This is the full transcript of our interview with John McWhorter. To read the condensed version, “6 Questions With Language Myth Buster John McWhorter,” click here.
BABBEL: First basic question: what first turned you on to language? Can you briefly tell me about your journey as a linguist?
MCWHORTER: I got turned onto language just because I think, I’m just old enough that I have memories as a small kid of not being surrounded by as many different languages as a person would be now. The Immigration Act of 1965 brought people from all over the world into this country in large numbers, in a way that had not been the fact since 1924. There had been kind of a 40-year blackout, so when I was 2 and 3 — I was born in 1965 — it was easy, even growing up in a big city like Philadelphia, to never hear anything but English. We didn’t happen to live in a neighborhood where there were any Latinos, so as far as I knew, there was just English.
Then, one day, I heard a little friend of mine, who after a piano lesson — I was four — she started talking to her parents. They were Israeli, and they were speaking Hebrew. It was the first time that I had ever not been able to understand something somebody was saying. I think for reasons individual to my bizarre makeup, that bothered me. I felt left out. I had this craving to want to be able to do what she was doing. That really was the beginning of it. I said, “I want to learn this thing called Hebrew.” Of course, when you are 4, you can’t. Somebody gave me a sheet with what actually — I still have it — it’s actually the Yiddish alphabet, but you know, same difference. Somebody told me that you read it backwards.
When I was a little kid, I learned to sound out Hebrew. Hebrew school was taught in the same building as my Montessori school. There was Hebrew writing around. I learned that you could read it backwards, and I read English early, so I would do that as a game. And then when I was about 10, I realized that doesn’t mean I know Hebrew, because I have no idea what any of it says. Then I became interested in knowing Spanish, because that is a language that you can’t help but kind of notice around.
I just always enjoyed teaching myself languages to the best of my ability. I’ve never gotten truly fluent in any other language because I haven’t ever spent a year living in another country, but I can fake it in a whole lot of them.
That is not in itself, necessarily, what it is to be an academic linguist. You can be an academic linguist and have no interest in learning how to speak other languages, or how other languages are different. It would surprise many people to know that many people who are famous as linguists, Noam Chomsky being one of them, have no interest at all in the glory of the differences among the languages of the world, or learning to speak Hindi for no reason or anything like that. Obviously, there’s an overlap. For me, it started with “Wow, there are all these different ways of doing what I’m doing,” and you can kind of learn the code, and then you can talk in two ways.
I started with European languages, and tried to cut my teeth on Hebrew several times, and after a while, especially in today’s America, you move on to different languages. It’s just always been fun for me. I’m lucky that I actually get to earn a salary on the basis of that interest, because that does not happen for everybody.
BABBEL: Of course. So what are some of the languages that you can fake it in?
MCWHORTER: I can handle myself in French, Spanish and German. German is eroding because I am not in Germany much, and now with kids, I just don’t have much time to kind of keep it up, but French, Spanish and German. Then I read very well, a whole bunch of other languages where of course, if you read it well, you can pretend to speak it, but not in any real way. That would include Italian, Portuguese and Dutch. I read Russian very well. I can barely speak it. I read Hebrew very well now. I’ve never really learned to speak it, because I don’t live in Israel. I am now intensely working on Mandarin, and with that I am less interested in the reading than the speaking, which is a reversal. By the end of this calendar year, I intend to be able to say that I speak fluent bad Mandarin.
MCWHORTER: So, that one. I think that’s about all of them that I can really say I can really do. There’s also, like anybody like me, I can handle Esperanto, and there is a Creole language spoken in the rainforest of Suriname that I did my PhD work on called Saramaccan, and I can speak that to an extent, and that is every bit as much of a language as any other. I used to be able to mess around with Japanese, but it’s been 20 years, and I’ve really forgotten all of it, so I can’t lay claim to it anymore. As you can see, I like to hop around.
BABBEL: Yeah, that’s a lot. Did you start out with any assumptions that current you would find laughable at this point as a linguist?
MCWHORTER: I think a lesson that I try to teach in all of my pulpits, so to speak, is that languages are much more different than you think. I think it’s easy to think as an American, or as an English speaker, that languages are different from English in the way that Spanish is, or maybe German. Maybe if you’ve had some Russian, it gets a little worse than that. You figure that you need to learn different words, and while other languages are going to have all these endings for verb conjugations and probably they are going to divide the nouns into gender. You have to learn some idioms, and the pronouns are going to go in different places than you are used to.
“For the most part, another language is going to be like Spanish.” That’s very easy to think, and that’s what I thought until I was probably about 30. As you move into languages beyond Indo-European, and then Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew, you realize that there are a whole lot of different ways of being a language. There are different ways of cutting up how existence works. Different ways of having what you think of as normal word order. There’s so much. For example, Mandarin. To learn Mandarin, you’d have to completely discard any sense you had of how a language is supposed to work.
The idea that there are adjectives and nouns, and your sense of what an adjective and a noun is has to change. Your sense that the way you handle an adjective and a noun together is that you just put the adjective before the noun, or maybe you put it after if it’s Spanish — all that just gets thrown to pieces. How you say that something is something, is just completely different. How you say “the man that was on the horse said,” how you deal with a relative clause is completely, completely different. Yes, now people who speak Chinese are doing exactly what you and I are doing right now.
A lot of the fun with languages is that if you stretch beyond boring old French and Spanish, which are useful because they are geographically close, you find that other languages are really, really different from one another. That is part of the fun for me, and what I think a lot of people miss when they think of what it is to learn another language.
BABBEL: Yes, it’s like you’re not even finding new things to plug into the equation. You have to scrap the equation that you are used to all together.
MCWHORTER: Good analogy, exactly.
BABBEL: Arguably, you’ve defined your career by repeatedly challenging all these pervasive language myths, like the idea that speaking another language changes your worldview, or that texting is killing language. If you could dispel any language myth for good, what would it be?
MCWHORTER: Well, the main one is the idea that a cognitively normal person can be walking around using something called “bad grammar.” The idea that there is such a thing as grammar that’s wrong is a very easy misconception to slip into, but it has no scientific basis, and it would really be good if people could let go of the idea that to speak something differently than what the written school standard is, is somehow a bad thing, and that a person needs to be taught out of it.
What a lot of people don’t get is that speaking that way — not only is there nothing wrong with it, it doesn’t keep you from being able to speak in the standard way. People can do both. A lot of people have a hard time even getting past that, because they think, “why would you want to learn the standard, and still speak that other thing?” They don’t see that bidialectism is a human norm. That’s the one I would get rid of, and this is by no means, I hope it doesn’t seem like because I am a Black American, that really, I’m talking about Black English. I’m really thinking about people in Denmark or anywhere else. Just the idea that normal people can talk wrong, or even here in America how somebody will say “Well, there’s less books on that table,” and somebody says, “No, it should be fewer books.”
MCWHORTER: The idea that that has any scientific basis is absurd, and yet people walk around laboring under the idea that it’s wrong to say “Billy and me went to the store.” There will always be colloquial versus standard. There are issues of context that anybody needs to learn, and you know, those issues of context really aren’t that difficult, but yes, there will always be a sense of what’s more formal and what’s informal. The idea that the informal is broken is the most pernicious language myth I know of.
BABBEL: Yeah, for sure. Then you can kind of substitute that for an argument, which when you are fighting with someone online, you can just sort of challenge their grammar and shut them down, and not really…
MCWHORTER: Yes, that’s not the way it should be. Somebody can be using informal grammar and be much more brilliant than the person who knows to say “fewer” rather than “less books.”
BABBEL: In a recent episode of Lexicon Valley, you really tore apart Strunk & White. If it’s as problematic as you say, why do you think The Elements of Style has stuck around for so long?
MCWHORTER: I think that people like the idea that they are doing something the right way. Because we do have linguistic self-consciousness, Strunk & White seems like a nice kind of Emily Post or a nice bottled linguistic deodorant. You want to have that, and you pride yourself on having mastered the intricate little rules that they come up with. Yes, it’s very attractive. You figure that that will teach you how to speak, how to dress or how to carve the duck properly, or something like that.
MCWHORTER: The sad thing is though that almost everything in that book is something some guy made up. A lot of it has a pleasing sense about it. Their idea of how to use a comma, okay. A lot of it though, most of us would have thought up ourselves. So much of —frankly, most of it — is just stuff that a couple of guys in a different time made up based on their own aesthetic sensibilities. That book ends up leaving people needlessly self-conscious. It ends up making copy editors impose what are really baseless rules, and in many cases, that’s their job to do and they wouldn’t be paid if they didn’t, but they shouldn’t be required to is the problem. All of the business about split infinitives, about how “shall” is supposed to be used, about keeping things short in the kind of example they give, all of it is just nonsense. That doesn’t mean that they were evil men. They didn’t know any better because we have a very image-driven culture when it comes to linguistic self-consciousness, and frankly, linguistic classism, but still, that’s what’s wrong with Strunk & White.
You can write gracefully, and Steven Pinker has written — predictably, this book doesn’t get around as much as his others — it’s called The Sense of Style. It very nicely gives you a sense of how to write well without propagating all this nonsense. Strunk & White is frankly shorter. It gives you a sense that you are in the club. You are doing the right thing. You’ve got your encyclopedia, your dictionary, you’re wearing your deodorant, you’ve got your Strunk & White.
Unfortunately, Strunk & White is just some stuff that somebody made up. That’s why I did that episode about Strunk & White. I thought that needed to be heard. It’s been written, but as I am finding with the podcast genre, what you say gets around in today’s culture much more than anything you write, so I thought I would say it.
BABBEL: Yeah, for sure. I guess piggybacking on that a little bit, do you think there is any sort of value in standardizing style, like AP style, or Chicago style, or anything like that?
MCWHORTER: No, I don’t. Theoretically, I know that we’ll always have a sense that some things are for use in the formal context, and some things are not. It’s hard not to have that, and I’m certainly not immune. There will always be style guides like that, but I think ideally, we’d understand that a lot of these choices are extremely arbitrary, and the style guides would, frankly, be much shorter. There should be no such thing as someone penalized for using a split infinitive, or beginning a sentence with “and,” or using “hopefully” in a perfectly normal way that we use “surely” and “certainly” and so many other adverbs. So much of what’s in those guides would just have to be junked. Yeah, you could have a house style that you make what you openly say are arbitrary choices that you prefer, like The New Yorker still spells “naïve” with an umlaut over the i. They know that that’s a little silly, but that is their way of wearing a cute little bowtie, or something like that. Fine, but they’re not implying that everybody ought to do it. That’s the spirit in which style guides ought to be imposed.
BABBEL: Right. So that actually ties in nicely with my next question, because you have weighed in on Trump’s speech habits quite a bit. First of all, thanks for introducing me to the phrase “logorrheic verbal fantasia.”
MCWHORTER: [laughing] That was spontaneous, but you’re welcome.
BABBEL: Second of all, you also mentioned that Trump is merely the product of a deformalization process that’s been underway since the ’60s, and you said, oratorically, that he’s the beginning of something new. Do you think we’ll see less and less formal language as the years go on?
MCWHORTER: Yes I do, but I think Trump is only a symptom of that. I don’t think that anybody’s imitating Trump, which is something I discussed in a Times article that came out around the [same time as the] Colbert episode did. I think that America has let it hang loose in terms as what we think of as speech. Since the ’60s, to an extent, it’s hard to imagine what it used to be like. You have to think about how speeches sound on YouTube. How Franklin D. Roosevelt sounded. The fact that you cannot hear him speaking casually at all. There were never microphones on when he did that.
That has changed, today. That’s good in many ways. I frankly find it more honest. I find it less linguistically uptight, but it does mean that eventually we were going to have a president who would never even pretend to be oratorical or articulate. He can’t be bothered. Why should he try, when he can be elected president without doing it? That is going to keep going. I don’t think that it’s going to get more extreme, but we’ve gotten to the point where somebody who runs for president, not only does not have to be especially articulate, but probably shouldn’t be too articulate. It doesn’t sound authentic, and we live in an age where we really cherish what’s called authenticity, for reasons good and bad.
BABBEL: Right, yeah. You’ve been weighing in on the cultural debate surrounding Black English since the ’90s. So, though few people would argue that it’s gained complete mainstream acceptance, how far would you say we’ve come in this regard since your Berkeley days? A little bit? A lot?
MCWHORTER: Things have changed, somewhat. It’s hard to imagine now, because it’s been a while, but there is a mainstream … you could call it acceptance, I would say familiarity. Also, adoption, because now young people of all colors often sprinkle their speech and their gesticulations with aspects of Black English. In a way that they have no way of knowing their parents didn’t. The same people in 1993 did not say the sorts of things that their children now do. That is something.
I think that it wasn’t the Ebonics controversy of 1997, it was the mainstreaming of hip-hop, which happened starting in about 1996. Rap became just music around that year. Before that it was, “do you like rap music?” After that, rap was just mainstream. So there are people now who are full-grown and beyond, who have grown up with rap at weddings. It’s just ordinary music. And because its substrate, what it’s couched in, is street Black English — there’s just a familiarity. Of course, with the familiarity, there’s an affection, and it cuts both ways. Many people who love the way Jay-Z expresses himself will in the next breath say that Black English is bad grammar and slang.
Still, this thing that we now call Ebonics has a mainstream presence and an affectionate reception in general society that really was not the case as recently as a quarter century ago. So yeah, there’s been some progress, but what I think is interesting is that, kind of sad also, is that what did it was music. It had nothing to do with what linguists like me have said, none of the books about Black English that say it’s okay. All of that, I think frankly has been almost like spitting into the wind. Of course I just wrote one, recently, which I hope might help make some kind of difference because I had the previous books in mind and thought, “What can I do to maybe persuade more widely than these books did?” I think that I’m somebody who’s really committed to suasion. I should have been a lawyer really. In another life, I would have been a lawyer.
I thought, “How can I anticipate people’s objections and push them into a corner and make them understand?” I don’t know if the other books, frankly, were richer and better than mine. I don’t think that the people who wrote those books were thinking like lawyers. I tried to. Maybe my little book will make some kind of difference, but to be honest, not unless somebody asks me to do it as an audio book, because I’ve learned that the printed page just doesn’t do it, especially these days.
BABBEL: Right, yeah. So there’s a lot of discussion online about, and you touched on this a little bit, how modern slang often originates and how it gets rapidly propagated through Twitter and memes. The end result of this churn, so to speak, is that it’s often considered current in online lingo, and this is often taken directly from Black and queer culture. What’s your opinion on online meme culture and the extent to which it intersects with this sort of mainstreaming process of Black English?
MCWHORTER: Well it certainly helps get things out there. People are communicating more, and in a way more richly than they could have before there was social media. Certainly, Black and LGBT slang has a way of jumping the rails and becoming part of mainstream culture. Also, we tend to be less fascinated with the fact that there is mainstream slang, which jumps the rails and starts being used by Black and LGBT people. It goes both ways.
Yes, some cultures end up contributing things to the larger culture. I’m agnostic at this point to whether that’s happening faster. I think we tend to have a sense that there was less slang in the old days. Having lived in the period I have, I realized that that’s just not true. Slang came and went as thickly and richly to my mind in 1985 as it does now. What the difference is, is you can’t see it. It’s not as perceptible because in 1985, you couldn’t see it happening on a computer screen, you weren’t watching it on your phone. You just couldn’t know as much about what was going on beyond your world.
BABBEL: Right. We have fewer records of that time too.
MCWHORTER: Exactly. I think of 1985 as yesterday, or when I was in college. It is amazing to think, “How would you find out about that word that I remember?” Because certainly, nobody was writing it down in this thing called a newspaper or magazine. You know, once it was gone, it was gone, and nobody was talking on YouTube. There’s an irretrievability that even in the recent past can make today seem more interesting than it is, but still yes, there are a lot of things to observe.
BABBEL: Yeah. I’m also kind of wondering now whether there’s any sort of significant difference between using hip-hop as a vehicle for this sort of gradual acceptance, versus online memes. Do you have a comment about that?
MCWHORTER: To the extent that the mainstreaming of hip-hop is kind of different now is that music is fragmented again, because of basically social media and technology. It’s definitely possible that it’s the online memes and general communication that is spreading Black English even more than the music does. I’d definitely be open to that. At 52, I am too old to know myself, and my children are not teenagers, and so I can’t use them as a reference, but maybe. I could definitely be open to it.
BABBEL: So you’ve been a defender in general of vernacular speech patterns associated with young people, women, black people, I’m sure likely other demographics. A lot of people would make the logical leap that the most routinely dismissed speech habits belong to people who are already discriminated against in other ways. It’s my understanding that you challenge this assumption in your most recent book. What’s your position on this?
MCWHORTER: My position on it is that definitely, discrimination is part of why a speech variety is despised, but we don’t want to overdo it. Speech is despised if it’s considered grammatically incorrect, even if it’s used by the most Wonder Bread people in the world. For example, “Black English is despised because it’s spoken by black people, and therefore there’s no reason to try to make a logical argument from the point of grammar to make people see it otherwise, because the racism is key.”
I disagree, because I think that if poor white southerners had been the ones in 1996 who claimed that they wanted to use poor white southern dialect in the classrooms and teaching aids, everybody would have laughed just as loud. Or, you know, maybe not quite as loud, but still, people would have considered it absolutely ridiculous. We always have to remember this is a country where people are made fun of for saying “Billy and me went to the store,” or for saying “INsurance” instead of “inSURance.”
That element is always there. The racism part, or the -ism part, is definitely an element, but it only adds to it, it’s not the whole thing. For example, Obama and Republicans and whites, many people said that racism is why they hated him so much, and that’s just it. No, it was part of it. Anybody who says that doesn’t remember how deeply hated Bill Clinton was by very white people. It’s just a matter of racism being part, rather than all, of it. I think the part we have to careful of is when I say “part,” I don’t want that to be thought of as a euphemism for “all,” which is what many people will say.
MCWHORTER: “Well okay, racism may not have been all of it,” but what they mean is that it was. No, I think it was part of it. I just think it’s simplistic to say that it’s only discrimination, but that certainly does play a part.
For example, there’s some things in speech that women do more than men do. A lot of people really hate vocal fry. A lot of people really hate using the word “like” a lot, or using uptalk, and then statements that go up at the end. Now, part of the reason people don’t like that is because of sexism, certainly, and also youthism. But the other reason people don’t like that is because it goes against their sense of what language is supposed to be like in general. They wouldn’t like it if men did it either. We have to be nuanced in our explanation.
BABBEL: Changing the subject a little bit, as a detractor of Sapir-Whorf, what do you think about people who say that different languages bring out different sides of their personalities? I think there was two-thirds of a survey sample of people who said they feel like a completely different person when they speak another language. What do you think about that?
MCWHORTER: Well, I think that in many cases, if you’re talking about languages that you used in different aspects of your life, or if you’re talking about languages that you’ve learned at different points in your life, then it’s natural that you will feel like a different person in those languages. It may be that one language is one that you learned with your parents, whereas the other one is one you learned in school. It may be that one language is one that you learned with your parents, the other one you learned when you were 20 and you spent a couple of years somewhere.
Naturally, you are going to feel like a different person, that’s fine. What I worry about is the idea that if you are an Italian, you’re going to have a different perspective on the world than a person who is Japanese, because of how the verbs and the nouns work. That’s the problem that I have. I think there’s very little evidence that that’s true.
And I think that it is condescending, for one thing, because where a lot of that goes is “Oh wow, that indigenous person is sensitive to sources of information. That indigenous person is sensitive to these shades of existence.” Where really, none of us are that impressed that the person is cognitively human just as we are. There’s kind of a pat on the head involved in all of it, and then also it’s dangerous because some languages are just more telegraphic than others. If you are going to say that all of the detailed shades of distinction in an indigenous language makes them more sophisticated, mentally, than a boring English speaker in Cleveland. You are also saying that everybody who speaks Chinese is kind of stupid. Chinese is a language that actually doesn’t make a lot of those sorts of differentiations as much as an indigenous language might.
I think that Sapir-Whorf is attractive to many people, partly because it’s a way for a Westerner to indicate that we understand that other people are cognitively advanced. It’s understandable. But there’s an insult that you risk in it, because not all languages lend themselves as well to paying that compliment as we think. That’s what my book The Language Hoax was about.
BABBEL: We actually did an article that compared all the different hypotheses on that, and your book was cited.
MCWHORTER: Oh good!
BABBEL: You’ve already articulated your position on language learning and why it matters quite nicely in your most recent TED talk. What’s your advice to someone who generally agrees that language learning is beneficial, but can’t seem to find the discipline to master a new tongue?
MCWHORTER: [laughing] Well, that might be a loaded question considering who’s sponsoring it. But I think that in my experience with learning, there are two things that are necessary.
One of them is that you have to talk to yourself. It can’t only be about talking to the other person. You have to walk around spontaneously thinking to yourself as you hear some snatch of language, “How would you say that in the language that you are learning?” You find the holes, because it’s one thing to learn vocabulary and expressions, and to be reciting tables of conjugations or whatever, but you listen to someone saying “nevermind” in Danish. You listen to somebody say, “Oh good lord, pull that out of there,” and you think to yourself, how would you say “out of there” in the other language? Chances are it’s not going to be a matter of a word for “out” and a word for “of” and a word for “there.” How do they express movement and things like that? That’s a big leap I’ve found, for me. You have to get kind of obsessed. You have to talk to yourself in the shower, and I’m not alone in urging that. Barry Popik I think urges the same thing.
But then also, the other thing is, have realistic expectations of how much time you’re going to spend a day. For example, when I’m not doing my Mandarin lessons, which involve going and talking to a person for an hour and a half … 15 minutes, maybe 20 minutes a day. That’s about all the time I have. If I tried to make it more, I would get intimidated, and I probably couldn’t fit it in because if you’re a busy person, life doesn’t offer you naked half hours, and certainly not whole hours.
So 15, 20 minutes a day. I know that’s how Babbel works, and that’s about the way it should be. It should be something where you really will be able to do it practically everyday. Probably not every single day, but six out of seven days a week. It has to be something that won’t intimidate you, but steady, brief but steady, is the key. You have to be prepared to do that for a long time, not just six weeks. Nothing is going to teach you how to converse in 6 weeks, but if you do that for months and months and months, you’ll find yourself making slow progress.
Then, this isn’t talked about enough, and it’s probably because the challenge varies with the language, but you’ve got to work on your comprehension of live speech. It’s one thing to have somebody giving you one sentence. It’s one thing to listen to, and I hope this doesn’t step on the toes of Babbel, which I have not heard, you have the dialogue with the two students sitting in the cafeteria saying, “This is delicious food.” You start there, but very quickly, you have to listen to the radio, and now that’s easier than ever with the internet. You have to listen to a dubbed movie, or listen to real people speaking at normal speeds. Languages often are very different spoken at normal speed than they are in the artificial conditions of those dialogues on the page.
And it depends on the language. Spanish and German are not that bad that way. If you are learning Spanish and German, from the page, learning to understand what’s said is no tragedy. There isn’t that much of a difference. With French, that gulf is huge. You can be very good dealing with French tamed at your desk. Then you will listen to a French movie and barely be able to get a word. You have to get used to that. That’s also true of the Scandinavian languages, particularly Danish. One thing with Danish is to sit in a room with somebody speaking to you slowly. That has nothing to do with going to a store in Copenhagen and having even the slightest conversation with the clerk, who will basically speak English at you because it’s so hard to speak Danish.
That is the crucial thing. One, brief periods every day. Two, talk to yourself. And three, attend as quickly as you can to the actual spoken language, because in real life, people don’t walk around having little dialogues about their uncle or where they’re traveling next week. That’s not how language works. Find what language really is, because that’s what you’re trying to learn.
BABBEL: We do recommend that pretty frequently.
MCWHORTER: That’s good.
BABBEL: Babbel’s good for part of it, but you also want to definitely immerse yourself in the culture, and read books, and listen to podcasts and all that.
MCWHORTER: Exactly. Podcasts. Exactly.
BABBEL: This basically covers all the questions I had in mind. Is there anything that you wanted to add?
MCWHORTER: I think not, because actually I have to run to my Chinese lessons.