#142 – John McWhorter on key lessons from linguistics, the virtue of creoles, and language extinction
You speak a very small, and probably therefore fascinating and very complicated language. You marry somebody who speaks another one from several villages over. The two of you move to the city, [where] there’s some big giant lingua franca.
What are you going to speak to your kids? You’re going to speak that big fat language.
That kills languages, because after a while, there are very few people left in the village. The big language is the language of songs, the big language is what you text in. That’s a very hard thing to resist.
John McWhorter is a linguistics professor at Columbia University specialising in research on creole languages.
He’s also a content-producing machine, never afraid to give his frank opinion on anything and everything. On top of his academic work John has also written 22 books, produced five online university courses, hosts one and a half podcasts, and now writes a regular New York Times op-ed column.
Our show is mostly about the world’s most pressing problems and what you can do to solve them. But what’s the point of hosting a podcast if you can’t occasionally just talk about something fascinating with someone whose work you appreciate?
So today, just before the holidays, we’re sharing this interview with John about language and linguistics — including what we think are some of the most important things everyone ought to know about those topics. We ask him:
- Can you communicate faster in some languages than others, or is there some constraint that prevents that?
- Does learning a second or third language make you smarter, or not?
- Can a language decay and get worse at communicating what people want to get across?
- If children aren’t taught any language at all, how many generations does it take them to invent a fully fledged one of their own?
- Did Shakespeare write in a foreign language, and if so, should we translate his plays?
- How much does the language we speak really shape the way we think?
- Are creoles the best languages in the world — languages that ideally we would all speak?
- What would be the optimal number of languages globally?
- Does trying to save dying languages do their speakers a favour, or is it more of an imposition?
- Should we bother to teach foreign languages in UK and US schools?
- Is it possible to save the important cultural aspects embedded in a dying language without saving the language itself?
- Will AI models speak a language of their own in the future, one that humans can’t understand, but which better serves the tradeoffs AI models need to make?
We then put some of these questions to the large language model ChatGPT, asking it to play the role of a linguistics professor at Colombia University.
We’ve also added John’s talk “Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language” to the end of this episode. So stick around after the credits!
And if you’d rather see Rob and John’s facial expressions or beautiful high cheekbones while listening to this conversation, you can watch the video of the full interview.
Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ‘80,000 Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.
Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Video editing: Ryan Kessler
Transcriptions: Katy Moore