Once languages become written, they change. Only in writing does language develop the artfulness and richness that we associate with a Shakespeare, a Proust or a Whitman. Yet over the last forty years, the English-language has effectively gone into reverse - taking our lead from America and the legacy of the 1960s, our culture increasingly privileges the oral over the written, spurning the art of elaborated, 'written'-style language in favour of returning to the state of a spoken culture. Parallel developments have occurred in music.
In this controversial and thought-provoking book, John McWhorter argues that the 1960's rejection of cultural traits associated with the Establishment, as well as a democratic celebration of what anyone can do over what requires training or talent, has led to our culture being increasingly impoverished, both intellectually and artistically...
Linguist and show-tune aficionado McWhorter (Losing the Race) explores why American language and music are no longer crafted, honored or even well-regarded means of expression. The expected social formality of an earlier era, he argues, was eroded by the individualistic, multicultural values of the 1960s. The result: we talk rather than lecture, and we choose 50 Cent over Mahler. By unearthing Victorian-era speeches, early 20th-century newspapers and presidential addresses from the family Bush, McWhorter shows just how American English has, over time, taken on a permanent casual Friday uniform. McWhorter, who is African-American, suggests that hip-hop, spoken-word poetry and black English are the current defining modes of expression, with their fight-the-power messages of distrusting authority and "keeping it real." But, he notes, in contrast to the gentle, erudite oratories of the past, "oetry that shouts can only be a sideshow. It cannot inspire a nation." Laden with contemporary pop culture references and humorous asides, this is an entertaining polemic that brings linguistics to the people, while lamenting the populist mentality that has made being cool more critical than being articulate.