John McWhorter

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Birthday Bash

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.

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Lib and Let Die

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?).

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Striking a New Chord

It's not just what Obama says; it's how he says it. Like a black man.

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Direct Answer

One does not expect to see New York’s school Chancellor Joel Klein on the same stage as Reverend Al Sharpton. Klein is infamous for his emphasis on test scores and shutting down schools that fail to measure up. Not so long ago, Sharpton was in the barricades with Russell Simmons protesting mayor Michael Bloomberg and Klein’s plan to cut New York City’s education budget. Yet these days the two are teaming up for the Education Equality Project, which seeks to close the achievement gap between white and black kids in public schools.

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Into the Fold

Blacks’ heavy support for the proposition banning same-sex marriage in California pointed up an awkward disjunction between progressive ideals and majority black opinion. And, similarly, Barack Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to do the invocation at his inaugural ceremony forces us to attend yet again to the sometimes discomfitingly partial overlap between Blue American bona fides and black authenticity.

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