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.