JOHN MCWHORTER 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. It's also about how we would today say "Asked you how he feels today?" instead of "Did you ask how he is feeling today?" if Welsh speakers (or, properly speaking, speakers of assorted languages such as Welsh and relatives thereof like Cornish), already ruling the roost in Britain before Old English speakers invaded, had not infused English with their native grammar's way of putting things.
This sort of thing is what I was doing with my life before a happenstance series of events led me to a second line writing about race, such as for this noble publication. And I still do it.
Not long ago when I did an interview about the race issues of the moment with Bill Moyers (see below for that interview), he asked me whether I minded that the media are more interested in my views on race than language. I said no. The race stuff is, in the grand scheme of things, more important.
However, I must admit that now and then I do regret that because my status in the national media's Rolodex is as "the black writer who can say mildly conservative things and almost make sense," that few think of me when seeking commentary on language books. Even ones about how languages emerge, which is exactly what I study as a linguist.
When something else, oratory, comes up, I get the occasional tap, because of a certain synergy between my chronicle chapter of how speechmaking has changed since the old days in my floppish book Doing Our Own Thing back in 2003 and the speechifying smarts of Barack Obama. I had fun writing a review of a neat book on Presidential speeches last year for First Things, and was happy to get a crack at the Times' Book Review around the same time on the oratory of Martin Luther King.
But only John Wilson at Books & Culture has let me sound off on what I actually study linguistics-wise, beneath the national media radar, since 2001. It's been fun - he has also let me, on days off from being Mister "Controversial," write about things like the scores of Hitchcock films and whether Schoenberg will ever be brunch music. But on linguistics, here, for example, is what I thought of Steven Mithen's idea that human language started as singing, and here is my take on a magnificently weird book on etymology.
I don't have a problem with being best known as Race Man - but I thought I'd just get in, in my new space here, that as I go through this thing called life, there are other things on my mind as well.