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Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

1 rating: 3.0
A book by John McWhorter

Acclaimed linguist McWhorter (The Power of Babel[2002]) explores the social dynamics that have changed the English language since the 1960s and threaten to erode our intellectual prowess. Comparing past speakers from Abraham Lincoln to Mario Cuomo to … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: John McWhorter
Publisher: Gotham
1 review about Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of...

Speaking up about speaking down

  • Jul 11, 2009
Not what you think, or at least not what I expected when I started. I expected this to be a more-or-less standard expression of the downward spiral of the English language due to the failures of our education system, the influence of television and music, and the influx of immigrants for whom English is at best a second language.

McWhorter, a young African-American (I wasn't familiar with McWhorter before picking up this book, and I also wasn't expecting either until seeing the author's picture on the back flap) linguist, in fact does examine the decline of the quality of written English, but not as a result of these influences, which he labels as symptoms, not causes. Rather he points to the general cultural rebellion against authority and formality that occurred in the US in the mid 1960s as the source of the problem. Rejection of political authority and bureaucratic and organizational formality quickly spread to language and music.

McWhorter's position is well-argued; he has not gone off half-cocked. He spends considerable time establishing that there have always been different standards between spoken English that American's used in casual speech and written language, which is easier to edit and subject to standards of grammar, vocabulary and precision. But he traces the trend of lowered expectations for written speech from, for example, Wilson's speeches in favor of the League of Nations, to Congressional speeches on December 8, 1941 in support of the declaration of war against Japan, to Congressional speeches on September 12, 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

His conclusions and predictions, now six years old and made just at the cusp of ubiquitous available-everywhere communication technology, have proved quite prescient. This is not a gloom-and-doom treatise predicting the sudden downfall of America or English at the hands of a Casual-speech horde, nor is it a rose-colored call for a return to a "simpler time" of oratorical stump speeches and ornate letter writing.

Note: I have not read any of McWhorter's other books, but other reviewers here have praised his The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language as a superior book. I am not a linguist by trade, so I found this book quite interesting as it touches on uses of the language that are accessible to non-specialists like me and most readers. I would also reference Michael Adams' recent Slang: The People's Poetry (which I did read and review) as a companion to "Doing Our Own Thing" in its examination of the oral tradition of slang.

"Doing Our Own thing" is also a good companion to Elijah Wald's How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, a new book I read and reviewed recently, as McWhorter finds (six years before Wald and without reference by him!) the genetic marker of how the Beatles did the deed Wald claims for them in his mistitled book.

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