The English language has been the main craft tool of my life - and a great love as well. Happily, I read books and write about them for a living. When one is splendid literature or presents illuminating contemporary or historical insight, I celebrate it on these pages.
Thus, as you read on, you'll understand why I can't remember a book that has more distressed and depressed me than Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, by John McWhorter (Gotham, 304 pages, $26).
Don't get me wrong. It is a fine book and, I think, a very important one. But its message - that the English language in the United States has plunged into a destructive spiral of imprecision and degradation - if taken as inevitably true, is so disturbing that I cannot get myself to accept it.
Born in 1965, McWhorter is a prodigy. He earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford University in 1993. He went to teach at the University of California-Berkeley in 1995 and has been an assistant professor at Cornell. He now is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a professor of linguistics at Berkeley. His essays and books have enraged orthodox voices from both the political right and left. He is author of Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority; The Power of Babel, an introduction to language change for the general public; The Word On The Street: Fact And Fiction About American English; and The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Creole Languages. His Losing the Race is about modern race issues in America.
All that by age 38!
He knows a great deal about language, particularly in the United States. And he finds it gravely diseased.
In the end, his conclusion is grim: Since language is the vehicle of culture, this creeping carnage foreshadows a fatal stagnation of the intellectual culture of the United States.
Why? Because of the deterioration of precision, discipline and formality of the written word, which is fast being conquered by oral expression. "Spoken language" he writes, "is best suited to harboring easily processible chunks of information, broad lines, and emotion. To the extent that our public discourse leans ever more toward this pole, the implications for the prospect of an informed citizenry are dire. ... Americans after the 1960s have lived in a country with less pride in its language that any other society in recorded history."
What's at stake?
The heart of the culture, he laments. He celebrates the native language of Americans as being "draped in two thousand years of history, during which it has drunk in hundreds of thousands of words from countless languages, assigned them a majestic array of bracingly specific and subtle meanings, and served as the vehicle for arguments that resonate worldwide as advances for humanity, from the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights to Martin Luther King Jr.'s `I Have a Dream' speech."
But that history is at risk, or beyond redemption, McWhorter argues: "The United States has undergone a shift in its relationship to self-expression that has had an effect beyond anything traceable to education or larger currents of intellectual history."
"The key concept here is formality," he writes. "It is part of the modern American soul to distrust it, and since the 1960s has been much more so than ever before." And what may be even more distressing, "America no longer values carefully wrought oral expression in the way that it did even in the recent past."
From newspapers and magazines as well as private correspondence in the 19th Century and well into the 20th, McWhorter cites wonderful richness of vocabulary, rhetoric, image, metaphors. His examples are charming, evocative - but if they were used today and were understandable to Americans, with their ever-decreasing vocabularies, they would seem arcane or pretentious.
McWhorter writes consistently with wit and humor. His clarity of phrase can be enchanting. Defending evolution of the language, he flashes with deftness of phrase: "English has its own rules, and is no more beholden to Latin's rules than a dog is obliged to purr." Citing an elegant, eloquent 1864 love letter from Washington Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, to his fiancM-ie, McWhorter concludes that today "writing to women in language like this would all but ensure his dying alone."
He also has a long chapter on the disappearance of formal poetry as an important part of American culture. He concludes that it has been largely replaced by spoken, informal almost-poetry, significantly devoted to protest or self-indulgence, and bereft of intellectual complexity or ambition. The ultimate and most insidious manifestation is rap.