1965: A Turning Point for our Language


In his treatise on the changes in our language over the last half of the last century, author and linguistics professor John McWhorter marks the year of his birth as a turning point towards a more relaxed and less elegant use of language.

His book, "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care" (Gotham Books, 279 pages, $26) claims that the introduction of color TV and a lack of trust in government (Vietnam) began to "elevate the visual over the written in American culture" article here from the Chicago Tribune .


From the review:

McWhorter is not your typical prophet of doom for formal English. In an earlier book ... he argued that harrumphing about proper grammar is an ill-conceived effort to enforce the arbitrary rules imposed by long-dead scholars.

In its purest form, he maintains, human communication is oral and always changing -- a point he revisits in his new book. He is interested in graceful and artful English, not `proper' English, he says.

I think McWhorter is right on all counts. Grammar is best done heavy on the descriptive and light on the normative. Relatively few people realize that dialects such as Black English, or the English of Appalachia or Brooklyn, though they differ from the formal standard, are grammatically internally consistent and in no way "incorrect". The differences between these dialects and whatever the prevailing standard is at a given time is not carelessness or stupidity or ignorance, but change over time in a population that is distinct (or even isolated) ethnically, culturally, geographically, or socially.

The goal of education should not be to see that children do not speak a dialect, but rather that they do learn to speak formal, standard English as well as any colloquial or dialectal language they speak at home, and that they learn to speak with grace and art. I'm probably hoping for too much with the bit about "grace and art".

"What gave us Americans a tacit sense that to wield the full resources of our native language is tacky?" McWhorter wonders in his book.

The result of our culture of informality is not only more ordinary English, but also muddier public discourse, McWhorter says in an interview by telephone.

"It can impede the development of precise thinking," he says. "The most worrisome thing about this development is that it eliminates the space in the culture for speeches and addresses that make a careful, logical case for a point of view."

Ain't that the truth. I hope we Americans can realize that it isn't either/or, either colloquial or "proper" English, but rather both colloquial and formal English, and each spoken and written as clearly, as vigorously, and as beautifully as we are able. American English at its best is a wonderful language. I wish more of us used it as if we loved it.

Sorry to preach. Perhaps this kind of thing belongs in my journal.