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The Word On The Street Hardcover – August 21, 1998

ISBN-13: 978-0306459948 ISBN-10: 0306459949 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 294 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (August 21, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306459949
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306459948
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,492,381 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A Berkeley linguistics professor with a common touch, John McWhorter successfully scales the ivy-covered walls of academe to bring linguistics to the masses. He has reached out in the past, appearing on the Today Show, Dateline NBC, and National Public Radio, and publishing essays in Newsweek and the New York Times. The Word on the Street provides another forum for his sometimes controversial but ultimately sane examination of the English language as it lives and breathes. Deploring the intimidating jargon and snooty 'tudes of the linguistics field, McWhorter tackles some of the major misconceptions about our nation's language, and does so in an immediately engaging and entertaining fashion.

He offers some valuable linguistic insights: that language is forever changing, that new patterns that sound "sloppy" or "incorrect" may be in fact on their way to becoming "proper," and that any language is a bundle of dialects, none of which is superior to any other. His book delves into these issues with academically rigorous logic and accessible, delightful flair. He compares the Lord's Prayer in Old English to its modern version, and looks at linguistic issues from past centuries that made the language monitors of the day swear that English was going to hell in a handbasket (such as the "barbarous custom of abbreviating words," so that a word like "rebuked" was pronounced as one syllable instead of "rebuk-èd," considered proper at the time). He discusses schoolmarm English (and the great hoax that it represents), Shakespeare (and why his plays might be more enjoyable translated into modern English), the search for a gender-neutral pronoun (and why "they" as third-person singular is "good" English), then takes on America's most controversial dialect, Black English (and why, though it is a systematic dialect and a national treasure, teaching it to black schoolchildren doesn't make sense). Extremely readable, astute, and timely, McHorter's assessment of today's American English is that literary rarity: a book that's essential to read and hard to put down. --Stephanie Gold

From Library Journal

In the first section of this enlightening book, McWhorter (linguistics, Berkeley) examines language as "a system that is at all times on its way to changing into a different one." Not only are new slang and technical terms added, but sounds, structure, and meanings change over the centuries. McWhorter assures us that linguists have never "encountered any languages whose changes compromised their basic coherency and complexity." So in Part 2, he recommends "translating" Shakespeare into modern English, suggesting that foreigners appreciate the bard more than English speakers because his words are translated into their own vernacular. With wit and logic, McWhorter argues that word distinctions that enhance communication are worthwhile; quirky grammar rules are not. His concluding section based on research conducted during the 1996-97 Oakland classroom controversy, demonstrates that black English is a nuanced and coherent system of grammar. Provocative and recommended.?Cathy Sabol, Northern Virginia Community Coll., Herndon
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 12, 1998
Format: Hardcover
"The Word on the Street is one of the best books ever written on language and pub- lic affairs. John McWhorter shows us how English is, was, and will be spoken, and spells out the implications for how it ought to be used and taught. His arguments are sharply reasoned, refreshingly honest, thoroughly original, and - befitting a book on language - are lucidly and elegantly written. The Word on the Street is important, eye-opening, and a pleasure to read."
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 18, 1999
Format: Hardcover
McWhorter's book is a very elegant and accessible look at English language, its history, development and possible future. He abhors proscriptive grammar and pronunciation and argues his corner forcefully. It's a great pleasure to read. He argues a bit too forcefully, though, implying motives to 'language conservatives' and those who resist the 'go-with-the-flow' tendencies in education. He impugns them and belittles them rather more than necessary, in my opinion. Where he is strongest, though, and best able to make his case, is in his discussion of "Black English" as a dialect of Standard English, no more strange or feeble than, say, Scots English. Following this assessment, he argues that attempts to teach through Black English are misguided at best. He shows how, world wide, other countries do not treat dialects of their native language as flawed, just 'non-standard.' Nor do they have to modify their educational system to reach these students, he states. He also notes how these dialects have far greater differences from the standard than does Black English from Standard American English. Definitely worth reading and enjoying. Worth considering, too, the next time discussions of just what English is come about.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Andrea Boykowycz on March 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Word on the Street is an accessible introduction to the descriptivism of modern linguistics -- and this is most certainly a book written for the general audience, not for students of linguistics. Much of the book is taken up building McWhorter's argument for the basic linguistic equality of all spoken idioms/languages/dialects, which is to say the capacity every spoken language has to articulate all the finest and most specific aspects of human experience. This is all very well and good, an easy introduction for the lay reader, and a strong basis from which McWhorter then proceeds to argue (1) that Standard Black English is neither more nor less than a spoken variant of English, on par with any other, and (2) that the contortion of the public education system to deliver instruction in variant 'non-standard' forms of English or other languages is not helpful in overcoming the basic obstacle that underperforming inner-city children face in school -- namely poverty, and the lack of emotional and intellectual resources that it engenders.
There are two troublesome aspects to this book, which might be a bit confusing for the lay reader. First, McWhorter doesn't sufficiently distinguish between the written and spoken forms of a language -- the two are manifestly different, both in the ways they're used as communicative media and in the ways they evolve over time. Second, it's not entirely clear why he argues on the one hand that Shakespeare should be 'translated' into modern standard English, so that it can be more accessible to theater audiences and schoolchildren; and on the other hand that the 'translation' of texts into Black English is counterproductive in helping children with little Standard English exposure to learn to read.
All of this aside, I recommend the book: McWhorter writes well, and his axe-grinding (as another reviewer put it) at least gives one something to think about.
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