Review: Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, CareDoing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care by John McWhorter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a big McWhorter fan. His lecturing style, which is just like his writing style, is so engagingly brilliant.

This was such a wonderful and odd book; it revealed more of ΜcWhorter’s personality than previous reads and listens, specifically his dedication to musical theater—and the fact that his pop culture knowledge is almost scarily extensive.

And that fact also points to a fundamental ambivalence—I almost said “equivocation”—in the book: does he really and truly lament the collapse in the distance between casual English and the more elaborated written form of English that used to be common coin? He doesn’t write in the formal language of yesteryear (and he knows this). He doesn’t like poetry (and he knows this). He does draw the line, apparently, at the vapidness of much rap and pop. But he ends up providing reams of analysis with little explicit evaluation. There is implicit evaluation, the reader has to think, all the way along, but when the explicit evaluation comes it sputters. He doesn’t think we can do anything to change our cultural-linguistic situation, and he’s not even sure it’s all bad (immigrants, for example, fare better in a cultural situation in which people aren’t so prissy about English style). All he knows is that we have lost something we used to have. If anything, that something is love for our country, knowledge of and pride in its story—casual writing is a symptom of this malaise, he says. We’re not proud of English because we’re not proud to be Americans (or Brits as the case may be). That’s not something a linguist, or any individual, can change.

McWhorter’s is the only book-level treatment of this topic I’ve read. I don’t know a better analysis. But I’m not entirely persuaded by this one. Correlation and causation just cannot be established with perfect certainty on a culture-wide scale. But I honor him for trying, and I’ll be meditating on his analysis for years to come, I think. He’s already proven to be one of the stickiest writers I read.

Something I Am Embarrassed to Say I Just Learned

I knew that English Bible translators have access to a computerized linguistic corpus—an unbelievably massive collection of English texts—to help them do their work.

What I didn’t know, what I just learned, is that I do, too.

What you’re about to learn, if you didn’t already know it, is so do you.

So I chose to get involved in some online discussion about the KJV, and I’m glad I did. I was talking to some intelligent guys who kept me on my toes. I pointed out to them, in a broader argument about the readability of the KJV, that “dropsy” (Luke 14:2) is an archaic word liable to cause today’s readers to draw a blank. The word is very old, first citation 1290—though, of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s archaic (sack is also very old, but not archaic). But my sense was that “dropsy” just doesn’t get used today.

One of my interlocutors pointed out, and touché for him, that my beloved ESV uses the word, too, however! (He could have added that the NASB uses it as well.) I had not realized this, and I was initially surprised.

However, being a denizen of the Internet and therefore rarely being one to admit fault, I determined to do some poking around. Standard contemporary dictionaries weren’t enough help. Merriam-Webster told me only that “dropsy” means “edema.” American Heritage said the word is “no longer in scientific use,” but didn’t elaborate. Is it archaic? Should the ESV and NASB have used it? I didn’t know yet. Even if the word has dropsied right out of science, maybe it has landed in the speech of the common man.

So I checked Google’s NGram Viewer, and this is what I found:

Right after 1900, “edema” clearly changes places with “dropsy.” I’m not sure why there are massive spikes, and a big drop in the “edema” line starting sometime before the year 2000. I’m also not sure how much to trust Google NGram Viewer—I simply don’t know whether the corpus it’s searching (Google Books) is a truly representative sample. I’m not confident that I’m interpreting the graphs correctly. Perhaps the relative difference is huge, but the actual difference is not. Stats are tricky.

Then it hit me: I wonder if there’s an online English corpus available freely, designed for precisely my question, and focused on contemporary English—the kind of corpus I’ve heard Doug Moo talk about, which he used for the NIV. I searched for “english corpus,” and as they say in Telugu, voilà. I discovered BYU’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). It provides a massive, curated database balanced of different types of American speech and writing. It’s composed of roughly equal parts spoken, fiction, magazine, newspaper, and academic English. Wow.

There are actually multiple English corpora at the site, and they “allow research on variation—historical, between dialects, and between genresin ways that are not possible with other corpora.”

So, COCA, what’s a more common word in contemporary English, “dropsy” or “edema”? There’s a very clear winner. But if I give you a fish you’ll only eat for today. Go see if you can figure it out yourself.

I’m with Pinker

I critiqued Steven Pinker several times in Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption; Pinker is an epistemological extremist, in my unaccredited opinion, someone who places far too much faith in empirical method.

But I can’t help but like the guy when he talks about the English language—and when he talks: he’s got a precise, Canadian-inflected way of speaking that I like. (I would like him better if he let me on the AHD usage panel, but ah well…) And he understands that the “rules” of English are determined collectively by its speakers, not by the grammarians who complain the loudest.

So when a friend sent me this attack on Pinker’s view of language by Nathan Heller, my dander began to get up and move around. I tried to tamp it down, but that only made it fly around more wildly. To make matters worse, Heller has the gall to make a living as a writer. At the New Yorker of all places. He insisted that Pinker was too laissez faire about our mother tongue, that there is something called “correct English” that people should observe. Or is it which people should observe? Heller says he knows. He says the rest of us could learn if only we truly cared about language like him, if only we plebeians would get our linguistic act together.

But my dander is still very much up. I will submit to my God-given authorities, but not to grammar rules that somebody made up for no good reason in 1888. I say the people must rise up, along with my dander, and get our language back from the self-appointed Grammar Nazis! The “rules” Heller invokes are oppressive. (How often does a BJU graduate get to be more liberal than a New Yorker staff writer? I’m really enjoying this!)

The essay isn’t entirely wrong: I accept the idea that something we might call “correct English”—though I’d rather call it “standard English”—is a separate code worth mastering next to what we already say naturally. And I agree that those who want to push the boundaries of language should prove that they’ve mastered their p’s and q’s first.

But it is generally not a copy-editor’s place to tell an author, “This is not correct.” His job should be to gauge the author’s likely audience and his chosen formality level, and help him try to match the two. Usage determines meaning, so I’d rather hear copy-editors saying, “This is not useful.” An author should be allowed to use “like” instead of “such as” when it fits his purposes. But the “that” vs. “which” distinction totally fits with my favoritest quote on my blog ever:

The record plainly shows that most people of all classes customarily make no distinction between disinterested and uninterested or between nauseated and nauseous, yet critics continue to note the alleged differences in urgent or melancholy tones. Such a fastidious attitude serves to mark the critic as belonging to a high social class. The situation is analogous to that of a guest remarking on transposed forks in the place settings at a dinner table. As Dwight Bolinger puts it: “The lielay distinction is fragile and impractical, and the price of maintaining it is too high. But that is exactly what makes it so useful as a social password: without the advantage of a proper background or proper schooling, you fail.” (p. 256)

If your audience is a set of grammar and usage nerds, “I’m so nauseous” is not useful unless you’re making a joke. But there are situations where it might be useful, better even than the “correct” wording. I can think of one: let’s imagine that your friend says at the amusement park, “I’m so nauseous!” It’s not useful to say, “I’m nauseated, too!”—because you just corrected your friend in front of others. You just declared to all present, “This individual does not know the password. He’s not one of us.” That’s not nice. One of my other favorite quotes on language, from Ammon Shea, is also apropos:

I think it delightful that language can engender such passion. At the same time, I find the tendency to belittle people for verbal slights to be quite distasteful. I frequently hear people pointedly aver that they “care about language,” which to me is simply a polite way of saying “I like to correct the language use of other people.” We all care about language, some of us more than others, but the degree to which one is willing to humiliate or upbraid others should not stand as an indication of how much one cares. (xiii)

Language is a tool; arbitrary and inflexible rules don’t do a good job of helping me use language in all the situations in which I find myself. At the very least, I must permit others to “break” the “rules” without arrogantly assuming that they have just revealed their stupidity.

I don’t know why people have such a hard time coming over to the descriptivist side. It’s like there’s a moral blockade. It’s like people who simply cannot stomach Piper’s “Christian hedonism” or Lewis’ “true myth.” I respect their consciences and will try not to rub these usages in their faces, but it is annoying to be tsk-tsked when you know that you’re not doing anything wrong.

Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption Promo Video

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Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption now has a promo page on bjupress.com. If you haven’t yet purchased a copy, you will want to do so now that there is a promo page. Bryan Smith, the presenter on the video there, is the one whose vision I was trying to live out in the book. His theological mentoring made a major impact on me during my nine years at BJU Press. He knows his Bible extremely well and works to apply it across all the academic disciplines with a depth and rigor I’ve never seen in anyone else I know personally.

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Capitalizing LORD

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The practice of capitalizing LORD when it translates Yahweh (יהוה) and not capitalizing it (or rather, not all of it) when it translates Adonai (אדני) goes back at least to Luther.

This is from Luther’s Preface to his (German) translation of the Old Testament:

Whoever reads this Bible should also know that I have been careful to write the name of God which the Jews call “Tetragrammaton” in capital letters thus, LORD [HERR], and the other name which they call Adonai only half in capital letters thus, LOrd [HErr].29 For among all the names of God, these two alone are applied in the Scriptures to the real, true God; while the others are often ascribed to angels and saints. I have done this in order that readers can thereby draw the strong conclusion that Christ is true God.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 248–249.

Does anyone know if this practice, which we still basically use today in English Bibles across the spectrum (from CEB to ESV), was invented by Luther? Or does it go back earlier?