Doing Our Own Thing
The Degradation of Language and Music and WhyWe Should, Like, Care
by John McWhorter
Gotham, 304 pp., $26
JOHN MCWHORTER is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. His specialty is Creole languages, but he's better known outside the university as an enemy of social stereotypes that he sees as racial cul de sacs. He materialized as a celebrity public intellectual in 2000 with his bestseller "Losing the Race," in which he argued that the advancement of black youth was hindered by a cult of "victimology" that discouraged success. Two years later, in a polemic in the Washington Post, he characterized the idea of "diversity" as "an Orwellian euphemism for treating middle-class black students as lesser minds." The Supreme Court, says McWhorter, should "outlaw the use of 'diversity' as a fig leaf for policies that have kept two generations of black students from showing what they are made of."
In "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care," he takes up the public consequences of his academic specialty. The title is misleading. The author is not one of those fussbudgets worried about dangling modifiers or misusing "disinterested" to mean "uninterested." He has his eye on a more critical phenomenon: our national shift from a written to an oral culture, which, he argues, "has had broad and profound effects." Bad ones. His conclusion here is that our ability to write, speak--and maybe think--has been degraded by cultural wear and tear.
McWhorter is annoyed at being pigeonholed as a "black conservative." As a corrective, he sprinkles this book with old standbys from left-wing boilerplate, most of which happen to be irrelevant to his subject matter, as in "We have a President many assume to be underqualified and illegitimately instated." He quotes admiringly from Amiri Baraka, aka LeRoi Jones, the defrocked poet laureate of the Garden State, whom he sees as the populist opposite to Edna St. Vincent Millay. (There's an army of contenders who can more poetically fill that slot, beginning with Carl Sandburg.)
When he sticks to his subject, McWhorter can offer fresh insights. He regrets that English diction is taking a beating. It was once customary to speak the written language. But in the era of email and the cell phone, there has been a shredding of formal diction. Instead of speaking the written language, we're now writing the spoken language. The rhetoric of the Gettysburg Address has given way to the style of Jack Kerouac. Even the speeches of John F. Kennedy, he notes, now seem a shade archaic.
My problem with "Doing Our Own Thing" is that its rhetoric gets in the way of the message. The author rambles. Phrases like "as I have noted before" have the aroma of a classroom lecture. But his ideas muster vigor enough to survive his style. McWhorter connects the takeover by the spoken word with "the mainstreaming of the counterculture" in the late 1960s. He warns that "the new linguistic order compromises our facility with the word and dilutes our collective intellect. . . . A society that cherishes the spoken over the written . . . is one that marginalizes extended, reflective argument . . . the implications for an informed citizenry are dire."
But not all of the assault on language can be blamed on oral communication. Deconstructionism in the universities relies entirely on the written word to make meaning impenetrable. McWhorter offers this sample from Paul Fry: "It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the abstention of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading the helplessness--rather than the will to power--of its fall into conceptuality."
The implosion of popular music parallels the degradation of language. About this the author is ambivalent: "Just as we talk when we make speeches, and write more and more like we talk, and just as our poetry imitates talking, we adore music that just talks." Music that "just talks," namely rap, minus melody and harmony, is "spoken music." Call me a longhair, but to me it's anti-music.
In "From Dawn To Decadence," Jacques Barzun attributes social decay to the decline of authority. So does McWhorter. (He classifies positive values as B.C.: "Before the counter-culture.") The legacy of written English, he says, is not being passed on, or if it is, it's "through a bottleneck." The result is that we live in a country "with less pride in its language than any society in recorded history."