McWhorter on Initial So.

I have often expressed a combination of irritation and admiration when it comes to John H. McWhorter, and so it is now. For quite some time I have been wondering about the current popularity of starting sentences with “So” and wishing someone would explain it, and he has done so about as well as could be hoped for. But he has done it in a podcast, a format I dislike for its inefficiency, and it takes him over half an hour to make a point that should take a couple of minutes. After nine minutes of blathering about other uses that are clearly not what people have been pestering him about, he gets to the one that matters, the “Terry Gross” one that is not motivated by a change of subject or the like. After sixteen minutes he finally gets to the explanation: it’s a replacement for sentence-initial “well” (which is what has been familiar to me all my life), and that is itself a replacement (after many centuries) for Old English hwæt ‘what,’ used in a similar way. Why the new forms? Because language changes, and you can’t predict how. That’s good enough for me! (We discussed the issue a few years ago here.)


  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Amen re podcasts, standing proof that just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean it’s in any way a good idea.

    I’ll warm to podcasts when they invent a practical way of skim-reading them. Those Sumerian accountants, they built better than they knew.

    [As the resident McWhorter-supporter, I would like to comment positively on his podcast – but life is too short. Sixteen minutes!]

  2. Two words – accelerated playback.

  3. I think the point of podcasts is you can listen to them while doing dishes or whatever. I’ve never managed to get into the habit though.

  4. Your car’s speaker system is your friend.

    Put the time wasted in a traffic listening to stupid music or dumb talk radio to some productive use.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    If it’s American enough, it might be a translation of German also.

  6. Just as a heads-up, I’m having computer problems and may not be able to post for a couple of days (if I have to order a new computer via Amazon, that’s how long it will take to be delivered), so if that happens, you’ll know what happened and can talk among yourselves.

  7. blathering about other uses that are clearly not what…

    I hate so halfway through a sentence as an implied but undemonstrated “therefore” or consequence of the first half, as used by politicians. ‘These are dangerous times, so we believe it’s the prime minister who should apologise.’

  8. AJP Crown says:

    talk among yourselves

    Are you sure you don’t just need an extra hard disc? They’re much cheaper than a whole computer.

  9. languagehat says:

    Well (or “so”),I got this computer in 2011, so it’s given about all it has to give.

  10. So it probably just needs a dust & wash. Shake the crumbs out of the keyboard, feed a family of five.

  11. His philistinism regarding /Beowulf/ results in missing out on the perfect closer: the most celebrated (and contested) translation of the last 20 years begins, “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by…”

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    I would classify myself as a generally McWhorter-supportive resident, although I am happy to defer to David Eddyshaw’s chieftanship of that faction. And definitely not so supportive as to listen to a lengthy podcast in search of some specific tidbit that I could just scroll down to quickly if a transcript were posted somewhere. I of course have the life parallels to wrestle with. (McWhorter and I are exactly the same age and grew up maybe 25 miles away from each other. When I was thirteen I somehow managed to fulfill the letter but not the spirit of a school assignment by writing about the variousness of languages spoken in Surinam — yet he was the one who grew up to “turn pro” and actually make a living studying language use in Suriname, as it had been by then respelled.)

  13. AJP Crown says:

    It’s not really the Terry Gross ‘so’ that people are interested in or bothered by. It’s the Mark Zuckerberg ‘so’ (this is all at roughly minute 11), the kind that introduces an explanation. And in that usage, as David says, it’s similar to (a copy of) German also.

    That’s all this McWhorter needed to say. And another thing: I can’t stand Blossom Dearie.

  14. Suriname, as it had been by then respelled.

    I remember when I was working as an editor on the Price Waterhouse series of Doing Business in Other Countries I was very grumpy at this change, and I sent around a memo saying that if we were going to use the new spelling we should also start saying “Suri-NAAM-e” instead of the normal English pronunciation.

  15. squiff-marie von bladet says:

    I sent around a memo saying that if we were going to use the new spelling we should also start saying “Suri-NAAM-e” instead of the normal English pronunciation.

    So you should, he soed. I certainly do.

  16. I first started noticing “so” as a sentence opener in NPR interviews between five and ten years ago although I’m sure it predates that time. What struck me was that it was most used by academics of various persuasions being interviewed about topics in their particular expertise. Always when answering a question. So, I posit that this has its origins in academic discourse at colleges and universities, becoming widespread sometime in the oughts.

  17. I’ve always taken initial ‘so’ to be following an omitted summary of the current situation, which is unnecessary because it is obvious to everyone present.

    The audience is in their seats, and the featured speaker is on the stage, so it’s time to begin the presentation by introducing …”

    We’re sitting in this radio studio, and the On Air light has just come on, so let me begin by welcoming our guest …”

    I don’t really remember when I started hearing it as a sort of marker that some kind of presentation, lecture or similar event was about to start, but I think it must have been in the 1980s if not earlier.

    When answering a question, it comes after an implied Given everything that’s been said thus far,

    Another, less formal, equivalent is “All right”.

    “All right, today I want to look at how we can use Ohm’s Law …”

  18. President Reagan wielded the word “Well” with power, bringing all he spoke to into his comfort circle. You might not know what he’d say, but you expected it to be on spot somehow. “Hwaet” and “So” might serve the same purpose.

  19. When answering a question, it comes after an implied Given everything that’s been said thus far,

    No it doesn’t, except in the vacuous sense that any sentence opener implies that. If the interviewer asks “How did your band get started?” and the response is “So we were all in this bar one evening…” how exactly does your implication work?

  20. Starting sentences with “So,…” has long been a stereotypical feature of Minnesota speech. The correspondingly stereotypical way of ending sentences would be with “… then.”

  21. I listen to podcasts during household chores, while redoing my nails, shopping for groceries and such. The History of English Podcast is quite well-done for a non-specialist, and The Saga Thing has a fun format (they summarize Icelandic sagas and then judge them on categories like “best nickname” or “best bloodshed”). I also listen to language courses, random things in languages I need practice, and themes outside of the scope of’s main interests.

  22. I think anyone who sees podcasts as just an inefficient way to extract information is rather missing the point, which is to spend time in the company of, hopefully, congenial people discussing something of interest to you. And yeah, I don’t think people typically just sit down and listen while starting at the wall. You’re usually doing chores or going for a walk or driving somewhere or play a videogame that doesn’t require your full attention or what not. Obviously, if you’re just looking for facts, a podcast is not the medium to use.

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    The defenses of podcasts point out their merits for consumption in a particular fashion (for people who like consuming things in that particular fashion), but those merits do not alleviate their shortcomings for secondary uses in contexts like the present one, where hat wants to point out and encourage discussion of a single point discussed somewhere in the middle. Perhaps sometime soon automated transcript-generating software will be so good that hat could turn the relevant bit he wanted to post about into cut-and-pastable text with barely more effort than it would take to cut-and-paste from an article, but I don’t think we’re there quite yet.

  24. The History of English Podcast

    Podcast on The History of English Podcast?

    Yeah, but, of course.

    Any other way would be disrespectful to this fine method of consuming information.

  25. Thank you! The more I read stories online the more I encounter this, and it’s been eating at me.

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