Cover image for Doing our own thing : the degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care
Doing our own thing : the degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care
McWhorter, John H.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Gotham Books, [2003]

Physical Description:
xxiv, 279 pages ; 24 cm
People just talk : speech versus writing -- Mere rhetoric : the decline of oratory -- "Got marjoram?" or why I don't have any poetry -- Rather too colloquial for elegance: written English takes it light -- What happened to us? or play that funky music, white folks -- La la la through a new lens : music talks to America.
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Central Library PE2808.8 .M38 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A rousing polemic in defense of the written word by the New York Timesbestselling author of Losing the Raceand the widely acclaimed history of language The Power of Babel. Critically acclaimed linguist John McWhorter has devoted his career to exploring the evolution of language. He has often argued that language change is inevitable and in general culturally neutral-languages change rapidly even in indigenous cultures where traditions perpetuate; and among modernized peoples, culture endures despite linguistic shifts. But in his provocative new book, Doing Our Own Thing, McWhorter draws the line when it comes to how cultural change is turning the English language upside down in America today, and how public English is being overwhelmed by street English, with serious consequences for our writing, our music, and our society. McWhorter explores the triumph of casual over formal speech-particularly since the dawn of 1960s counterculture-and its effect on Americans' ability to write, read, critique, argue, and imagine. In the face of this growing rift between written English and spoken English, the intricate vocabularies and syntactic roadmaps of our language appear to be slipping away, eroding our intellectual and artistic capacities. He argues that "our increasing alienation from 'written language' signals a gutting of our intellectual powers, our self-regard as a nation, and thus our very substance as a people." Timely, thought-provoking, and compellingly written, Doing Our Own Thingis sure to stoke many debates about the fate of our threatened intellectual culture, and the destiny of our democracy.

Author Notes

John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Linguist and show-tune aficionado McWhorter (Losing the Race) explores why American language and music are no longer crafted, honored or even well-regarded means of expression. The expected social formality of an earlier era, he argues, was eroded by the individualistic, multicultural values of the 1960s. The result: we talk rather than lecture, and we choose 50 Cent over Mahler. By unearthing Victorian-era speeches, early 20th-century newspapers and presidential addresses from the family Bush, McWhorter shows just how American English has, over time, taken on a permanent casual Friday uniform. McWhorter, who is African-American, suggests that hip-hop, spoken-word poetry and black English are the current defining modes of expression, with their fight-the-power messages of distrusting authority and "keeping it real." But, he notes, in contrast to the gentle, erudite oratories of the past, "[p]oetry that shouts can only be a sideshow. It cannot inspire a nation." Laden with contemporary pop culture references and humorous asides, this is an entertaining polemic that brings linguistics to the people, while lamenting the populist mentality that has made being cool more critical than being articulate. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

McWhorter (Univ. of California, Berkeley) here maintains the high quality and stylistic elegance of his earlier books, among them Losing the Race (2001), Spreading the Word (2000), The Power of Babel (2001). He is not an error-seeking grammarian concerned with tracking down problems in subject-verb agreement or the confusion of the subjective and objective case in sentences such as "Billy and me went to the store." Rather he focuses on the broader, more significant issue of the decline of formal, public communication in the last half century. He calls current speeches mostly symbolic exercises that package crucial points "in short, punchy lines," and notes that "State of the Union addresses are composed in sequences of sentence packets designed to elicit applause." McWhorter's deep concern is with the lack of complex ideas and close reasoning in the sound bites that often masquerade as public communication in contemporary society. Superficial thought permeates public communication and results in public action that may have dangerous, even disastrous, long-term consequences. This wonderful book--so well written and so thought-provoking--joins such works as Dennis Baron's Grammar and Good Taste (1982) and John Baugh's Beyond Ebonics (CH, Jul'00). ^BSumming Up: Essential. All college, university, and public collections. R. B. Shuman emeritus, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Booklist Review

Acclaimed linguist McWhorter ( The Power of Babel 0 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 Copyright 2003 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Berkeley linguist McWhorter (Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America) argues that language has been so debased since the triumph of the Sixties that our ability to read, write, and even think has been severely compromised. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction I am first putting pen to paperóor, really, finger to keyboardófor this book on September 10, 2002, in New York City. Tomorrow, the city will witness a commemoration of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, a year ago. A certain feature of the ceremony has occasioned an amount of discussion: There will be no original speeches given. Instead, various dignitaries will read stirring speeches from the past. And in todayís American culture, the fact is that this feels ìrightî somehow. Commentators have opined that the horror of the events of September 11, 2001, was too profound for mere words to express. And many Americans would share a sense that on such an occasion, ìspeechifyingî would seem a tad purple, something better suited to a wedding or the grand-opening celebration of some mall. But this sentiment is more local to our time and place than it might appear. Nobody felt this way, for example, on the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863. Over seventeen times the number of people who died in the World Trade Centeró51,000 menóhad died in three swelteringly hot days of gunfighting, along with 5,000 horses left rotting along with them on the battlefield. Yet, Abraham Lincoln, of course, presented some thoughts composed for the occasion. And no one is recorded as questioning the appropriateness of his doing so, or suggesting that he should have instead just read off the names of the dead as former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani will initiate tomorrow. On the contrary, Lincolnís Gettysburg Address is now considered one of the masterpieces of human expression. For him to have instead read off a speech George Washington had made decades before and then pulled out a list of the dead to start reciting would have been inconceivable to the spectators that day. More to the point, though, the main course of the Gettysburg ceremony was the man who spoke before Lincoln. Edward Everett has been enshrined as a prototypical historical footnote for giving an address that lasted two hoursóthe length of a movie!óto a rapt audience. The content itself was no great shakes. Everett recounted the events of the battle and some political issues surrounding it. But he was not especially cherished for his political insights, and itís no accident that no one quotes his speech today. Nor had Everett contributed to the life of the nation in any really significant way. By this time near seventy, earlier in life he had been governor of Massachusetts, president of Harvard, and secretary of state for about five minutes apiece, not having particularly distinguished himself in any of those or assorted other capacities. If he hadnít happened to speak before Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, Everett would not even have wangled his historical footnote. Yet at the time, Everett was by no means just Lincolnís opening act; he was a national celebrity in his own right. Not for having an affair with a president, not for marrying curiously often and having a large behind, not for relatives blockading him in a house in Miami to keep him from going back to Cuba to live with his father; Everett was famous for being a good talker. Certainly he had his political stances, and often used his speaking talents to broadcast them. But he was not famous as, say, a Unionist, and a good thing too, since heís so good with the words! Everett was a nineteenth-century rock star simply because he was a man who could really talk, whatever the topic, period. For us, Tiger Woods is famous for his way with the golf clubs, Mariah Carey for her singing gift, Michael Jackson for being staggeringly peculiar. In the same way, for audiences in the antebellum era, Edward Everett was famous as an orator. He could go on tour orating and rake in big bucks just like Carey can now and Jackson wishes he still could. Everett was a master of eloquent phraseology, and complimented it with a beautiful voice and a flair for the dramatic. Here is the opening of his Gettysburg oration: Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghanies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;ógrant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy. Yet, letís face itóto the modern American eye or ear, the first impression this excerpt lends is logorrheic: too windy, too puffed up. It doesnít even look sincereólanguage like this smells of snake oil to us. But thatís just us: Audiences at the time were quite stirred by this speech. Phraseology like this had been typical of public addresses in America since the founding of the Republic and would continue to be for a long time afterward. And to the extent that we can stand back a bit and assess the excerpt simply as language, there is considerable beauty in it. The rhythm, the imagery, the precise choices of wordsóthis is poetry. The Gettysburg audience stood there listening to a man declaiming in prose that bordered on free verse. For hours. But however we feel about poetry, most of us will have a sense that words like reposing and brethren are overdoing it, a bit much. But really, why? What is it about those sequences of soundsóree-POE-zing, BREHTH-rinóas opposed to REH-sting and BRUH-therzóthat is somehow inherently ìfake?î Nothing, obviously. And to the extent that Everett was using such words to lend a sense of grandeur and ceremony, why, exactly, do we feel that to do so is somehow a pose, a kind of verbal monocle? After all, meat-and-potatoes folks standing there on November 19, 1863, did not. And itís not as if they inhabited a society so different from ours that we can only hope to understand their lives through an anthropological lens, like an England in which Queen Elizabeth only bathed once in her life. The people who gratefully listened to Everett run his mouth for as long as it would take us to watch Pulp Fiction had magazines, trains, surgery, classical music, theater, Congress, a stock exchange, zoos. They bathed at least once a week. They spoke essentially the English we speakówe could converse with them with no trouble, though they would draw a blank on the likes of ìLetís do the dinner thing.î Although, actually I once caught that last expression used as early as a silent film from 1917, when most of the Gettysburg spectators would have still been alive. And while weíre on that, many who heard Everettís oration as teens lived to see movies, radio, and Franklin D. Rooseveltís election, and some few who fidgeted through it as tots lived to see John F. Kennedyís election on television. All of which is to say that in the grand scheme of things, November 19, 1863, was not really that long ago. It was just over 140 years ago as you read this, not even 150. Seven little generations. Which leads to a question: Where are our orators like Everett in America today? Can you name any public figure who is best known for being a fine talker? Yes, Jesse Jackson can certainly stir a crowd. Only a corpse could fail to respond to such music on some level. But Jacksonís medium is the African-American (or more broadly, fundamentalist) preaching style. A talent this isónot just anyone can do it. But as I will revisit in Chapter Two, this style is more about arousal than exposition, the punchy over the considered, the riff over the paragraph, the gut over the head. The ìAh, but is it art?î question is tricky, but we can acknowledge that as brilliant as John Lennon and Paul McCartney were, it would be hard to say that there is no difference in the intricacy of construction between the Beatlesí recording of ìEleanor Rigbyîóachingly perfect though it is (that cello writing!)óand a Beethoven string quartet (that cello writing!). In the same way, there is an obvious difference in level of craft between a speech by Jackson (ìI am somebody!î) and one by Everett. And in any case, the black preaching tradition is embedded in one subculture of the American fabric. What about oratory on a national, mainstream level? Sure, we have the occasional stirring speech. After Jackson, many people mention Mario Cuomoís ìCity on a Hillî speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1984. And that was certainly a fine one, but note how it stands out. We have the occasional stirring speechówhile oratory was a core component of American public discourse in the past. Cuomoís speech would have seemed downright ordinary in 1863. Everett was but one of legions of professional ìtalkersî of his era, when a gift for gab was a prime qualification for a life in politics. Itís significant that, meanwhile, most readers still will be seeking in vain just one Everett equivalent around today. Can we really say that the speeches Peggy Noonan wrote for Ronald Reagan, deft though they could be, would strike anyone as poetry? Yes, ìMister Gorbachev, tear down that wall,î perhapsóbut that was just one nugget; what about the other 98 percent of the speech? Will anything Mark Gerson writes for George W. Bush stand as the equal of the Gettysburg Address in the history books of tomorrow? Lincoln concluded with ìWe here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earthîóenough said. Now back to the future: Bush concludes a nationally celebrated speech with ìWe have our marching orders, my fellow Americans. Letís roll.î Cuteóbut different. Very different. If Lincoln had ended his speech with ìLetís rollîóreally; imagine it: ì... that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. Letís rollîóhe would have been assassinated two years earlier. He might not have even made it off of the lectern. And the fact is this: If we went back in time to Gettysburg on November 18, 1863, spent the night with an ordinary middle-class family, and tagged along with them the next morning to attend the Battle of Gettysburg do, most of us would be squirming a half hour into Everettís speech, desperate after an hour, sobbing quietly after an hour and a half, and needing therapy by the time he finished. But our hosts, while perhaps flagging a tad as the second hour wore on, would be engaged with Everettís words for much longer than us, perplexed at our antsiness, and would applaud with a sincere lustiness at the end, as happy they came as we would be attending a taping of Letterman. What is it about us? And itís not just that the media have shortened our attention spansóbecause most of us would feel funny hearing anyone talk like Everett for even ten minutes. Why? The reason is that in America today, the proper use of English has gone the way of the dodo, with our most prominent pundits butchering ... no, actuallyósorry. This will not be one more book claiming that ìEnglish is going to the dogs.î I will most certainly not be doing John Simon and his ilk here. The actual issue is quite distinct from the fact that people so often say ìBilly and me went to the storeî instead of ìBilly and I went to the storeî and so on. The notion of sentences like this as mistakes is a complete myth, as any professional linguist will readily tell you. Many readers are likely thinking at this point ìBut me isnít a subject!îóand in the following chapter, while laying out some other fundamentals for understanding what has happened to English in America today, I will explain why this is a garden-path analysis despite its seductiveness. But no matter how carefully linguists present this kind of argument, the people Steven Pinker calls ìlanguage mavensî insist that there remains a legitimate concern for clarity in word usage and graceful composition. No linguist would disagree. But modern linguistics focuses on speech rather than writing, specifically, the internal structures of language as spoken spontaneously. Linguistics is a geeky affair, as much science as humanities, that has little to do with etymologies and nothing to do with rhetorical eloquence in speaking or writing. As such, the truth is that most linguists have little interest in such thingsóthe person who does will not usually become a linguist. When the language maven goes on about maintaining the artful aspects of language, deep down the linguistís eyes glaze overómost of us have no more interest in Strunk & White than a molecular biologist has in dog training. Thus it is that linguistsí common consensusóto the extent that the subject is considered of any import among usóis that all claims that there is a qualitative decline in the use of English are benighted non-starters. But I write this book out of a sense that the issue actually does bear some more examination. As far as casual speech is concerned, no, Americans never have and never will ìlet the language go,î any more than any of the 6,000 languages in the world have been discovered to have suffered such destructive uncorseting over the years. But casual speech, despite being what academic linguists find most interesting, is just one of many layers of what English or any language consists of. And beyond the realm of six-pack, cell-phone ìtalk,î there is indeed something that we are losing in America in terms of the English language. Namely, a particular kind of artful use of English, formerly taken for granted as crucial to legitimate expression on the civic stage, has virtually disappeared. The rarity of the elaborately composed speech is just one example. The contrast between then and now permeates American society. When I am at a conference and have to get up early, I often watch CNN Headline News. One of the anchors is Robin Meade. So spellbindingly pretty she looks like a computer composite, she first struck me visually, I must admit, and so I started tuning in to CNN in hotel rooms to watch her when I am getting ready for the day. But itís harder to look at the screen while youíre shaving, and she soon began to strike me just as much aurally. Overall, she is the typically white-bread poised, coiffed American anchor. But here and there she casually contracts ñing to ñiní (ìWeíll be seeiní you after the breakî), and in one interview with an official, she referred to his organization as ìYou guys.î She ends up sounding like a woman you lived down the hall from in college. Now, from a linguistís perspective, itís not that Meade is lapsing into ìbad grammarî in saying seeiní. If loaded up with some Xanax after Everettís oration we then jumped into the time machine and made a stop further back in the past to 1700, we might encounter a Jonathan Swift who felt it as crude to pronounce a word like rebuked as rih-BYOOKD as opposed to what he saw as the proper rendition, rih-BYOO-kid. As Swift soberly expressed it: ìBy leaving out a vowel to save a syllable, we form so jarring a sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.î But nevertheless the pronunciation of the ñed ending changed anyway. We do not find it at all ìjarringî or ìdifficultî to say rih-BYOOKD, or what Swift disparagingly wrote as drudgíd, disturbíd, and fledgíd. The globe kept spinning with no detriment to English perceived, and seeing and seeiní exist today in the same relationship as rih-BYOO-kid and rih-BYOOKD did three hundred years ago. Just as we cannot accept that today we are all wrong in saying rih-BYOOKD, there are no logical grounds for designating seeiní as decayed. Language changes, and with each change, Stage Bóno more illegitimate than the one-hooved horses that evolved from ones with a hoof flanked by two toesócoexists with Stage A. Nevertheless, for a good while a society usually feels the newer, ìotherî version of a word as more casual, more dress down. Thatís just a take-it-or-leave-it fact that no linguist denies. And here is where Meadeís use of language is interesting when we compare then and now. She likely sees her colloquial tilt as lending a note of warmth. ìWhy canít we loosen up a little?î one imagines her objecting if someone called her on it. OkayóI get it; folksy it is. But itís interesting that this folksiness would have been unthinkable of a news personality in the 1950s. If Chet Huntley had ventured a ìyou guysî on the air, while he wouldnít have been shot on sight, he would have been reprimanded. Certainly Betty Furness (remember her? If you are a person of a certain maturity you will recall her ìYou can be sure if itís Westinghouseî ads; with a tad less maturity you may recall her subbing for Barbara Walters on the Today show; otherwise just imagine a deathlessly poised, profoundly unethnic lady with an immovable head of hair) could not possibly have maintained a social life always talking the way she did on television. The crucial distinction is that as a person of her era, Thoroughly Modern Meade intuitively senses less of a distinction between her private and public linguistic faces. When the teleprompter went off, as long as she was still in front of a camera, Furness spoke; Meade talks. Or take a letter Washington Roebling, who supervised the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, wrote to his fiancÈe in 1864: My candle is certainly bewitched. Every five minutes it goes out, there must be something in the wick, unless it be the spirit of some man just made perfect, come to torment me while I am writing to my love. Are any of your old beaus dead? If I wasnít out of practice with spiritual writing I would soon find out. Just imagine writing an e-mailóor even letterólike that to someone you were interested in today. But here is the crucial thing: Neither the rococo tone of Roeblingís letters, the stiffness of the lithograph drawings of public figures in his era, nor his first name being ìWashingtonî must mislead us into supposing that he used such language on a casual level while quaffing ale with his chums. In the same letter he mentions that he had been ìbuilding bridges and swearing all day.î We can be quite sure that Roebling was cussing along about what he was seeiní and how you guysóor in his day, you fellasócould have been doing better. The interesting thing is, rather, that for him, switching from everyday speech to so formal and composed a tone in letters to his beloved was such a natural choice. Even, a required choiceófor a man of his day, this kind of language was as essential to a respectable manís wooing kit as a condom is today. On the other hand, for the modern American man desirous of channeling the bewitched state of his candle, writing to women in language like this would all but ensure his dying alone. The issue, then, is that in earlier America it was assumed that a certain space in society required that English be dressed in its Sunday best, complete with carnations and big hats. Itís no accident that in another letter to his fiancÈe, Roebling mentioned that he had just heard an oration byóthree guessesóEdward Everett, commemorating the taking of Fort Duquesne. Linguistically, this was practically a different planet. The tone of Everettís speeches as well as Roeblingís letters makes it unsurprising that in the nineteenth century, poetry was a bestselling genre rather than the cultish phenomenon it now is. Talking was for conversation; in public or on paper, one used a different kind of language, just as we use forks and knives instead of eating with our hands. Surely on the everyday level English was used much as it is now, in all of its fluid, vulgar splendor. And just as surely, the educated and more fortunate were more comfortable in the ìhigherî mode than others (although its usage permeated further down the social scale than we might expect, as we will see later). But modern America has all but eliminated this kind of English, with any remaining sense of its Sunday best now being at most a button-down shirt. Most of us sense carefully wrought phraseology as corny. Where for earlier Americans ornate language corresponded to gravity, today we sense it as insincereóa change similar to that undergone by the tuxedo. And this is indeed an American issue: To be a modern American is to lack a native love of oneís language that is typical of most humans worldwide. In general, I suspect many Americans reading this do not consider themselves as feeling much of anything about English pro or conóand that is exactly the point. Itís one of those ìfish donít know theyíre wetî issuesówe have to step way back to realize that anything is afoot. One often hears foreigners praising the beauty, the majesty, the richness of expression, of their native languagesóboth in and away from their homelands. And this is not limited to the ìdevelopedî world. The linguist is familiar with finding that speakers of the obscure indigenous language they are documenting have whole fables or poems about how wonderful their tongue isóand composed not as modern statements of cultural assertion, but as in-group libations created long before English and other imperial languages began edging smaller languages aside. Americans are an exception. We do not love English. We do not celebrate it overtly, nor do we even have anything to say about it if pressed on the point. Sucking slowly on a cigarette and misting up a bit, the foreigner muses ìThereís nothing like hearing my native language.î But it almost strains the imagination to hear this said in an American English accent. The utterance would be almost as bizarre and unprocessible as someone responding to your ìGood morningî with ìIíve been told they were mostly bald cooks.î Certainly some of this is because we are not obliged to learn foreign languages since we can get along in English almost anywhere in the world, and thus are not faced with the contrast between our own language and othersí as urgently as most of the worldís peoples are. But as I will show later, a hundred years ago Americans could be heard expressing a specific pride in English that would ring oddly now. And itís also indicative that today, to the extent that we might suck on a cigarette and mist up about anything having to do with language, it would most likely be to praise a foreign one. And that, more than anything else, consigns an Edward Everett to the antique. In todayís America, it would be quizzical if there did remain any place for grandiloquence. But this relationship to our languageóor lack of oneóis a new development. What gave us Americans a tacit sense that to wield the full resources of our native language is tacky? Various factors tempt us as explanations that in fact cannot help us because the timing is off. The grand old American tradition of anti-intellectualism, for example, is fundamental to the very warp and woof of the Republic, hardly a new development. It was an antiintellectual America that thrilled to the strains of Edward Everettís orations. We might suppose that American individualism discourages allegiance to a standard imposed from on high. True, but again, that individualism traces back to our beginnings, while for centuries afterward, ìhighî language was one standard that Americans readily accepted. Mass culture and its focus on the lowest common denominator? Timing again: for example, when sound films began, mass culture had already turned American life upside down. Yet there were elocution coaches all over Hollywood training actors to sound like characters in Noel Coward plays, and this artificial diction and blackboard syntaxóBette Davis, despite her plummy tones in performance, was born and raised in Massachusettsówas coin of the realm in American films well into the 1960s. I think we get closer to the McGuffin in another September 11 commemoration that will take place tomorrow, at the University of California, Berkeley, where I teach. It has been decided that there will be no patriotic songs sung and no American flags waved at the ceremony, out of a sense that this would be ìtoo political.î For the conveners this is an utterly natural position, and they have been surprised at the minor barrage of criticism the right fired at them recently. Nor would the position exactly shock most educated Americans today given that we live in an America where many consider it an essential part of education to learn that our country has been responsible for a great deal of misery and injustice both here and worldwide. For todayís thinking American, if their sense of patriotism is not a quiet one held with significant reservations, then they likely sense themselves as part of an embattled minority, or are perhaps recent immigrants whose perspective on America is couched in a contrast with the starker misery and injustice elsewhere that drove them to pick up stakes. Of course, few people actually walk around saying ìAmerica is too morally corrupt to merit anything but the most coded of celebrations by anyone with half a brain.î Every political sentiment will always have its fringe of strident firebrands, but generally, this filtered patriotism is deeply entrenched enough that most educated folk barely consider it a position at all. It is considered by many as a part of basic human enlightenment, which one votes on the basis of, incorporates into the upbringing of oneís children, and assumes as common knowledge at parties. My goal here is not to attack this position. As with all political standpoints, what initially broadens horizons can end up contracting them just as much. But an educated class of modern Americans as chauvinistically patriotic as Theodore Roosevelt would be a troglodytic one. I do not believe that humans have yet devised a political system that yields as much good for as many as democracy and capitalism. But these systems hardly tamp down greed and cruelty, and the damage that America has inflicted in many parts of the world as well as at home is well-documented. Rather, the current state of American patriotism is useful here because it offers an explanation for why we no longer have orators, and for many other things we now take for granted in America that would perplex the Gettysburg citizen who jumped into our time machine to look at our modern society. Here, the timing is just right. Obviously, events in the sixties deeply transformed Americansí conventional wisdom regarding the legitimacy of their ruling class and the very concept of authority. Basic cynicism about Washington and politicians has always been old newsóthe Constitution and the Federalist Papers design our political foundations upon just such an assumption, after all. But before the 1960s, the conviction that the American experiment itself was fundamentally illegitimate was largely limited to certain political sects and intellectuals. After Vietnam and then Watergate, a less focused form of this sentiment became a conventional wisdom among the educated, and proceeded to become a general cultural zeitgeist. The Civil Rights movement and growing awareness of the systemic nature of poverty painted mainstream America as irredeemably immoral. And these sea changes came along after earlier in the sixties, best- selling books like Thomas Szaszís The Myth of Mental Illness popularized a trope that mental illness was a societal construct, and that society shackled the human spirit from rising to the higher plane of self- expression. Plays like Herbert Gardnerís A Thousand Clowns were the product of this new idea blowing in the wind, and R. D. Laingís The Politics of Experience (1967) helped set it in stone. Importantly, it is in the 1960s that the space for high language starts wasting awayóand even more specifically, the late 1960s. Earlier in the decade the old linguistic culture was still in place. John F. Kennedyís State of the Union address in 1961 was a speech in the old-fashioned sense, standing on its own on the page as prose: We cannot escape our dangersóneither must we let them drive us into panic or narrow isolation. In many areas of the world where the balance of power already rests with our adversaries, the forces of freedom are sharply divided. It is one of the ironies of our time that the techniques of a harsh and repressive system should be able to instill discipline and ardor in its servantsówhile the blessings of liberty have too often stood for privilege, materialism, and a life of ease. Thirty-two years later, a State of the Union address by our second president to be raised under the new linguistic regime has a distinctly different flavor. The Kennedy passage is a minor piece of art. The words appear set just where they should be. One senses the hard work it took to craft itócoffee and cigarettes long into the night, yellow pads. The Bush fils passage is competent but perfunctory; there is no love of language in it. Bushís speechwriters work hard, but their sense of goal is different from their predecessors like Ted Sorenson. Remember also that this passage is not one more ìBushismî revelation because these addresses are carefully written out beforehand and then read aloud: Now, in this century, the ideology of power and domination has appeared again, and seeks to gain the ultimate weapons of terror. Once again, this nation and all our friends are all that stand between a world at peace, and a world of chaos and constant alarm. Once again, we are called to defend the safety of our people, and the hopes of all mankind. And we accept this responsibility. At no point did the Kennedy speech ever feel like this, nor at any point did the Bush speech venture into artful language. As late as the early sixties, language like Bushís would have been as off-key as going to work without a jacket and tie. Meanwhile, for a presidential candidate to communicate to the public in language like Kennedyís today would ensure his defeat. Al Goreís almost studied articulateness is certainly one of the major factors that has blocked him from winning the presidency. The late sixties is also when casual speech penetrates American cinema in a real wayówhen movie actors start letting their hair down and sounding like normal people instead of stage players. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper mumbling their way through Easy Rider in 1969 can be thought of as the totemic inauguration of this new linguistic order, the film being the first major release to celebrate the countercultural ethos in all of its grimy vitality. Yes, by then we had heard voices like this on the big screen now and then. But this was in characters like those played by Marlon Brando and James Dean, presented as forces of nature shouting into the wind at odds with an America where everybody else still talked like Ozzie and Harriet. In Easy Rider, for the first time a truly natural, shambling, almost telegraphic way of talking is not a character marker but common coin, with those using it presented as heralds of a brave new world. It is also at this time that in popular music, crisp diction and carefully wrought lyrics become the exception rather than the normóas witnessed by the funky songs featured on Easy Riderís soundtrack, on which Cole Porter would have sounded as incongruous as Puccini. This mainstreaming of the counterculture actually predicts that linguistically, every day would become Casual Day in America. Formality in all realms, be it sartorial, terpsichorean, culinary, artistic, or linguistic, entails the dutiful acknowledgment of ìhigherî public standards considered beyond question, requiring tutelage and effort to master, with embarrassing slippage an eternal threat. The girdle might slip, you might step on your waltzing partnerís toes, the soufflÈ might not rise, the water in the landscape painting may not shimmer just right, the mot juste might elude one. Formality means caring about such things, and being driven to avoid them in favor of making a pretty picture. Certainly, then, formality was a sitting duck under a new Conventional Wisdom that saw being American less as a privilege than as something to gingerly forge a relationship with, and mainstream American behavior as something to hold at half an armís length, on the pain of oneís inner spirit being suffocated under a burden of Velveeta and Pat Boone. At such a cultural moment, formality becomes repressed, boring, unreflective, and even suspect, while Doing Your Own Thing is genuine, healthy, engaged, and even urgent. As such, the only accepted communality is being united against The Machine. Hence, the ironic sameness of dress, opinion, and attitude among the folks stretching across the country from the East Village through Ann Arbor and Austin, Texas, to Haight Street, who pride themselves on marching to the beat of their own drummers, or an antigovernment sentiment among modern academics consistent enough to qualify them as ìa herd of independent minds.î Journalist and speechwriter Hendrik Hertzbergís comment about the muteness of New York Cityís 9/11 commemoration nicely captures the countercultural consensus and how it discourages public celebration of our nation: ìTo say something worthwhile, youíd probably have to say something that not everyone would agree with.î Indeed, as Nathan Glazer tells us, We Are All Multiculturalists Now in part because with all that has happened and all that has been said, it can be so challenging for many of us to embrace our own culture. And on the linguistic front, in a way Weíre All Dennis Hopper Now. The transformation in Americansí conception of themselves and their country is reflected not only in how we listen to music, dance, have sex, raise children, and vote, but in how we feel about English. Our national shift from a written to an oral culture has had broad and profound effects, but the point is a highly specific one. It hinges on a distinction that most of us have little reason to be consciously aware of on a day-to-day level unless we are linguists. To the extent that we are aware of the fact that there is the way we talk and the way we write, we have an understandable tendency to underestimate the depth of the difference between the two poles. Yet the argument will not be simply that we have lost ìrhetorical eloquenceî in America. This is because eloquence is possible both in the formal, carefully revised language of writing, and in the more spontaneous, flexible realm of speech. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr.ís ìI Have a Dreamî speech was surely eloquentóbut it was couched in brief, repetitious phrases that, in terms of written English, are quite elementary. I will show that our marginalization of the written can indeed compromise eloquence of certain kinds. But eloquence alone is a highly subjective concept, such that an argument focusing on this in itself would be an unavoidably preachy, tendentious screed. For example, nineteenth-century listeners found Edward Everett thoroughly eloquent while even literate modern Americans, admiring Lincolnís masterfully concise Gettysburg Address, find Everettís language inflated and affected. But who are we to indict all of those people who listened to Everett as somehow aesthetically challenged? This is an issue of style and gut preference. Then today, B. R. Myersís famous essay ìA Readerís Manifestoî in The Atlantic Monthly has accused fiction writers like Annie Proulx and David Guterson of ìbad writingî because he finds their metaphors ìmixedî and misses the flinty clarity of earlier writers like Henry James and Virginia Woolf. But this judgment on eloquence is again a matter of taste, submitting to no unequivocal metric. Millions of intelligent and artistically sensitive readers and thinkers deeply value the prose of the writers Myers dismisses. The fact that their aesthetic sensibility had yet to hold sway in 1910 does not qualify as a conclusive dismissal of their acumen. Our issue will be what kind of eloquence Americans currently value most, and whyóto wit, the new American tendency to increasingly distrust forms of English to the extent that they stray from the way we use the language while Doing Our Own Thing as we gab. As linguistic scientist and cultural historian, I am fascinated by single phenomena that explain several developments that otherwise appear disconnected. The written-to-spoken shift, while hardly something that the non-linguist has much reason to notice beyond its most strident manifestations (e.g., profanity on television and in the movies), makes various current American developments predictable. We are neither heedless of ìgrammarî nor deaf to the power of words in themselves. Yet there has nevertheless occurred a strange reverse progression in our linguistic time line, whose origins and nature reveal much about who we are as Americans. The countercultureís permeation of the national consciousness, then, has created a new linguistic landscape in this country, demanding exploration as much as the many other effects that the late sixties has had upon our culture. In some ways, the change has allowed space for more voices than was possible in the past and has blown away some cobwebs we are well rid of. But in just as many ways, the new linguistic order compromises our facility with the word and dilutes our collective intellect. Our new sense of what American English is has upended our relationship to articulateness, our approach to writing, and how (and whether) we impart it to the young, our interest in poetry, and our conception of what it is, and even our response to music and how we judge it. A society that cherishes the spoken over the written, whatever it gains from the warm viscerality of unadorned talk, is one that marginalizes extended, reflective argument. Spoken language, as I will show in the first chapter, is best suited to harboring easily processible chunks of information, broad lines, and emotion. To the extent that our public discourse leans ever more toward this pole, the implications for the prospect of an informed citizenry are dire. The person who only processes information beyond their immediate purview in nuggets is not educated in any meaningful sense. On the contrary, this person is indistinguishable in mental sophistication from the semiliterate Third World villager who derives all of their information about the world beyond via conversation and gossip. And a culture that marginalizes the didactic potential of written-style language in favor of the personal electricity of spoken language is one whose media becomes ever more a circus of personalities rather than a purveyor of information and guide to analysis. We often hear about how wealthy, how adaptable, how individualistic, how open to enterprise this noble mess of an experiment called America is. Less often do we realize that Americans after the 1960s have lived in a country with less pride in its language than any society in recorded history. A modern man who wrote love letters sounding like Washington Roeblingís to a woman would never hear from her again, and Roebling would need smelling salts on finding out that we consider Bob Dylan an artist. In the grand scheme of things, Roeblingís America was the normal one, while our America is the anomaly. chapter one People Just Talk: Speech Versus Writing Have You Seen Any Swamp People? Some years ago, an undergraduate student in a course I was teaching gave me a tape she had made of an elderly black woman reciting a folktale. The woman belonged to a group the student had described called ìSwamp People,î living on the outskirts of Greenwood, Mississippi, where she had grown up, who dress in unusually colorful clothes, and have a way of speaking unique to themselves. The woman on the tapeís speech sounds like a bizarre casserole of Jamaican patois and Haitian Creole, a dash of Black English, and a sprinkling of something somewhere between Cesaria Evora and God. Missing links always exert their fascination, and as paleontologists hope to unearth a skeleton of the first dinosaur, some Black English specialists have long hoped that in some remote district of the South, a protoñBlack English might turn up. There is a theory that Black English has its roots in the Euro-African hybrid creole language Gullah. Gullah is a variety of West Indian patois spoken right here in America, on the Sea Islands off the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia, and in some places a bit inland. But many theorize that black Americans once spoke Gullah more widely, across the South or possibly as far north as Pennsylvania. Gullah speakers have indeed been found in one little town in Texasóbut there is a well-documented after- the-fact historical migration from Georgia that explains it. A pocket of people still speaking a deeply Gullah-fied Black English somewhere, with no evidence that they had roots in todayís Gullah-speaking region, would be a kind of missing link for someone like David Sutcliffe of Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, who has long sought evidence that Black English began as Gullah. David was electrified when I sent him a copy of the tape. For years, he has been mining recordings of ex-slaves made in the 1930s for evidence of Gullah in their speech, but this modern recording of an aged, rural, black woman speaking something that sounded rather Caribbean was something else again. What lent even more of a sense of drama was that the student graduated soon thereafter and all attempts to locate her were in vain. All we had was a post-office-box address for the woman that she had included with the cassette. To make a long story short, a few springs ago David, I, and some other interested parties wound up shuttling around Greenwood, Mississippi, in a van trying to find the Swamp People. Really, the tape has never sounded like Gullah to me. The student certainly had no reason to make the Swamp People up or fake the tape, and I would love to know who this old woman was and what she was speaking. But to get to the bottom of it we would have needed more than a post-office-box address that ended up not corresponding to any actual residence. Yet I came along, because we had all been at a conference nearby and I wouldnít have wanted to miss just maybe taking part in a really neat discovery. But it was a long shotóGreenwood is no swamp, but a modern town. I can only be thankful that there is no filmed record of me and the others bumbling all over it asking ordinary black people buying groceries, sitting in their cars listening to CDs, or tending stores ìHave you ever heard of the Swamp People?î I could only laugh along with them, and our search for the woman or any other Swamp Person was fruitless. It was a long day. But one interview we did with an elderly black woman yielded an observation that has never left me. Trying to nudge her into giving us some clue that could lead us to people speaking some unusual dialect, we asked her whether she knew of any people in the area who ìtalked kind of funny.î Our hope that she would say ìOh, yeahóthose weird folks out there in the swamps with funny cloths on their headsî was not rewarded. But she did say ìWell, seems like most folks, they speak pretty good English, but some people, it seems like they just talk.î She proceeded to give a couple of examples of good-old ordinary Black English dialect. But the way she put it captured, as it happened, a basic truth about human speech. On the one hand, there is ìspeaking,î a kind of effort or nicety that lends itself to ratings such as ìpretty good.î On the other hand, there is ìtalkingîópeople just letting language fall out of their mouths, with no conscious effort, no striving toward any ideal, just doing what comes naturally. In the Beginning Was the Mouth This woman was referring to her immediate context, where African-Americans negotiate a continuum between the standard English of the printed page and the Black English dialect of the familiar realm. In the Mississippi Delta, as in all black communities, Black English is the default, while standard English is something one switches in and out of according to topic, attitude, who one is speaking to, and personal background. But this switch-hitting is a local rendition of how language is used in all literate societies. The written variety penetrates the speech of ordinary people to varying degrees. No black Mississippi Delta resident can help dipping daily into isnít versus ainít or he goes versus he go. The spoken/written boundary is more penetrable in some places than othersóthe local dialect of Arabic an Arab learns on his motherís knee is as different from the standard Arabic used in writing and most public language as Latin is from Italian. But worldwide, the use of a language that has both written and spoken varieties entails constant choices between the two toolkits. But the oral toolkit is ontologically primary. Writing is just a method for engraving on paper what comes out of our mouths. A modern literate person can barely help but see it the other way around. Taught to write from an early age, when we havenít even fully mastered speech, we naturally tend to process speech as an oral rendition of the ìrealî language on the page. ìThe languageî is imprinted, nice and tidy, on paperóindelible, authoritative. Talking seems a mere approximation of that, gone as soon as it comes out, and only fitfully as well-turned as the ìrealî language sitting on paper as a model. When we utter a word, we cannot help but mentally see an image of its written version. In our heads, what we have ìsaid,î or, to get the point across, ìsayed,î is that sequence of written symbols. When we say ìdog,î a little picture of that word flashes through our minds, Sesame Streetñstyle. But for all but a sliver of human history, this experience would have been as alien as being ìbeamed upî to the starship Enterprise would be to us. An estimate for how long human language has existed that few would have their tenure revoked for is 150,000 years. But writing did not exist until about 5,500 years ago in what is now the Middle East. This means that if humans had existed for twenty-four hours, writing would only have come along around 11:08 P.M. For the twenty-three plus hoursóor to come back to reality, 144,500 yearsóbefore this, language worldwide was spoken only. That is, all humans had the relationship to language that only illiterates have today. Imagine saying ìdogî and only thinking of a canine, but not thinking of the written word. If youíre reading this book, it follows that you couldnít pull this off even at gunpoint. But for most of human history, no one on earth could even imagine any such failed effort because, from womb to tomb, they just talked. For us, one way to peel away the layers of the onion and get into a real sense of what language really ìisî is through music. Even in a literate population, the proportion of people who do not read music is larger than that which is illiterate, and even those who read music can fairly easily imagine what it would be like to not be able to. Take singing ìHappy Birthday.î If you do not read music, then you know that although it corresponds to a sequence of written musical symbols, for you this is a mere abstraction given that you just render it out of your head and larynx on the requisite occasion. You might even do this quite wellófine musicianship does not require musical literacy (Barbra Streisand does not read music). If you do read music, while you know that ìHappy Birthdayî can be written as a sequence of written notes, you can pretty easily put yourself into the mind of someone who just sings the damned thingóespecially since you probably remember not being able to read music as a child. And although the women who wrote ìHappy Birthdayî were musically literate, theoretically the song could have been produced orallyójust as, for example, the little ìRing Around the Rosyî tune that goes with the childrenís taunt ìNyah nyah-nyah nyah nyahî most likely was. Dancing is another example. Dancing can be notated on paper, but such notation plays a relatively marginal role in the dance world. Dancing is, after all, something you just do, isnít it? If itís a planned-out affair, like a ballet, as often as not the creator or a disciple just teaches it to the dancers by demonstration bit by bit. And certainly when dancing socially at some party or club, we do not see ourselves as executing a version of an activity whose ìrealî representation is on the page. Of course, someone could videotape us wiggling around for fifteen minutes and encode it in a language designed to register each step, each swing of the arms, and each toss of the head. And on being presented with the transcription, we would be a tad perplexed, perhaps even a little uncomfortable, and not give it a momentís thought the next time we went out dancing. Dancing is something we do, not write down. Language is exactly like singing and dancing. Printing and the spread of literacy happen to have created a First World in which the written version of language infuses our very souls, in a way that musical transcription only does for a few, and dance transcription for even fewer. But properly speaking, that is a historical accident. The capacity for language that we are, most likely, genetically specified for is an oral one. Just as we have no genetic endowment for driving, although many of us do it daily, we have no genetic endowment for reading (which in fact damages our eyes) or writing (which is hard on the hands and, on keyboards, now gives millions carpal-tunnel problems). In fact, most of the 6,000 languages in the world remain, for all intents and purposes, exclusively oral in their usage. Of course by now most of them have been transcribed onto paper in some wayóbrief word lists in some cases, longer word lists and short grammatical descriptions in many others. For hundreds of languages there are these plus, say, Bible translations and some transcriptions of folktales. But even in these cases, the very sight of the language on the printed page is something of a novelty for its speakers, commonly evoking a certain marvel and gratitude. For them, the language remains fundamentally oral, used casually at home or with friends. They rarely read it, especially since there is so little to be readóno newspapers, magazines, or novels. How deeply can a word list permeate daily life? Few of even us speakers of written languages are given to curling up with a dictionary and a cup of hot cocoa on a blustery night. Speakers of oral languages commonly use one of the worldís ìbigî languages for reading and writing. But these ìBerlitzî languages are very much the exception among the 6,000. Only about two hundred languages are regularly taught in writing to children, and only about half of them are represented by piles of works on a wide range of subjects to the extent that we could say that they have a literature. For most of the languages in the world, if you learn it, itíd better be in order to talk to its speakers, a lotóbecause thereís barely anything in it to read. Language is talked. If itís written, thatís just an accident. Literates Donít Know Theyíre Wet: ìRealî Language and ìTrickî Language We tend to see the oral languages as undeveloped, not measuring up to the state achieved by the written ones. Think of the frequent designation of such languages, quietly condescending, as ìdialectsî or ìtongues.î But since speech rather than writing is what all humans share, we can also see the oral languages as representing the bedrock of what human language consists of. And that bedrock is something quite different from what we are conditioned to see as what language is. Casual language and formal language are different animals, much more so than we are usually aware of on a conscious level, especially those of us in highly literate, First World societies. How Many Words Can You Know? For example, the multivolume, shelf-straining Oxford English Dictionary contains about 500,000 words. If we added all slang words and acronyms, the count would hit about a million. Written languages with substantial literatures tend to have vocabularies of comparable size. But this is a mere historical contingency, printing having allowed so many words that enter a language to be recorded indelibly and thus passed down as eternal ìparts of the language.î It is significant that no one person knows all of those million words in English. Estimates of how many words individuals control are tricky and controversial, but even those for highly educated people average somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000. And even they learned these from a lifetimeís engagement with the printed pageóas humanity goes, a recent appearance of a highly artificial nature, and available to an elite few. But in ìrealî (that is, oral) languages, as new words and meanings enter a language, they often ease old ones aside. And these old words, without the artifice of writing to preserve them, gradually vanish from communal memory instead of living on as useless synonyms (lift versus raise) or obscure alternates (dipsomaniac, which now has an air of Fitzgerald about it, versus alcoholic). We can see words hovering between the life support of big dictionaries and utter disappearance in the language used by talking drum players among the Lokele in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire). The drum language is not ordinary conversation, but a poetic, formulaic level of speech, and no living person recalls the meaning of many of its words. The words were current when the formulas were composed, but have since faded away except when caught, like flies in a window screen, in the special, archaic, drum talk. For English speakers, nursery rhymes provide some rough equivalentsówhat exactly is a tuffet? And if there were no dictionary to remind us, would we have any way of knowing? Ethan Allen doesnít sell tuffets. But only so many such words happen to get snared in drum talk, traditional songs, or folktales. As such, an oral language typically has some thousands of words or, at most, some few tens of thousands. Even in these, there are still synonyms, words with similar but subtly different meanings and connotations, and layers of vocabulary used only in stories or ceremonies. But there is less of a difference from one person to another in command of ìfancyî words. Only dictionaries give people beyond a small, learned elite ready access to a rarified layer of obscure words whose very use is more of a party trick than a neutral utterance. Take ruth, ìmercy,î that is, the noun that ruthless is based onóitís in the dictionary, but can we really say this is now a word in our language in anything but an ostentatious sense? There is, quite simply, no oral language with hundreds of thousands of words. ìWho could remember them all?î we thinkóand indeed, none of us remember all of Englishís. But English is written. Most languages are not, and without writing, the memory is all there is. Strung Out Short and Sweet: Sentences in Real Languages In oral languages, sentence construction is also looser and less carefully planned out than in written varieties of language. Writing is a slow, conscious process that allows forethought and editing, and reading also allows careful savoring and, if necessary, backtracking. This is what allows elaborate passages like Everettís send-off: Wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates The Battle of Gettysburg! Everett wrote that out beforehand. Of course, a lifetimeís acquaintance with written language may give one a knack for spinning out sentences like this spontaneously. But then this requires the previous existence of the written model. People speaking purely oral languages do not structure their sentences in this way. Itís not that they donít have grammaróau contraire. Purely oral languages tend to be spoken by smaller groups, and the fewer and more isolated a languageís speakers are, the more frighteningly complex their grammar is likely to be in terms of conjugations, genders, and other bric-a-brac (I explored this in The Power of Babel). My linguistís sense is that if a language is unwritten, it will most likely have so many bells and whistles that it will leave me wondering how in the world any human being could actually speak it. Yet, speakers of such languages do not typically wield their grammars within tapeworm sentences full of clauses layered all over one another. I see this all the time in my pet language, Saramaccan. It is a creole hybrid of English, Portuguese, and African languages, spoken by about 20,000 people in the Suriname rain forest, and written only by missionaries and linguists. Overall, Saramaccan is just talked; literate Saramaccan speakers usually read and write in Dutch, the language of the country that colonized Suriname from 1667 to 1975. And as a ìtalkedî language, Saramaccan sentences are generally on the streamlined side compared to language like Everettís. Here is part of one folktale told to me by a native speaker. Notice that the information is nicely parcelled out among short sentences: Anasi dE a w" kOndE. NOO h~E wE w" mujEE bi dE a di kOndE n""ndE. NOO di mujEE, a pali di miii w" daka. NOO di a pali, nOO dee oto sEmbE u di kOndE, de a ta si ~E u soni. H~E wE a begi Gadu te a wei. H~~E$ wE a go a lio. NOO di a go a lio, dee Gadu ko d~E~E w" mujEE mii. Anancy (the spider) was in a village. And a woman was in the village there. And the woman bore a child one day. And when she gave birth, the other people in the village didnít want to have anything to do with her. Then she prayed to the gods fervently. Then she went to the river. And when she went to the river, the gods gave her a girl child. The conventions of punctuation must not give the impression that Saramaccans putter through their folktales at the halting pace of synthesized speech. The sentences are threaded into fluent paragraphs complete with vivid intonations, etc. Yet all of this is accomplished within these bite-size sentences. A different feel indeed from just one sentence from the beginning of the fourth Harry Potter installment: ìThey were rewarded for leaving their firesides when the Riddlesí cook arrived dramatically in their midst and announced to the suddenly silent pub that a man called Frank Bryce had just been arrested.î When asked to translate sentences like that into Saramaccan, invariably the speakers I work with spontaneously split it into smaller pieces. The Rowling passage would come out something like ìThey got a reward for leaving their firesides. The Riddlesí cook came in to them dramatically. Then everything got quiet. Then the cook told them ëThey just arrested a man called Frank Bryce!íî If I present the speakers with a cooked-up Saramaccan passage structured as in written English, I and the graduate students working with me are now familiar with a certain bemused smile and shake of the head, followed by the response we now almost chant along with: ìWell, if you said that people would understand you, but ...î Itís always clear that they are quietly thinking ìWhat in Godís name is this screwed-up (you know the word I really want to use) Saramaccan they come up with?!î And note that the speaker will say ìIf you said thatîóbecause the language for all intents and purposes does not exist on paper, beyond some religious and teaching materials and collected folktales. To us, Rowlingís phraseology seems ordinary, but it is actually only so in a written language. Indeed, it is only possible in a written language. Imagine hearing the Rowling passage spoken to you casually, assumingóas will require a stretch for all but about seven people by nowóthat you had never read a Harry Potter book. And remember that language is spoken quickly. Oneís response would likely be ìHold on!îóso much packed into one sentence, with that ìthe suddenly silent pubî feeling especially ìjammed in.î This is why oral languages are not spoken in this wayóin them, uttering a sentence like this would qualify at best as a stunt. The languageís grammar overall will most likely be a nightmareófireside, cook, pub, and man might all have different gender markers; the way the language expresses ìhad just been arrestedî might be one of eight different types of past tense. But the event would not be described in one tapeworm sentence. Itís Always All About You These kinds of contrasts between an oral language like Saramaccan and the written mode of English also hold between the oral and written varieties of one and the same language. A ìBerlitzî language is in a way two: the natural oral one and the constructed written one. A Vocabulary-Type Thing Vocabulary in the spoken variety of a language, for instance, is smaller than in its written variety. One way to harness this to numerical demonstration is with a ratio between the number of different words in a passage and the total number of words in it. For example, the total number of words in that last sentence was twenty-nine, while the number of different words is twenty-two, yielding a ratio, rounded down, of .76. Of course, with whole paragraphs the ratio is much lower than this, as the ofís and aís and theís multiply, for example. But Wallace Chafe and Jane Danielewicz found that the ratio in academic prose is, on average, still larger by a third than in speechóincluding even professorsí speech as they lecture. The Oxford English Dictionary sits on library shelves, but when speaking live and in the moment, we cannot command its 500,000 words, or even the fraction of this that we wield when writing. Instead, when we talk, we select our words from a much smaller set, comparable to that used by the speaker of an oral language. We reveal this limited choice in our tendency to bedeck our speech with hedges like, well, like, and sort of, and others when choosing words. Chafe and Danielewicz give conversational examples like: She was still young enough so I ... I just ... was able to put her in an ... uhósort of ... sling ... I mean one of those tummy packs ... you know. Aaand the graduate students are kind of scattered around. That last one might be rendered in writing as something like ìThe graduate students are thinly dispersed,î but dispersed did not occur immediately to the speaker, as it very well might not to us if we were talking in the moment. And I must admit a certain curiosity as to just what kind of ìtummy packî the previous speaker was referring to, but the upshot is that the speakerís immediate access to vocabulary did not, at least in that segment of their utterance, even succeed in conveying just what they meant at all. And thatís despite that Chafe and Danielewicz are academics, such that the people most readily available for them to record were naturally all educated, articulate people. A modern example typical in the speech of people about thirty-five and under is ìtype thingî: ìSo we had a debate-type thing where we hashed it all out,î someone says, when what transpired was nothing so formal as a debate, but a concentrated dwelling upon an issue by people with disparate opinions. A more considered rendition might be ìSo we explored the issue in an extended fashion.î Itís no accident that we do not write ìtype thingîóitís something oral language needs, but written English, which gives us time to think, does not. And all languages, written or not, have similar hedge markersólearning them is part of really speaking any language (along with being able to readily render I sank in the mud up to my ankles and Get that out of my hair!). Russian speech is sprinkled, for example, with their like equivalent zna?cit, ìit means ...î To hedge is humanóin oral language. I Talk Like That? Spoken English also spreads thoughts out into more clauses and sentences, Saramaccan-style, than written English. Here is a thoroughly ordinary bit of something someone said somewhere sometime. If you can bend yourself into imagining how you really talk on an everyday level, what really comes out of your mouth, you can imagine yourself saying something like this, say, on the phone: I had to wait, I had to wait till it was born and till it got to about eight or ten weeks of age, then I bought my first dachshund, a black-and-tan bitch puppy, as they told me I should have bought a bitch puppy to start off with, because if she wasnít a hundred percent good I could choose a top champion dog to mate her to, and then produce something that was good, which would be in my own kennel prefix.1 That, ladies and gentlemen, is how English speakers talk, all over the world. Any sense we have of how the person ìshouldî have said it reflects our immersion in a print culture, where we see a gussied-up version of language on paper day in and day out. But composing that takes a kind of effort only possible when we have time to reflect. For example, here is how linguist M.A.K. Halliday rephrases this, quite plausibly, in formal written English: Some eight or ten weeks after the birth saw my first acquisition of a dachsund, a black-and-tan bitch puppy. It seems that a bitch puppy would have been the appropriate initial purchase, because of the possibility of mating an imperfect specimen with a top champion dog, the improved offspring then carrying my own kennel prefix. Two sentences and out. But no one talks like this all day, or at least we hope they donít. These sentences took some doingóthey are a different kind of English, the written variety. Some readers may be skeptical that they, or most people, actually talk along the lines of these choppy passages. But if I may be so bold, you do, unless you are singularly given to linguistic self-monitoring. It can be shocking to see how we actually talk when our casual speech is transcribed word for word. This is no holier-than-thou book, and I can use myself as an example. I once participated in a free-form discussion of a then-hot topic scheduled after a conference, and the session was later transcribed word for word and included in a volume gathering the papers that had been delivered during the days before the final session. In the live situation, I held my own well enough. But I can hardly bear reading myself in the transcription where, on the page, at times I almost look like I have a speech disorder. But actually I was just talking the way all of us do day-to-day, and many of the participants look about the same on the page. Live speech is not only sparse-ish with its vocabulary and airy in its sequencing of 1. ìBitch puppyî does not sound quite everyday to most of us, but is natural to dog breeders and is in general used more conventionally as a term for female dogs in England, where this person lived. packets of information, but full of fillers, expressions like you know that check that the listener understands, and half-cocked utterances that would qualify as ìsentence fragmentsî or ìrun-on sentencesî in written language. Only rarely is spoken language written down word for word, but when it is, the result is always a tad unsettling. Written English is tidy, and meanwhile literacy leads us to harbor in our minds an image of what we say as cast in writing (the d-o-g phenomenon I mentioned). Itís a short step from there to assuming that we talk like we write. But here are two students in a junior college in California in the early 1970s, taped in running conversation: A. On a tree. Carbon isnít going to do much for a tree really. Really. The only thing it can do is collect moisture. Which may be good for it. In other words in the desert you have the carbon granules which would absorb, collect moisture on top of them. Yeah. It doesnít help the tree but it protects, keeps the moisture in. Uh. Because then it just soaks up moisture. It works by the water molecules adhere to the carbon moleh, molecules that are in the ashes. It holds it on. And the plant takes it away from there. B. Oh, I have an argument with you. A. Yeah. B. You know, you said how silly it was about my, uh, well, itís not a theory at all. That the more pregnant you are and you see spots before your eyes itís proven that itís the retention of the water. A. Yeah, the waterís just gurgling all your eyes. That is how the people in the Norman Rockwell painting were talking over that Thanksgiving dinner, how two bank tellers talk on a smoking break outside by the ATM machines, how you and your friends in a dorm room talked (donít I knowóI made such a tape of my college friends and me in the early eighties and was flabbergasted by how messy our speech was). And yet, just imagine how bloody with red ink a composition teacher would leave this if it were presented as written English: A. On a tree. (frag.) Carbon isnít going to do much for a tree really. Really. (repetitious) The only thing it can do is collect moisture. Which may be good for it. (frag.) In other words in the desert you have the carbon granules which would absorb, collect (choose one word) moisture on top of them. Yeah. (No.) It doesnít help the tree but it protects, keeps (choose one word) the moisture in. Uh huh. (Uh uh) Because then it just soaks up moisture. (frag.) It works by the water molecules adhere to (awk.) the carbon moleh, molecules (stutter) that are in the ashes. It holds it on. (repetitious) And the plant takes it away from there. (awk.) B. Oh, I have an argument with you. A. Yeah. B. You know (if he knows, why tell him he does?), you said how silly it was about my, uh, well, (what is your ìuh wellî?) itís not a theory at all. (overall, awk.) That the more pregnant you are and you see spots before your eyes (very awk.) itís proven that itís the retention of the water. A. Yeah, the waterís just gurgling all your eyes. (eyes are not gurgled) Come see me. And this oral/written split is human, not particular to English. We see it with Russian in Tolstoyís Anna Karenina, in a chapter where, for example, gentlemen farmers talk casually among themselves. Here is one statement by one of the farmers. Note the short clauses, a kind of series of verbal explosions: Ja pozalujusí? Da ni za sto v svete! Razgovory takie pojdut, sto i ne rad zalobe! Vot na zavodeóvzjali zadatki, usli. sto z mirovoj sudíja? Opravdal, tolíko i derzitsja vse volostnym sudom da starsinoj. I lodge a complaint? Nothing in the world! The way conversations like that go you arenít even glad of the complaint! Take at the millótook the advance, took off. The justice of the peace, what? He acquittedóthe only thing keeping any kind of order is the communal tribunal plus the village elder. Etot otporet jevo po-starinomu. A ne budí etovoóbrosaj vse! Begi na kraj sveta! Thatíll beat some sense into them the old-fashioned way. And without thatótoss it all! Run to the other end of the earth! On the other hand, Annaís husband always talks in ornate sentences such as ìThough indeed I fail to comprehend how, with the independence you show, informing your husband outright of your infidelity and seeing nothing reprehensible in it, apparently, you can find anything reprehensible in performing a wifeís duties in relation to your husband.î This is one of many ways Tolstoy highlights the manís coldness. Even to intimates, he doesnít talk like a normal human being, instead, maintaining the self-monitored pose of written language. But Karenin is an outlier, as well as a fictional creation. Overall, human beings just talk all of the time, the world over. Caveat Lector: ìBadî Grammar Versus Spoken Grammar Before we move on, I should make clear that our issue is not, as it may reasonably appear, the difference between ìbadî grammar and ìproperî grammar. Indeed, sentences like ìBilly and me went to the storeî instead of ìBilly and I went to the storeî and constructions like ìless booksî instead of ìfewer booksî are much more likely in spoken English than written. But the sense that utterances like these are errors is, while understandable, mistaken, as I and a busful of other linguists have argued in various books over the decades. The blackboard grammar rules that we are chided about by people with a bee in their bonnet about grammatical correctness are myths, mostly cooked up by a few self-appointed grammarians in the 1600s and 1700s. The very idea that grammatical ìmistakesî eternally tempt the unwary is the spawn of three illusions that seduced these bewigged martinets. One was that all languages should pattern like Latin even if, well, they werenít Latin. This meant that double negatives like ìI never go nowhereî were wrong because Latin did not have them, though most of the worldís languages doóand most varieties of English always have. The second was that when a grammar changes, it must be decaying rather than just, say, changing. So we were taught to lasso and hold on to whom, though at the time it was fading from English just like all the other words and constructions that differentiated Modern English from Old Englishóa foreign tongue to us that none of us feel deprived in not speaking. The third was that grammar must always be strictly logical. Naturally, then, we must say ìBilly and I went to the storeî because ìI is a subject,î although this leaves behind other illogicalities no one complains about, such as that ìI and Billy went to the storeî sounds like a Martianís rendition of English even though I is used as the subject, or that if someone asks ìWho did this?î and you answer ìAhemóI!,î youíd better look over your shoulder for men in white coats, though your ìIî would be very much a subject. When linguists make such observations, outside observers often read it as an expression of the leftist tilt in academia. Innumerable commentators suspect that behind the calls to ìLeave Your Language Aloneî lurks a reflexive animus toward The Powers That Be. But while the leftist bias in academia is real, the kinds of arguments I just galloped through are based on logic, pure and simple. Some readers will be aware that my politics tilt rightward as often as leftward, and as such, I am not exactly primed to embrace arguments just because they ìfeel good.î Yet I have spent portions of some of my books outlining the hollowness of blackboard grammar (The Word on the Street gives special attention to the point). The unequivocal fallacy in the proper English/bad English dichotomy is especially clear when we look at some of the things language purists were complaining about in the past that are universally accepted today. At this point, linguists, including me, tend to go back several centuries. (Note how awkward ì... linguists, including I, tend to go back ...î would have looked, and yet I is a subject after all! ...) But, actually, the case was well made as recently as the era when Everett and Lincoln spoke. One of my favorites is that as late as the 1800s, many stewards of ìgood Englishî considered a sentence like ìA house is being built over thereî wrong, with ìA house is building over thereî being correct. ìThe book is being printedî was ìvulgar,î ìThe book is printingî was ìright.î The year after Gettysburg, one grammarian was groaning about this particular ìinaccuracyî that had ìcrept into the language, and is now found everywhere.î In 1883, Harperís Weekly presented a ìjokeî in which this ìinaccuracyî impeded communication across the generations: Old Gentl.óAre there any houses building in your village? Young LadyóNo Sir, there is a new house being built for Mr. Smith, but it is the carpenters who are building. Well, har har!óthereís wit for the ages. Or notóthe joke is opaque to us and anyone now alive (imagine it as a quick blackout exchange between Artie Johnson and Goldie Hawn on Laugh-In followed by them breaking into ìThe Swimî to that bouncy, saxy music!). This is because now ìThe house is being builtî is ordinary and ìThe house is buildingî sounds like something from the same Martian who would regale us with ìI and Billy went to the store.î Language changes whether we like it or not. What look like rules from on high within our lifespans are always, in grand view, rationalizations that we superimpose upon language for impressionistic reasons, just as we think of a tomato as a vegetable instead of a fruit. Edward Everett and Abraham Lincoln probably sensed ìThe house is being builtî as newfangled, but now we donítólife went on and, really, we have bigger things on our plates. Certainly there are real mistakes, like saying ìboy the,î lvng out vwls, or talking backward. Or less hyperbolically, saying things like ìMe wants candyî or one of my favorites, in response to my saying to someone new to English that I liked dinosaurs, her smiling and exclaiming, ìI like dinosaurs either!î But no one makes true mistakes like this in any language unless they are children (ìMe wants candyî), foreigners (ìI like dinosaurs eitherî), or brain-damaged (the language of many people who have recently suffered strokes, for example). Beyond these subsets of a population, there is, quite simply, no such thing as a human being walking around using bad grammar. Important: my argument is not that people need not be taught standard English in school; they do and likely always will. My point is more specific: The casual speech constructions that we use alongside standard English, that we are taught, are illogical; wrong, and mistakes, are in reality just alternates that happen not to have been granted social cachet. Language from 11 P.M. to 11:30 P.M. And with that we return to my observation that just talking (albeit not in ìbad grammarî) casually is all anyone does all over the world. Or has ever done, for that matter. It can look as if in the past, everybody talked like a book and that the way people talk today is a decline. But thatís just an artifact of technology. How Did George Washington Talk? Itís sobering to realize that short of that time machine, we will never hear an actual human voice from before 1877, when Thomas Edison recited ìMary Had a Little Lambî on a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil. (This is a truly haunting few secondsóa man talking 125 years ago as I write, a man talking when Rutherford B. Hayes was Presidentóand Edison sounds almost frantic, as if he knew that he was about to turn the world upside down.) For all of the time before that, we can only engage people verbally on the pageóand that automatically means that their thoughts have been translated into the written variety. Vital, oral language only peeks out here and there when someone decides to quote someone directly now and then, but this is rare. Of course, fiction writers often put language into the mouths of their characters that is intended as natural. But as often as not, the result is as much caricature as depiction. And since conscious awareness of the systematic differences between oral and written language is largely confined to linguists and social scientists, these linguistic portraits usually only approximate the patterns of actual human speech. Mark Twainís Huck and Jim, for instance, for all of their dialectal pronunciations and grammar, express themselves in longer, tidier, better planned-out passages than any humans, educated or not, do on an everyday basis. And our access to casual speech is even narrower than the 1877 date suggests, because until just a few decades ago, all but a sliver of recordings of the human voice are speeches and performances. Thomas Edison didnít record himself kibbitzing with his family. In ancient silent-film clips from the turn of the twentieth century, we can see ordinary folks walking around chatting, but no one dragged out a phonograph recorder to record what they were saying. Sound films start in the twenties, but again, they were all of people performing. ìPhotoplays,î as they were called in the press for a while, were a commercial product, and nobody was going to pay to watch people off of the street gabbing about where their shoes pinched and wondering when somebody was going to invent the computer. If you wanted to listen to a spontaneous conversation in America as late as 1950, where would you hope to find it? If you have been around long enough to remember people talking casually that far back, think about itówho ever recorded your Uncle Max teasing Aunt Bella about how she cooked? Most of the language of the distant past comes down to us spruced up in its Sunday bestóeither written up nice and clean, or, if oral, then from people declaiming from scripts or reading off of written notes. Naturally, then, from our vantage point the raggedness of oral language looks like a new development. Early Writing: Talking on Paper But viewed more closely, the historical record reveals the truth. In the few languages that developed written varieties, the process took time. As one might predict, the people who first wrote languages down could hardly have yanked Ciceronian syntax out of the air. Instead, they wrote largely the way they spoke. A good example is, of all things, the Bible. Modern translations of the first lines of Genesis read as we expect prose to: In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. Then God said ìLet there be light,î and there was light. But this is not how the original Hebrew version scanned at all. The Bible was written down in a culture just past ìrealî language, the spoken variety in all of its choppy, meat-and-potatoes majesty: Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim veíet haíarets. Vehaíarets hayetah tohu vavohu vechoshech al-peney tehom veruach. Elohim merafechet al-peney hamayim. Vayomer Elohim yehi-or va-yehi-or. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and empty with darkness on the face of the depths. Godís spirit moved on the waterís surface. God said ìThere shall be lightî and light came into existence. No when, while, and then to knit things together like cheese in a casserole. Four sentences instead of two, presented with a spareness that to us constitutes its own kind of drama. But as Walter Ong observes in his splendid Orality and Literacy (a truly consciousness-altering book I highly recommend), there was nothing special about this scansion to ordinary people alive when it was written. Written-style prose was in its infancy; they were just talking. In other words, the Hebrew Bible is a useful source not only of moral and literary wisdom, but of the heart of human linguistic expressionóthe orally based style. To us, the original phrasing almost feels like a folk song, and with good reasonóit reflects how language is produced by folks. Even later writing often retains an air of oralness about it, reflecting a world when writing actually still was what we tend to mistakenly think it is nowóspeech transcribed onto the page. As late as the early Middle Ages, in his Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas Aquinas presented his arguments not as endless successions of paragraphs of bald exposition, but as if he were engaging in an oral debate. ìWhether love is a passion,î one section is titled. Following are three objections to that thesis: ìObjection 1: It would seem that love is not a passion. For no power is a passion. But every love is a power, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv). Therefore love is not a passion.î And then two other objections presented similarly. ìOn the contrary,î Aquinas declaims, ìThe Philosopher (by which he meant Aristotle) says (Ethic. viii, 5) that ëlove is a passioní.î Then, as if he were taking the floor from Aristotle speaking, he writes ìI answer that: Passion is the effect of the agent on the patient ...î and follows with an elegant argument concurring with Aristotle. He then presents discrete replies to each of the three objections in sequence: ìReply to Objection 1. Since power denotes a principle of movement or action, Dionysius calls love a power, in so far as it is a principle of movement in the appetite,î and so on. Philosophers donít write like this today. They typically write in lengthy, abstract paragraphs of ratiocination, with no such explicit flagging of the guideposts of their argument. Thomas Aquinas wrote this way because in his time, written conventions had yet to jell to the extent that they have today. The fact that we see his presentation as bracingly clear reflects its roots in spoken exchange, which indeed evolved for clarity and processibility since live communication leaves no space for rereading and musing. Mumbling Monks: Between Orality and Literacy ìPeevídî by Jonathan Swiftís disparagement of our speech and strapping ourselves into that time machine to travel back further, we could have gotten another glimpse of the oral-to-written transition: noisy libraries. Silent reading was a gradual development throughout Europe: at first, writing was thought of as something to recite from, not to sit alone reading in oneís head, initially seen a rather odd-duck thing to do. In other words, writing was still processed as speech transcribed onto paper rather than as the way language ìreally is.î Inevitably, at this intermediate stage between orality and modern literacy, it felt natural to translate writing back into actual speech when reading. We recapitulate the development from pure orality to todayís hyperliteracy when we mouth the words as we first learn to read, and we can spot an inexperienced reader by their doing so. But in a world where reading was rarer, medievals quite literate by the standards of their day went through their whole lives gaily mumbling away when buried in a book. The originals of classical Latin and Greek texts were written with no spaces between the wordsójust as, if you think about it, there are no actual pauses between words when we speak. It was assumed that the text would be read aloud, such that where the words stopped and started would be toocleartorequireindicationonthepage (seeóit made sense). And even by the early Middle Ages, at a cloister library monks read out loud to themselves, with carrels separated by stone walls to muffle what was considered a thoroughly ordinary noise, like a car alarm in Manhattan set off by someone sneezing in Connecticut. Chaos Down Below: Fossils of an Oral Past Even individual words shed light on the path from oral to written. Written language bears ample footprints of a chaotic oral past, abruptly frozen in place by print and tradition as if by some freeze ray out of Marvel Comics. Peering through a microscope at seemingly faceless words reveals written language as a kind of frozen smile, a public face for something harder to pin down if we are allowed a greater intimacy and look more closely. Take a rather formal English phrase, ìoften ahead, seldom behind.î It is full of fossilized remnants of the nature of spoken as opposed to written language. Weíll proceed backward. Behind is one of a set of words expressing position with the prefix be- and a root word. In the case of below and beside, the roots low and side are still used. Foreówell, dictionaries have it, but outside of the expression ìto the fore,î most of us would be hard pressed to recall when we ever heard it used alone beyond a golf course. But where is hind? Yes, we have it in ìhind legîóbut as it happens, this arose as a shortening of good old behind. The original word hind was lost to the ages before widespread literacy and comprehensive dictionaries came along to encase words like it in amber. Or betweenówhatís tween? An old word for two, whose only remnant now is twain, which like ruth is ìin the dictionary,î but is utterly unusable outside of a highly arch poem. Beneathís neath is also restricted to poetry, in which case we sense it less as a word of its own, but as a mannered elision of beneathówe do not say ìI stuck the gum to the tableís neath.î And where is ìbetop?î Who knows? In earlier English, an oral language, some words lived, some died. Behind, between, and beneath retain echoes of words lost back when English speakers, like most people, just talked. Seldom started out as seldan. No one knows just why it became seldom. This kind of morphing is ordinary in languages in which printing and literacy have not enshrined certain forms of words as official, lending a sense that to depart from them is to err. In our world, when George in Edward Albeeís play Whoís Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pronounced bourbon as ìbour-gonî as a boy, he was jeered into falling in line. But smallish transgressions like that still manage to seep into the language here and there. How many people really say ìCOME-fer-ta-bullî as opposed to ìCUNF-ter-bullî for comfortable? A Martian who came down and composed a word list of English without access to a dictionary would certainly, upon listening to hundreds of American English speakers, record the word as something like ìcunfterbleîóeven if all he heard were university faculty meetings. Seldan underwent a similar process, crunched around in early medieval mouths less concerned with the printed page than we can easily imagine. Aheadóagain, pull back the camera and logic fades away. Ahead, yes, and also aside. Aback, however, is either Liíl Abner (aback of the house) or ghettoized into the one expression taken aback. Atop? Poetry only. And there is no aneath, alow, or atween. They either didnít happen or faded awayóand no one cared, because the language was in the mouth, not on the page. We have aboveóbut what are boves? And finally oftenówe are familiar with the poetic oft, and in fact this is the original word. Where did the - en come from? As far as we know, people started tacking it on because it seemed right since the same ending hung on the end of oftenís oppositeóseldan! Often ahead, seldan behindóbut then seldan morphed into seldom and left often with a little appendix, as meaningless as the organ that sits in us courting infection. Write Makes Might Just as no human community can keep track of a million words, none can police even 30,000 words for changes, nor police its grammar to keep it faultlessly logical. Oral language lives not to please language mavens or our sense of linguistic feng shui, but to communicate, to maintain social ties, to live life from mundane moment to moment. Those functions require geometrical tidiness no more than singing or dancing do. It is common today to hear someone talking on a cell phone announce ìIím in a store.î Thatís what oral language is foróto announce that even though youíre in a store, you are still on tap to play your role in the social fabricóthat you are. Without spoken language, you are not. It is howóor since all humans use language, it is whatówe be. But we would sense it as rather trivial to write ìIím in a store,î or even ìI was in a storeî earlier today, even in the hastiest e-mail message. In McLuhanesque terms, written language is cooler than oral. It is less something that we be than something that we do after having ìbeen,î that we execute in order to record the worthier portion of what we have ìbeen.î Written language, then, selecting from reality and then ordering and airbrushing it, is an art. In the fifteenth century, when English was still primarily an oral language, pioneering printer William Caxton bemoaned that English had no ìart of rhetoricîóitalics mine. But then passages like the written version of the one about the bitch puppyóìSome eight or ten weeks after the birth saw my first acquisition of a dachshundîómight suggest that artifice rather than art would be a better term. There are those who sense an air of the Marx Brothersí ritzy foil Margaret Dumont in this kind of English, and question its status as progress. Swift was one, skeptical of the written variety jelling as he lived. He thrilled to the majestic tread of the English-language Douay Bible translation of 1610, which stuck closer to the original Hebrew phraseology (although rendered secondhand through the earlier Latin translation): I doubt whether the alterations since introduced, have added much to the beauty or strength of the English tongue, though they have taken off a great deal from that simplicity, which is one of the greatest perfections in any language ... No translation our country ever yet produced, hath come up to that of the Old and New Testament ... I am persuaded that the translators of the Bible were masters of an English style much fitter for that work, than any we see in our present writings, which I take to be owing to the simplicity that runs through the whole. More recently in the late 1960s, William Labov, who was instrumental in bringing the structredness of casual speech to the attention of linguists and beyond, ventured that the written style is ìturgid, bombastic and emptyî compared to the vividness of spontaneous utterances. Doubtless, written language deserves that condemnation at timesóthe opacity of so much modern academic prose is an example, and would be virtually impossible in a strictly oral language. But there is always the fly in the ointment. Overall, written language is a distinctly useful art. Written Language Is Leaner and Meaner For example, casual speech is full of repetitions. In high-speed scenes in early Hollywood cartoons, a character often does something funny not once, but three timesóstretching their legs like rubber hoses over a rock as they ski out of control down a mountain, etc. Early animators did this to save time and money by reusing footage, but many of us know people who seem unable to resist making a rather mundane point at least three times, although money is not an issue and they have little apparent interest in time-saving. And all of us do this to some extent when talkingóspeech reflects our emotions, which do not evaporate just because we have vented them one time. Here is a real-life utterance from a British teenager, with the repetitions in italics: Well it should do but it donít seem to nowadays, like thereís still murders going on now, any minute now or something like that they get people donít care they might get away with it then they all try it and it might leak out one might tell his mates that heís killed someone it might leak out like it might get around he gets hung for it like that. That passage hardly sounds unusual as casual speech goes, nor does this guy even sound like the type with a particular broken-record tic. Itís just how people talk. As sociologist Basil Bernstein put it about casual speech, ìThe thoughts are often strung together like beads on a frame rather than following a planned sequence. A restriction in planning often creates a high degree of redundancy. This means that there may well be a great deal of repetition of information, through sequences which add little to what has already been given.î But idle repetition is much less common in written English. However moved or excited one might be about the subject, writing a statement out once discourages writing it again. With the statement sitting engraved forever on the page instead of floating out of our mouths into instant oblivion, itís strikingly obvious that, well, we already said it. Plus, writing takes effort, and in all human endeavors, the principle of least effort has a way of looming ever large. As a result, written English is generally cleaner, more economical, than spoken English. Written Language Spells It All Out for You Bernstein became famous for his exploration of a larger distinction between the oral and the written. He noted that speech is ìevent-oriented,î designed for the here-and-now, while written language is ìextended argumentñoriented,î encompassing the past and the future as well as the present, designed to express a broader canvas of experience. More properly, Bernstein was concerned with the oral reflection of written language, the kind of speech that results from constant immersion in print. He distinguished what he termed the ìrestricted codeîóìin an, uh, sort of slingóI mean one of those tummy packs, you knowîófrom the ìelaborated codeî that children steeped in print acquire naturally. It would be more exact to say that Bernstein became as much infamous as famous, as he couched his argument in the tripwire issue of class. He saw working-class children as hampered scholastically by their greater comfort with the restricted rather than elaborated code. He had the misfortune of presenting his work in the early 1960s, soon after which a Political Correctness took hold of academia and cast his ìdeficit modelî of the lower classes as morally suspect. It was his ìelaborated code,î for example, that sparked William Labovís dismissal as ìturgid, bombastic and empty.î Bred in Great Britain, where class is so immediately felt that a scholar is especially likely to address it, and couching his ideas in the donnish terms typical of British scholars of his vintage, Bernstein unwittingly made his own bed to an extent. Only with our historical-perspective glasses on can we moderns read proclamations about working-class people like ìRelative to the middle classes, the postponement of present pleasure for future gratifications will be found difficultî without flinching. Because of passages like this, and others where he casually refers to the ìbackwardnessî of working-class children, even today Bernsteinís thesis is taught in many classes on sociolinguistics with a certain aggressive skepticism. But much of the problem is mere change in fashion as terms go. In his sociological treatises of the turn of the twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois dwelled casually in terms quite similar to Bernsteinís, and often more nakedly judgmental. In this, he was simply typical of his Victorian era, and yet is revered as one of humankindís visionaries. If Bernstein were writing today, he would likely substitute something like ìnatural codeî for restricted code, and thus raise fewer antennas. In any case, Bernstein was no conscript in the culture wars. At the end of the day, his observations represented the sincere concern of a specialist in the sociology of education about disparities in performance between lower- and middle-class students. After the initial onslaught against his ideas from the New Left, he doggedly clarified in later work that he never meant to imply that the elaborated code was utterly foreign to working-class children, but that middle-class children were more accustomed to using it actively. And whatever oneís views on the class aspect of the issue, linguistically, Bernstein was on to something real. His ultimate point was that casual speech is more telegraphic than written language because shared experience between speakers obviates the need for explicitness: A restricted code will arise where the form of the social relation is based upon closely shared identifications, upon an extensive range of shared expectations, upon a range of common assumptions ... Such codes will emerge as both controls and transmitters of the culture in such diverse groups as prisons, the age group of adolescents, army, friends of long standing, between husband and wife ... meaning does not have to be fully explicit, a slight shift of pitch or stress, a small gesture, can carry a complex meaning. Bernstein also captured the issues of vocabulary size and tight structural planning that distinguish the written from the oral: Meanings which are discreet and local to the speaker must be cut so that they are intelligible to the listener, and this pressure forces upon the speaker to select both among syntactic alternatives and encourages differentiation of vocabulary. Anna Karenina, of all things, neatly captures what Bernstein meant. In the passage before in which the farmer complains, I provided my own translation, designed to correspond as closely as possible to each chunk of this highly oral kind of Russian, and convey the true nature of the utterance. I did this because official translations tend to convert passages like this into more elaborated language, filling in background information intuitive to the Czarist Russian reader, but unrecoverable to readers outside of Tolstoyís time and place. For example, the farmer precisely says, ìThe justice of the peace, what?î and this is what I gave. But this could theoretically mean ìWhy do they have this justice of the peace there?î or ìWhat about the justice of the peaceówasnít he available to do something?î or any number of things. Rosemary Edmondsís classic translation has ìAnd what did the justice of the peace do?,î filling in just how this utterance connects with what precedes and comes after. A useful comparison is a hypothetical statement by a modern American: ìInternet? Forget it! I start outóhundred thousand a week, easy. Two years later, thirty thousand dollarsí debt, a secretary, us and two temps. ëCyberspace will bring us all togetheríóyeah, right. Early retirementóthat was some dream.î Familiar with the recent boom and bust in the Web start-up world, that telegraphic barstool gripe will make sense to American readers today even on the page. But if someone picks up this book in a library in twenty years, the passage will already convey fewer immediate impressions, especially if the reader is too young to have lived through the turn of the millennium as a mature person. Back to the time machineóimagine eavesdropping on a drunken businessman complaining under gaslight about what happened to them on the commodities market in the Panic of 1893. In a similar way, the young reader of 2024 will not remember the NPR pieces about ìdot-com millionaires,î the classic image of the once-bustling dot-com office space now full of empty cubicles, Wired magazineís gee-whiz gushing about the impending ìcybercommunity,î the sexy archetype of the thirty-something Internet millionaire cashing it all in and spending the rest of his life investing in other peopleís ventures, or meeting people at parties in 2001 and 2002 out of work after the dot-com they worked for went bust. Thus, if a character in a novel written now uttered that passage, then a Russian translation by Rosemarija Edmondskaya in 125 years would have to render it along the filled-out lines of ìPeople say the way to riches is the Internet? A ridiculous notion! When I started out, my company was making a hundred thousand dollars a week with no trouble. But then just two years later, we were thirty thousand dollars in debt, and our staff was reduced to one secretary ...î and so on. Written Language Rises Above It It follows that written language is also a better vehicle for objective argument than speech. Casual speech is shot through not only with the bread-and-butter ìparts of speechî, ý la Schoolhouse Rock (ìa noun is a person, place, or thingî) but with flags of how we feel about what we are saying. You can wrap your head around this by imagining how unlikely it would be to read in a newspaper a sentence like ìThe senator just never attended the meeting.î There is a lot in that little word just: it lends a sense that the senator should have attended, and that opting not to was a rather unusual, and even socially maladroit, choice. That sense of judgment is a personal one, which is why the just injects the writerís soul into the statement and makes the sentence feel more alive than ìThe senator did not attend the meeting.î But we expect newspaper writers to be as objective as possible, and hence how rare it is to see them use these flags of personal orientation in their sentences. Nothing bars these flags from written language in the strict mechanical sense. To write ìThe senator just never attended the meetingî takes no special effort. But if a literate society values that there be a space for objective argument, as Western societies tend to, then it grants writing pride of place within that space, rather than speech. This is because writing is better suited than speech for this focus on the logical over the feltóa focus that is properly a distortion of ìrealî language, but is as useful as it is artificial. One simply could not be a human being and speak without using words like just; we feel while we talk, or if we donít, we are distinctly unwell. But writing, deliberate and piecemeal, allows the editing of the heart from oneís prose, leaving just the head. For all that, such language lends itself to charges of coldness, the maximum objectivity that scientific discourse strives toward would be impossible without it. It also allows at least the pretense of journalistic impartiality. Certainly this goal is consistently undershot and probably unattainable, but few would argue that inserting more personal sentiment would lead us any closer to the ideal. And as for Orwellís exploration of the exploitative potential of ìdoubletalk,î the wariness of ìbig wordsî and tricky phrasing that his warning creates is healthy to an extent. But then lying and dissimulation hardly require elevated languageófor 150,000 years people have been doing it using the humblest of speech as well (ìIt depends on what is isî). Its pitfalls acknowledged, written language has enabled literate societies to immeasurably enrich the human experience with the artful manipulation of a genetic endowment. Talk Marches On Yet, we must remember that languages keep on being talked even after the written variety becomes established. The repetition, the here-and-now focus, and the messy subjectivity hang in there on the day-to- day level. And there is always that mushy changeability: recall things like ìThe house is buildingî that randomly fell by the wayside in the 1800s. But then that construction sounds rather formal to our ear, encouraging that sense that in the old days people talked like books. One way of getting at the relentless coexistence of scruffy speech and starchy writing is through sounds. Theyíre fragile creatures, and the correspondence between how words are written century after century and how many people actually pronounce them is always approximate. An example are the explorers Lewis and Clark. We see them in noble paintings, read that they were close confidants of Thomas Jefferson, and spontaneously imagine that they must have spoken in the language style of the Declaration of IndependenceóìHark, Merriwether: a mallard flyeth above that may provide us ample provision for supper!î But they were actually men of modest education, and in conversation sounded more Dukes of Hazzard than 1776. We see this in their diaries, where they tended to write words as they actually pronounced them, lending us a rare glimpse of how ordinary people actually talked in the early 1800s. To Lewis, a cliff was a ìcliftî and when was ìwhinî; Clark wrote of ìfurinî things for foreign ones, sounding like a Kentucky Chrysler salesman talking about Nissans, and in his writings we see a man who ìgitsî tired of the infernal ìmusquitersî always biting him. Though even this was a time when higher education was limited to a small elite, such that we might see Lewis and Clark as remnants of a time when written language simply had yet to penetrate society conclusively. But even after this had happened, we can see talked language living on. Sinclair Lewis in Main Street gives a nice portrait of banter between teenaged boys of the sort who smoked, played pool, and whistled at passing women. Lewis was renowned for his Balzacian talent for painting anthropological pictures of the American scene he knew, and was also a talented mimic in real life. Thus, we can be confident that this linguistic sketch pretty well reproduces what humble young men in small Midwestern towns sounded like just before World War I: ìHey, lemme ílone,î ìQuit, dog-gone you, looka what you went and done, you almost spilled my glass swater,î ìLike hell I did,î ìHey, gol darn your hide, donít you go sticking your coffin nail in my i-scream,î ìOh you batty, how juh like dancing with Tillie McGuire last night? Some squeezing, heh, kid?î2 You can almost smell these guys, and the passage shows that everybody in the bookís Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, did not talk like prim protagonist Carol Kennicott. Old-TV buffs are familiar with the factoid that Candid Camera began 2. Lewis actually slipped here, I thinkóI suspect it would have been squeeziní, but no matter. While weíre on the subject, elsewhere in the book Lewis casually notes that the stereotypical sense of small-town Midwesternersí speechópresumably in the teens when he wrote the bookóincluded people saying the likes of ìWal, I swan.î Eighty years later ìWal, I swanî is by no means one of the phrases I associate with the Fargo dialect that the descendants of Lewisís Main Street characters speak, nor with ìhicksî in general. What in the world did ìWal, I swanî mean? (This just in: an unusually engaged copy editor dug up that ìWal I Swanî was a pop song of 1907. The phrase was apparently an interjection of some kind: the lyric goes ìWal, I swan, I must be getting on ...î But stillówhat in Godís world did it mean?) as a radio show, Candid Microphone. The ten surviving episodes of the radio show are a precious document of ordinary people talking spontaneously before tiny portable tape recorders made recording live speech more common. Here is a New York City cab driver annoyed that host Allen Funt has given him a twenty- dollar bill to make change from for a quick, twenty-five-cent ride. Itís 8:30 in the morning, and there are no stores open to get a smaller bill. The driver talks in rat-a-tat choppy phrases that could not pass muster in writing anymore than those of the junior college students. Incidentally, this is from the days when New York cab drivers were mostly working-class whites (the sitcom Taxi caught the tail end of this era). The man is not, as he would likely be today, a South Asian, Haitian, or African speaking English as a foreign languageóhe actually sounds a lot like Buddy Hackett: Funt: Well, what can I do? Driver: Well thereís not a store in the neighborhood, you wanna wait, mister, Iíll take ya for a ride, weíll go for change. Funt: Why do you give me a big argument about it? Driver: Iím not giviní ya a big arg- ... , Iím just tryiní to explain to yaí, youse fellas, ya always got da same habitótwenty dollas, twenty doll ... whereíre we supposed to get change for twenty dollar bills? The year was 1947, when among the nationís bestsellers were elegantly written novels like Sinclair Lewisís Kingsblood Royal and Laura Hobsonís Gentlemenís Agreement, and non-fiction editorials like John Guntherís Inside U.S.A., where run-on sentences and truncations like ìbig arg- ..., Iím just ...î were unheard of. Oral language roils apace, then, even as written language reigns serenely on the page. Talking is fuzzy around the edges and tends to stray from the tenets of formal logic. It gets its job done nevertheless, and grandly soówithout it our species would still be galumphing around savannas, dying young. Besides, to condemn talking as missing some mark is to condemn most of humanity, who speak oral languages natively, as slovenly of speech, as well as to judge a product of natural selection as faulty. Writing, however, has different and fussier traffic rules than talking, and coexists with it on its own track. Naturally, conventions of writing bleed into oral language, as educated people learn to wangle oral renditions of written styleó elephantine vocabularies, clause-sandwich sentencesóthat could never have come to exist without the printed page. But in a schematic sense, a language with a literature comprises two equally legitimate brands, the oral and the written. The theme of this book will be one of decline, but not of ìthe way people talk nowadays,î because there has been no decline in that arena. Although it would have surprised him to learn this, in many ways the Candid Microphone cab driver talks the way the Bible was originally written. Wal, I swan, people have just talked since the dawn of humanity and continue to do so worldwide, from rain forests to boardrooms. The change has been in the written variety: Modern America is a society that takes precious little joy in what Caxton called the ìart of rhetoric.î There are certainly legions of Americans who see themselves as lovers of language, and many would at this point dispute my claim. But we live in the present, and the current linguistic order has now reigned for as long as a great many Americans now in the prime of their lives have lived. History reveals a type and degree of language love in an earlier Americaóeven one recent enough that todayís grandparents grew up in itóthat would be inconceivable today. To take a cue from the word Caxton used, for example, whatever happened to ìrhetoricî in America as an Edward Everettóor even a young Maya Angelouówould have understood it? For most of us today, the word rhetoric has specialized into signifying contentious declamations or political cant. In other words, the word has marginalized into an especially local, loaded meaningóbecause the larger, more neutral concept it used to refer to is a thing of the past. Back in the day, rhetoric was how we sang our language to the skies. In todayís America, whoíd want to do that? Excerpted from Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care by John McWhorter All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. ix
Chapter 1 People Just Talk: Speech Versus Writingp. 1
Chapter 2 Mere Rhetoric: The Decline of Oratoryp. 33
Chapter 3 "Got Marjoram?" or Why I Don't Have Any Poetryp. 73
Chapter 4 Rather Too Colloquial for Elegance: Written English Takes It Lightp. 121
Chapter 5 What Happened to Us? or Play That Funky Music, White Folksp. 167
Chapter 6 La La La Through a New Lens: Music Talks to Americap. 197
Chapter 7 Conclusionp. 223
Referencesp. 255
Indexp. 267
Acknowledgmentsp. 277

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