A split infinitive is just the beginning
American English continues its long descent
"Doing Our Own Thing" is a book about the state of the English language in modern America, and John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is not happy.
Consider this: On the field of the Battle of Gettysburg, the orator Edward Everett spoke eloquently for two hours to an audience of attentive townspeople, and Abraham Lincoln delivered his subsequent and vastly more famous speech, which concluded, "That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
Today, that high English has decayed to the fragmented, colloquial style of President George W. Bush: "We have our marching orders, my fellow Americans. Let's roll."
America's public discourse - heard on television and radio, and read in the morning newspapers - has lost its formal nature; instead, it sounds like everyday talking.
"Doing Our Own Thing" is not an argument about the negative impact of this new "spoken" language on Americans' ability to think and communicate, although at times it pretends to be. McWhorter repeatedly asserts that this kind of writing and speaking "compromises our facility with the word and dilutes our collective intellect."
But he doesn't attempt to prove this assertion or explain exactly why an ornate sentence by Henry James, for example, should be inherently more precise, nuanced, and effective than one written by Thomas Pynchon. Nor does he attempt to show that the content of oratory was any richer yesterday than it is today, and therefore one suspects that he's more concerned about changes in language style than any change in language effectiveness.
But "Doing Our Own Thing" is not a conservative lament for a lost golden age, either, although it often reads like one. McWhorter links the use of elevated English to a respect for standards - "a matter of basic courtesy, just as today we still often clean up when company is coming." At times, it is unclear whether he thinks language decline is bad in itself or because it indicates a weakening of social structure.
His explanation of why the language has changed is a conservative one: People have lost their patriotism, their belief in the legitimacy of the American experiment, and their trust in America's leaders, and therefore they cannot cherish their country's language. Naturally, the left-wing radicals of the 1960s are to blame for this - rock music, rap, and poetry without rhymes. McWhorter, the thoroughly modern linguist, suddenly seems to have turned into William Bennett.
But he hasn't really, and he proves this with a surprising and wholly convincing display of tolerance in his concluding chapter. Most of the changes to English use, he admits, are democratic and even laudable. He even suspects that elevated writing was perhaps unnecessarily stuffy. He calmly discusses the fascinating process of "cultural hybridization" that America is going through as Black English influences standard English and immigrants continue to arrive.
And then, in this sweet mood, he suddenly reveals himself: McWhorter envies the natural pride other cultures possess in their own elevated forms of language - the Russian of Pushkin, for example, which modern Russians can quote without difficulty. He regrets that in their cultural diversity and their skepticism of authority, Americans have bequeathed themselves only a simplified English that they cannot love "anymore than [they] do a screwdriver."
Even more personally, McWhorter laments his own preference for writing in "spoken," unelevated English, as he does vividly and well throughout this book. This seems only to double his sense of loss. "Much of why I became a linguist," he reflects, "is out of a desire to hitch on to languages whose speakers seem to cherish them so much, given that no one seems to care much about mine." And so, with its flaws and contradictions, its anger and its enthusiasms, "Doing Our Own Thing" is finally a book about love.
• Ian Garrick Mason is a Toronto writer and reviewer.