It may seem from some of my recent newsletters — championing “they” as a singular pronoun and “me” as a subject pronoun — that there’s something about being a linguist that makes one strangely permissive about what language is supposed to be like.
And there is. Before technology existed to stay underwater long enough to watch undersea creatures in their natural habitat, illustrations of sea life might show the creatures sprawled out around a tableau of the seaside. A linguist feels like someone who gets to hang around underwater watching those creatures party, while everybody else settles for seeing a few specimens that wash up on the shore.
For example, because English doesn’t have the long lists of endings that some languages have, it can seem as if our language’s grammar is kind of dull. But there’s so much that we just aren’t trained to see. In Cantonese, for example, there are lots of particles that you place at the end of a sentence to convey countless degrees of sentiment. “Nei hai gam jat faan uk kei?” means just “You’re returning home today?” But “Nei hai gam jat faan uk kei gaa?” can lend a note of displeasure, as in “You’re returning home today? Seriously?”
English doesn’t have as much as Cantonese by way of particles like this. But think about what the “be” in “Don’t be telling me you can’t make it” means — that same skeptical note. Similar is “go and” if we say, for example, “Now he’s going to go and shut it all down.” It conveys disapproval of what’s about to happen, even though by itself “go and” means no such thing (nor does “be”). In terms of marking the passive, the way we’re taught is with forms of “be”: “He was included.” But what about the one with “get”? “He got hurt,” “He got laid off,” “He got hit.” English has a neutral passive — and a special passive that you use for something negative or unexpected. Note how saying, “In the battle he was hurt” sounds more clinical and less real than saying that “he got hurt,” because “be” elides that getting hurt was something bad that came as a surprise.
I also hear English as having all kinds of coded ways to throw shade, of a kind that learners could be taught just as carefully as they are taught something as straightforward as putting an “s” on a verb in the third person singular. These aren’t idioms in the sense of “call it a day” or “on the ball”; they’re grammar. Black English has even more such constructions, using the otherwise neutral verb “come”: “He come saying nobody knew until today” implies that you’re not happy with him. Black English even has a future perfect of disapproval: “I’ll be done left if she tries getting here late again.” (I owe this observation about this construction to the linguist and poet Alysia Harris.)
There are many other things that hit a linguist’s ear that way: As one of “A Hundred Million Miracles” that Oscar Hammerstein wrote about in a song for the musical “Flower Drum Song,” one was a baby learning to walk who “nearly doesn’t fall.” Or “own”: It’s a verb, but also an adjective, as in “my own book.” But why not “my owned book”? And as an adjective, it’s odd: What’s own about the book? And while you can say “the red book” and “The book is red,” why not “The book is own”? It goes on: I have “my very own car” — but I can’t say “I have a really own car.” We say, “He came into his own” — but his own what? I’ve heard Britons say “She got her own back” to mean she got back at someone. But again, her own what?
Few of us ever have reason to think what a quirky thing our humble “own” is. But imagine being new to the language and having to master just how we use this crazy little thing: I once knew such a guy who would say “I just rented a own apartment,” and I felt genuinely pleased that I picked up his meaning before I had to think about it!
Then there are the things that strike people as mistakes, where a linguist just sees the language moving along. Most of what distinguishes the language of “Beowulf” or “The Canterbury Tales” from the English we know is what started as “mistakes.” One example these days, which people often write me about, is “versus” becoming a verb. Kids, especially, hear it as “verses” and for years now have been saying things like “We versed them in baseball last year.”
A preposition becoming a verb — “What’s next?” you might ask. And I would say, more of that, and all power to it. After all, the word “newt” is a mistake that happened when people said “an eft” so often that they began to think it was “a neft,” and later “neft” became “newt.” Today, “eft” is found mostly in crossword puzzles, and I wouldn’t want to give up “newt.” The singular “cherry” is “wrong” — it started as the French “cerise” and people misheard the “s” sound as a plural and made up the singular word “cherry.” Who would have it otherwise now?
It’s getting close to the centenary of “talkies,” and old movies can teach us much about how new words happen. “Cute” began as a slangy way of saying “acute,” and then drifted off into having a new meaning. In the 1938 comedy “Topper Takes a Trip,” a woman being wooed says a man’s come-ons are “cute talk” — but she means that he’s a bit shifty, not that he’s irresistible. Even now, the word still has a whiff of meaning “acute,” as when you refer to someone pulling one of those “cute” moves where you mean clever, not adorable.
Thus, someone in my line of work hears around him a linguistic feast, where many just hear the English language going to the dogs.
There are few better ways to get a sense of the true wonder of English than curling up with “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language” by Rodney Huddleston and my friend Geoffrey Pullum. After reading my essay on subject pronouns, Geoffrey usefully reminded me that if we want the rule about conjunctions to really apply to the whole language, then what we’re talking about are “coordinating” conjunctions, where “and” is used to link, or coordinate, two nouns or pronouns. But you and me have, of course, already been over this one.
Stella Tan and Vivian S. Toy contributed translation.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”