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Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English Paperback – January 23, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0738204468 ISBN-10: 0738204463

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (January 23, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738204463
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738204468
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #517,677 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

"Word on the Street is one of the best books ever written on language and public affairs." -- Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and Words and Rules

About the Author

John McWhorter is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. A specialist in pidgin and Creole languages, he lives in Oakland, California.

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Customer Reviews

This is a great book I wish to recommend to all grammar Nazis.
Christopher G. Rywalt
You will find a great explanation of why "Standard" language is merely socially constructed and completely arbitrary.
R. Allbritten
Feelings will inevitably be hurt, and feathers will be ruffled.
David Thomson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Christopher G. Rywalt on June 27, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is a great book I wish to recommend to all grammar Nazis. It's going to ruin my copyediting, but it's really turning my head around about English and languages in general.
Essentially, McWhorter goes and beats the ... out of grammarians from the perspective of a linguist. Apparently linguists, who deal with language as it is spoken and written by humans, cannot stand grammarians, who are, to use this book's phrase, ``obscure martinets.''
No little synopsis here can do the book justice. McWhorter has three main discussions, which are great fun. In the first, he talks about the feminist problem -- can we use ``they'' as a singular pronoun? In the second, he argues quite convincingly that it's about time we started translating Shakespeare into a language modern humans speak. And in the third, he discusses Black English, and how it qualifies as a legitimate dialect, every bit as subtle, nuanced, and important as so-called standard English.
But never mind all that. Everyone who plays with language for fun should read the book for this paragraph:
``For example, William F. Buckley is a prime example of someone who is articulate in standard English. Although many of us might bemoan the frigid paleoconservatism of his utterances themselves, there is no denying his enviable agility in wielding vocabulary, syntax, and allusion for all they're worth.''
Paleoconservatism -- now that right there is a great addition to English.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 24, 2004
Format: Paperback
These are the types of questions John McWhorter sets out to answer. In the process, he will piss off school teachers, grammarians of the rigid sort, those who exalt the Classics solely for their now-essoteric and lofty language, and a slew of others. (Read some of the below reviews for proof).

His basic idea is that there is no such thing as a pure stamdard english and his arguments (as witnessed in the first, and most theoretic, chapter) are quite convincing, though I can't pretend I didn't agree with him going in. Language, instead of being a fixed system with immutable rules, is a pragmatic tool for communication that, like any pragmatic tool, is mutable to the *felt necessities of the times* (O.W. Holmes's phrase).

McWhorter dishes out example after example - English to Spanish to the creole languages of Africa - to show that language is not only always in flux, but many of the changes that would be called *degenerations* now will actually turn out to be... well... improvements. He gives rigorous exampes to show that some of the rules leading to more akward speech, like the rule againts split infinitives or that of never ending sentences with prepositions, were based on arbitrary attempts to cram latin rules onto english and that, particularly in spoken language, have proved to be somewhat futile.

All of this leads to some provocative essays on the practical usage of language. The most provocative of these essays might be the one in which McWhorter makes a strong and reasoned plea to start transforming Shakespeare into more modern prose.
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27 of 35 people found the following review helpful By David Thomson on October 4, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
John McWhorter convincingly argues that there is no such thing as an absolutist standard English forevermore etched in stone. The very first section of this beautiful book is aptly entitled "Language: A Living Organism." McWhorter takes to task those laboring "under the common illusion that a language ought be a static, unchanging system." It should be immediately added that language is an intrinsically nebulous activity. A word is meaningless unless used in a particular context. Even the infamous "n" word may have a positive connotation when used among friends. So-called Black English is simply another form of communication that pragmatically works for some people. The only valid question is whether these individuals sufficiently understand each other. If the answer is yes, then it minimally qualifies as a language. Alas, every group of people embracing a minority language must compromise and accept a standard language that best responds to the needs of the overall majority. There are, though, no set rules in achieving this goal. A democratically premised culture must do its best to resolve this never ending messy and thankless task. Feelings will inevitably be hurt, and feathers will be ruffled. Democracies are not perfect institutions, only far better than all of the alternatives.
"Put simply, the term language is shorthand for a collection of dialects, of which one happens to be used by the elite and written down, while the others are not," insightfully declares McWhorter. One might also point out that all human beings have the ability to invent a new word. However, others must be converted over to
accepting any such attempt at originality. Words constantly evolve, and some prominent today may disappear tomorrow.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By R. Allbritten on March 21, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I believe that every thinking person should read this book (or one a lot like it). As a linguist myself, I love how John has made accessible the ideas of language ideology for the layperson. So much of our research goes unknown by non-linguists that our ideas come as a surprise (and sometimes a shock) when we explain them. You will find a great explanation of why "Standard" language is merely socially constructed and completely arbitrary. You'll also get a healthy dose of historical linguistics, which goes hand-in-hand with showing why the language deemed correct today was likely deemed horrible at some point, and vice-versa. I use this book in my Introduction to Linguistics class and a little in my Introduction to Sociolinguistics class. The explanations are accessible to anyone. I have bought this book for my family members and friends as well because the average person knows little about the science of language. (check out [...] for more fun layperson linguistics.) Learning the currently fashionable grammer in a language is socially important, but that is all. If language is a lava lamp (as he says), grammer is trendy fashion clothing. Read this book to find out why.
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