Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Careby John McWhorter
There was a time in America when presidents such as Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy exhorted our country to greatness with orations replete with elevated diction and measured rhetorical technique. But today the hearts and minds of our weary nation are implored by a president whose idea of eloquent phrasing is "Let's roll." How did this transformation in our civic and personal communication take place? And what hope can we harbor for a better-spoken society in the future? In Doing Our Own Thing, critically acclaimed linguist and cultural critic John McWhorter traces the precipitous decline of language in contemporary America, arguing persuasively that casual, everyday speech has conquered the formal in all arenas, from oratory to poetry to everyday journalism (and has even had dire consequences for our musical culture). McWhorter argues that the swift and startling change in written and oral communication emanated from the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and its ideology that established forms and formality were autocratic and artificial. While acknowledging that the evolution of language is, in and of itself, inevitable and often benign, McWhorter warns that the near-total loss of formal expression in America is unprecedented in modern history and has reached a crisis point in our culture in which our very ability to convey ideas and arguments effectively is gravely threatened. By turns compelling and harrowing, passionate and judicious, Doing Our Own Thing is required reading for all concerned about the state of our language -- and the future of intellectual life in America.
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Read an Excerpt
I am first putting pen to paper—or, really, finger to keyboard—for this book on September 10, 2002, in New York City. Tomorrow, the city will witness a commemoration of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, a year ago. A certain feature of the ceremony has occasioned an amount of discussion: There will be no original speeches given. Instead, various dignitaries will read stirring speeches from the past.
And in today’s American culture, the fact is that this feels “right” somehow. Commentators have opined that the horror of the events of September 11, 2001, was too profound for mere words to express. And many Americans would share a sense that on such an occasion, “speechifying” would seem a tad purple, something better suited to a wedding or the grand-opening celebration of some mall.
But this sentiment is more local to our time and place than it might appear. Nobody felt this way, for example, on the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863. Over seventeen times the number of people who died in the World Trade Center—51,000 men—had died in three swelteringly hot days of gunfighting, along with 5,000 horses left rotting along with them on the battlefield. Yet, Abraham Lincoln, of course, presented some thoughts composed for the occasion. And no one is recorded as questioning the appropriateness of his doing so, or suggesting that he should have instead just read off the names of the dead as former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani will initiate tomorrow. On the contrary, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is now considered one of the masterpieces of human expression. For him to have instead read off a speech George Washington had made decades before and then pulled out a list of the dead to start reciting would have been inconceivable to the spectators that day.
More to the point, though, the main course of the Gettysburg ceremony was the man who spoke before Lincoln. Edward Everett has been enshrined as a prototypical historical footnote for giving an address that lasted two hours—the length of a movie!—to a rapt audience. The content itself was no great shakes. Everett recounted the events of the battle and some political issues surrounding it. But he was not especially cherished for his political insights, and it’s no accident that no one quotes his speech today. Nor had Everett contributed to the life of the nation in any really significant way. By this time near seventy, earlier in life he had been governor of Massachusetts, president of Harvard, and secretary of state for about five minutes apiece, not having particularly distinguished himself in any of those or assorted other capacities. If he hadn’t happened to speak before Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, Everett would not even have wangled his historical footnote.
Yet at the time, Everett was by no means just Lincoln’s opening act; he was a national celebrity in his own right. Not for having an affair with a president, not for marrying curiously often and having a large behind, not for relatives blockading him in a house in Miami to keep him from going back to Cuba to live with his father; Everett was famous for being a good talker.
Certainly he had his political stances, and often used his speaking talents to broadcast them. But he was not famous as, say, a Unionist, and a good thing too, since he’s so good with the words! Everett was a nineteenth-century rock star simply because he was a man who could really talk, whatever the topic, period. For us, Tiger Woods is famous for his way with the golf clubs, Mariah Carey for her singing gift, Michael Jackson for being staggeringly peculiar. In the same way, for audiences in the antebellum era, Edward Everett was famous as an orator. He could go on tour orating and rake in big bucks just like Carey can now and Jackson wishes he still could. Everett was a master of eloquent phraseology, and complimented it with a beautiful voice and a flair for the dramatic. Here is the opening of his Gettysburg oration:
Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghanies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;—grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.
Yet, let’s face it—to the modern American eye or ear, the first impression this excerpt lends is logorrheic: too windy, too puffed up. It doesn’t even look sincere—language like this smells of snake oil to us. But that’s just us: Audiences at the time were quite stirred by this speech. Phraseology like this had been typical of public addresses in America since the founding of the Republic and would continue to be for a long time afterward. And to the extent that we can stand back a bit and assess the excerpt simply as language, there is considerable beauty in it. The rhythm, the imagery, the precise choices of words—this is poetry. The Gettysburg audience stood there listening to a man declaiming in prose that bordered on free verse. For hours.
But however we feel about poetry, most of us will have a sense that words like reposing and brethren are overdoing it, a bit much. But really, why? What is it about those sequences of sounds—ree-POE-zing, BREHTH-rin—as opposed to REH-sting and BRUH-therz—that is somehow inherently “fake?” Nothing, obviously. And to the extent that Everett was using such words to lend a sense of grandeur and ceremony, why, exactly, do we feel that to do so is somehow a pose, a kind of verbal monocle?
After all, meat-and-potatoes folks standing there on November 19, 1863, did not. And it’s not as if they inhabited a society so different from ours that we can only hope to understand their lives through an anthropological lens, like an England in which Queen Elizabeth only bathed once in her life. The people who gratefully listened to Everett run his mouth for as long as it would take us to watch Pulp Fiction had magazines, trains, surgery, classical music, theater, Congress, a stock exchange, zoos. They bathed at least once a week. They spoke essentially the English we speak—we could converse with them with no trouble, though they would draw a blank on the likes of “Let’s do the dinner thing.” Although, actually I once caught that last expression used as early as a silent film from 1917, when most of the Gettysburg spectators would have still been alive. And while we’re on that, many who heard Everett’s oration as teens lived to see movies, radio, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election, and some few who fidgeted through it as tots lived to see John F. Kennedy’s election on television.
All of which is to say that in the grand scheme of things, November 19, 1863, was not really that long ago. It was just over 140 years ago as you read this, not even 150. Seven little generations. Which leads to a question: Where are our orators like Everett in America today? Can you name any public figure who is best known for being a fine talker?
Yes, Jesse Jackson can certainly stir a crowd. Only a corpse could fail to respond to such music on some level. But Jackson’s medium is the African-American (or more broadly, fundamentalist) preaching style. A talent this is—not just anyone can do it. But as I will revisit in Chapter Two, this style is more about arousal than exposition, the punchy over the considered, the riff over the paragraph, the gut over the head. The “Ah, but is it art?” question is tricky, but we can acknowledge that as brilliant as John Lennon and Paul McCartney were, it would be hard to say that there is no difference in the intricacy of construction between the Beatles’ recording of “Eleanor Rigby”—achingly perfect though it is (that cello writing!)—and a Beethoven string quartet (that cello writing!). In the same way, there is an obvious difference in level of craft between a speech by Jackson (“I am somebody!”) and one by Everett.
And in any case, the black preaching tradition is embedded in one subculture of the American fabric. What about oratory on a national, mainstream level? Sure, we have the occasional stirring speech. After Jackson, many people mention Mario Cuomo’s “City on a Hill” speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1984. And that was certainly a fine one, but note how it stands out. We have the occasional stirring speech—while oratory was a core component of American public discourse in the past. Cuomo’s speech would have seemed downright ordinary in 1863. Everett was but one of legions of professional “talkers” of his era, when a gift for gab was a prime qualification for a life in politics. It’s significant that, meanwhile, most readers still will be seeking in vain just one Everett equivalent around today.
Can we really say that the speeches Peggy Noonan wrote for Ronald Reagan, deft though they could be, would strike anyone as poetry? Yes, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down that wall,” perhaps—but that was just one nugget; what about the other 98 percent of the speech? Will anything Mark Gerson writes for George W. Bush stand as the equal of the Gettysburg Address in the history books of tomorrow? Lincoln concluded with “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”—enough said. Now back to the future: Bush concludes a nationally celebrated speech with “We have our marching orders, my fellow Americans. Let’s roll.” Cute—but different. Very different. If Lincoln had ended his speech with “Let’s roll”—really; imagine it: “... that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. Let’s roll”—he would have been assassinated two years earlier.
He might not have even made it off of the lectern. And the fact is this: If we went back in time to Gettysburg on November 18, 1863, spent the night with an ordinary middle-class family, and tagged along with them the next morning to attend the Battle of Gettysburg do, most of us would be squirming a half hour into Everett’s speech, desperate after an hour, sobbing quietly after an hour and a half, and needing therapy by the time he finished. But our hosts, while perhaps flagging a tad as the second hour wore on, would be engaged with Everett’s words for much longer than us, perplexed at our antsiness, and would applaud with a sincere lustiness at the end, as happy they came as we would be attending a taping of Letterman.
What is it about us? And it’s not just that the media have shortened our attention spans—because most of us would feel funny hearing anyone talk like Everett for even ten minutes.
The reason is that in America today, the proper use of English has gone the way of the dodo, with our most prominent pundits butchering ... no, actually—sorry. This will not be one more book claiming that “English is going to the dogs.” I will most certainly not be doing John Simon and his ilk here. The actual issue is quite distinct from the fact that people so often say “Billy and me went to the store” instead of “Billy and I went to the store” and so on. The notion of sentences like this as mistakes is a complete myth, as any professional linguist will readily tell you. Many readers are likely thinking at this point “But me isn’t a subject!”—and in the following chapter, while laying out some other fundamentals for understanding what has happened to English in America today, I will explain why this is a garden-path analysis despite its seductiveness.
But no matter how carefully linguists present this kind of argument, the people Steven Pinker calls “language mavens” insist that there remains a legitimate concern for clarity in word usage and graceful composition. No linguist would disagree. But modern linguistics focuses on speech rather than writing, specifically, the internal structures of language as spoken spontaneously. Linguistics is a geeky affair, as much science as humanities, that has little to do with etymologies and nothing to do with rhetorical eloquence in speaking or writing. As such, the truth is that most linguists have little interest in such things—the person who does will not usually become a linguist. When the language maven goes on about maintaining the artful aspects of language, deep down the linguist’s eyes glaze over—most of us have no more interest in Strunk & White than a molecular biologist has in dog training. Thus it is that linguists’ common consensus—to the extent that the subject is considered of any import among us—is that all claims that there is a qualitative decline in the use of English are benighted non-starters.
But I write this book out of a sense that the issue actually does bear some more examination. As far as casual speech is concerned, no, Americans never have and never will “let the language go,” any more than any of the 6,000 languages in the world have been discovered to have suffered such destructive uncorseting over the years. But casual speech, despite being what academic linguists find most interesting, is just one of many layers of what English or any language consists of. And beyond the realm of six-pack, cell-phone “talk,” there is indeed something that we are losing in America in terms of the English language. Namely, a particular kind of artful use of English, formerly taken for granted as crucial to legitimate expression on the civic stage, has virtually disappeared.
The rarity of the elaborately composed speech is just one example. The contrast between then and now permeates American society. When I am at a conference and have to get up early, I often watch CNN Headline News. One of the anchors is Robin Meade. So spellbindingly pretty she looks like a computer composite, she first struck me visually, I must admit, and so I started tuning in to CNN in hotel rooms to watch her when I am getting ready for the day. But it’s harder to look at the screen while you’re shaving, and she soon began to strike me just as much aurally. Overall, she is the typically white-bread poised, coiffed American anchor. But here and there she casually contracts –ing to –in’ (“We’ll be seein’ you after the break”), and in one interview with an official, she referred to his organization as “You guys.” She ends up sounding like a woman you lived down the hall from in college.
Now, from a linguist’s perspective, it’s not that Meade is lapsing into “bad grammar” in saying seein’. If loaded up with some Xanax after Everett’s oration we then jumped into the time machine and made a stop further back in the past to 1700, we might encounter a Jonathan Swift who felt it as crude to pronounce a word like rebuked as rih-BYOOKD as opposed to what he saw as the proper rendition, rih-BYOO-kid. As Swift soberly expressed it: “By leaving out a vowel to save a syllable, we form so jarring a sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.” But nevertheless the pronunciation of the –ed ending changed anyway. We do not find it at all “jarring” or “difficult” to say rih-BYOOKD, or what Swift disparagingly wrote as drudg’d, disturb’d, and fledg’d. The globe kept spinning with no detriment to English perceived, and seeing and seein’ exist today in the same relationship as rih-BYOO-kid and rih-BYOOKD did three hundred years ago. Just as we cannot accept that today we are all wrong in saying rih-BYOOKD, there are no logical grounds for designating seein’ as decayed. Language changes, and with each change, Stage B—no more illegitimate than the one-hooved horses that evolved from ones with a hoof flanked by two toes—coexists with Stage A.
Nevertheless, for a good while a society usually feels the newer, “other” version of a word as more casual, more dress down. That’s just a take-it-or-leave-it fact that no linguist denies. And here is where Meade’s use of language is interesting when we compare then and now. She likely sees her colloquial tilt as lending a note of warmth. “Why can’t we loosen up a little?” one imagines her objecting if someone called her on it. Okay—I get it; folksy it is. But it’s interesting that this folksiness would have been unthinkable of a news personality in the 1950s. If Chet Huntley had ventured a “you guys” on the air, while he wouldn’t have been shot on sight, he would have been reprimanded. Certainly Betty Furness (remember her? If you are a person of a certain maturity you will recall her “You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse” ads; with a tad less maturity you may recall her subbing for Barbara Walters on the Today show; otherwise just imagine a deathlessly poised, profoundly unethnic lady with an immovable head of hair) could not possibly have maintained a social life always talking the way she did on television. The crucial distinction is that as a person of her era, Thoroughly Modern Meade intuitively senses less of a distinction between her private and public linguistic faces. When the teleprompter went off, as long as she was still in front of a camera, Furness spoke; Meade talks.
Or take a letter Washington Roebling, who supervised the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, wrote to his fiancée in 1864:
My candle is certainly bewitched. Every five minutes it goes out, there must be something in the wick, unless it be the spirit of some man just made perfect, come to torment me while I am writing to my love. Are any of your old beaus dead? If I wasn’t out of practice with spiritual writing I would soon find out.
Just imagine writing an e-mail—or even letter—like that to someone you were interested in today. But here is the crucial thing: Neither the rococo tone of Roebling’s letters, the stiffness of the lithograph drawings of public figures in his era, nor his first name being “Washington” must mislead us into supposing that he used such language on a casual level while quaffing ale with his chums. In the same letter he mentions that he had been “building bridges and swearing all day.” We can be quite sure that Roebling was cussing along about what he was seein’ and how you guys—or in his day, you fellas—could have been doing better. The interesting thing is, rather, that for him, switching from everyday speech to so formal and composed a tone in letters to his beloved was such a natural choice. Even, a required choice—for a man of his day, this kind of language was as essential to a respectable man’s wooing kit as a condom is today. On the other hand, for the modern American man desirous of channeling the bewitched state of his candle, writing to women in language like this would all but ensure his dying alone.
The issue, then, is that in earlier America it was assumed that a certain space in society required that English be dressed in its Sunday best, complete with carnations and big hats. It’s no accident that in another letter to his fiancée, Roebling mentioned that he had just heard an oration by—three guesses—Edward Everett, commemorating the taking of Fort Duquesne. Linguistically, this was practically a different planet. The tone of Everett’s speeches as well as Roebling’s letters makes it unsurprising that in the nineteenth century, poetry was a bestselling genre rather than the cultish phenomenon it now is. Talking was for conversation; in public or on paper, one used a different kind of language, just as we use forks and knives instead of eating with our hands.
Surely on the everyday level English was used much as it is now, in all of its fluid, vulgar splendor. And just as surely, the educated and more fortunate were more comfortable in the “higher” mode than others (although its usage permeated further down the social scale than we might expect, as we will see later). But modern America has all but eliminated this kind of English, with any remaining sense of its Sunday best now being at most a button-down shirt. Most of us sense carefully wrought phraseology as corny. Where for earlier Americans ornate language corresponded to gravity, today we sense it as insincere—a change similar to that undergone by the tuxedo.
And this is indeed an American issue: To be a modern American is to lack a native love of one’s language that is typical of most humans worldwide. In general, I suspect many Americans reading this do not consider themselves as feeling much of anything about English pro or con—and that is exactly the point. It’s one of those “fish don’t know they’re wet” issues—we have to step way back to realize that anything is afoot.
One often hears foreigners praising the beauty, the majesty, the richness of expression, of their native languages—both in and away from their homelands. And this is not limited to the “developed” world. The linguist is familiar with finding that speakers of the obscure indigenous language they are documenting have whole fables or poems about how wonderful their tongue is—and composed not as modern statements of cultural assertion, but as in-group libations created long before English and other imperial languages began edging smaller languages aside.
Americans are an exception. We do not love English. We do not celebrate it overtly, nor do we even have anything to say about it if pressed on the point. Sucking slowly on a cigarette and misting up a bit, the foreigner muses “There’s nothing like hearing my native language.” But it almost strains the imagination to hear this said in an American English accent. The utterance would be almost as bizarre and unprocessible as someone responding to your “Good morning” with “I’ve been told they were mostly bald cooks.” Certainly some of this is because we are not obliged to learn foreign languages since we can get along in English almost anywhere in the world, and thus are not faced with the contrast between our own language and others’ as urgently as most of the world’s peoples are. But as I will show later, a hundred years ago Americans could be heard expressing a specific pride in English that would ring oddly now. And it’s also indicative that today, to the extent that we might suck on a cigarette and mist up about anything having to do with language, it would most likely be to praise a foreign one.
And that, more than anything else, consigns an Edward Everett to the antique. In today’s America, it would be quizzical if there did remain any place for grandiloquence. But this relationship to our language—or lack of one—is a new development. What gave us Americans a tacit sense that to wield the full resources of our native language is tacky?
Various factors tempt us as explanations that in fact cannot help us because the timing is off. The grand old American tradition of anti-intellectualism, for example, is fundamental to the very warp and woof of the Republic, hardly a new development. It was an antiintellectual America that thrilled to the strains of Edward Everett’s orations. We might suppose that American individualism discourages allegiance to a standard imposed from on high. True, but again, that individualism traces back to our beginnings, while for centuries afterward, “high” language was one standard that Americans readily accepted. Mass culture and its focus on the lowest common denominator? Timing again: for example, when sound films began, mass culture had already turned American life upside down. Yet there were elocution coaches all over Hollywood training actors to sound like characters in Noel Coward plays, and this artificial diction and blackboard syntax—Bette Davis, despite her plummy tones in performance, was born and raised in Massachusetts—was coin of the realm in American films well into the 1960s.
I think we get closer to the McGuffin in another September 11 commemoration that will take place tomorrow, at the University of California, Berkeley, where I teach. It has been decided that there will be no patriotic songs sung and no American flags waved at the ceremony, out of a sense that this would be “too political.” For the conveners this is an utterly natural position, and they have been surprised at the minor barrage of criticism the right fired at them recently. Nor would the position exactly shock most educated Americans today given that we live in an America where many consider it an essential part of education to learn that our country has been responsible for a great deal of misery and injustice both here and worldwide. For today’s thinking American, if their sense of patriotism is not a quiet one held with significant reservations, then they likely sense themselves as part of an embattled minority, or are perhaps recent immigrants whose perspective on America is couched in a contrast with the starker misery and injustice elsewhere that drove them to pick up stakes.
Of course, few people actually walk around saying “America is too morally corrupt to merit anything but the most coded of celebrations by anyone with half a brain.” Every political sentiment will always have its fringe of strident firebrands, but generally, this filtered patriotism is deeply entrenched enough that most educated folk barely consider it a position at all. It is considered by many as a part of basic human enlightenment, which one votes on the basis of, incorporates into the upbringing of one’s children, and assumes as common knowledge at parties.
My goal here is not to attack this position. As with all political standpoints, what initially broadens horizons can end up contracting them just as much. But an educated class of modern Americans as chauvinistically patriotic as Theodore Roosevelt would be a troglodytic one. I do not believe that humans have yet devised a political system that yields as much good for as many as democracy and capitalism. But these systems hardly tamp down greed and cruelty, and the damage that America has inflicted in many parts of the world as well as at home is well-documented.
Rather, the current state of American patriotism is useful here because it offers an explanation for why we no longer have orators, and for many other things we now take for granted in America that would perplex the Gettysburg citizen who jumped into our time machine to look at our modern society.
Here, the timing is just right. Obviously, events in the sixties deeply transformed Americans’ conventional wisdom regarding the legitimacy of their ruling class and the very concept of authority. Basic cynicism about Washington and politicians has always been old news—the Constitution and the Federalist Papers design our political foundations upon just such an assumption, after all. But before the 1960s, the conviction that the American experiment itself was fundamentally illegitimate was largely limited to certain political sects and intellectuals. After Vietnam and then Watergate, a less focused form of this sentiment became a conventional wisdom among the educated, and proceeded to become a general cultural zeitgeist. The Civil Rights movement and growing awareness of the systemic nature of poverty painted mainstream America as irredeemably immoral. And these sea changes came along after earlier in the sixties, best- selling books like Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness popularized a trope that mental illness was a societal construct, and that society shackled the human spirit from rising to the higher plane of self- expression. Plays like Herbert Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns were the product of this new idea blowing in the wind, and R. D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience (1967) helped set it in stone.
Importantly, it is in the 1960s that the space for high language starts wasting away—and even more specifically, the late 1960s. Earlier in the decade the old linguistic culture was still in place. John F. Kennedy’s State of the Union address in 1961 was a speech in the old-fashioned sense, standing on its own on the page as prose:
We cannot escape our dangers—neither must we let them drive us into panic or narrow isolation. In many areas of the world where the balance of power already rests with our adversaries, the forces of freedom are sharply divided. It is one of the ironies of our time that the techniques of a harsh and repressive system should be able to instill discipline and ardor in its servants—while the blessings of liberty have too often stood for privilege, materialism, and a life of ease.
Thirty-two years later, a State of the Union address by our second president to be raised under the new linguistic regime has a distinctly different flavor. The Kennedy passage is a minor piece of art. The words appear set just where they should be. One senses the hard work it took to craft it—coffee and cigarettes long into the night, yellow pads. The Bush fils passage is competent but perfunctory; there is no love of language in it. Bush’s speechwriters work hard, but their sense of goal is different from their predecessors like Ted Sorenson. Remember also that this passage is not one more “Bushism” revelation because these addresses are carefully written out beforehand and then read aloud:
Now, in this century, the ideology of power and domination has appeared again, and seeks to gain the ultimate weapons of terror. Once again, this nation and all our friends are all that stand between a world at peace, and a world of chaos and constant alarm. Once again, we are called to defend the safety of our people, and the hopes of all mankind. And we accept this responsibility.
At no point did the Kennedy speech ever feel like this, nor at any point did the Bush speech venture into artful language. As late as the early sixties, language like Bush’s would have been as off-key as going to work without a jacket and tie. Meanwhile, for a presidential candidate to communicate to the public in language like Kennedy’s today would ensure his defeat. Al Gore’s almost studied articulateness is certainly one of the major factors that has blocked him from winning the presidency.
The late sixties is also when casual speech penetrates American cinema in a real way—when movie actors start letting their hair down and sounding like normal people instead of stage players. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper mumbling their way through Easy Rider in 1969 can be thought of as the totemic inauguration of this new linguistic order, the film being the first major release to celebrate the countercultural ethos in all of its grimy vitality. Yes, by then we had heard voices like this on the big screen now and then. But this was in characters like those played by Marlon Brando and James Dean, presented as forces of nature shouting into the wind at odds with an America where everybody else still talked like Ozzie and Harriet. In Easy Rider, for the first time a truly natural, shambling, almost telegraphic way of talking is not a character marker but common coin, with those using it presented as heralds of a brave new world. It is also at this time that in popular music, crisp diction and carefully wrought lyrics become the exception rather than the norm—as witnessed by the funky songs featured on Easy Rider’s soundtrack, on which Cole Porter would have sounded as incongruous as Puccini.
This mainstreaming of the counterculture actually predicts that linguistically, every day would become Casual Day in America. Formality in all realms, be it sartorial, terpsichorean, culinary, artistic, or linguistic, entails the dutiful acknowledgment of “higher” public standards considered beyond question, requiring tutelage and effort to master, with embarrassing slippage an eternal threat. The girdle might slip, you might step on your waltzing partner’s toes, the soufflé might not rise, the water in the landscape painting may not shimmer just right, the mot juste might elude one. Formality means caring about such things, and being driven to avoid them in favor of making a pretty picture.
Certainly, then, formality was a sitting duck under a new Conventional Wisdom that saw being American less as a privilege than as something to gingerly forge a relationship with, and mainstream American behavior as something to hold at half an arm’s length, on the pain of one’s inner spirit being suffocated under a burden of Velveeta and Pat Boone. At such a cultural moment, formality becomes repressed, boring, unreflective, and even suspect, while Doing Your Own Thing is genuine, healthy, engaged, and even urgent. As such, the only accepted communality is being united against The Machine. Hence, the ironic sameness of dress, opinion, and attitude among the folks stretching across the country from the East Village through Ann Arbor and Austin, Texas, to Haight Street, who pride themselves on marching to the beat of their own drummers, or an antigovernment sentiment among modern academics consistent enough to qualify them as “a herd of independent minds.”
Journalist and speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg’s comment about the muteness of New York City’s 9/11 commemoration nicely captures the countercultural consensus and how it discourages public celebration of our nation: “To say something worthwhile, you’d probably have to say something that not everyone would agree with.” Indeed, as Nathan Glazer tells us, We Are All Multiculturalists Now in part because with all that has happened and all that has been said, it can be so challenging for many of us to embrace our own culture. And on the linguistic front, in a way We’re All Dennis Hopper Now. The transformation in Americans’ conception of themselves and their country is reflected not only in how we listen to music, dance, have sex, raise children, and vote, but in how we feel about English.
Our national shift from a written to an oral culture has had broad and profound effects, but the point is a highly specific one. It hinges on a distinction that most of us have little reason to be consciously aware of on a day-to-day level unless we are linguists. To the extent that we are aware of the fact that there is the way we talk and the way we write, we have an understandable tendency to underestimate the depth of the difference between the two poles.
Yet the argument will not be simply that we have lost “rhetorical eloquence” in America. This is because eloquence is possible both in the formal, carefully revised language of writing, and in the more spontaneous, flexible realm of speech. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was surely eloquent—but it was couched in brief, repetitious phrases that, in terms of written English, are quite elementary. I will show that our marginalization of the written can indeed compromise eloquence of certain kinds. But eloquence alone is a highly subjective concept, such that an argument focusing on this in itself would be an unavoidably preachy, tendentious screed.
For example, nineteenth-century listeners found Edward Everett thoroughly eloquent while even literate modern Americans, admiring Lincoln’s masterfully concise Gettysburg Address, find Everett’s language inflated and affected. But who are we to indict all of those people who listened to Everett as somehow aesthetically challenged? This is an issue of style and gut preference. Then today, B. R. Myers’s famous essay “A Reader’s Manifesto” in The Atlantic Monthly has accused fiction writers like Annie Proulx and David Guterson of “bad writing” because he finds their metaphors “mixed” and misses the flinty clarity of earlier writers like Henry James and Virginia Woolf. But this judgment on eloquence is again a matter of taste, submitting to no unequivocal metric. Millions of intelligent and artistically sensitive readers and thinkers deeply value the prose of the writers Myers dismisses. The fact that their aesthetic sensibility had yet to hold sway in 1910 does not qualify as a conclusive dismissal of their acumen.
Our issue will be what kind of eloquence Americans currently value most, and why—to wit, the new American tendency to increasingly distrust forms of English to the extent that they stray from the way we use the language while Doing Our Own Thing as we gab. As linguistic scientist and cultural historian, I am fascinated by single phenomena that explain several developments that otherwise appear disconnected. The written-to-spoken shift, while hardly something that the non-linguist has much reason to notice beyond its most strident manifestations (e.g., profanity on television and in the movies), makes various current American developments predictable. We are neither heedless of “grammar” nor deaf to the power of words in themselves. Yet there has nevertheless occurred a strange reverse progression in our linguistic time line, whose origins and nature reveal much about who we are as Americans.
The counterculture’s permeation of the national consciousness, then, has created a new linguistic landscape in this country, demanding exploration as much as the many other effects that the late sixties has had upon our culture. In some ways, the change has allowed space for more voices than was possible in the past and has blown away some cobwebs we are well rid of. But in just as many ways, the new linguistic order compromises our facility with the word and dilutes our collective intellect. Our new sense of what American English is has upended our relationship to articulateness, our approach to writing, and how (and whether) we impart it to the young, our interest in poetry, and our conception of what it is, and even our response to music and how we judge it.
A society that cherishes the spoken over the written, whatever it gains from the warm viscerality of unadorned talk, is one that marginalizes extended, reflective argument. Spoken language, as I will show in the first chapter, 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. The person who only processes information beyond their immediate purview in nuggets is not educated in any meaningful sense. On the contrary, this person is indistinguishable in mental sophistication from the semiliterate Third World villager who derives all of their information about the world beyond via conversation and gossip. And a culture that marginalizes the didactic potential of written-style language in favor of the personal electricity of spoken language is one whose media becomes ever more a circus of personalities rather than a purveyor of information and guide to analysis.
We often hear about how wealthy, how adaptable, how individualistic, how open to enterprise this noble mess of an experiment called America is. Less often do we realize that Americans after the 1960s have lived in a country with less pride in its language than any society in recorded history. A modern man who wrote love letters sounding like Washington Roebling’s to a woman would never hear from her again, and Roebling would need smelling salts on finding out that we consider Bob Dylan an artist. In the grand scheme of things, Roebling’s America was the normal one, while our America is the anomaly.
Meet the Author
John McWhorter is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. His books include Authentically Black, The Power of Babel, and the New York Times bestseller Losing the Race: Self- Sabotage in Black America, and his articles appear regularly in The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal.
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