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Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care
John McWhorter
New York: Gotham Books, 2003.
$26.00, 279 pages, ISBN 1-59240-016-7.

Adrian Smith
University of Nottingham

Seeing the title of this book, one might expect John McWhorter to bemoan a drop in the standards of the use of the English language. That is in fact not the case. Tracing the course of the diminishment of rhetoric and bombast in public speaking and in private correspondences, McWhorter manages to avoid bemoaning the “dumbing down” of language and culture in the United States.

Writing as a seasoned linguist, John McWhorter is compelling, but his text is accessible to those who are not trained as linguists. That is due to the fact that he approaches the shifting patterns of language use as a cultural and historical phenomenon. His book is, therefore, more cultural history than hard-core linguistics.

It is stated in the introduction that McWhorter first started writing this book on September 10th 2002, on the eve of the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. McWhorter highlights the fact that no new speeches were slated to be made during the commemoration ceremony to be held the next day. The prevailing opinion among Americans at the time was that the sense of grief and loss from the events of the previous year would be too profound to put into words. The notion that writing a new speech about such a shocking event would be tawdry led the commemoration organisers to decide that stirring speeches made in the past would be more acceptable. In counterpoint to this, McWhorter indicates that Lincoln's Gettysburg address, now considered a triumph of the oratorical arts, was made on a battlefield where 51,000 men had died, and was specifically penned for the occasion. For Lincoln to rely on a speech that was already in the American canon of great speeches would have seemed highly inappropriate. McWhorter's point here is that a nation who would consider an originally composed speech to be tasteless at the September 11th commemoration ceremony is a nation of people who have lost their love of their language.

McWhorter's main argument revolves around the assertion that this cultural shift occurred in America in the 1960s, which saw the use of spoken rhetoric in speechmaking as being increasingly viewed as distrustful, corny and backward. In its place came a culture of "Doing Your Own Thing," or "loosening up and telling people like it is" [p. 50]—in other words public speaking became just talking. He asserts that the rejection of formality in favour of “Doing Your Own Thing” that occurred in the 1960s was a major turning point in the history of speechmaking in the United States, and that the catalyst for this change was, naturally, the counterculture. This text is not, however, written from the point of view of a former flower child, depicting the 1960s as the only significant era of cultural change in the twentieth century, as one might have expected of someone making this sort of claim. McWhorter explicitly denies that he is a countercultural sort of person and takes pains to demonstrate that cultural changes in the 1960s had their genesis in similar changes that occurred in the 1920s, especially regarding sexual freedoms, the expansion of the role of women in politics, and “reflexive scepticism toward society spreading from artistic bohemia to thinking people in general” [p. 51].

McWhorter attributes the changes that have occurred in the way Americans speak to a lessening in the love and pride that Americans have for their own language. Among other explanations, he argues that in the 1960s film stars such as Marlon Brando, by mumbling through their films instead of clearly projecting eloquently written scripts combined with the suspicion that was held towards all forms of authority. Passionate, well-written speeches were held to be a symbol of authority and were distrusted by the young men and women of the counterculture.

Using the speakers of other languages as a counterpoint to Americans, McWhorter tries to point to the diminishment in standards of speaking and writing as a particularly American phenomenon. In order to emphasise this point, he suggests that other cultures still maintain a pride in higher levels of language use. This change occurred, again, in the 1960s, also as a result of changes in schooling methods. McWhorter claims that the lessening of the focus on rote learning and recitation of poetry has led to Americans not experiencing the same level of joy in speaking their own language as members of other nations. The example he gives to highlight this fact is that of a Russian undergraduate whom he once taught. When asked if she had memorised any poetry at school, she "immediately started rattling off elegant, baroque strophes of Pushkin" [p. 80]. According to McWhorter, Russians hold Pushkin in the same sentimental esteem in which John Lennon and Tupac Shakur are held by Americans. It would seem that changes in the American education system in the 1960s were also related to the countercultural imperative of “Doing Your Own Thing.”

As the pivotal theory of this book, the idea that the counterculture contributed to changes in the way language is used on television, in films and advertising and, above all, in political speeches, is a convincing one. McWhorter's text is replete with examples of pre- and post-sixties speeches, poems and songs that greatly help to elucidate his ideas. Perhaps the most enlightening concept that McWhorter uses is that of the archaeopteryx, a prehistoric creature which had an equal measure of reptilian and avian features. This animal was, according to some, a bridging point between prehistoric reptiles and modern-day birds. The archaeopteryx was not only a hybrid, but it was also a crucial part of the evolution from one form to another. McWhorter describes the state of American English in the 1960s in these terms, as the older, more grandiloquent way of speaking was coming to an end, and the more relaxed speech that we would recognise today was starting to emerge.

If there are any palaeontologists reading this, try not to get excited. This book will not have a great deal to offer you, and you may even resent the archaeopteryx being referred to as "a sort of crow with teeth and a tail" [p. 56]. I would suggest this book is far more suited to cultural historians. By making the connection between the way language is used and the way culture operates, McWhorter has forged an important link between linguistics and cultural studies. By centring his study around the theory that language, as well as culture, underwent a shift in the 1960s, this text may also be of interest to historians of this period. The book’s appeal may be greatest of all to readers who are concerned about the contemporary state of America’s education system, and the ways in which levels of education and levels of communicating impact on one another.


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