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Co-host of the Episode Party podcast, author of Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-rock, editor at ATTN:Magazine.
Only a few podcast hosts can be forgiven for posing a provocative question in the episode title and then disregarding it within the first five minutes. Yet there’s a charm to Lexicon Valley’s John H. McWhorter that grants him automatic pardon. Headline-baiting is just one method used to trick unsuspecting listeners into engaging with the minutiae of linguistics and language development, along with tenuously justified jingles from TV shows and wacky vocal impressions of grumpy old cynics.
When one learns that McWhorter is also a professor at Columbia University, this desire to spice up the topic of linguistics starts to make sense. These are the techniques used to rouse those hungover students at the back of the lecture hall, and to convince them that the subject isn’t as stodgy as it might seem.
McWhorter notes that the question “Is Social Media Changing English?” is ultimately meaningless. While social media may have cultivated certain ways of using language, it hasn’t reshaped the foundations of language itself (as noted on the podcast, asking what social media has done to English is like asking about the impact of sushi upon food). Instead, the episode embarks on a tangential line to explore the emergence of certain "childish" grammatical forms in recent years. Examples include “this magnet works because science”, or “sorry I missed your lecture — I had all the illnesses”.
As we inhabit a world oft-described in fearful terms, McWhorter’s theory is that this childlike approach to language is rooted in an anxiety about adulthood. By scrambling grammar in a juvenile way, we regress to the simplistic innocence of children, liberated from the responsibilities and hardships that bestow themselves upon the grown-up citizen. It’s a vague and disparately justified theory, but as always, McWhorter’s charisma makes it all worthwhile.