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Tucson Weekly Tongue Twisting

Author John McWorter Explores The Flexibility Of Language.

By James DiGiovanna

NOVEMBER 23, 1998: 

The Word on the Street, by John McWhorter (Plenum Publishing). Cloth, $27.95

IN THE AFTERWORD to Word on the Street, John McWhorter says that his goal "has been more than to give us a guided tour through languages and dialects (and) sound off about Shakespeare and the Ebonics controversy of 1997," but he does those things so well that they eclipse his stated goal of "free(ing) us from the natural impression that language is a set system, like good posture or financial solvency, that we aspire to with varying degrees of success."

It is this latter goal that occupies the first three chapters of the book, and McWhorter makes his point strongly, and, unfortunately, repetitively here. He basically wants the non-specialist to understand that linguists are not grammarians, and have a beef with them. Linguists are somewhat appalled by the grammar nazis who correct the speech of those who, in the eyes of the professor of languages, are speaking correctly.

Essentially, the thesis is that forms of speech that are commonly used are correct, insofar as common use is the basis from which the abstract rules of grammar apply. Why then are there these scolding mavens of language?

Two reasons: One, rules of grammar change over time, languages evolve, and words alter their meanings. Hardcore purists of proper speech forget this, and try to enforce old usage on new users in the name of correct speech. McWhorter points out that, just as we wouldn't want people speaking like characters from Chaucer (as we would be unable to understand them), we cannot say that an older form is inherently better. If we don't change with the language we will fail to be understood.

This is common sense, and it's not surprising to know that Old English is rather unlike modern English, and that freezing the rules of grammar wouldn't make sense. The more interesting reason for the existence of schoolmarm-style grammar-rule mongers is that, according to McWhorter, during the 18th century, two very influential and often wildly incorrect books on English grammar appeared that were to gild certain non-rules with the authority of correct speech.

Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray both based their grammar books on the only grammar they had been self-consciously taught, which was Latin grammar. Thus, both claimed that it was incorrect to split an infinitive (since this is impossible in Latin) and to end a sentence with a preposition (largely because the Latin word "preposition" means "positioned before another word"). Neither of these are rules of English grammar, but through the distribution of these books to schools and universities, these non-rules became entrenched in the pseudo-grammatical bible, and people today will still correct those who say "to boldly go" or "do you have anything to write with?"

It is in the third chapter of McWhorter's book that he really starts to pick up speed, and he continues it in an interesting essay that proposes that Shakespeare should be translated. Pointing out numerous sentences that make no sense, or whose sense seems clear but is in fact other than what it appears to be, McWhorter shows that Shakespeare's English is deeply removed from our own, and that the reason Shakespeare seems like a chore to so many is that he is simply incomprehensible to those without a specialized education.

While McWhorter is no doubt legitimately interested in Shakespeare, and his stated goal in calling for translations, which is to make the texts accessible to modern audiences, is noble, it seems his real reason for including this section is to draw into contrast the next section on Black English.

With the Ebonics controversy of 1997 a number of educators tried to make the case that Black English should be considered a separate language. When contrasted to Shakespearean English, this claim falls apart: Shakespeare's language is clearly much further from Standard English than Black English could ever claim to be, yet these same educators never afforded Shakespeare's English the status of a separate tongue.

However, it was only the minority of educators who claimed separate language status for Black English. Most saw it as a dialect (as does McWhorter), but many claimed that it was a dialect based on African languages.

In a very careful and extremely engaging analysis McWhorter looks at English dialects that are strongly influenced by African languages to show that Black English bares only the faintest and coincidental relationship to these tongues. Most compelling is the discussion of Gullah, a dialect spoken on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. This language, which uses English words but African sounds and syntax, is largely incomprehensible to speakers of Standard English. In McWhorter's straightforward prose he introduces the uninitiated into a very bizarre corner of English that is still spoken by a sizable, but isolated, populace of the United States as their native language.

It is McWhorter's writing style that is both the strongest and weakest feature of the book. While he is always easy to read, and avoids the unnecessary technical jargon that has kept linguistics out of the layperson's hands, he nevertheless does not dumb down any of the issues. His analysis of Ebonics is particularly nuanced, placing him on neither side of the fractious debate. However, he has a certain penchant for metaphor and simile that borders on the catachretical. One of the more amusing examples is the following: "saying 'Niger-Congo and Bantu' is like saying 'The Star Wars Trilogy and the Empire Strikes back.' "

While endearingly geeky, this parallel stands out in an otherwise science-fiction-free section of text.

Still, this kind of thing at least provides some comic relief, though the book doesn't need it. It's consistently fun to read, and the collection of odd fact (such as the grammatical distinction in Black English between "he walking" and "he be walking") are delicious cocktail party fodder. Nonetheless, they all add up to a series of larger ideas, from the need for greater sensitivity to common usage to the understanding of language as an unstable entity. This is that rare book of ideas that is actually a page turner.


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