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Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English (1998)

by John McWhorter

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1271160,630 (3.89)2
In The Word on the Street, John McWhorter reveals our American English in all its variety, beauty, and expressiveness. Debunking the myth of a "pure" standard English, he considers the speech patterns and accents of many regions and ethnic groups in the U.S. and demonstrates how language evolves. He takes up the tricky question of gender-neutral pronouns. He dares to ask, "Should we translate Shakespeare?" Focusing on whether how our children speak determines how they learn, he presents the controversial Ebonics debate in light of his research on dialects and creoles. The Word on the Street frees us to truly speak our minds. It is John McWhorter's answer to William Safire, transformed here into everybody's Aunt Lucy, who insists on correcting our grammar and making us feel slightly embarrassed about our everyday use of the language. ("To whom," she will insist, and "don't split your infinitives!") He reminds us that we'd better accept the fact that language is always changing - not only slang, but sound, syntax, and words' meanings - and get on with the business of communicating effectively with one another.… (more)

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This book provides lively look at several aspects of modern English from a linguist's perspective.

The book starts with a few chapters discussing the myriad ways that languages and dialects change over time. McWhorter shows that languages are not static and immutable, rather they are constantly evolving over time, like a lava lamp, to use one of McWhorter's favorite metaphors. These opening chapters are pretty much a shortened version of McWhorter's more recent book, The Power of Babel.

Through most of the remaining chapters, McWhorter discusses different aspects of modern English through the lens of language change. There are discussions of a lot of (sometimes) controversial rules that some "authorities" try to propagate, with McWhorter arguing that these rules are generally pointless. It's hopeless to try to preserve old bits when the language has moved past them (e.g., "whom"). Likewise it's pointless to fight against new evolutions in language ("hopefully" and the use of "they" as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun).

More interesting for me was the chapter on Shakespearean English. McWhorter describes how often Shakespeare uses language that is, essentially, foreign to the modern audience. Mostly this is a matter of word meanings and idioms. But McWhorter argues that many of us have to work so hard to understand a Shakespeare play (in the theater) and miss so much of its meaning that we really should be performing Shakespeare in translation---translation into modern English.

The final three chapters of the book are devoted to a discussion of Black English. The book was originally published shortly after the 1996-7 controversy over the teaching of Ebonics in the Oakland schools. And in many ways it is largely a vehicle for McWhorter to make his argument about this issue. McWhorter pokes holes in many linguistic misconceptions surrounding the debate and offers his views on the pedagogical challenges of teaching kids a new dialect at school and discusses the larger hurdles facing Black English speakers in American schools.

All in all, this was an entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking book. Some of the sections on Black English feel a bit dated, as they are focused on rebutting arguments that were put forth 15+ years ago. But even so, it was still a good read.

In reading the book, I was disappointed that McWhorter didn't draw some connection between his chapters on the folly of prescriptive rules in grammar and usage and his chapters on Black English. It seems to me that both of these issues touch on the topic of how language is used as a marker of class and status. McWhorter rightly argues against people who disparage Black English as linguistically inferior to Standard English. At the same time, he acknowledges the value in teaching everyone to speak Standard English. While the prescriptivist rules about split infinitives and "hopefully" may not have a solid linguistic basis, I would argue that they are examples of the same issues that come up with Black English. Failure to follow these rules can be viewed as an indication of inferior education, intelligence, and social background---just as many people treat Black English. Thus, to the extent that these rules are followed to sound like the educated and elite, it doesn't matter whether they have a sound linguistic basis.

On a completely different note, I found the cover photo on the hardcover edition of the book puzzling. It is a black-and-white shot of a city street in the late afternoon, with long shadows throwing everything into relief. Obviously this ties in with the title of the book, The Word on the Street. What's funny about it is that somebody obviously wanted to emphasize the canyon-like effect of looking down a city street and stretched the picture to make it longer and narrower. The result, however, is that all of the cars and trucks on the street are oddly out of proportion.
1 vote Wombat | Mar 26, 2011 |
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To John Hamilton McWhorter IV (1927-1996)
Thank you, Dad, for teaching me how to play with both hands.
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(Introduction): Not long ago, I overheard a woman telling a friend that one reason she couldnt' see herself marrying the current man is because his speech was so full of "errors," like double negatives and dose for those.
One of the most frustrating things for any linguist is a virtually universal misimpression that the world is full of people neglecting "proper," "logical" speech for "lazy speech" full of "errors," considered slovenly lapses in the vein of bad posture or inattentive grooming.
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In The Word on the Street, John McWhorter reveals our American English in all its variety, beauty, and expressiveness. Debunking the myth of a "pure" standard English, he considers the speech patterns and accents of many regions and ethnic groups in the U.S. and demonstrates how language evolves. He takes up the tricky question of gender-neutral pronouns. He dares to ask, "Should we translate Shakespeare?" Focusing on whether how our children speak determines how they learn, he presents the controversial Ebonics debate in light of his research on dialects and creoles. The Word on the Street frees us to truly speak our minds. It is John McWhorter's answer to William Safire, transformed here into everybody's Aunt Lucy, who insists on correcting our grammar and making us feel slightly embarrassed about our everyday use of the language. ("To whom," she will insist, and "don't split your infinitives!") He reminds us that we'd better accept the fact that language is always changing - not only slang, but sound, syntax, and words' meanings - and get on with the business of communicating effectively with one another.

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