Review: John McWhorter’s Words on the Move

by Jun 15, 2017Culture, Linguistics, Piety3 comments

I’ve gone through two of John McWhorter’s Great Courses on language; I’ve read several of his books, and I’m a faithful listener to his podcast. When I picked up this book I suddenly realized, “I know just what he’s going to say. I get John McWhorter.” I put the book down after two chapters. But a testimony to his consummate skill as a popularizer and communicator is that I couldn’t help myself and I finished the book anyway. And then, particularly with regard to back-shifting, McWhorter managed to say something new to me that my own reading in linguistics hasn’t brought me to. I also collect many quotable quotes and fun illustrations from him that I can use in my own popularizing work.

McWhorter’s head is screwed on straight. He spends an entire book bemusedly observing the sometimes random changes in language (in both word meaning and pronunciation) and offering none of the moral judgments people expect about them But he knows readers want that judgment, and he gives it to them in a wise form. Listen to this:

For a linguist to hope that the public will give up the idea that some ways of speaking are more appropriate for formal settings than others would be futile—especially since all linguists agree with the public on this. Often we are asked, “If all these things considered bad grammar are really okay, then why don’t you use them in your writing and speeches?” However, none of us is pretending that a society of human beings could function in which all spoke or wrote however they wanted to and yet had equal chances at success in life. The linguist’s point is that there are no scientific grounds for considering any way of speaking erroneous in some structural or logical sense. To understand this is not to give up on learning to communicate appropriately to context. To understand this is, rather, to shed the contempt: the acrid disgust so many seem to harbor for people who use the forms we have been taught are “bad.” (220–221)

This is very practical wisdom. It would have saved me from asking a Singaporean friend what his first language was and (I’m so embarrassed by this) asking a Kenyan friend why he speaks English wrong. It would have saved me from mocking a teacher who had a Southern accent when I was eighteen. And even now, the implicit connection to class McWhorter makes (“equal chances at success in life”) is a good reason to be humble about whatever facility I’ve attained in the use of standard American English. The truth is that I’ve been schooled in it from infancy. I never, never had to labor to acquire it. (Thanks, English Major Dad.)

McWhorter also raises the question: “If the way so many people talk is okay, then what counts as a mistake?”

And he provides an answer:

When people are doing things on their own. I once knew someone who, for some reason, despite otherwise perfectly ordinary American English, used “nerfry” for nursery and “grofery” for grocery. That was, quite simply, off because no one else says the words that way; nor is there anything about their sounds that makes it likely that anyone ever will. (195)

Get it set in your mind that McWhorter isn’t giving the inmates permission to rule the asylum, only noting that they in fact do whether think they do or not, and you can quell your moral alarm at his sometimes nonjudgmental descriptions of language change.

And then there’s this, an idea I consider a significant advance in my own understanding:

The fury some harbor over language usage issues is incommensurate with the gravity of the issue. Does anyone genuinely fear that we are on our way to babbling incomprehensibly to one another when no such thing has ever happened among a single human group in the history of our species? One suspects more afoot than logic: rage over language usage may be the last permissible open classism, channeling a tribalist impulse roiling ever underneath.

The tribalist impulse has ever fewer officialized outlets in our society, in which open discrimination is increasingly barred from the public forum. The very pointedness of the rage behind so many comments about language usage suggests something exploding after a considerable buildup of pressure, denied regular venting. In this grand and tragic world of ours, it is rather unexpected, in itself, that anyone would experience anger in response to the construction of a sentence. A student can hand in their paper anytime after Thursday—this use of their is grounds for fulmination amid global warming, terrorism, grisly epidemics, and the prospect of a world without bees? (223–224)

I doubt this explanation will persuade anyone of (ahem) their guilt, but this is by far the best explanation I’ve seen for the furor people raise over language change—and the moral disapprobation I see on people’s faces when they find out I’m fine with particular language changes that have occurred. I have literally been told that I am a moral relativist, even after I have tried to explain with great care what I do and don’t mean. (It was during a Q&A in front of a large group of people; it was awkward.)

(And I’m not a moral relativist.)

Especially helpful for me was the fact that one theme in McWhorter’s book was identical to the major theme of my upcoming book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (in fact, I’m hoping to get my hero McWhorter to blurb the book for me!). The argument I apply to the King James he applies to Shakespeare. And the argument is this simple:

English has changed a lot more since Shakespeare than we think. (205)

The key there is “than we think.” People who don’t obsess over language change like McWhorter does just aren’t likely to notice all the subtle differences that make Shakespeare and the KJV bumpy sidewalks for modern readers. There are many words in each that McWhorter calls “false friends,” words that we still use today but that meant something different in Elizabethan times. McWhorter and I share the same value: we want people to understand what they read and hear. So he made precisely the call I’ve made: update the false friends. His words on this issue are exceptionally wise and deft—and I promptly added them to the manuscript of my own book.

Thank you again, John McWhorter. I owe you a great debt, I really do.

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  1. Wesley Allen

    Language is a significant part of culture (and sub-culture) and, as such, a significant part of the ethos that will undergird a person’s persuasiveness in and identification with a group. So, while I think the tribalism assessment of folk’s concerns over correct language usage leans correct, I don’t think the concerns are completely unwarranted or irrational. Language is a powerful signal of identity and context. The language we use is in and of itself a medium of communication–something different than, behind, and beyond the surface meaning of what we say. If linguistic fluidity is taken to the extreme, we lose that medium of communication. Perhaps ironically, absolute language fluidity is the same as absolute language universality (all peoples speaking exactly the same). I think at the core, advocates for “speaking rightly” are concerned about maintaining their identity signal in that subtle behind-the-scenes linguistic medium. And that ain’t such a bad concern.

  2. Mark L. Ward Jr.

    I don’t disagree (and boy do I love to get comments from truly educated people—you succeeded in signaling your identity, and there is something deeply fun about people writing educated prose at each other!). The desire to preserve one’s culture and extend it into the next generation is not wrong. McWhorter is simply pointing out that the level of anger people expend, the level of smug superiority, the level of caustic abuse, the level of public lamentation over (and policing of) others’ deviations from one’s preferred ideal is something our society doesn’t normally permit when it comes to other markers of one’s class and culture. McWhorter has his own usage preferences, as he frequently reveals in the footnotes; he’s simply asking us all to stop being “acrid” about ours.

    I intend to police my kids’ grammar and word choice; I intend to do the same for my students as I step into teaching online soon. But my attitude will lean toward the pragmatic rather than the moral. That is, I’ll clearly align my grammar and usage instructions to Christian “teloi” rather than seeing following-the-rules-of-Standard-American-English as moral in itself. I’ll say to my kids/students,

    If you want to be perceived as educated by the people who hold the title “educated” in our society today—and that is something you should want, because these people have the power to reward you and there is something genuinely beautiful and powerful in refined speech that makes you persuasive for Christian ends—then you need to learn all the little conventions I’m teaching you. Educated people will dismiss you if you don’t speak their language, and while a Christian should not trust to rhetorical ability to make his or her message powerful, neither should that Christian forget that a word fitly spoken is, other things being equal, more of a blessing to others and more of an honor to God, the giver of language, than is the prose of the average internet troll.

    I still have some “shoulds” in there; good language is still a moral issue. But speaking and writing well are not subsumed to the end of proving one’s moral worth or touting one’s class membership but instead to the end of effective communication for and before God and, yes, of “making friends of unrighteous mammon.”

    David Foster Wallace has a fascinating discussion of his experience trying to enforce Standard American English on minority students. He attempted something very like my pragmatic tack, explaining the utility of SAE—and one student lodged a complaint against him. She perceived his argument that “educated people talk this way, like it or not, so you need to learn to do so as well” as justifying and extending rather than merely acknowledging the reality of “white privilege.” (Here’s the quote for the truly dedicated.) For all the excesses conservatives rightly see in the politically correct language of identity politics, I think most of us have come to acknowledge that it is possible to be guilty of cultural chauvinism—or, in this case, sub-cultural chauvinism. If language is a “powerful signal of identity,” that’s all the more reason to be humble about it.

    McWhorter is also saying that linguistic fluidity is in little danger in our culture of being taken to an extreme, or of melding all the world into one language.

    Thanks for commenting, Wesley. I am grateful for your comment. Would I have any reason to know you or yours?

  3. Wesley Allen

    *thumbs up*

    No, you’ve got no reason to know me, though I would love the chance to meet you in person so please do let me know if you ever give a talk in the Northwest Indiana/Purdue area. I found your blog years ago and, having side-interests that overlap with your expertises (what an ugly word), have followed you ever since. I love reading those whose uncommon knowledge and humility are evident in their writing.