John McWhorter

All About The Culture -- Supposedly: William Julius Wilson's Latest
March 21, 2009

We know William Julius Wilson, star Harvard sociologist, best for his articulate presentation of the structural analysis of black poverty: low-skill manufacturing jobs moved away from city centers just as middle-class role models took off for the suburbs. Result: high concentration of poor blacks. “Segregation,” that is – and you know what happens when you get a bunch of ...   Well, at least that’s one implication of the thesis as I see it. But never mind. Wilson is considered a hero for it, which gives a certain punch to the way his latest book is billed.

Other Stuff I Do
March 16, 2009

The Times reviewed my book on the history of the English language this weekend. It's about how the language I am writing in would be one a lot like German - with nouns coming in three genders and verbs hanging at the end of sentences and so on - if English had not been beaten down by Vikings learning as a second language starting in 787 A.D.

Yesterday Before The Appropriations Committee--history Beginning?
March 12, 2009

In my last post I mentioned Rapper Cam'ron's new song and video about how hard it can be to get a job when you have a record. It's an urgent problem, but too often when race issues are discussed, the word on the street--and on the op-ed page, and in the panel discussion--is that ex-cons just can't get gainful employment, period. It's not true. In fact, it's less true every year as programs designed to get ex-cons into jobs take root and thrive in city after city.

A Language Is Not Just A Basket Of Words: What's Up With 'baby Mama'?
March 04, 2009

Today I learned that the New York Times will be reviewing my latest book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, on March 15. Happy am I. I should be grateful--the Times has reviewed three of my books before, but not since 2003. I could still be a contender ... ! The main message of "Bastard," as my wife and I call the latest in shorthand, is that a language is not just words but the way the words are put together--the grammar. In contrast to the rest of humanity listening only to words, a linguist listens to language used as grammar around the clock.

Camron Hates His Job: Constructive Rap From An Unlikely Source?
March 03, 2009

Traditionally, civic concern has not been one of rapper Cam'ron's front-and-center issues. Last time he made the news was a couple years back when he was telling 60 Minutes he wouldn't "snitch" on even a serial killer living next door to him ("I'd probably move"), much less risk record sales by joining in a search for the man who shot him during a carjacking in 2005. Hearing rap criticized, the fan sits ready to object "It's not all like that!" - well, Cam'ron's work has typically been the kind that is like that.

More On The Chimp And The "conversation"
February 25, 2009

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the legs this chimp cartoon story has. But it almost makes me reconsider whether Eric Holder actually has something in this idea that We Need To Talk. Various friends of mine are offended by the cartoon, white and black. They say that they immediately read the cartoon as referring to Obama - but none of them are Post readers, and thus like me, they encountered the cartoon as the subject of stories about the protest.

Three Bright Black Lights Restored To History
February 22, 2009

While Eric Holder has taken Black History Month this year as an occasion to remind us that we haven’t come as far on race as we’d like to think, I see it as a possible tipping point in restoring the reputation of Booker T. Washington.   Historians of the black experience are well aware that historical memory tends to be oversimplified: for example, many currently consider it intolerable that Americans be ignorant that there was slavery in the north as well as the south. It is equally intolerable, however, that Booker T.

Defining 'Nation of Cowards' Down
February 19, 2009

So what does our new Attorney General Eric Holder mean when he says that we are "a nation of cowards" for avoiding "frank conversations" about race?   The meanings we intend often correspond only fitfully to dictionary definitions. If someone asks “Do you have the time?” technically it would be answering the question to just say “Yes” and walk on.

Birthday Bash
February 12, 2009

Many years ago, I attended a meeting of a local NAACP branch. It had long been adrift. Its president and general secretary wanted to turn the organization from formulaic protests to issues that actually mattered to the local black community, such as schools and health care.   The rank and file committee members, however, were on a different page, more interested in making embittered speeches. The meeting was supposed to last from nine to five, but there was a small street protest in the city starting at one.

Lib and Let Die
January 29, 2009

At Barack Obama’s inauguration, John Roberts’s adverb trouble, subconsciously driven by a “blackboard grammar” quest to deflect faithfully from “splitting” the verb execute from the auxiliary will, was a rather gorgeous example of how educated people can be tripped up by unworkable hoaxes about how language works. (“To boldly go where no man has gone before” is “bad” grammar?).