“McWhorter is a gifted young linguist who seeks to understand the change in our verbal habits rather than just bemoan it, and his analysis is insightful, richly documented and, yes, eloquently written.”—Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate and The Language Instinct
In Doing Our Own Thing, critically acclaimed linguist and cultural critic John McWhorter traces the precipitous decline of language in contemporary America, arguing persuasively that casual everyday speech has conquered the formal in all arenas, from oratory to poetry to everyday journalism—and has even had dire consequences for our musical culture. McWhorter argues that the swift and startling change in written and oral communication emanated from the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and its ideology that established forms and formality were autocratic and artificial. While acknowledging that the evolution of language is, in and of itself, inevitable and often benign, he warns that the near-total loss of formal expression in America is unprecedented in modern history and has reached a crisis point in our culture such that our very ability to convey ideas and arguments effectively is gravely threatened.
By turns compelling and harrowing, passionate and judicious, Doing Our Own Thing is required reading for all concerned about the state of our language—and the future of intellectual life in America.
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.