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Lunch » Tags » Book » Reviews » Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care » User review

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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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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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 more modern speakers, including President George W. Bush, McWhorter laments the loss of the art of oration, notwithstanding Jesse Jackson and the black preaching tradition. He traces the current emphasis on oral versus written speech across a variety of cultures and times. McWhorter focuses on the forces at work in the U.S. that have heightened the appeal of plain-speaking since the 1960s, including the influence of music, the breakdown of racial barriers, and the rise in immigration and technology. While he sees the trend toward emphasizing the oral over the written as "the celebration of the art in spoken language," he laments the impact on our ability to read, write, and critique. McWhorter's eloquent style and cogent analysis will appeal to readers concerned about trends in American education and communication.Vanessa Bush
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ISBN-10: 1592400167
ISBN-13: 978-1592400164
Author: John McWhorter
Publisher: Gotham

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