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

by Oct 18, 2016Books, Linguistics0 comments

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.

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