Democracies have flourished over more totalitarian states, in part because universal literacy guaranteed some measure of meritocratic social mobility. It is a cherished myth of the American Dream that education and full English literacy are superhighways to success. Into this debate strides John McWhorter, an African-American linguist who takes a closer look at how the English language has evolved, especially in America, over the last couple of centuries.
A language that does not evolve, of course, is moribund and probably is not spoken by any significant number of people. The vital languages always evolve, oftentimes in benign ways. The steady progress of technological civilization forces the creation of new words and phrases, and the constant influx of immigrant populations ensure that new words with foreign roots eventually will become standardized English. But McWhorter charts another kind of evolution, a devolution if you will. Languages have always had hierarchies embedded within them. A more formal grandiloquent tone informs written and “official” speech, and a more colloquial tone obtains in oral conversation and in other non-written forms.
McWhorter describes the near-total loss of formal expression in American English over the last forty years and makes the case that it was the anti-authoritarian sea change that America experienced in the Sixties that is at the root of this language diminishment. He cites a wealth of examples: 1) a comparison of the Gettysburg Address to the Bush doctrine, “Bring It On” and “Let’s Roll!’ 2) a comparison of Twenties Broadway lyrics to modern hip-hop lyrics; 3) a comparison of a speech by William Jennings Bryan with that of a modern day senator; 4) a comparison of the rhetoric of W. E. B. DuBois with that of Martin Luther King, Jr., among many entertaining others. McWhorter seems to bemoan the onset of cultural relativism that began in the Sixties and that led to the transformation of America into a multicultural enterprise.
His examples are well-chosen and stimulating. His range of erudition is impressive. The reader can sense why he has gravitated to this neo-conservative stance, but alternative explanations are just as persuasive, explanations drawn from McWhorter’s own catalogue of examples.
Many of McWhorter’s citations are from the worlds of television and music. TV culture also changed in the 1960s, as did musical culture. TV began to replace newspapers and popular magazines when color broadcasting became ubiquitous (around 1965). Musical culture became the special provenance of youth, starting with Sinatra and Elvis, and extending to the Beatles and Motown. It is just possible, in this reviewer’s opinion, that the American decline in formal rigor and expressiveness parallel the rise of popular television and music as overwhelmingly strong cultural influences. The power of the written word has been vitiated in my lifetime. The mass media appeal of television and its successors seems to have thrown modern civilization into reverse gear. Our educational system is in decline. We now have functional illiterates acting as newspaper editors and network programmers. Our values have been warped, not by the loosening of the controls in the Sixties, but by the mass media’s implied promise that higher standards of literacy and expression are no longer necessary.
Whether one agrees with McWhorter's thesis, or my hastily-conceived alternative, or one of one's own choosing, this is an important topic, one that scorns political correctness and has vast implications for the future of American civilization.
Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document: