Russ Roberts: So, this example we were on a minute ago, contronyms, really drove home a point that you make elsewhere in the book. I don’t know if you make it elsewhere with respect to contronyms. But, we are always looking for ways to make language more vivid. And I’ve noticed this again after reading your book—in my own email habits, I find myself using exclamation points. I think if you went back to my own emails of, say, 2000-ish, I don’t think I ever used an exclamation point. I now use it to convey an emotional—a bunch of emotional things. It doesn’t just convey enthusiasm. It conveys lots of things. And you give other examples where language evolves in order to convey that vividness. And I don’t know if this is accurate—you can tell me—but it seems to me that’s a lot of what contronyms are doing. So, you give the example of how ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’ are very similar, and yet they mean opposites. John McWhorter: Right. Russ Roberts: It seems to me contronyms are to some extent a way to—in other words: This thing is so much this thing, I’m going to use the opposite to convey it. John McWhorter: Right. Yeah, that’s part of
a larger issue, which is that in a language you are always seeking something that you can convey really red-hot enthusiasm with. And, red-hot enthusiasm tends to cool the novelty of the term, the novelty of the term tends to cool. And so you have these rolling words that fulfill that function. One way that
you can do it is the shock value of using what’s conventionally thought of as a pejorative word to mean something positive. And yes, that’s happened many times; the example that’s brought up so much now that I think is boring is the use of ‘bad’ as good. Which started[?] in the black community and then spread somewhat. But then there’s ‘wicked,’ which I remember hearing people saying, particularly starting in the late 1970s in the Northeast—at least that’s where I heard it. Today, it’s ‘sick.’ And so what the kids are saying is that if something is sick—it’s that same process. And so, yeah, you can create a contronym out of whole cloth all of a sudden, then there’s a certain drama in it. So, to say, to use ‘revolting’ to mean that something is great—and you can imagine in an alternate universe that could happen—that sticks out because whatever 10 years ago’s version of that was is starting to wear out. ‘Fierce’ had a fiercer meaning 20 years ago than it does now, even among young people. You need to keep replacing those words. Russ Roberts: So, when I think about—and I just started that sentence with ‘so,’ which is something that listeners know that I do a lot, and didn’t realize it until fairly recently; and in your book, you explain how ‘so’ is a pragmatic word that conveys, ‘I’m changing the subject. May I?’ And, it’s sort of my tip of the hat to you to say, ‘I hope you recognize this.’ So, when I talk about language as an example of emergent order, I often point out that, unlike the market for, say, bread, in the market for bread there are these feedback loops of profit and loss, prices going up and down that send signals to people. And, in language, those signals are very, very muted. You don’t get any profit from coining a new word. You might, if you use a word before—you might seem hip or cool. And it can be fun[?] to think of how many words ‘hip’ and ‘cool’ can be, or synonyms for those words. But, you get some hipness factor when you use a word like ‘sick,’ say, early on and you show that you are in-the-know. But, the feedback loops for English to make it more effective, say, aren’t there the way they are to make, say, the process of creating a silicon chip—profits for people who make it more effective or more productive.
So, English doesn’t evolve in a particularly useful—‘useful’ is not the right word. But, it evolves in a very different way than lots of other parts of human interaction that I would call emergent. But there’s one place where it’s very, where this is a little bit different, and that’s suffixes. So, suffixes, or cases—I learned from your book—such as the past tense, where two words get mushed together, or, the word ‘like’ at the end of a word to mean similar to; and then the ‘ke’ drops off and you get the ‘ly.’ And so there’s a process in English—and I assume other languages—to make them shorter, because shorter is better. It’s quicker, it’s easier, it doesn’t take as long. Talk about how that works, and the limits to that: because you obviously can’t just have everybody using the word ‘a’ to mean whatever the context suggests it is. John McWhorter: Um, yeah. Um, there is— Russ Roberts: Is that a long-enough, complicated question for you? John McWhorter: No; that’s perfectly fine. Language is two processes that end up working in a complementary way. And so, definitely there is a drive towards economy. Language is spoken very quickly; there’s a tendency for words that are used together a lot to come together and often become one word. And so, for example, ‘slow-like’ becomes ‘slowly’ after a while. And so certainly that’s there. Now, you could say—and I know that we seek analogies between language development and economics here—but you could say that the shortness just kind of comes for-free: that it’s because you are talking quickly and so you have the habit of drawing things together. The idea that you are seeking the economy—some people would agree with that; some people wouldn’t. But, more to the point is that if a language kept doing that, then after a while you would start to suspect there was some kind of problem with comprehension, because if things are too short and too elided, then it interferes with comprehension. So, for one thing: Comprehension must be able to receive the signal. And, also, things like ‘like’ becoming ‘ly’ are happening all the time. And so, new things are being brought into the language that aren’t as short, yet, at all times. And so it’s this kind of churning process. So, for example, ‘slowly.’ But, we are using ‘like’ like that again, and you can say, ‘slow-like’ even now. Which, if you think about it, is different in its meaning from ‘slowly.’ ‘Slowly’ and ‘slow-like’ differ with a nuance that only a native English speaker could understand. But ‘slow-like’ is basically trying to do that again. So, language gets shorter. Language becomes more economical. But there are limits on it, because if we are too economical, nobody could understand. And, there’s always new material being brought in to be fed back into the maw of this sort of boiling-down. Russ Roberts: Yeah. I didn’t mean to suggest that people are sitting around thinking, ‘How can I make English more efficient?’ the way, say— John McWhorter: No, not consciously— Russ Roberts: Right—the way an entrepreneur might try to improve a process. But what is similar, I think is the idea that: If I enter a new field in business, say, or some industrial process, I kind of—‘kind of,’ there’s one of those words. You’ve made me very sensitive; I’m really enjoying it, and listening— John McWhorter: It’s an ordinary[?], an easing word, as I say in the book. Russ Roberts: Yup. And it really is. So, when you enter a new field or a new area, there’s a certain set of received things that you have to provide, or you are just not going to succeed. And so, what I love, for example, about Uber is that, when I get into an Uber I am often offered a thing of water, or a charger for my iPhone. That’s just sort of standard. Now, I don’t think people sort of sit around, drivers, and think, ‘I wonder what I can offer.’ It’s just that, well that’s sort of standard. And you know that if you want to compete and be successful and get your 5 stars, there’s a certain minimum level of customer service you have to offer. And I think similar in English, if something is shortened, it can mean it useful: you just start using it. You don’t think say, think, ‘Oh, this would be good: I won’t have to talk as long.’ John McWhorter: Right. Russ Roberts: So, as you point out, though, you lose some richness when you do that. And so there is that constant tendency to add back in longer phrases. It’s just a beautiful example of dynamism in evolution. It’s just—it moves me, which is—um…. John McWhorter: And I know what you mean; and it’s that kind of thing that I’m trying to get across to readers, because I think that that is really what language is about. And instead, we are taught to hang up on things like whether people are using a certain word wrong. Or, whether people are getting some new word from this place as opposed to that place, when really there is so much beauty that’s going on in terms of how this thing is changing right before our very ears. We can miss so much; and it’s because linguists have not done enough to try to teach the public about these things until relatively recently. Linguists complain, ‘Oh, the general public just doesn’t understand.’ And one side, I was a grad student [?] I started thinking, ‘Well, part of the reason is: How would they know, if we only write about these things in ways that only we can understand?’ And I think that’s changing. But I’m glad that you get that there is something gorgeous going on, rather than just that your kids are saying ‘Less books,’ instead of ‘Fewer books.’ Russ Roberts: Yeah: linguistics is the only field with this problem. So you really should work hard to make it better. Every field has this problem. John McWhorter: Oh, yeah. Russ Roberts: And of course, to me, the saddest part of this—just to get on a soapbox that I like to climb on occasionally: The temptation to teach undergraduates the dumbed down version of the graduate class, rather than the one time you have to inspire them to go through life to be aware of something beautiful, something that will make them—not richer in monetary terms, but richer in living terms—is missed. Because they teach as if they are talking to somebody who might be going to graduate school—which might be 1 or 2 people in that class. The rest of them are going to get very little out of it except a grade. And that’s a shame.