Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Split Infinitive Is Just the Beginning ; American English Continues Its Long Descent

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Split Infinitive Is Just the Beginning ; American English Continues Its Long Descent

Article excerpt

"Doing Our Own Thing" is a book about the state of the English language in modern America, and John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is not happy.

Consider this: On the field of the Battle of Gettysburg, the orator Edward Everett spoke eloquently for two hours to an audience of attentive townspeople, and Abraham Lincoln delivered his subsequent and vastly more famous speech, which concluded, "That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Today, that high English has decayed to the fragmented, colloquial style of President George W. Bush: "We have our marching orders, my fellow Americans. Let's roll."

America's public discourse - heard on television and radio, and read in the morning newspapers - has lost its formal nature; instead, it sounds like everyday talking.

"Doing Our Own Thing" is not an argument about the negative impact of this new "spoken" language on Americans' ability to think and communicate, although at times it pretends to be. McWhorter repeatedly asserts that this kind of writing and speaking "compromises our facility with the word and dilutes our collective intellect."

But he doesn't attempt to prove this assertion or explain exactly why an ornate sentence by Henry James, for example, should be inherently more precise, nuanced, and effective than one written by Thomas Pynchon. Nor does he attempt to show that the content of oratory was any richer yesterday than it is today, and therefore one suspects that he's more concerned about changes in language style than any change in language effectiveness.

But "Doing Our Own Thing" is not a conservative lament for a lost golden age, either, although it often reads like one. McWhorter links the use of elevated English to a respect for standards - "a matter of basic courtesy, just as today we still often clean up when company is coming." At times, it is unclear whether he thinks language decline is bad in itself or because it indicates a weakening of social structure.

His explanation of why the language has changed is a conservative one: People have lost their patriotism, their belief in the legitimacy of the American experiment, and their trust in America's leaders, and therefore they cannot cherish their country's language. …

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