Linguist Considers 'What Language Is' — And Isn't Humans have been speaking thousands of years longer than they have been writing. Yet many assume the written word is superior to the way we speak. In What Language Is: And What It Isn't And What It Could Be, John McWhorter argues that most of our assumptions about language are wrong.
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Linguist Considers 'What Language Is' — And Isn't

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Linguist Considers 'What Language Is' — And Isn't

Linguist Considers 'What Language Is' — And Isn't

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TONY COX, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Humans may or may not have been speaking at the time of their origin, but it is known that languages have been around for at least 80,000 years, the written word considerably less, about 5,500 years.

Yet many of us assume the written word is superior to the spoken word. If a language isn't fixed on a page, like English, French, Spanish or Chinese, it isn't real. In the eyes of linguist John McWhorter, most of our assumptions about language are wrong. In a new book, he argues that languages are anything but pure. They are complex, mixed with one another and ingrown, to say the least.

If you speak more than one language or dialect, how are they different? Can you express yourself in one more easily than in another? And do you find yourself creating a new one altogether?

Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. The email address is, and to join the conversation, just go to our website,, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, filmmaker Greg Barker on his new documentary about Muslim children competing to recite the Quran by heart. But first language. John McWhorter's new book is called "What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be." He joins us here in Studio 3A. John, nice to see you.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Good to see you, too, Tony.

COX: Let's begin with this: Is English really simple compared to other languages?

MCWHORTER: Compared to other languages, let's just say that it's not as complex as it could be. You often think that English, because, you know, we've got tall buildings and airplanes and depression and things like that that somehow English must be more complicated than a language spoken by a small group who do not have what we might call civilization.

In fact, as languages go, English is pretty user-friendly. If you look at a tiny language spoken somewhere that most of us have never heard of, chances are it's going to be so complicated that you have a hard time imagining how people could walk around speaking it without having a stroke.

I find massive wonder and just fun in that, and that is one of the pivots of this new book.

COX: You know, I was thinking of - as I was reading your book, there was an old skit on the "I Love Lucy" show years ago, where...

MCWHORTER: Every episode I've seen.

COX: Oh, then maybe you'll remember this.

MCWHORTER: I hate to admit it.

COX: Desi Arnaz is trying to learn English, and he's saying cough, and then one of the other words was though, and all the words were spelled the same, and each one was pronounced differently, and he was saying English is the craziest, stupidest language he had ever seen. And yet you say that ours is not nearly as complicated and complex as others.

MCWHORTER: No, and of course English spelling is a nightmare because it's this random - well, it's not random, but it's a very baroque historical accretion. There are languages like that. I wouldn't wish the spelling of Danish on any person who I had any esteem for.

But the fact of the matter is that, take away our spelling - and our grammar has its thickets of difficulty - but imagine going to somewhere like where Navajo is spoken, and you can't use English, and suddenly you find yourself having to learn a language that doesn't have anything we would call a regular verb.

With every verb, the different forms, you just kind of have to know, and a language has a lot of verbs. Imagine dealing with a language where we're thinking, well, gee, German has three genders, and that's really kicking me in the bleep, and that makes that language difficult. There are languages that divide nouns into, say, 200 different classes, and you just have to know.

And it leaves you finding English to be kind of dishwater in way compared to these other real languages.

COX: Why does English not have gender?

MCWHORTER: You know, that is - or it should be considered one of life's eternal questions. There is no other Indo-European language in Europe that doesn't have gender. There are a few that are of a different group. But it's really peculiar.

And the reason is because, as far as we can tell, it was the Viking invasions. We learn about the Viking invasions, but those people came speaking something that wasn't English. It was Old Norse. And there were no Berlitz courses to teach them Old English, and so they learned it, they learned it badly, and one of the first things that would have gone was these pesky genders.

Who cares whether a fork is a man or a woman? They didn't. And so next thing you knew, English became this user-friendly language, and here we are speaking it today. It's odd. We're speaking a tidied-up, broken Old English. That's what we've got right here, and that's what we think of as the height of civilization, while most of the world's 6,000 languages have been going on about their business in normal fashion - normal being hideously, marvelously complicated.

COX: But language evolves, does it not?


COX: And English is evolving today. 21st-century English is different than 19th-century and 18th-century English. What are the drivers of those changes?

MCWHORTER: Well, some of the changes of course are driven by the fact that there is social identity, and people split off into their groups, and changes will be different in one group as opposed to another group.

And then certain groups acquire a certain dominance in society, and next thing you know, people are following their lead. And in this case, I do not mean rich white people. I mean that in society now, especially in America, on the popular level, it's black English, or Ebonics as many people who are calling it, which is the coolest way of speaking, and now it's popularized especially through hip-hop.

And so a lot of the changes that are taking place among the characters on "The Wire," in a way, are the ones that younger Americans are now taking on as part of their speech. Then, also very briefly, speech just morphs. It's the analogy that I always use is it's like the lump in a lava lamp. It just keeps on moving along because it never stays the same.

COX: We have some callers. We asked them to give us their stories about their languages when they speak multiple languages and how one impacts the other. Let's see what a couple of them have to say. The first is Michael(ph), joining us from Florida. Michael, welcome to the show.

MICHAEL: Well, good morning, gentlemen. Or excuse me, good afternoon. How are we doing?

COX: We're doing great. How are you?

MCWHORTER: We are fine.

MICHAEL: Oh not too bad, not too bad.

COX: So what languages are we talking about, Michael, that you speak?

MICHAEL: Well, I was born in Crete, the island of Crete in Greece, and we have a dialect that is different than regular Greek. I also speak French and Italian, as well as natural English.

MCWHORTER: Your English isn't bad.

COX: No, your English is great. Do you have a question or a comment?

MICHAEL: Well, it was really funny. I wanted to highlight the differences between dialects. Like in - like for instance when I'm speaking with friends of mine from Crete, regular Greeks, it is very difficult for them to understand us. People from Cyprus can because their dialect is similar.

For instance, we don't necessarily change vowels. We change consonants, like the K sound in a word, for instance kite, would be softened to chite, CH. And the eta sound, like (foreign language spoken), which is no in Greek, would be (foreign language spoken). You know, it's pronounced SH.

It's - you can almost consider it an Italianization of Greek. It's a much smoother, finer language, and then but we have different words, too, because, you know, we've had a couple thousand years to figure it out.


COX: Hey, Mike, thank you for that call. So pieces of the language change how the language ultimately evolves into something new.

MCWHORTER: Yeah, I mean, what we're seeing with Michael is that language, as used by a group of people, starts changing in certain directions. Your K's will change into these CHs or SHs, whichever he mentioned. And then another group, there'll be a different kind of change happening with different sounds, not to mention words and even grammatical constructions.

And as a result, after a while, you'll have two different languages. Now of course there's an intermediate point in that process, where what you have are not two different languages but people who might have trouble understanding each other but can manage, those are different dialects.

And so what we're talking about there is a dialect of Greek different from the standard one. Now, if we let enough time go by, we might find that people in that community are speaking something we would no longer even want to call Greek, and the world is coated with different varieties of speech with different kinds of gradations of relationship with each other like that.

COX: That must be what Chris Tucker was talking about in the movie "Rush Hour": Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?


COX: Let's go to Anita(ph) from St. Louis, Missouri. Anita, welcome. Anita, are you there? Welcome, you're on the air.

ANITA: Hi, I love your show. I grew up in Hong Kong. So I lived there for 11 years, and now I go to school in the U.S. So I speak English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

COX: Which is easiest?

MCWHORTER: In other words, you speak three completely different languages, that's right.

ANITA: Cantonese I would say is considered a dialect of Chinese, but what I've noticed is Cantonese is composed of a lot of slang words. And what I think is really interesting is when I watch TV shows or movies that are filmed in Cantonese, the humor comes across a lot funnier than someone who doesn't understand.

Or even if it's, let's say, translated into the written Chinese as a subtitle, it's so much funnier if you understand the language. So I think humor is really interesting across different languages.

MCWHORTER: Yeah, it's interesting because there are two things that are going on there.

COX: Thanks, Anita.

MCWHORTER: All of the Chinese varieties - and notice what I'm calling them - are written with the same system. And so they're all Chinese in that sense. But then on the other hand, it happens that despite all of those languages can be written - now I'm giving my hand away - all of those languages can be written with the same system, that doesn't mean that they are dialects of one another in the same way as, say, Appalachians and black and standard English are dialects of one another.

Because if you look at Mandarin and Cantonese - I imagine it's different if you grew up speaking both - but if you're coming at them from the outside like me, Mandarin, I have whole book that describes all of Mandarin, and I have a book that describes all of Cantonese, they are as different as Spanish and Italian.

And so in the eyes of whoever you believe is up there, God's eyes or somebody else's, those are different languages, even though they are written with the same system. Now as for Cantonese being funnier, I can't say because Cantonese wasn't spoken in my home when I grew up, but I will take your word for it.


COX: Let me just say Isaac(ph) in Nashville, Tennessee, I'm going to come to you in a minute. So don't go anywhere. I've got a couple of emails I want to read, and then we're going to go to a break and come back and continue this fascinating conversation.

The first one is actually a joke sent to us from Karen(ph) in Cheyenne. She says: I read a joke about English once. It was developed by two blind men using a German dictionary.


MCWHORTER: That's actually very cute because it does seem like that.

COX: Pretty clever. Good one for you. This one comes from - it's from - well, I can't pronounce the name, but I'm just going to read it: My kids speak Pashglish(ph). This is a brand new language and is a combination of two languages, Pashto, which is spoken in Afghanistan, and English.

So we'll talk about those and when you blend languages, how one sometimes can take over the other because you talk about that in your book quite a bit.

MCWHORTER: That's right.

COX: We're talking with linguist John McWhorter. If you speak more than one language or dialect, how are they different? Do you find yourself mixing them to express yourself? Give us a call. Our number here is 800-989-8255. The email address is Stay with us. I'm Tony Cox. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. The standard illustration of a seaside scene in the 19th century included fish bobbing in the waves, but much of the rest of the sea life - anemones, squid, clams - was drawn rotting on the - was drawn rotting on the beach.

Naturalists back then could not explore underwater. So they couldn't see what those animals looked like when they were thriving. Similarly, according to linguist John McWhorter, so much about language is hard to see and hear. In many ways, he writes in his book, "What Language Is," to be a linguist is to feel like you're underwater in 1840 while everybody else is up on the beach laying jellyfish out on the rocks.

You can read more about what language is in an excerpt from his book at our website. Just go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And if you speak more than one language or dialect, how are they different? Can you express yourself in one more easily than in another? Do you combine them? Tell us what happens with you. Call us at 800-989-8255. Or send us the email, like we said, And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So John, before I come to you, I asked Isaac to hold on. He's from Nashville, Tennessee. So Isaac, it is your time. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ISAAC: Welcome. Hey, how are you all doing?

COX: We're great. How are you?

MCWHORTER: Hey, Isaac.

ISAAC: Doing well, thank you. Hey, I'm an American Sign Language student, English interpreter here in the Nashville area, and I just called to let you all know that, like, I go from English to American Sign Language almost on a daily basis, and it's very interesting to see how many English speakers assume that American Sign Language is just another form of English, whereas it has its own form, its own grammar, its own set of linguistics, its own everything. So very interesting.

MCWHORTER: Yeah, it is. Sign language, you talk about linguists and being underwater, it's easy to think, if you've never had an occasion to become acquainted with it or to study it even from a distance, to think that signers are just doing some sort of mimicry with their hands and that they've just gotten very good at it.

I'm sure anybody can see that there's something fluent being spoken, but, you know, you're imitating a cat, you're imitating, you know, people going places, et cetera. And no, it's not that at all, nor is its structure anything like English. It's very much a language of its own.

In fact, people who study Creole languages, like Jamaican patois, Haitian Creole - I'm one of those people - see a lot of likenesses between the grammatical structure of those languages and how sign language works, and then in other ways, sign language does things that no spoken language does.

So yes, very much they are newish languages, and they are different from one another, and they are very much languages of their own, sign languages.

COX: Isaac, before I let you go, I was curious: Does sign language evolve as spoken language does?

ISAAC: Oh, yeah, very much so. The thing about sign language is that it's all regional. So British Sign Language is very much different than American Sign Language, but American Sign Language is close to French Sign Language. They all evolved based on the spoken language that's around them because of, like new English terms, especially technical terms, iPhones, you know, this kind of stuff, that comes over into American Sign Language rather easily. It's used quite often.

MCWHORTER: And if you look at a film clip - and there are such film clips...

COX: Thanks, Isaac.

MCWHORTER: Of somebody using sign language, say, American Sign Language 100 years ago, then that person now signs in a way that looks a little peculiar, just like people who we hear in spoken recordings then sound a little peculiar, simply because the language has changed somewhat over 100 years, very much like spoken language.

COX: Fascinating. Ivy(ph), Portland, Oregon. Welcome, you're on the air.

IVY: Hi. First, I just want to tell you that I love listening to intelligent conversation every day. And I thank you for that.

What I wanted to say is that I speak English and French. I've been studying French for a long time, and my family is French too. But I often find myself going back and forth, especially when I get, you know, frustrated or tired or any kind of emotional. I automatically will switch to French because for some reason it's easier.

I am a minority in the learning of languages in that I find it much, much easier to speak in French than I do to write it. But I'm exactly the opposite in English. I'm very adept at writing in English, but as you can tell, I can't articulate myself quite as well as I can when I'm speaking French.

COX: Well, sounds pretty clear to me.

MCWHORTER: Yeah, you sounded fine to me. Generally, though, the tendency is that your native language is the one that's always the deepest seated. Numbers are interesting in that way. For example, there are parts of Northern England where people are speaking English, just with a different accent and some different words than we would expect, but in some children's games or in, you know, in some cases it's counting sheep, they'll use these numbers that sound nothing like English numbers.

And it turns out that they're numbers from some ancient Celtic Welsh-y language that was spoken in Great Britain before the people who spoke the ancestor of English came there, which means that there were people who were speaking English in everything except when they had to count fast, and then they go back to their native tongue.

And now people are still using those numbers, even though the native tongue is gone. You seem to be different in that way, but then aren't we all different.

COX: The emails are pouring in, and the phone lines are lighting up. So let's go to another phone line. This is Archie(ph) in Gainesville, Florida. Welcome to the show.

ARCHIE: Hi, really glad to be here, long-time listener, first-time caller. I was lucky enough to grow up in a Russian family, learning English and Russian at more or less the same time. And I find it interesting working in an environment with other much older Russian speakers that have been in the United States for a long time, as I have.

And I think it's interesting how when I - I find sometimes that I find it easier to express myself in one language than the other. So I can pretty much just switch effortlessly when conversating with them. But when my co-workers run into sort of the same problem, they tend to use English words but then conjugate them as if they were speaking Russian.

COX: Well, you know, Archie, you raise an interesting point. Thank you for the call. You write about this in the book, and before you respond to the mixing of languages and whether one dominates the other, I want to read a couple of emails that we got.

This comes from Ethel(ph) in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Please say something about the influence of class on language. It seems to me that sometimes the dominant class prevails. Sometimes the dominated class does.

Here's another one on the same topic: My wife is from a small island in Southern Denmark that has a distinct dialect. When we were first married, and I was becoming familiar with the Danish language, I asked her how I could distinguish Danish from dialect. Her answer made it clear. She said: If it sounds like a farmer talking, it's dialect.


COX: That's cute. So what happens when two languages collide, and which one tends to take over, the one that you grew up with or the one that you adopt?

MCWHORTER: Well, the one that you grew up with always has a special place, and so there are going to be certain deep-seated areas of vocabulary like numbers. Also grammar will stick with you. And so for example, if you are an elderly Russian speaker in America, it's predictable that you might have the English words, and you've learned them by rote, and they're deep-seated, but more deep-seated is the way of putting words together, what we linguists call morphology in syntax, and that is something that you might find easier when you are distracted.

As far as the Danish question, Danish is a cover term for many dialects. There's the standard, and then there are ones out in the rural areas where there are three genders instead of two, really almost a different language. Danes will talk about it all the time.

And when languages come together, therefore all sorts of things can happen. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the language that your learned on your mother's or your father's knee is always with you in a way that one that you learned later, especially after, say, the age of 15, almost never can be, because it's amazing how much our brains ossify after that time when it comes to the ability to learn language.

COX: You know, actually let me read this email. I'll save that question for you. I've got a million. This is fascinating stuff. Let me tell people who we are and what we're doing. This is TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is John McWhorter, whose latest book "What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be." And we are talking about language.

We are inviting your calls, the number 800-989-8255, the email address Tell us, do you speak more than one language? Does one dominate the other? How do you switch up from one to another? Tell us your story.

Here's some emails. First one: As a composer, I find that I am able to express myself much more succinctly when writing music. The music I write has no lyrics, so there is no verbal reference with which to derive meaning. To me, music seems to be a much more pure language, but ironically or perhaps appropriately, is very abstract and perhaps subjective.

Do you see any parallels between music and verbal language?

MCWHORTER: There are aspects of the brain where language and music are generated together, not in lockstep and not as richly as we might expect, but there are definitely people who are even proposing that where language came from - and that's a tough question - you know, who decided what they were going to call a dog?

And if you say that they were going to call it a (makes barking noise), okay, that's cute, but what were they going to call already? What's your first word for it? It's a tough question.

Some people have thought that language started as singing somehow and have been investigating what the relationship between language music is. However, that is a field that is very much in flux. There will be much patter - patter as in more pat - answers on that I suspect in about 10 years.

COX: All right, here's some more emails for you. Then I'm going to get to some calls, so you - hang on San Jose, Knoxville and Concord. Hang on. I see you there. I grew up speaking Latvian - I think I'm saying that right. My parents and grandparents were exiled during World War II. Although I speak fluent Latvian here in America amongst the Latvian-American community, when I visit Latvia, I am told that I speak 1940s Latvian there.


COX: Here's another one: Hello. I am Christina in Reno, Nevada. My first language is - is it pronounced Basque?

MCWHORTER: Basque, yeah.

COX: My family and I spoke the dialect from the province of Vizcaya, Spain. However, we did not read it or write it. I am now on a program to learn the new Basque, or Batua Basque - I think I'm saying that right. I hope so. I feel, in many ways, that I am dismantling my mother tongue and, in effect, renovating it so that the language can survive. I'd appreciate your guest addressing the language of Basque. And she says thank you, and she's writing it, I think, in Basque. And it - I'm going to give it a shot, OK? OK. (Basque spoken). You don't know, huh?

MCWHORTER: My parents spoke Basque at home when they didn't want my sister and I to understand. So, no. My Basque is pretty rusty.

COX: OK. So what about this?

MCWHORTER: Yeah. Every language is a passel of dialects. There are always different varieties. One of them gets to be in the shop window. That's the standard. And it may be that if you grew up with, say, a non-standard, rural variety, and then you grew up with some big language and then never had any reason to learn the standard variety of your home language, then, yeah. If you are trying to connect with a larger community of people who speak your minority language, you may find yourself having to learn something that almost seems like a different tongue.

And there are issues as to which version of the language is the one that's going to survive, because if the language is spoken by more than five or six people - and they mostly are - they're going to be different flavors, and especially if a lot of time has gone by and especially if it's spoken by a great many people. They are going to be different varieties. Take Hebrew, Israeli Hebrew, not much dialectalization there, small community. It's very new. But take, say, Korean - there are many flavors of Korean. So the Basque problem is one that you see in just about any language.

COX: How many languages do you speak?

MCWHORTER: Speak? I speak a whole lot of them badly, I mean, especially as you march into middle age and your whole life is in America. I no longer claim that I have really fluent command - in terms of not getting tired, in terms of being able to render any thought - in my favorites, which are French, Spanish and German. I can have a conversation in Russian and be told that I'm speaking well, which means that I must sound like a chimpanzee, but they're impressed that anybody can do it. I can sit in a cab in Italy and talk with the cab driver and have him not switch. I can do that in about 10 languages.

But as time goes by, one gets rustier and rustier. I read a lot of them much better, and I keep that kind of thing up. I have Russian in my bag right now. What I do know - because this is what linguists do - is you know about a lot of languages, and so you end up sounding like you speak 150 languages, when really, you might only speak one. And so we're dilettantes.

COX: John McWhorter, fascinating to hear you talk about all the languages that you have written. He is our guest. His latest book, "What Language Is: And What it Isn't and What it Could Be." This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

All right. Let's get to some of these calls that I promised. This is Rick in San Jose. Rick, welcome. You're on the air.

RICK: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.


RICK: I wanted to ask about the influence of made-up languages. And I'm thinking, in particular, from the television show "Firefly," about 10 years ago. They spoke a kind of Western patois that was made up by the creator of the show, with a mix of Chinese. They did that, in part, to get around censorship rules, so that they could curse in Chinese. But they also made up words in English for - to substitute for curse words. And I know that fans of the show tend to mimic that. I certainly do it every now and again.

COX: So - I'm not - I don't know if we're clear on what your question is.

RICK: Well, I just wanted to ask about that influence of, you know, you can talk about language evolving because the speakers of that language, day-to-day, start doing things differently. But then there's this influence through media, which reaches millions of people, of made-up languages that, you know...

COX: Got you. Absolutely.

RICK: ...are done fictitious purposes. And...

COX: Got you. Thank you very much, Rick.

MCWHORTER: People make languages up, and it's a fun activity. And I should mention, of course, Klingon and the Na'vi from the movie whose name I'm blanking on with the big, blue people, by the...

COX: "Avatar."

MCWHORTER: OK. Yeah. And so - which I actually should see. Talk about marching into middle age. And so those languages are there, and there are many artificial languages that have been made up for the purpose of giving the world a language that's spoken by everyone. The one that's done the best is Esperanto. Tony, that's another language that I can fake.

COX: Esperanto? I am impressed.

MCWHORTER: I haven't spoken it in a long time. But - you know, Esperanto was designed to be very easy to learn - 16 rules. You can learn in two seconds. But the fact of the matter is, that although there's a vibrant Esperantist community, and some children have been raised in it, language is identity. And to the extent that people are part of specific and idiosyncratic cultures, the hard thing to avoid is that to the extent that there is an international language today, I think that we're speaking it right now, and there are different varieties of it that lend themselves the different ethnic identifications.

To create one on paper and have it go more than a little way has proven to be very difficult. But they are definitely around these creative languages, and there are often evidence of great creativity.

COX: You know, our time has run out, but I've got let Mike from Lawrence, Kansas, on. Really quickly, Mike. In less than 30 seconds, what's your comment?

MIKE: I speak Chocktaw, and I have to worry about my Chocktaw, speaking Chock-lish instead of with my Chocktaw (unintelligible) structures.


MCWHORTER: That's hard.

COX: Chock-lish. I love that. Thank you very much for that comment.

MCWHORTER: Keep speaking Chocktaw, though. Those are languages we need to keep alive.

COX: This is amazing. I'm just amazed. An African-American man speaking 10 different languages and many of them...

MCWHORTER: Why, I must.

COX: One must do what one must do. The Book is called "What Language Is: And What it Isn't and What it Could Be." It makes one wonder what the English language is going to sound like, you know, 10, 20 years from now. You know...

MCWHORTER: It's going to sound blacker and blacker. That's something that we're seeing at this point.

COX: Really?

MCWHORTER: Ebonics is the lingua franca of young people of all colors. And pretty soon, they're going to be old. Simple as that.

COX: Really? It's going to translate into written language, also? Or will it stay in the oral tradition?

MCWHORTER: I don't think so. Casual language is going to sound strangely blacker to all of us in 50 years. Definitely. It's an interesting social development.

COX: That is absolutely amazing. John, thank you very much. John McWhorter...

MCWHORTER: Thank you.

COX: a linguist, regular contributor to The Root and a lecturer at Columbia University. His latest book is "What Language Is: And What it is and What it Could Be." There's an excerpt from the book on our website. Just go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us here in Studio 3A. I want to say goodbye in that language you said, Esperanto? How do you say goodbye in Esperanto?


MCWHORTER: Esperanto. I have completely forgotten...

COX: Oh.

MCWHORTER: ...but goodbye to the United States.

COX: All right. Well, later.



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