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6 Questions With Language Myth Buster John McWhorter

We spoke with Lexicon Valley host John McWhorter about grammar snobs, where linguistic prejudices really come from, and other language myths that just won’t die.
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6 Questions With Language Myth Buster John McWhorter

If you’ve ever been called out for deviating from the Queen’s English, prepare to feel vindicated. John McWhorter studies language for a living, and he would do away with the entire notion of “bad grammar” if he could.

McWhorter has made a name for himself as a provocative, forward-thinking linguist who has repeatedly challenged common assumptions about language, up to and including the notion that language affects our worldview, or the idea that change itself is ever a bad thing when it comes to the way we speak and write.

“My linguist ear listens to anybody talking, no matter what dialect, no matter how vulgar, no matter how inebriated, and I think, ‘Good lord, that is so nuanced and complex,'” McWhorter said on a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “And linguists want everybody to hear all language that way.”

McWhorter was on the show to discuss Trump’s peculiar speech habits, but weighing in on the president’s “linguistic tracksuit” is only a small part of what he does.

McWhorter is a professor at Columbia University and the host of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast. He’s also the prolific author of books including Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally), The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language and his latest, Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths about America’s Lingua Franca (among many others). He’s also delivered a couple TED talks on why texting isn’t really killing language (and why you should learn other languages at all in a world that’s increasingly skewing toward English).

We spoke to McWhorter about his recent takedown of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, our shifting cultural attitudes toward Black English, the Trump effect, and why language learners should always go out of their way to encounter words in their natural habitat.

1. Arguably, you’ve defined your career by repeatedly challenging 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 deviating from the written school standard 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 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 I hope it doesn’t seem like because I am a Black American that I’m just talking about Black English. I’m really thinking about people in Denmark or anywhere else.

The idea that normal people can talk wrong, and that this 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. Somebody can be using informal grammar and be much more brilliant than the person who knows to say “fewer” rather than “less books.”

2. 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.

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. But so much of it, frankly, 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. Steven Pinker has written a book 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.

3. You’ve weighed in on Trump’s speech habits quite a bit. First of all, thanks for introducing me to the phrase “logorrheic verbal fantasia.” Second, you 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 of 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.

4. You’ve been weighing in on the cultural debate surrounding Black English since the ’90s. 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.

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, 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.

5. 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 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.

6. 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: In my experience with learning, there are a couple 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.

But then, also, the other thing is having 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.

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 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.

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.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.

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