The subtitle of this book is “The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care”. A linguist, McWhorter takes pains to explain that this is not another book decrying the “declining” standards of English grammar and that, e.g., there is no meaningful way in which “is not” is more correct than “ain’t”.
Instead, McWhorter offers three theses:
1. American’s relationship to written and publicly spoken language has changed, with formal, carefully prepared prose and speech giving way to informal, off-the-cuff “talk”.
2. The reason for this change is primarlly the anti-Establishment movement of the sixties in which formal language was equated with the controlling hand and deceptive designs of the Powers That Be.
3. This change has both positive and negative implications.
Through a wealth of anecdotes, McWhorter does seem to establish his first point. Although he sometimes takes cheap shots, like comparing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a speech by George W. Bush, a picture does emerge of an earlier time in which formal language, and a love of English, was far more prevalent than today.
When he comes to the second thesis, McWhorter is on rockier ground. Although the influence of the sixties is no doubt present, he raises and then dismisses a number of possible additional factors such as the rise of radio and television and the invention of Jazz. These factors are dismissed due to issues of “timing”, as if cultural effects have to happen all at once or not at all, a premise he never defends but merely uses. Jazz in particular seems to be a worthy candidate since “Doing Your Own Thing” is basically Article I of the Jazz Constitution.
Strangely, he devotes the least amount of space to the third point. The benefits and drawbacks of formal language are usually mentioned only in passing and rarely spelled out in a detailed argument.
Finally, and also strange for a work which emphasizes the benefits of formal language for structuring an argument, the book is not especially well written. The sections seem to ramble from one topic to another without a gradual buildup to a convincing conclusion. Possible contradictions between earlier and later statements are not noticed or accounted for.
Nevertheless, it does seem as if McWhorter is on to something. Our relationship to our language does seem to have changed and we may have lost something of value in the transition. As to exactly how it happened, what the consequences are, and what we might do about it — these questions require another book.