Book Review: John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing

The supposed decline of the English language is often bemoaned by grammarians and prescriptivists. In these pages we have frequently taken to task those who seek to impose arbitrary and pointless grammatical and usage prescriptivism, but is there something more to these complaints. Once you move beyond split infinitives and the difference between peruse and read, the question of whether or not we are losing artful use of our language remains.

John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care seeks to answer the questions of whether or not American society has lost the artful use of language and what impact this will have on our lives. He succeeds brilliantly at the first question, but falls short in answering the second. McWhorter charts a sea change in American use of the language dating to the mid-1960s, when we lost formalism in our public discourse. He then seeks to explain why this loss is consequential; unfortunately he does not quite succeed in describing why we should, like, care.

First, be forewarned about what this book is not. If you are seeking a book that picks apart texts for grammatical “errors” or “sloppy” usage, this is not it. McWhorter does not go in for prescriptivism. He is a linguist by trade, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and knows better than that. He does not bemoan the change in language simply because it is change. Instead, he is concerned with aesthetics in how we use the English language.

McWhorter opens the book with an examination of the speech delivered at Gettysburg in 1863, not the famous one delivered by Lincoln, which was billed as mere remarks by the president, but rather the main oration of the day, a speech by Edward Everett, perhaps the foremost orator in mid-19th century America. Everett opened his long oration with:

Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghanies [sic] 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 sympathy.

The 19th century audience may have eaten this up, but it is unlikely that Everett would get any indulgence or sympathy if he were speaking like this today. Not only is the prose too purple and verbose for the modern ear, but Everett’s opening paragraph is almost a third as long as Lincoln’s entire address. He went on like this for two hours to an enraptured audience. The MTV generation would be snoring in five minutes.

McWhorter compares Everett’s address with a direct modern equivalent, the memorial service on the site of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2002. Both events were intended to commemorate the deaths of thousands of Americans, but the speeches given were so very different. In 2002 the main “speech” was a reading of the names of those whose lives were lost. This would have been as unthinkable in 1863 as Everett’s speech would be today. A 19th century audience would expect the speaker to explain the event and put it into historical and moral perspective. A modern audience expects that any such attempt by a speaker would be pompous and self-serving.

But it is not simply the purple prose of Everett that would be unacceptable in modern public discourse; it is formal speech itself that is eschewed in American society. A president like George W. Bush, who cannot even deliver a brief scripted statement without looking like a deer caught in the headlights, can get half the electorate to vote for him because, among other things, he talks like “plain folks.” And it is not simply politicians who talk like this. News broadcasters, actors, and preachers no longer use formal diction and usage in their speech either. Compare the dialogue delivered by Ray Milland to that by Robert De Niro.

That there has been such a change in the aesthetics of our language is undeniable. The questions are when did it occur and why?

People in the 19th century America did not normally talk with the high-flown verbiage of Everett’s speech. Their speech was much more like the dialogue in a novel by Mark Twain, not that radically different from the ordinary speech of today. What was different was that there was a place for formal language, like Everett’s, in America of years past.

McWhorter traces this change to the mid-1960s. Along with the loss of trust in government, big business, and other institutions of our society, the American people also lost trust in formal language. People began to disdain formal speech in favor of “just talking.” Informal speech carried an authenticity and honesty that formal language did not and these values were valued more highly than aesthetic quality of usage.

McWhorter provides an excellent example of this shift in two speeches given in the US Congress. The first was by Charles Eaton of New Jersey on 8 December 1941:

Mr. Speaker, yesterday against the roar of Japanese cannon in Hawaii our American people heard a trumpet call; a call to unity; a call to courage; a call to determination once and for all to wipe off of the earth this accursed monster of tyranny and slavery which is casting its black shadow over the hearts and homes of every land.

A speech on a similar topic was delivered by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas in October 2002:

And if we don’t go at Iraq, that our effort in the war on terrorism dwindles down into an intelligence operation. We go at Iraq and it says to countries that support terrorists, there remain six in the world that are as our definition state sponsors of terrorism, we’re serious about you not supporting terrorism on your own soil.

Neither man would dream of delivering the other’s speech. If Brownback attempted flowery language like that used by Eaton he would be laughed at. An era where the phrase “axis of evil” raises suspicion, “accursed monster of tyranny and slavery” would never fly. Likewise, Eaton would never dream of delivering a speech like Brownback’s, filled with run-on sentences and fragments. Yet both men are successful politicians in their respective eras; both are considered good speakers by their contemporaries.

McWhorter identifies a transitional figure in this shift in Mario Savio, an activist in the Free Speech movement at Berkeley in the mid-60s. On 2 December 1964, Savio delivered a speech on the Berkeley campus that contained the following paragraph:

Well, I ask you to consider. If this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something—the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw materials, but we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be . . . have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the university, be they of government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone—we’re human beings.

Savio’s speeches are like this one, filled with colloquialisms and informal clauses, but retaining the elements of traditional rhetoric and narrative that modern speeches lack.

Savio did not, however, spring up ab initio. Traces of this shift in preferred style can be traced back many decades, certainly to the 1920s and even to the writing of 19th century authors like Mark Twain. But the sea change was in the 1960s, when the formal was abandoned altogether in favor of the informal and colloquial.

Political speech is not the only victim of this shift. McWhorter writes a chapter on the loss of poetry in American society. Except for a few, Americans do not read poetry any more. A familiar example used by McWhorter is a Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1941, Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt. The cartoon begins and ends with Bugs reciting Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, sandwiching the usual comic antics in which Hiawatha takes the place of Elmer Fudd as the hunter. To children watching the cartoon today, the recitation of the poem is odd. Why is Bugs reading a poem? But to the audiences of 1941 the parody was apt. Recitation of poems on the radio and in stage performances was common. Audiences would instantly get the joke of Mel Blanc’s New Yorkese voice of Bugs formally reciting a poem, “Sail a-lawng, liddle Hiawadda . . .”

Many claim that popular song lyrics are the poetry of today, but McWhorter correctly points out that Kurt Cobain is a terrible poet by any traditional standard and even the best of today’s lyricists, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, only occasionally write something that can stand alongside even a mediocre poet like Longfellow, much less Dickinson or Whitman. Similarly, the qualities that are appreciated by audiences in modern slam poetry competitions are quite different than those praised in traditional poets.

Interestingly, and perhaps unintentionally, the final episode of the television series Angel, which aired just a few weeks ago, illustrates this succinctly. In an earlier episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series that spun off Angel) we were introduced to Spike, a.k.a. William the Bloody, a vampire born in the 19th century who fancied himself a poet. Spike’s poetry was so awful that it earned him the sobriquet—bloody not because he killed a lot of people (although he did that too), but because his poetry was so bloody awful. One of his poems features the following lines:

My heart expands
‘tis grown a bulge in it
inspired by your beauty, effulgent.

In the episode of Angel, facing the apocalypse and how to spend his last day on earth, Spike goes to a slam poetry contest where he recites this poem to a cheering crowd. Poetry that was ridiculed in the 19th century is applauded in the 21st.

Doing Our Own Thing is well worth reading simply for this part of McWhorter’s analysis, the charting of the “degradation” of our language and the loss of the formal mode of speech from American discourse. The book, however, fails at delivering the second half of the promise it makes in its subtitle, And Why We Should, Like, Care.

McWhorter fails to make a case that this change really matters in anything other than an aesthetic sense. Certainly the loss of a particular style of expression or an appreciation of poetry is an aesthetic change, but aesthetic changes are simply changes in taste. There is no fundamental difference, for example, between Eaton’s 1941 speech and Brownback’s 2002 one. Both were successful in rallying support for a war.

McWhorter states that the loss of traditional tools of rhetoric has a political impact on society. The loss makes it more difficult for well-crafted policies to wend their way through the body politic. He does not provide evidence for this, however, and the historical record does not support this as a proposition.
Several times in the book, McWhorter extols the Russian appreciation of poetry. He makes the point that modern Russians can quote Pushkin while most Americans cannot recite a single poem from an American poet, that the TV show Seinfeld even made a joke of the character George being unable to name a single poet. Yet this appreciation of Pushkin among Russians did not prevent the rise of Stalin.

Germany of the early 20th century was the nation of Goethe. Yet, it was also the nation of Hitler. Command of rhetoric and appreciation of language and literature does not guarantee enlightened politics—in fact there is little evidence that it has any impact at all on the substance of politics. Rhetoric is simply a tool, to be used for good or ill.

At one point, McWhorter takes on modern textbooks and the poor quality of the language the present to students. He gives several examples from reading texts over the 20th century. The first is from the fourth McGuffey reader of the 1920s, a selection from Addison’s “Reflections in Westminster Abbey:”

When I am in serious humor, I very often walk by myself in Westminster Abbey, where the gloominess of the place and the use to which it is applied, with the solemnity of the building and the condition of the people who lie in it, are apt to fill the mind with a kind of melancholy, or rather thoughtfulness, that is not disagreeable.

This is a well-written piece, but it is probably not appropriate for a modern reading text. Phrases like “the use to which it is applied” are not the stuff of today’s language. By the early 1960s, this excerpt from Stories from the Arabian Nights was being used in texts:

I decided, after my first voyage, to spend the rest of my days at Bagdad [sic]. But it was not long before I tired of a lazy life, and I put to sea a second time, in the company of other merchants. We boarded a good ship and set sail. We traded from island to island, exchanging goods. One day we landed on an island covered with several kinds of fruit trees, but we could see neither man nor animal.

The simpler vocabulary here is less challenging to middle-school students, no words like “solemnity,” but the syntax is more in tune with the sensibilities of modern American usage of the language. By 1996, reading texts included such passages as this:

Tahcawin had packed the parfleche cases with clothing and food and strapped them to a travois made of two trailing poles with a skin net stretched between them. Another travois lay on the ground ready for the new tipi. Chano was very happy when Tasinagi suggested the three of them ride up to their favorite hills for the last time.

This is an extremely simplistic and unchallenging passage. Other than the Native-American names and a few words referring to things in a foreign culture, there is no challenge to be had reading this. Worse, it is just plain boring. McWhorter illustrates this by removing the “multicultural” references from the passage:

Justin had packed the leather cases with clothing and food and strapped them to the two trailing poles with a skin net stretched between them. Another set of poles with a net lay on the ground ready for the new teepee. Michelle was very happy when Jennifer suggested the three of them ride up to their favorite hills for the last time.

McWhorter is not on a rant against multiculturalism, quite the contrary. But he does make the point that multicultural references alone are not enough to make a passage worthy of inclusion in a reading text. A few difficult Native American names, which are not likely to be encountered ever again, are not helpful in teaching reading and writing. But the textbook is not bad because it uses informal language; it is bad because the informal passages it chooses are simplistic and dull. Take a passage from Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slipped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear… Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

There are no difficult words here. The style is rather simple, with the exception of the one, run-on sentence—which is consistent with the new style of written language becoming more informal, or more like spoken language. The passage does show, however, that interesting passages of literary value can be found in the modern style. Just because a passage is written in a modern, informal, style does not make it unworthy of inclusion in a reading text.

Most of McWhorter’s criticism of the new, informal style is like this. His protests are either unsupported or what he is bemoaning is not the changed aesthetic, but rather something else. The one argument he has is that the new, informal style is not aesthetically pleasing. That is a valid argument, but a subjective one and nothing more than an opinion.

Still, his basic historical analysis of the change in American speech is compelling and interesting. Any language lover will enjoy this book for that reason alone.

Hardcover, 279 pages, Gotham Books, October 2003, $26.00

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