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Word on the Street by John McWhorter

August 27, 2012

In the U.S., we are all taught proper English from a young age. Some of us learn it quickly, others struggle with minutiae and semantics.  Most often, we still understand each other, even through the many dialects that dot the country.

Word on the Street is the opposite of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a book that argues that grammar mistakes are eroding society, even when the meaning is clear. John McWhorter has studied linguistics and dialectics, and he argues that different dialectics – including Black English – are not more or less correct, but stem from a standard English that no longer exists.

McWhorter’s argument is fairly complex. First of all, he argues that dialectics share their own internal logic and syntax, and are thus not ‘incorrect’ but rather different descendants of the same dead language. He also shows how many of the biases against people who speak different dialectics are culturally and racially rooted, but defended as based in intelligence. Lastly, he shows how proponents of Black English as a bilingual education program are wrongheaded, as many people who speak Black English hear standard English throughout their lives and can code-switch easily, so long as they are taught in an environment that does not belittle or mock their standard speech.

McWhorter’s book contains many interesting arguments, backed up by countless examples from various patois and dialects, descended from different languages. Although the arguments are interesting, the examples sometimes seem endless. McWhorter will use an example of Swedish dialect and compare it to standard Swedish, and then state his point; then he moves on to another example to prove the same point, then states his point again. This process is repeated ad nauseum, rendering about a third of any chapter to be simply iterations of the same thing.

However, his larger arguments and the smaller ones contained in it are fascinating. At first, I bristled at the thought of ‘Black English’ as a separate dialect. But McWhorter (who is black) shows the ways that it has its own internal sentence structure and logic, in addition to its own ways of pronunciation that are difficult or impossible to imitate by one who did not grow up hearing the dialect. He presents many interesting ideas, and actually makes linguistics fascinating.

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