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Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care Hardcover – October 13, 2003

2.7 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Acclaimed linguist McWhorter (The Power of Babel [2002]) explores the social dynamics that have changed the English language since the 1960s and threaten to erode our intellectual prowess. Comparing past speakers from Abraham Lincoln to Mario Cuomo to more modern speakers, including President George W. Bush, McWhorter laments the loss of the art of oration, notwithstanding Jesse Jackson and the black preaching tradition. He traces the current emphasis on oral versus written speech across a variety of cultures and times. McWhorter focuses on the forces at work in the U.S. that have heightened the appeal of plain-speaking since the 1960s, including the influence of music, the breakdown of racial barriers, and the rise in immigration and technology. While he sees the trend toward emphasizing the oral over the written as "the celebration of the art in spoken language," he laments the impact on our ability to read, write, and critique. McWhorter's eloquent style and cogent analysis will appeal to readers concerned about trends in American education and communication. Vanessa Bush
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"Startling, provocative, and remarkably entertaining." -- The San Diego Union Tribune

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 279 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham (October 13, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592400167
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592400164
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,171,735 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
John McWhorter has long had a double identity. As a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, he's written on the evolution of languages over time (THE POWER OF BABEL) and on English dialectology (WORD ON THE STREET). But he's also a cultural commentator, until recently directing his attention to the issues facing African-Americans (LOSING THE RACE and AUTHENTICALLY BLACK). In DOING OUR OWN THING: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care he combines his two interests. McWhorter claims that there's indeed a real problem with the English that we hear today in the media and from our politics, and the English we read in popular literature.

McWhorter, like all reputable linguists, will readily state that all languages are essentially equal in that they serve the basic needs of their bodies of speakers. His argument is not that English is going downhill in a way that is reducing people to unintelligent brutes who can't get their message across. No, McWhorter believes that the decline of oratorical skills and literary flair is simply depriving English-speaking culture of some beauty that people could enjoy. He pairs letters from grade-school dropouts of the 1800s with newspaper articles by professional journalists of today to show that, yes, in days of yore people used to appreciate the skill they could display in writing elegant prose, and everyone was capable of giving it a go. He puts the Gettysburg Address next to what a professional speechwriter prepared for President Bush to show that nowadays our politicians provide uninspiring and half-hearted explanations of their motivations and goals. English in the public sphere, McWhorter claims, is lame.
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Format: Hardcover
First off, let me say that McWhorter's The Power of Babel was one of the best books on language I have read. It is so dense with information presented in a readable, positive style, that I think I'll read it again.
Doing Our Own Thing seems to have been written by McWhorter's evil twin. He assures us near the beginning that this will not be a John Simon-type screed bemoaning the degradation of language in America. Then he goes on to bemoan the degradation of language in America. He manages to be just as pedantic as any language maven about the fact that "Billy and me went to the store" is NOT an ungrammatical sentence, mentioning the same example at regular intervals throughout the book.
Doing Our Own Thing seems like a collection of the author's pet peeves loosely connected to make up a book. McWhorter is concerned about the lack of memorable public speech today and the decline in quality of lyrics, especially in musical theater. He is also annoyed by baggy pants, poetry, and Democrats.
In decrying the decline of American speech today, he claims that no public figure can extemporaneously concoct complex sentences and thoughts. Everyone speaks like a regular guy, or worse, like someone a regular guy can feel superior to. But I can recall Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton giving speeches, that while not memorable in a William Jennings Bryan or even John F. Kennedy style, were complex, yet clear. Bill Clinton's speech at the memorial service for the two security guards who were killed at the House of Representatives was eloquent, for instance.
McWhorter mentions screenwriter David Mamet as someone who is in touch with real speech and can write dialogue that is both authentic and dramatic.
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Format: Hardcover
There was a time not long ago in our history when an elaborate command of the English language was considered part of the fabric of American culture. Orator Edward Everett kept a crowd hanging on his every word during his three-hour speech (yes, three hours!) at Gettysburg in 1863 because he was an excellent orator in a time when American society valued excellent orators. Even during the first half of the 20th century, a command of spoken and written English on a level that today would confound many college students was not only required by the time one finished the eighth grade, but was the social norm; ain't so anymore.
In Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, John McWhorter examines this cultural decline in the use of high-fallutin English in contemporary America. He shows that people were taught from grade school, whether or not they went on for higher education, to always put the English language in its Sunday best. W.E.B. Du Bois stands out in particular. Du Bois's first assignment in a composition class at Harvard in 1890 was to write about himself. This is what he wrote:
"For the usual purposes of identification I have been labeled in this life: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on the day after Washington's birthday, in 1868. I shall room during the present twelve-month at number twenty Flagg Street, Cambridge. As to who I really am, I am much in doubt, and can consequently give little reliable information from casual hints and observations. I doubt not that there are many who could supply better data than the writer. In the midst then of personal uncertainty I can only supply a few alleged facts from memory according to the usual way.
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