Word On The Street: Debunking The Myth Of A “Pure” Standard English – John McWhorter

Walt Whitman really had the right idea with the whole “I contain multitudes” line. That’s really true for all of us. At times I think it is easier to think of myself in terms of context and not personality. It isn’t so much that I have a personality that dictates my behavior as much as there are context that dictate my personality. Frequently, you don’t get to know people so much as you get to know certain context of that person. This is likely why there are so many stories of people being disappointed by meeting celebrities.

This post might be about John McWhorter more than the book itself. Let’s see how it goes.

Even as a public figure, John McWhorter is wearing two hats. Social media has, in a respect, made a celebrity out of nearly everybody, a moment in history someone brighter than myself called “a Cambrian explosion of public figures”. Generally speaking, most people merely get to be known for one thing – Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris were ‘those atheist guys’, and J.K Rowling was ‘that Harry Potter writer’ – and this is because we would otherwise need to maintain a spreadsheet to keep up with all the names and opinions. I came to know John McWhorter as ‘that linguistics guy’ first. But apparently there was another John McWhorter who spoke about race too. I came to learn about this after recommending one of McWhorter’s books to an acquaintance and getting a look as if I had recommended a book by Beelzebub.

This book is a bit like a gateway drug from the one John McWhorter to the other, and that’s because it isn’t really one book. It’s three books rolled into one. The first is about the ever-shifting shape of language, and how it can never truly be hammered down, which McWhorter would later cover in ‘Words on the Move’. The second is about the legitimacy of what is alternatively called African American Vernacular English, or Black English, which would also be covered in McWhorter’s ‘Talking Back, Talking Black’. The third book covers some of the real solutions to improve the African American community (more on that later), and one will notice a suspicious lack of a book review here. The transition is probably as seamless as they come, and one can see how the three very different subjects blend into one argument.

I am absolutely awful at reading books on current affairs. I tend to read at a geological pace, and current affairs should be read all at once so that you can go complain about something on twitter. It took me a decade to read Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, at which point the book was irrelevant. The last third of this book has that same feel. I was a child when the California Ebonics brouhaha that started McWhorter on this road happened (in fact the word Ebonics itself now has a ring of boomerism to it. It has become a word of my father’s generation). Despite all this, I see and agree with McWhorter’s point, if only because I have an aunt who only speaks a minority ‘dialect/language’ and I understand how this it looked at in a non-american context1.

As far as I can discern McWhorter is making an argument here for African Americans to become bilingual. Largely, I think that has happened, from the clear cases of code-switching I hear when I find myself in their company. I think, at least as it affects the middle class African Americans that compose the company I keep, that McWhorter was largely correct. But maybe that’s a European perspective. In America, the work to improve the situation for African Americans seems to still be going on. In the 90’s, McWhorter was a contrarian about how this needs to be done. In 2022, Contrarian he remains.

The politics of it all ended up being the most interesting thing about this book. It opens with strong leanings towards descriptivism, a position I have always understood as being the left leaning one. In fact, from reading McWhorter’s linguistics work, one would assume he is left leaning. His detractors call him a right-winger, which in today’s political climate is meant to be understood as an insult. I am not sure I buy it. Certainly not from this book.


1 Right, for anyone interested I live in the Veneto region of Italy, where people largely speak Italian, but some old school holdouts still speak Venetian. Venetian was what was spoken here before the advent of television and radio truly disseminated the Italian language in a significant way. Italian is a privileged language, and if you go to a job interview (for a good job) and speak Venetian to a Venetian, you likely will not get the job. You need to make a show of speaking Italian. Why? Because the rest of the country does. It doesn’t make sense, it isn’t fair, but it is the way it is. If you only speak the dialect, you are taken for a bumpkin.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s