Episode 57: Slanguage - Study Guide for College Young people have always used language in new ways, and it has always driven older people crazy. But the linguist John McWhorter says this is part of an inevitable evolution of language.

Episode 57: Slanguage - Study Guide for College

Young people have always used language in different ways - and it has always driven older generations crazy Renee Klahr/NPR hide caption

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Renee Klahr/NPR

Young people have always used language in different ways - and it has always driven older generations crazy

Renee Klahr/NPR

Check out a printable PDF of this study guide!

 

Many of us feel irked when we hear people speaking "incorrectly." Whether it's using "like" a few too many times, or the word "literally" to mean "figuratively," we have a sense that there is a correct way to speak, and that that isn't it. While new speech patterns might be irritating, the linguist John McWhorter says they can't possibly be wrong.

 

"It's the nature of human language to change," McWhorter says. "And there's never been a language that didn't do that." This, he says, is how Latin became French. It's how Old English became Modern English. "Nobody wishes that we hadn't developed our modern languages today from the ancient versions," McWhorter says.

 

Young people have always used language in new ways - and it has always driven older generations crazy. This means that languages have always changed as people use them by creating new words, using old words differently, or changing the pronunciation of familiar words.

 

Study Guide Questions

List examples of new or changing words:

1. What are examples from the podcast?

2. What are examples you can think of?

3. Why is Dr. McWhorter critical of dictionaries? What is his argument? What do you think of this argument? Do you agree or disagree? Why?

4. What does McWhorter mean when he says our brains are "on writing"?

5. How do new languages develop? Why are "mistakes" so important in the development of new languages?

6. What are some examples of a contronym?

  • What are examples from the podcast?
  • What are examples you can think of?

7. What's an example of a word or phrase you think might be different in 50 or 100 years? Why?

Long Answer, Reflection Questions

8. Dr. McWhorter argues that "it's the nature of human language to change. Each generation hears things and interprets things slightly differently from the previous one." Give an example of something you interpret differently than someone in another generation. Is one way of interpreting that word or phrase more "right" than the other? Why?

9. Dr. McWhorter discusses teaching language rules and similar to teaching rules about fashion and self-presentation. What is his argument? What example does he give? What do you think of this argument? In what situations do you moderate or change your language in order to present yourself in a certain way?

10. McWhorter contends that people use language as a way to look down on other people - he specifically mentions educated people looking down on uneducated people. What do you think of this argument? Do you agree? Disagree? Do you see yourself ever using language and language rules as a way to criticize other people? Do other people criticize how you use language?

Advanced Level Question: After airing this podcast, the Hidden Brain team received some feedback that the examples of slang that were given in the podcast had all originated in black vernacular and were now being appropriated by a majority white culture. What do you think of this? How does language move? Does new language often originate in marginalized groups? Why does that matter? Is there a way to reconcile this with the idea that no one owns language?

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