my children to ask me what it is. I can’t be flippant about it,” he explained. “I’m telling my children that those words are profane. Why can’t you use them? Because they’re evil … The reason we don’t say those words is that we don’t slur against groups of people … You work against tribalism.”

I suspect McWhorter is correct when he posits that, in coming years, linguistic change is “going to go faster than most of us ever thought was possible.” I hope he is additionally correct that, amid the inevitable disagreements about substance and manners and competing values, “we can learn to almost enjoy it if we have a better sense of why these things are happening.”

I would only caution readers that the “we” almost certainly won't be universal—that change will be easiest for cognitive elites with strong verbal skills, for young people, for people in whatever social-media circles most influence new norms, and for people who, for whatever reason, are psychologically comfortable with difference and diversity and rapid social change.

Anyone can grasp the most basic taboos against the most hateful language. But for other linguistic change—even the wisest or most moral—those best positioned to embrace the new should treat with forbearance those who lag behind.