Who can you ask about the Great American Songbook, the finer Jell-O flavors, and peculiar languages like Saramaccan all while expecting the same kind of fast, thoughtful, and energetic response? Listeners of Lexicon Valley might hazard a guess: John McWhorter. A prominent academic linguist, he’s also highly regarded for his podcast and popular writings across countless books and articles where often displays a deep knowledge in topics beyond his academic training.
John joined Tyler to discuss why he thinks that colloquial Indonesian should be the world’s universal language, the barbaric circumstances that gave rise to Creole languages, the reason Mandarin won’t overtake English as the lingua franca, how the Vikings shaped modern English, the racial politics of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the decline of American regional accents, why Shakespeare needs an English translation, Harold Arlen vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, whether reparations for African-Americans is a good idea, how living in Jackson Heights shapes his worldview, what he learned from his mother and father, why good linguistics students enjoy both Russian and Chinese, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Let’s start with linguistics. I’ve read that the Estonian language has 14 case endings, eight dialects, 117 subdialects, and the core population of speakers is only a bit over a million. Now, why is Estonian so complicated?
JOHN MCWHORTER: What a wonderful opening question.
MCWHORTER: It’s 16 cases actually, and the reason is that Estonia is like the size of New Jersey. It might be the size of Trenton. So, it’s a very small group of people, and very few people have ever had any reason — I can’t believe this is the first question — to learn Estonian as a second language. If you try, you fail.
As a result, it gets more and more complicated, more and more ingrown. Whereas, Finnish, which is a sister language to Estonian, is actually kind of easy. It’s easy Estonian. So Estonian is a small language that’s almost never learned by adults and therefore almost never screwed up. That is why it is so complicated.
COWEN: And does that shape the nation of Estonia in any way, or politics in Estonia?
MCWHORTER: It has very little to do with the Estonian soul from what I’ve known of the, maybe, one and a half Estonians that I’ve known. But it does mean that whenever you hear an Estonian speak their language, you should realize that they’re doing something that it’s hard to believe anyone could do while also walking or breathing or metabolizing.
COWEN: If having a complicated language is a social cost, why don’t we just abolish all irregular verbs? I understand the word go, but somehow that becomes went. And yes, there’s German wenden and wendet and all that, but why don’t we just do away with them all and lower transaction costs?
MCWHORTER: We should. We should get rid of all that mess, but the truth is, language vastly overshoots what’s necessary. It’s hard to feel that, partly because we all speak our own language and partly because most of us, at least, speak English, which as languages go, is relatively streamlined. You feel like, well, basic concepts, basic words, and you know, think, thought, but how bad does it get?
Most languages vastly overshoot anything that’s necessary, not only to just common sense, but to nuanced communication, and it’s just because they can. It’s amazing what a toddler’s head can get its mind around. By the time anybody’s old enough to realize that they’re speaking Estonian, it’s too late to fix it. I’m going to get in trouble for that.
It would be nice if language were more efficient because it would be easier to learn other people’s languages, et cetera, but it will never happen because languages are like cats. They’re always crawling in and getting dirty or stung or something like that, and here we are.
It would be nice if language were more efficient because it would be easier to learn other people’s languages, but it will never happen because languages are like cats. They’re always crawling in and getting dirty or stung.
COWEN: But you’ve argued against the notion of a standard English. Yet if you ever try to take a taxicab, say in India, one ends up really quite longing for some kind of standard English. If English were simpler, it’d be easier to speak to your taxi driver in India or, say, Trinidad. Why be opposed to a standard English then if you think languages end up too complicated?
MCWHORTER: Oh, no, no, I’m not opposed to a standard English, but I wouldn’t want it to be English because, frankly, I find English rather ugly. If you think about the sounds of this language — ay, eh, oow, aug— those are the sorts of sounds that you have to learn your way out of when you learn a language like Italian.
There should be an international language that really is ding-dong easy to learn, and it wouldn’t be one that was dumbed-down English. It would be something that would be hard to recognize by any of us as a language, but that you could pick up in about a month. That’s what we need.
Because to tell you the truth, as far as standard English, as normal as this thing we’re speaking feels — to me, this is the language of God, if God existed, this is it — but actually more Indians speak it. At this point, if a Martian came down, normal English would be that and this would be just some dialect.
So what I want is for colloquial Indonesian to be the world’s universal language because actually that is the closest thing to an ideal language I have ever encountered. There were no cabs where I was. It was just little mopeds, but you could get along.
COWEN: Why is the grammar of Malay so much more complicated than that of Indonesia, though the areas, the cultures, religions, languages are closely related?
MCWHORTER: Well, actually, the truth is that —
COWEN: [To audience] He knows, see?
MCWHORTER: This is fun. This is not what I was expecting… Malay and Indonesian, as languages go, are delightfully streamlined actually. Indonesian is one of those languages, where not to get too wonky, no hablo, hablas, habla. You don’t have to deal with any of that mess. But then, unlike most languages that don’t hit you with that, no goddamn tones.
You don’t have hablo, hablas, habla and no ma mā má mǎ mà. You just have a language. It’s wonderful. Then once it’s colloquial, it’s just this beautiful thing. It’s human language as she should be spoke. Now, anywhere else you go in Indonesia, all of a sudden everything gets normal. But Malay Indonesia, it was a lingua franca for 2,000 years. It’s been shaven of the nonsense. It’s a beautiful thing.
COWEN: Which new pidgin languages will we see today and why?
MCWHORTER: You know what, it’s interesting. Pidgins and Creoles are interesting in that you can have a whole subcareer, where you write books about them and go to conferences about them, et cetera, I don’t know who I’m talking about.
But Creole languages were usually borne amidst barbarity. For example, it was a plantation language that arose when slaves were brought somewhere and couldn’t go home. Hawaiian pidgin is actually a Creole, where, because you couldn’t use slaves anymore, you brought people from all corners of the earth to help harvest the pineapples, starting in the 1890s.
That sort of thing is not good, so there aren’t many new Creole languages emerging at this point. But to tell you the truth — and it’s interesting — there’s a little debate about this going on right now in a tiny corner of linguistics that somebody has somehow pushed me into. And I kid you not with how petty academics can be. There are a couple of linguistic academics who personally dislike me because of some theories that I’ve had about the nature of colloquial Indonesian speech.
But it is the way that most people in Indonesia use language and it is — it’s not a pidgin — but it’s a Creole language. It’s language born anew and made better that is spoken by a great many people. You and I are not going to speak it. The truth is, the universal language for better or for worse, and mostly worse, is this, what we’re doing right here.
English is that universal language, and I think it’s going to stay that way. It would be nice for me to say, “And one day it’s going to be Mandarin.” But it’s not because Mandarin’s too hard. So English is where, unfortunately, it just is.
COWEN: But if a rapid inflow of new speakers predicts the evolution of a pidgin language, and there are so many people having learned English quite recently, won’t, then, English become a kind of pidgin, and what we’re speaking will be archaic, say, in 30 years’ time?
MCWHORTER: You want that. I wish —
COWEN: You want that or I want that?
MCWHORTER: One wants that.
COWEN: Just no one in this room.
MCWHORTER: There’s new people coming in and they’re going to make the language streamlined, like colloquial Indonesian. That has been said more times in this interview. But the thing is, English is going to stay the way it is because we have literacy. Once you have widespread education and literacy, the pull of the written word makes it so that it’s harder for a language to be streamlined in that way. Otherwise, yeah, English would be getting simplified over the generations.
COWEN: Why does Chinese grammar seem to be so simple?
MCWHORTER: You could get in trouble for that. Chinese grammar is relatively simple if we’re talking about Mandarin Chinese, and that’s relative because once you dig in, they’re all sorts of things . . . Mandarin has gender. It’s not called that, but you have to use a little word with each noun, and often it doesn’t make any sense.
There’s all sorts of things about Mandarin that are nasty. Then, of course, the tones, which if you’re not born to tones, are really difficult. But Mandarin is one of a handful of languages where geopolitical developments meant that, for a while, as many people were probably learning it as a second language, as a first.
It’s funny — all the evidence that shows that that’s what was happening about 4,000 or 4,500 years ago in China. And it meant that a language that was originally normal — and in this case, it would have been a language with lots of hablo, hablas, habla — became one with much less of that. So Mandarin is one of those streamlined languages.
COWEN: If the world loses most of its, say, 6,000 languages right now —
MCWHORTER: Which it will.
COWEN: — is that a social loss? Should we be concerned about that? Should we celebrate?
MCWHORTER: You know, that’s a tough one, too. Here’s my real answer. My answer is not going to be that each language is a window into the souls of its speakers because, frankly, that idea is surprisingly dangerous despite all of its attractions. Because for any cool thing you can say about a language, there’s something uncool you can say about it, and you have to saddle the speakers with that as well.
But the way that you be a different culture, the way that you have yourself as an entity as separate from others, is to have your own code. And it doesn’t matter how the code is built. It doesn’t matter what the shape of the words are. But if everybody just speaks what we’re speaking now, what’s really going to happen is, it’s going to be this — Portuguese, Vietnamese, Mandarin, about 25 other languages.
Then several hundred will be the minority languages, and all the rest won’t exist. It means that there really is less cultural diversity because it’s harder to be a culture if you don’t have your own code.
COWEN: What is interesting about the language Saramaccan?
MCWHORTER: [laughs] This is delightful.
COWEN: That’s from Suriname for those of you —
MCWHORTER: The sorts of things I’m usually asked — this is great. Saramaccan — okay, here’s what happens. Let’s say that you’re in South America. You’re up on the northern edge, and it’s 1660 something, and it is an English plantation colony. You bring in Africans to work there. They speak two languages. For whatever it’s worth, they’re called Fongbe and Kikongo. Some others, but they don’t really play much of a part. So you have slaves speaking those.
The English leave the place, and the Dutch come in. There’s a trade, and so New Amsterdam becomes New York. Suriname goes from the English to the Dutch. We here don’t care about the Suriname part, but that was the trade. Now the Dutch are running it. You’ve got English and Dutch. Then some Portuguese-Jewish slave owners come in from Brazil. That’s this whole other story of wandering Jews. They probably bring slaves with them.
So 350 years later, what is spoken by the slaves there who were lucky enough to escape into the rainforest and were never caught? That is what Saramaccan is. So they have their own language, and it’s been studied by many people, I am one of a great many. But it’s fascinating because it’s a mixture of all these languages. Then it’s got other stuff that it does all by itself and it’s tonal, so it’s absolutely fascinating.
COWEN: Here’s a very basic question. Let’s say immersion is not possible. How should an adult study a foreign language?
MCWHORTER: It’s hard. Sleep with somebody, frankly.
MCWHORTER: There are two things that, in my experience, work. One of them is sleep with somebody. The other one — I’m going to plug something because it really works. It’s called Glossika, and it doesn’t really get out there. It starts you at intermediate, i.e., which is about exactly as far as any of those other methods there can possibly take you, no matter what they say: “You’ll be conversing like a native in no time.” No, you’ll know some scatterings of this and that.
Once you finish that, you go to Glossika, and you have intermediate sentences that are very idiomatic poured into your ear all day long, however much you want it. And by the end of it, you’re at roughly upper intermediate, so that’s something you can do.
Immersion, after a while, is what you have to do unless you are very, very close to some individual who will tolerate listening to you sound bad for years. Other than that, you have to be immersed.
COWEN: Hither, thither, whither. Why are these words mostly gone from English but not German?
MCWHORTER: [laughs] Because of those Vikings! These Vikings came! It started in 787. They started coming to England and pretending they wanted to do good, and they never went away. The genetic evidence tells us they were all men. Not all, but mostly. So they married English-speaking women. And that meant that they’re speaking Old Norse. They’re trying to learn Old English. They were over 17. Therefore, they didn’t do it well.
They were speaking crappy Old English. There’s no such thing as newspaper. There’s no such thing as school. There’s really no such thing as education. All there is is talk. You are a little girl or a little boy. You’re growing up with Mom speaking Beowulf and Dad speaking this sort of broken English, and maybe you liked Dad better. Every third person in England talked that way.
Pretty soon, people were speaking what we’re speaking now. We’re speaking shitty Old English. That’s how it happened. One of those things — it was just this general cascade of complexities that filtered away — is that hither and thither and whither became archaic instead of current. So we speak a very, shall we say, streamlined Germanic language.
COWEN: Every society has status markers. Clothes are one, speech is another. Is it a problem, how much speech has become a status marker? Should we somehow try to cut back on that?
MCWHORTER: I don’t know, Tyler. I think speech expresses our full range of humanity, and to the extent that any society — unless there are only three people — has some sort of status marking, some sense of hierarchy, at least the sense of what’s formal and what’s not. Speech has to reflect it, and it can seem as if all of the way we do that with language is an add-on to basic grammatical things, like whether the moon is a girl and a boat is a boy, or whether something’s in the past or the future.
But the formality is key. I kind of like that part. We need to think of it as grammar rather than as some sort of frill.
COWEN: But say you’re hiring people for a for-profit enterprise, and you want talent. Can you do better, in essence, by at the margin, disregarding how they talk and hiring the ones who will be more talented, but they’re overlooked by the rest of the market? In which direction is the bias?
MCWHORTER: Yeah, that’s a tough one because a person can be brilliant, not to mention kind and flexible and artistically sensitive, but if there’s certain things about their vowels, if there’s certain things about their consonants, if there’s certain expressions they use, then they seem lesser because we’ve got that bred into our bones to read them that way.
I think a part of enlightenment can be to learn to read over that. And that’s difficult, but I don’t think it’s impossible. I think that, in many ways, the tenor of our times makes it more possible than it would have been in, say, 1955. You learn to listen through an accent.
I think there are harder things to do than that. I don’t think we’ll ever be perfect at it. But I would rather teach people that than try to eliminate all of those markers. One task would be easier than the other, I think.
COWEN: Are there any Americans today who have truly good command of proper English? Who actually speak well?
MCWHORTER: [laughs] I know —
COWEN: A serious question.
MCWHORTER: I know where you’re going, and I want to give a real answer. To be a language person, to be somebody who has mucked around with a bunch of different grammars of languages, and who, to an extent, studies nonstandard grammar — that’s not actually my academic subject. I play that person on TV. But you look at different ways that English is spoken.
And also, probably, growing up black and hearing people speaking a very nonstandard dialect, who you don’t yet have any reason to suppose are doing anything wrong — all of those things. I hear almost everybody as articulate, and I don’t mean that in the wide-eyed, forced way that it sounds.
There are some people who don’t speak well. I know some, where I will say to people who I’ve primed, “You notice that she never really quite rubs a noun and a verb together?” Or there are people we can think of who really are stunningly inarticulate for the public positions that they’re in.
MCWHORTER: It does exist. But I hear such wonderful things just standing at the post office in the way that somebody will put the most humble thing.
I remember about 15 years ago even, something had happened, where somebody had done something arrogant. A cousin of mine said something like “Blah, blah, blah, blah, did you see this?” I said, “Well, yeah, I imagine that he might have meant that.” And she said, “Yeah, there’s some of that.” Yeah, there’s some of that. That’s the first time I ever heard that expression. Yeah, there’s some of that. I’ve used it ever since. That was very well put. I liked that.
Nobody would have called that person articulate, but I was just thinking, that’s a little bit of the art of the language that I hadn’t happened to have. That is an honest answer. Some people don’t talk well, but it’s rare.
Now some people are just hyper articulate, but what I hear in life is, “That sounded good to me.” And it’s often a slob.
COWEN: I’ve read articles suggesting that regional accents within the United States are becoming stronger, not weaker. Can that possibly be true?
MCWHORTER: Who said that?
COWEN: Slate, it’s on Slate. I may be skeptical, but that’s why I’m asking you.
MCWHORTER: I can imagine someone saying that and their reasons that they would. No, regional accents are not the way they used to be. If you could go back in a time machine, say 75 years ago, the way a New Englander sounded was radically different from the way somebody sounded in Atlanta. The way somebody in Atlanta sounded was, unlike today, not the way somebody in Raleigh or somebody in Washington, DC, sounded.
But radio is what first started erasing those differences, and then when education got better, especially after the GI Bill. There are differences in today’s American English, but you have to dig to find a lot of them beyond cute little things like soda and pop. They surprise people. Whereas, a 100 years ago you wouldn’t have had to surprise anybody by showing that somebody from Colorado didn’t sound like somebody from Minneapolis.
No, things are coming together. They’ll never come completely together because still people talk more to people they live near and spend time with than they do with others. But, no, dialects are not diverging, unless, once again, I’ve missed something because I am a little bit overstretched, but in this case, I doubt it.
COWEN: Does black English say “soda” or “pop”? Or does it depend on where you are?
MCWHORTER: [laughs] It depends on where you are because black people are quite widespread.
COWEN: Is it the same lines?
MCWHORTER: I have never seen a dialect map that measured that for black people specifically. I know where I would look for it, and I can come back to you with it, but I suspect it would follow the rest of the country.
COWEN: When will Shakespeare require a translation?
MCWHORTER: And we know the drill. “Oh, it’s just poetry.” “Oh, you just have to let it roll over you.” “Oh, it’s better when the people are British.” “Oh, you’ve got to have a good director.” “Oh, you just don’t want to reach up and do the work,” et cetera. No, no.
It’s that every 10th word, and especially late Shakespeare, means something different than what we think it means. It goes by, and you’re a little confused if somebody says “generous,” and you think they mean magnanimous, and they mean noble. The line doesn’t make any sense, and you go “Huh?” Then about 10 lines later, somebody says “wit,” and what they really mean is knowledge, and you’re wondering why the line was funny. What, what? So you’re confused again.
After that happens about 10 times, frankly, you’re bored if you’re seeing it in real time, for the first time. Now, if you’ve read it, fine. Some people would say — and I think that this is a legitimate answer — everybody should be expected to have read a Shakespeare play before they see it, in which case, it’s okay. I’ve done that.
Even as nerdy, obsessive me, if I haven’t read it, or I haven’t read it in a while, I will openly admit that, especially with Shakespeare, after about his first 10 minutes, if I go and see a production live, even if the people are British, and even if I’ve had coffee, I don’t know what the hell any of those people are saying.
MCWHORTER: And it’s because the words don’t mean what they used to. Now, I’ve gotten in trouble with some people for that, but frankly, if we sat through King Lear, and we hadn’t read it for about 10 years, I’m sorry, no, you do not understand what they’re saying.
I think we need translations. Conrad Spoke — I’m going to put in a word for Conrad Spoke, and I’m going to make sure he listens to this. He’s done, not translations, not like “Yo, yo, yo, Mercutio,” or something like that. It’s not that. It’s that you take each one of those little words that doesn’t make any sense. Somebody says “a haggard” and you’re thinking “A saggy-faced what?” And they mean a falcon. Just put in damn falcon, and then you can go on.
If you do that, then all of a sudden Macbeth is like being at the Glass Menagerie. You have to listen, and you might get lost every now and then, but you’re actually seeing a play, and you don’t have to have read it before. Translate Shakespeare last week, please.
COWEN: Here’s a very emotional question. What do you think of the 1996 reforms to German spelling? Does the word stopp really need two p’s? Should there be such formal reforms?
MCWHORTER: Nobody cares about that. People did that, it doesn’t seem to really solve any problems. But maybe there was a lull in the geopolitical developments there at the time. I don’t remember. No. Things like that usually are about the concerns of a certain small number of people.
COWEN: In American English, are love letters dead?
MCWHORTER: No, no, not at all. Talk about what’s articulate, it happens in texting. I’m old enough to remember the love letter. There was something about it, but you never quite had enough of them and suppose they got wet. Whereas, with texting, it’s very sexy, and it’s a love letter and texting — and this is not just because I did that TED talk 400 years ago — texting can be very articulate.
It’s interesting. You can read about the texting of people who do not have the benefit of any particular education. Almost every time they put their thumb to that pad, they’re creating some kind of poetry. So, no, the love letter’s not dead, it’s just that [in voice of old geezer] “The kids are doing it a different way.” And I don’t really mind. I don’t mind.
COWEN: Let’s say I interview a job candidate using Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face, how is that different linguistically? How should I adjust? What should I expect that’s different?
MCWHORTER: You mean if they’re not actually there in the room?
COWEN: Right, but I see them on the screen.
MCWHORTER: I think that’s fine.
COWEN: You think it’s just as good?
MCWHORTER: It helps bring the world together. Do I need to be in the room with the person, watching what they do with their legs, getting a vague sense of whatever their redolence happens to be?
COWEN: All of these people have showed up, right?
MCWHORTER: Yeah. To tell you the truth, all of that to me is a distraction. I would rather just hear their voice. Frankly, I despise Skype. You’re sitting there, you look bad, and it always cuts out. Yet your whole life these days is about “You wanna Skype?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, it’s going to cut out, and we’re both going to look bad.”
But I would rather just hear the person. Maybe that’s because I’m kind of linguist-centric. I’m not sure what you’re getting at there.
COWEN: So you like radio as a mode of processing information —
MCWHORTER: It was a lovely thing.
COWEN: — so there’s nothing to see. You’d have a telephone call with a job candidate rather than Skype?
MCWHORTER: Oh yeah, give me the voice. I don’t want to see it. I’ll take the voice. Radio was better. With media, radio is easier than TV. You have to put stuff on and put a microphone on. Yeah, yeah, I would rather just hear it. But that’s because I like language. That’s probably just my quirk. It’s clear that most people like looking up one another’s noses and watching the screen cut out.
MCWHORTER: And I can’t claim that I’m somehow more advanced, but take me back to the tele-o-phone, frankly.
COWEN: Now I do have a few questions about race, but tradition here is we do a round of overrated versus underrated. I toss out a name or a thing, and you tell me if it’s overrated or underrated. Okay?
MCWHORTER: You want this to be honest?
COWEN: It’s up to you.
COWEN: Andrew Lloyd Webber?
MCWHORTER: Oh God!
MCWHORTER: Oh, it’s a tragedy. And I know that there are fans out there. There are people who think of Evita as their Porgy and Bess, and I do understand that. There are people who really, really like Jesus Christ Superstar. I understand that.
But, no, he’s a — no one will ever ask me about this in public again — he is a very thin talent who got very lucky. He has a terrible sense of lyricism. He does his job. He’s not offensive, but he doesn’t have anything that I would call genius. Richard Rodgers could sit down and write a tune drunk, having yelled at somebody sometime in the ’50s, and had more of a melodic gift than Lloyd Webber has ever come up with more than about seven times.
And when he comes up with a good melody, he often doesn’t have the decency to write a bridge to the song. A very thin talent. Whenever I think of him, I think he made an awful lot of money, and he’s still making it, based on a thin talent. Some people get lucky.
COWEN: Now tell us what you really think.
COWEN: Harold Arlen.
MCWHORTER: This is the best interview ever. Harold Arlen, who wrote “Stormy Weather” and a lot of other songs that sound like that, never really got lucky on Broadway. He was kind of a white black man. A lot of his songs were too advanced for the time. I have a friend. Alex, I know you’ll be listening to this. You’ll like this part. Alex will give me a sheet by Harold Arlen from the ’40s that almost seems like Ravel, and we’ll always say, “This was too advanced for the time.” And we’ll go on about our business.
He was great. He was a sad man. He had certain problems that I think kept him from producing as much as he could have. But he did really great music, and his sheets are very pianistic. It’s always fun playing Harold Arlen songs because you can tell he really had a say in how they were written out.
Yeah, Harold Arlen — that’s an artist. And look what happens to him. He ends up dying miserable, and he’s this footnote, where most of us don’t know who he is, where Andrew Lloyd Webber is coming out of your faucet in the morning. It’s a tough life we live, Tyler.
COWEN: New York City subway — overrated or underrated?
MCWHORTER: Oh, goodness gracious, I am sick of that subway.
COWEN: Relative to reputation.
MCWHORTER: Oh, the New York subway — it gets worse and worse. It was worse two years ago, but just in terms of what the experience is like with the lateness, with the layers of obnoxiousness that you have to put up with. It’s truly exhausting. It has me actually thinking of either moving to a small town or just never coming out of my house again.
No, the New York subway — it’s an American tragedy, and I’m surprised that the romance that a lot of people find in it . . . I’m beginning to sound like a curmudgeon, and it’s because I am, so there you go.
COWEN: Rodgers and Hart.
MCWHORTER: Yes! Now, Rodgers and Hart are in there writing these songs, and frankly, Hart was very, very, very drunk, so it gets to the point where you can tell that the rhymes aren’t quite working sometimes. He had a problem, and it kept their work from advancing to quite the artistic level that you would have wanted. Then Hart basically just peters out, and Rodgers has to move on to the other one.
Rodgers and Hart — their work is like . . . You know what it’s like? It’s like the fruitier and more interesting flavors of Jell-O. You can have cherry Jell-O, and you don’t care, and you were probably in some facility somewhere.
MCWHORTER: But you can have watermelon Jell-O. You can have peach Jell-O. You can have the finer Jell-Os. They make a great Jell-O that tastes like grape soda. That’s good stuff. Or like a good chili or a good jambalaya.
When Rodgers and Hart were really going, say, in Pal Joey or the Boys from Syracuse or — here’s one for the nerds — Heads Up. Ones like that. Good, good stuff. I’ve collected it all.
COWEN: What is the most underrated biography?
MCWHORTER: The Great One by William Henry III of Jackie Gleason is the most touching biography I’ve ever read of a monstrous but rather sad person who has that Ralph Kramden childhood and becomes famous and can’t quite handle it. Hurts a lot of people. If you ask me this, and I’m a big biography fan, so I’m trying to go over everything. But that’s one that I’ve actually read more than once.
So I can’t say The Power Broker because everybody reads that. But ones that just came and went — that one really killed me. And then last year, one of Weegee. You always see the photographs of Weegee, some person laying on the pavement. You think, “Weegee — he was short.” No, there was more to Weegee than that.
And Bonanos’s biography last year of Weegee, and I’m not just pushing this because I happen to be on the National Book Critics Circle — that’s over, but that was a really good book that I suspect is going to get lost amidst some glossier biographies.
COWEN: If someone says, “oh, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan — they’re just the new version of the old American songbook.” They’re not even new anymore, of course, but is that crazy? Is there always an American songbook every era? Now it’s Taylor Swift. Or was there a unique American songbook, and those conditions can never be recreated again? I think I know your answer, but please tell us.
MCWHORTER: [laughs] No, there isn’t an answer to that one. Here’s the real answer. The Great American Songbook is overrated as art goes. As much as I love it, that was partly a marketing concept to help advance the sales of LPs, once that happened at the end of the ’40s.
And as wonderful as the melodies are — Boy, am I going to catch it for this, but I’m sorry. You people who are going to write me, you know it’s true — The melodies are absolutely wonderful, the harmonies are spectacular, the lyrics can be very good, but they are a very limited theme. All of the moon, June, love stuff. Why does it always have to be about love?
We’re so used to that, just like we’re used to cartoon characters being about three feet tall and wearing gloves. You don’t think that’s the only way a cartoon character could be? Why do the songs always have to be about “I loved you, but you didn’t love me”? Cole Porter could have done so much more interesting work if he didn’t live when he did.
I say that as a great lover of the form. These days, if you talk about, say, Paul Simon, frankly, the music is different. It’s less structured than what Harold Arlen did. But he writes, frankly, about, very often, more interesting things. “Stormy Weather” — frankly, that’s a good poem, but Paul Simon, richer, I think. Dylan, richer than Oscar Hammerstein, for example. It’s just that where’s the bounce?
Now, Taylor Swift — that’s generated kind of synth-y-pop-y stuff, which has its place. There is lemon Jell-O.
MCWHORTER: But in terms of the songbook, to say that Porter did something that no one has done better since — it’s narrow because he couldn’t write about anything interesting. Today you can write about more interesting things, but the music is mostly all about the beat. So where do you find the good middle ground? Steely Dan? I don’t know.
COWEN: Why is it that Gershwin misfired on race in Porgy and Bess, and Jerome Kern in Showboat arguably did not? He knows this one too.
MCWHORTER: No one asks me these things! I don’t think George Gershwin misfired on race in Porgy and Bess because he went down to Gullah country. He went down to Daughters of the Dust, and he did what we would today call getting down with those people. Gershwin was a genius, and the music that he wrote was some of the best music ever composed by another human being. And you feel guilty saying that because a black person didn’t write it.
He had more training than Duke Ellington, and so at the time, he happened to be able to do it. Duke, who I adore, couldn’t have pulled that off. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein — they do Showboat. Showboat is towering as well. I know people on Facebook who are in tears about the 1988 recording of Showboat in the original orchestrations, and I remember feeling the same way at the time.
Showboat, though, is thinner art than Porgy and Bess. It’s got wonderful things in it, but in the original Showboat, Queenie was played by a white woman in blackface. It was a show of its time. So I love Showboat, but Kern was like Porter — he did what he did very well, but he was no Arlen. He was a seasoned songwriter. That’s what he did.
No, I like Porgy and Bess better. Porgy and Bess, to me, is a human being. They’re times when, if life isn’t going well, I will put on the Houston Opera production of Porgy and Bess and lay down on a couch, and just sit there and listen and lose myself in somebody having created something where you wonder where it came from. Showboat to me is not that.
COWEN: If the Hungarian State Opera wants to put on an all-white performance of Porgy and Bess, should we find that disturbing? And do you personally find it disturbing?
MCWHORTER: Personally, no. I know a lot of people would feel differently, and I think the better question would be if it was, say, an opera company in Utah or Massachusetts. Are we going to get to the point where there can be a white Raisin in the Sun?
COWEN: But even to me, that’s weird — Hungarian State Opera. The government is ethno-nationalist to some degree.
MCWHORTER: Oh, you mean Hungary now?
COWEN: Hungary now.
MCWHORTER: Oh, I thought you just meant just Europeans.
COWEN: No, the Hungarian State Opera. I believe they did, in fact, put on an all-white version of Porgy and Bess. Was highly controversial.
MCWHORTER: It’s been done in Germany, actually, and before there were many people who said much about it, I remember thinking, “I’m glad they’re hearing this music, and who were they going to get to sing the parts?” If anything, in a certain day, that should be allowed. I don’t know if I have the answer as to when that day would be. You mean Hungary now and what do we —
COWEN: It was a few years ago.
MCWHORTER: What do we think Hungary now is making of it? I would venture to say that I imagine there’s an artistic community in Hungary who are quite separate from whatever developments are going on among certain people with their fists in the air, electing the wrong people. Yes, it would be disturbing if we’re talking about the equivalent of Nazi Germany, but I don’t know the artistic terrain of Hungary enough to know exactly who it was who was doing this.
COWEN: But what’s the intuition that allows us to differentiate the fact that we’re not disturbed when Gershwin, a white man, writes Porgy and Bess, but when an all-white, or nearly all-white, cast puts it on — then it bothers us. What’s the difference in those cases?
MCWHORTER: I increasingly don’t know because I think we’re at a point where we’re just beginning to see . . . and I know I’m ahead of time a little bit here, which is unusual for me. The browning of American culture since roughly 1995 is such that a lot of young white people today are more in touch with black culture, black speech, black ways of singing, black ways of moving than they would have been when, for example, I was a child.
I’m fully aware of the existence of racism, fully. However, that does not belie what I just said. Such that it seems to me, take it another couple of generations afterward, and to say that if there was an Eminem, if there was an Adele, if there were people of this kind, can we really not have a white person playing a black person with it having a different meaning than it did when Tess Gardella was up on stage playing Queenie in 1927?
I think we have to get there, and I can see it already in maybe the children of today’s children. It’ll start peeping through because we’re not really past race until that can be. I think we’re in a strange place where there was a great love for blackness that co-exists with a great hatred for other aspects of blackness.
Now, it could be it just stays that way forever. However, if it did, that would be the first time in human history that things were that static. I think that even when it comes to race in America, things can move, and that would be one symptom of it.
COWEN: Today, should there be material reparations for African Americans?
MCWHORTER: No, I don’t think so because I think there already were. Some of it worked, and some of it didn’t. It wasn’t called reparations, but what happened in the 1960s, starting with what was called affirmative action. Also, a story never told about the expansion of welfare in the late ’60s, with especially black women in mind, was reparations.
The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 was reparations. So much has been reparations. Some of it worked. Some of it didn’t. It already happened, but I hear that, today, those things somehow don’t count. You talk about how you have to move along in time, that things evolve, and I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. I’ve said recently —
COWEN: Was there too much of those? Why is where we are right now exactly the right margin? Because some of the ones we tried didn’t work, and someone says, “Let’s do a bit more.” Why stick with where we are now?
MCWHORTER: Because what would make it better? For example, there’s affirmative action, and in most places, it’s not going to go away completely. So do we need more affirmative action when to overdo affirmative action has so many documented problems? Or with welfare reform, do you want more of welfare? Or do you want welfare programs that concentrate more on helping usher people — and I mean in a real way — into work, which is not something anybody would call reparations.
COWEN: Welfare is not symbolic reparations, right? If someone said, “Well, it’s almost insulting to think of welfare as symbolic reparations for African Americans because welfare’s for everyone.” So there were reparations to African American victims of Tuskegee. In 2015, Chicago gave reparations to African Americans who were tortured by the police.
COWEN: So we’ve done those. If someone says, “Well, let’s do a bit more,” like, why stop here?
MCWHORTER: What would it do is my question? And I was going to say, I’m not against this if — there’s an if — but if you were going to give, for example, these payments to anybody who counts as black. And there are people who have come up with a metric for figuring that out, as messy a question as it is, so you get some money in the bank.
All evidence is that, one, that would not change the lives of black America to any significant degree. And more to the point, once that happened — Tyler, this is the hardest thing — that could happen in two weeks. Those checks would go out. I’d get one, and I’d probably give it to somebody else. But I’m black. Thank you for this money for somebody who went through things who I never knew. Thank you.
I don’t really want that, but I know many black people would feel differently. But once that happened, I think that we’re in an ideological place in our society where before the ink was dry on those checks, the fashionable thing to say among our best and brightest black writers would be, “They better not think that they can just write us off with a check.”
And on t-shirts, it would be — on t-shirts! — there would be memes going around and gifs going around saying reparations is just the beginning, not an end. It wouldn’t solve any problems. But people who are agitating for it now would be just as angry, just as indignant. And it’s not because I’m saying that they line their pockets or that it’s their career to be angry. But I think that it is a psycho-social position to feel that way about race that doesn’t go away on the basis of anything in the real world having changed.
But if there could be that kind of reparations, and there could be an agreement among the black pundit-ocracy and the yell-ocracy and the twitter-ocracy, that it was going to matter, that we’re going to do this — we’re going to have the checks and maybe a few other things, and then we’re going to admit that something happened — then I’d get behind it because life isn’t perfect, and I’d come up with something to do with that check. I guess it would put one of my daughters through college or something.
But I can’t see that happening, and I would not wish to get behind extra reparations that would not be accepted as significant, with people telling me that I was unsophisticated for thinking that it was. That’s my position about reparations.
COWEN: As you know, there are some well-known black male conservatives. Thomas Sowell would be one, well known at George Mason. Why are there so few openly conservative black women?
MCWHORTER: Gosh, I don’t know. That is something I’ve talked about with my friend Coleman Hughes. I don’t know why it’s always guys. Sometimes you start ticking off a list. Glenn Loury and I on Bloggingheads often tick off the list of people, and everybody’s a guy. There are some women, and what’s interesting about the women is that, for a reason I don’t know, they never wind up on the list., as in they don’t end up doing it for 25 years, for 30 years. They don’t get fostered by the circuit.
I can name some people. I’ll name one of them who I enjoyed a lot 10, 15 years ago: Star Parker. She was there, she was around. But for some reason — I’m not sure what the reason is that a non-male person is not on that list. It’s a short list, but still, I don’t know.
COWEN: Let me give you an argument. Tell me if you agree or not. The first claim is that racism is now becoming a larger problem again. We live in an age of NIMBY, where it’s very expensive to buy into good neighborhoods in a way it was not before. We live in an age of algorithms. Arguably, we live in an age where family background matters more, so injustices from the past may be more persistent.
And even though people’s intentions toward other races may not be worse — possibly they’re better — but that still racism, in practical terms today, is a larger problem than it was, say, in the 1990s. True or false?
MCWHORTER: Because, one, you have to think about what we mean by racism. It seems that you can creep from it being about personal bias to being about societal discrepancies, which could be traced to racism. But there’s a difference between tracing it to personal biases and an assumption that the discrepancy means that the racism exists, and leaving it abstract as to what we mean by the racism. I worry that that latter version is what’s often meant.
More to the point, even if what you were saying were true, and I’m not saying that it’s not, but let’s say that were true. The question is how decisive the effect is. I would say that we tend to suppose — and I’m not sure what the answer to this is; I really am not sure what the answer to this is — we tend to suppose the conditions in a certain post-industrial society — starting in the late 20th century after the death of Christ, that particular time, and then going into the early 21st century — that somehow conditions then made it uniquely impossible for a certain group, the descendants of several generations past, of African slaves, to succeed.
That their problems had to have been due to something that we call racism, with the implication that it’s discrimination, with the idea being that if it wasn’t discrimination, then just the fact that there was the discrepancy means that there was racism, and if somebody puts it that way, you give them a National Book Award.
I’m not quite sure what the justification for that view is. I know that the problems black America has are not black America’s fault, and I’ve tried to write about that. It’s not that somebody’s lazy. It’s not that somebody’s a poverty pimp. It’s not that somebody’s lining their pockets. It’s a complex cocktail of socio-historical factors that have put it in this place. But to say that racism is the main problem —
COWEN: Not the main problem, but that —
MCWHORTER: The decisive problem?
COWEN: That it’s becoming worse because objective conditions are worse, even if intentions are as they were or possibly slightly better.
MCWHORTER: Suppose it was? I feel that black people are underestimated with — and I’m not saying that this is your claim — but with any implication that, because of that perhaps actuarial fact, that’s the reason that boys are shooting one another in the face in a schoolyard in the summer in Chicago. Or that that is why, when in New York, you hear that there were three people stabbed in a certain neighborhood, you don’t even have to wonder what color the people were. And you don’t hear about that ever happening in certain other neighborhoods.
It’s more complicated. So, yes, I can accept that, but I don’t think that’s what we should think of when we try to figure out how to solve the problems. Because if we say that we want to get rid of the racism, it seems that we don’t know how to do that, and so that would mean nothing can happen at all.
COWEN: Putting race aside, if you just had to say in which year were economic opportunities for lower-income Americans best, is your answer 2020 or is it some other year?
MCWHORTER: Oh, certainly there’s a problem with that now, but the question is — and this will be a question for you — how do other groups deal with it? Is the idea that, because the opportunities on that score are so low right now, that it creates a uniquely dire circumstance? When other groups of people are somehow making the best — which is not good — of the worst. Or am I misunderstanding your question?
COWEN: No, no, you’re understanding it. But it does seem relative mobility used to be higher for low-income individuals of many races in this country. Therefore, to the extent opportunity is restricted today, that may fall asymmetrically on some racial groups rather than others.
MCWHORTER: Well, it would have to fall asymmetrically on some group, and you would assume it probably would be the descendants of African slaves. But the question is, is what happened starting in the late ’60s the only way that it could have gone?
And once social scientists started telling us that that’s the way it was going to go, starting in the late ’60s, when the big keyword was automation, et cetera. Unfortunately, just when people got really comfortable with, for example, the deindustrialization hypothesis, a massive influx of immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa started coming into American cities and not living glorious lives, but showing that there was something you could do.
And that doesn’t mean that black Americans are somehow worse, that this was black American’s fault. Once again it was a series of cocktails, but if you’ve got . . . for example, here we are in Washington, DC. The person who drove me here was Ethiopian. I notice whenever I come to DC, the person who drives me somewhere in a cab is black. They’re often black American.
Now that’s probably not the greatest job in the world. It’s not as good as that job in the tire plant 50 years ago, but there were things one could do. The issue is why so many people back then got lost. So I take your point, but the result didn’t have to be what happened starting roughly in the early ’80s.
COWEN: For our final segment, I have a few questions on what I call the John McWhorter production function.
MCWHORTER: What’s that?
COWEN: Well, you’ll see. Did going to a Quaker high school make an impact on you? And if so, what was it?
MCWHORTER: It was hard. The homework was hard. It was a private school. It was rigorous. It made me Jewish because most of the kids there were Jewish.
MCWHORTER: That was really the impact. It was hard. You had to work hard. Why do I feel like there’s something stuck in my throat on that? Because I’m not saying anything about Quakerism.
Friends Select School was a wonderful place. I’m sure some people from it will hear me saying this, but Friends Select School, from 1977 to 1981 — I learned some things about the nuclear freeze and about being a peaceful person. But, frankly, I was a hormonal teenager, and what I learned was that geometry was hard and what Rosh Hashanah and Seder are. Yes, I became Jewish, and I learned homework, and I played the cello.
COWEN: What did you learn from your mom being a social worker?
MCWHORTER: Ohhh, now there’s one. Not what most people would think. My mother was — I never heard her put it this way — but my mother was a leftist. She was a social work teacher. She taught a course which, I sincerely believe was called Racism 101, starting in the early ’70s. I learned the deindustrialization hypothesis from her. I learned how racism can be covert from her, including how to watch out for it among those Jewish kids I went to school with.
Whole nine yards — I learned it all from her. It’s part of why I try to put myself in the head of her equivalent today when thinking, “Why do some black people disagree with me about this, that, and the other?” I think, “Well, how would Mom have put it?”
It’s time for me to stop saying this because I think it’s gotten to the point that people do know. Ten years ago, I would say, “Actually I’m a liberal.” And people would just throw pumpkins and watermelons. Now, maybe I’ll get one peach or something like that because what I am is, I’m a cranky liberal. I’m not a Republican, I have never been a conservative.
But Mom taught me “the right way to think.” She taught me what that side was. I think that she was too pessimistic, but then again, she grew up in the deep South in the ’40s and ’50s. I would have come out of that deeply pessimistic too.
I learned the left catechism from her. I can always hear it in my head, and almost all of it was correct. But my sense is, where do you go from that? And that’s easier for me to think of, having grown up Jewish in the ’70s as opposed to having participated in sit-ins in the ’50s and ’60s.
COWEN: What did you learn from your father, as a university administrator?
MCWHORTER: Dad was complicated. Nothing as a university administrator, except that, now and then, he knew this kid who would — this kid, he was probably 30 — who would program Looney Tunes that you couldn’t see on TV. His name was Todd. And that was the only way that you could see black and white Looney Tunes, censored Looney Tunes, with minstrel caricatures in them and things like that.
That stuck with me because now, I’ve seen almost every Looney Tune. It’s one of these ridiculous things that I collect and do, like the Jell-O. It is one of the joys of my life. My little girls are now watching them and learning the titles because that’s what I am. That’s part of my identity.
Other than that though, what Dad taught me was music really. He was — it’s hard to say this now — imagine Bill Cosby as we knew him before. That was the demeanor. He was that same age. He wore those same sweaters. He could play every musical instrument and he taught me that.
I teach a music history class at Columbia to avoid boredom, and about every third thing, I find, Dad taught me that. Clinking his bourbon, he would say, “Well, that’s a pedal point. That’s a Picardy third. You should be able to play a boogie-woogie bottom with your left hand. Play it, play it! Can’t you play it?” That sort of thing. So, I learned that from him. But no, I didn’t learn much about university administration from him, as a child.
COWEN: How does living in Jackson Heights, Queens, shape your current worldview?
MCWHORTER: Jackson Heights is this wonderful, kind of quietly kept secret. It is one of the most diverse spots on earth. There are hundreds of languages spoken in Jackson Heights. You can get just about any food except good Korean fried chicken, and I’ll bet that’s coming 10 minutes from now.
It is equally divided between people from all over the world, or at least most parts of the world, and then NPR–two kid–over-educated people such as me, so you’ve really got everything in the world. And there’s a KFC and a Denny’s, so you’re talking about real diversity as opposed to just Tibetan food and stuff like that.
It is a wonderful, wonderful neighborhood. There just isn’t enough parking, but nothing’s perfect. I can walk to LaGuardia. On a clear day, I can walk to LaGuardia. It’s a pleasure.
COWEN: What characteristics or attributes do your very best linguistic students have in common? How do you spot linguistics talent?
MCWHORTER: Linguists will think of me as shallow for this, but it’s the ones who can enjoy both Russian and Chinese. I always tell them there are two kinds of languages. There’s English, which is kind of in-between and whatever. Then there’s the kind with the hablo, hablas, habla, but enough to give you a stroke — Russian. Then there’re the tonal ones, which give you a stroke for a different reason. The ones that can do both are . . .
Then also the ones who — there’s no time for this — but the question of the difference between phoneme and an allophone. For example, I can say “bottle,” or I can say “botel.” Now, if I say “botel,” you all think of it as a kind of a T. So uh in American English is an allophone of T, of T-ness.
Whereas, if I say “bobble,” that’s a different word from bottle. So bu and tu in English are phonemes, real sounds. Tu and uh are just variations on one another. They’re allophones.
That distinction takes three weeks to get through, and some people never get it. To watch a student learn what a phoneme is — you see the light bulb on go over their head. Then you think, “She’s not one of them.” That’s always nice. So phonemes — Russian and Chinese.
COWEN: How was linguistics talent first spotted in you?
MCWHORTER: A Latin teacher. She was British, and that was not common in my life at the time. I was in college, took Latin because all my friends were taking Latin. I didn’t know I was that good at it. She said [with British accent], “John, it’s your calling. It’s your calling. You’ve got to do it.”
I didn’t really know what “it” was. But I thought, “Well, if she says it, and she’s British, then it must be my calling.” So I went on. It was then.
Although actually, there was a guy later in college. I asked this linguist — his name was Tom. He ought to be ashamed of himself. He had a handlebar mustache. You out there, Tom? And I said, “I want to be a linguist.” And he said, “Well, no it’s all been done. It’s all been figured out.” That derailed me for about three years. Goddamn you, Tom. It was that British lady.
COWEN: And finally, you have a very well-known podcast, called Lexicon Valley, which, of course, I recommend to everyone.
MCWHORTER: I do too.
COWEN: What do you learn doing that podcast? How does it fit into your own program for self-advancement of your own understanding?
MCWHORTER: The truth is, what I put into that, given how quickly I throw together the episodes — it’s not that I learn from it. It’s me wanting to teach the audience the stuff that I like. Because linguistics to me is toys. It’s a matter of “What’s fun this week? Let’s do it.”
The last one I did, I’d been thinking about genes — not dungarees, but DNA — genes and language and what the two can say about one another. I just thought, “Well, let’s do the show about that.” That’s the one that’s dropping the day after we are taping tonight.
It’s really just giving the audience my toys. Some of it is, how do you get it across to an audience that doesn’t want to be taken too far into the weeds? And teaching, in general, helps you with that. But really, for me, it’s just, “Here’s my toy box. Let’s just jump in.”
COWEN: John McWhorter, thank you very much.
MCWHORTER: Thank you.
COWEN: For questions, we have two mics, one on each side of the room, and I have questions on the iPad. These are questions for John — questions, not statements. If you start making a speech, I will cut you off. First question, please.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. I wanted to ask about your experience in the late ’90s and the culture wars. That seems to be something we’re living through again today. I see a lot of parallels.
In particular, I will tell you that I was at Duke at the time, and I got to know your work through a great black conservative, Kenny Williams, who was on the faculty in the English department. She was pretty much the only conservative in the English department and one of the only people who defended the idea of the author against the deconstructionism that was running at Duke.
She was a great admirer of yours, and I’d like to hear your thoughts about the deconstructionist moment, the attack on the idea of authorship, those views of language — how you saw them in the culture wars at the time when you were involved in a debate over Ebonics, and how you see them playing out today.
MCWHORTER: That’s a very interesting question. You’re going a little beyond what linguistics usually dwells on, as opposed to philosophy of language. So that was never anything that was going on within any department that I was part of it.
The Ebonics controversy was less about authorship than about an oppressed group of people making a claim about education and where your allegiance lay, depending on your politics.
That was the beginning of me in the media. That’s beginning to seem so abstract that, for me, the reason I’m sitting here is probably because I was on the wrong side of the Ebonics debate because I said the reason that black kids are having trouble in school is because of home lives and neighborhood problems and not the difference between isn’t and ain’t on the page. I had no idea that anybody was going to consider that the wrong thing to say.
But it was considered disloyal, and so it got me attention for about five minutes, which I hadn’t expected. But to tell you the truth, to go out of my bailiwick, to the extent that people are beginning gradually to be allowed to read books for aesthetic pleasure again in literature departments, and although it’s just a squeak from what I’ve heard, I’d say that that’s a good thing.
But no one ever asked me to toss my hat in on that. Linguists study grammar rather than the literacy code. Is that the answer that you wanted, or am I missing something?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Partly. I also just wanted to hear your thoughts on the culture wars writ large. Today our fights are not really about politics. They’re about a deeper cultural thing that you were a part of in the ’90s. The Ebonics debate was part of that. Kenny Williams stuck out, not just because of her views on authorship, but because of her views about culture and the way it was weaponized.
MCWHORTER: Sure. The left won that war. I think that anybody who comes up now is immersed in a set of assumptions where, if they’re going to go against them, they’re going against an orthodoxy to an extent that somebody 35 years ago would be less likely to feel.
So, although there is always a diversity of opinions, I think that what was called the culture wars back then has been won by the left in terms of a certain orthodoxy, a certain set of ideas that you’re considered to at least have to grapple with. And this is within the rarefied world of the university and college town.
I think that elsewhere, there’s particularly a pushback against it now, especially over the past 10 years. But in terms of what I sense is your world and the one that I have maybe six of my toes in, I think that it’s not even a war at this point.
COWEN: Next question over here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Sure. Can you hear me?
MCWHORTER: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What’s your opinion on people who perhaps come from rural areas? You can probably hear my voice spoke originally a fairly archaic accent, one of the ones that is considered dead by most people. Should they try to smooth them? Particularly if they have aspirations to move to the big city, do well in their careers, et cetera.
MCWHORTER: The way you talk is not ancient. It’s just different. There was this, and then something went this way, and then another tributary went that way. To have that kind of accent — there’s nothing ancient about it. It’s just an alternate from, for example, however I’m talking right now.
And to tell you the truth — it’s funny. Don’t take this wrong, but you’re asking that question as if it was 50 years ago, the idea that you might want to take elocution lessons. To be honest, it’s part of these culture wars. To be honest, the way that you speak today is a plus. It makes you distinctive. There is, for better or for worse, a cult of authenticity, which can be good and bad.
But people will listen to you more, and I think you would elicit more sympathy with the accent that you have. Your facial expression suggests that you’re really surprised to hear this from me. But, no, I would love to speak the way you speak, unless I’m missing something. It gives you a calling card, no?
COWEN: iPad question: You want a simple, universal language. Why not Esperanto?
MCWHORTER: Then he just walks away.
COWEN: Please, if you want to say something else?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Just briefly. I think the biggest issue for me is most people find it a little jarring. People assume I’m one of many things, and it can become much like this talk — ways of derailing conversation. It can be overly distinctive and almost trivializing. I think that’s where I come from.
MCWHORTER: I see what you mean, especially since there’re aspects of that in my own life. Yeah, it can get old when you don’t talk the way people expect you to talk. Yes, that’s definitely true.
COWEN: If you want my impression, I would think you’re from the Netherlands, frankly.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m actually from rural Virginia. I’ve had a professor who just floated Dutch at me once, and I, in a frightened panic, quickly darted away.
MCWHORTER: Archaic. Esperanto’s cute. Esperanto is Italian dumbed down. Mi parolas Esperanto in lingvon. Any language nerd curled up with it before they could date. But Esperanto is not easy to somebody from China. Zamenhof had the blinkered worldview that he had because that’s the view that someone like him had to have at the time.
But Esperanto is just Italian made easy with some other stuff thrown in. Esperanto verbs, if you grow up, really, almost anywhere else on earth, are a nightmare. Zamenhof is assuming that a language has to have things like, “He had seen the book when he went to the store.” Languages often leave that nuance to context.
So Esperanto’s a fun toy. Of all of the artificial languages it is the handiest. Volapük, for example, the other one that was really popular — somebody made up an artificial language that was hard, so why would you bother?
MCWHORTER: Esperanto is great, but the international language, unfortunately, is the English Lingvo, and I think we’re just kind of stuck with it.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: There used to be a theory that language controlled thought. A lot of us encountered that in 1984. You and others have said that’s probably not the case, and it only affects, maybe, things on the very margin.
So where is that margin? Is it just trivial things or, to take one example, do political brandings like saying someone is “pro-life” instead of “anti-abortion” — does that influence the way people reason or not reason about subjects like that? Does that influence real opinions and real outcomes?
MCWHORTER: Terminology can. Terminology can help move a debate along, but the problem is just that, if there were negative associations that you were trying to wave away by changing the terminology, the negative associations are just like gnats, and they will settle back down on whatever new term you come up with.
Pro-life, pro-choice — those are very clever terms, and we’ve gotten a bead on them. We know what they mean. That’s what’s always going to happen. Language affects thought in sweet little ways that you can tease out by hooking wires up to somebody’s head and showing that they have some tiny distinction.
Russian has two words for blue. One of them means light blue and one of them doesn’t. And you can do an experiment that shows that Russians are infinitesimally more sensitive to noticing when the blue shades from one blue to another. Is that a worldview? I certainly hope not.
But terminology — yeah, you can move things along, but you have to realize that you’re going to have to keep on renewing the terms. It’s thought that you have to change, not the language.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. I was wondering what advice you’d give to young African Americans today? You’ve clearly been through a lot of culture war stuff. You’re a veteran. It can often feel like there’s this strong downward pressure on African Americans, and you feel you’re the last in a long marathon. There’s a baton being handed off to you, and if you slow down, you might drop it. You might waste four centuries of hard work.
Now, obviously, you want to be intentional. You want to be a smart, rational person, but the pressure of that baton is always at your back. So I want to know what you would say, even to your daughters, who are growing up in a time when people like Rosa Parks seem like ancient dinosaurs, but they were around only a few decades ago.
MCWHORTER: Yeah, it’s funny. My older daughter the other day, said very innocently — she’s eight — because of school activities, she said, “I’m getting tired of Martin Luther King.”
MCWHORTER: So I took her aside, and I said, “Do you actually know what he did?” And they had actually taught her pretty well, but I could tell that, to her, that was like listening to something about the French and Indian Wars. It was 400 years ago.
This is my real answer. People talk about singing — well, no, people don’t always talk about this, but they should. If you’re trying to hit a high note, one way that you hit the high note is you look up at it, and you go ahhh [singing], and you think of it as an effort.
If you have a really high note, what a good singer does is imagine themselves looking down on it. That’s how you hit a high note — ahhh [singing]— like that. In the same way, if you’re thinking of being black as a burden, and I don’t know what your personal circumstances are, but often you’re taught that you’re working against all of this flak from the outside because people are leveling microaggressions at you, et cetera. And, you know, they are.
But as far as I’m concerned, and I think this is the way someone thought before about 50 or 60 years ago — talk about the culture wars and how you can forget that you’re making assumptions rather than dealing with truth — is that, if somebody throws a little something like that at you, you look down on it. And if anybody tells you that that makes you arrogant, well, then, frankly, I guess it does.
But keep being arrogant because I have never understood the idea that some person calls me nigger, and I’m supposed to fall down crying and run to the diversity coordinator because that hurt me, when, frankly, it didn’t. Really, I’m better than the person who said that. That’s the way I always felt, and somewhere past 30, I realized, “Oh, that’s supposed to make me cry.”
I inculcate that in anybody I know because it’s the way I always felt. And to be honest, with the way both of my daughters act — they’re going to hear this one day — the way both of them act, I can tell that I’m not even going to have to teach them. The idea is, if anybody gives you any of that, well, they messed up and you have a lot to live for, and life is never perfect, and think about the good dinner we’re having tonight.
That’s not a bromide. Be a little snobbish. Don’t let people tell you that you’re supposed to bend yourself down to the insults that other people lob at you, especially when they’re subtle and abstract. You’re better. You’re just better. And I know that that’s not what I’m supposed to be saying to you as a 54-year-old person with a certain responsibility, but I think I’m right. And I guess that means that I’m arrogant, but then again, in that sense most black people were arrogant in about 1950. Be like old people.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is about official top-down control of language. I can think of two examples, one being the French Academy and their very strict regulation — unofficial — of the French language. And the second is Korea, where Korean language was written in Chinese characters for a very long time. That was used by the aristocracy to keep the population illiterate and consolidate power.
What is the effect of that kind of control on the development of a language, and I guess, creativity or innovation or the culture in a larger macro sense?
MCWHORTER: That’s interesting. I’ll just say very quickly, exerting control on language from the top is hard and it almost never works in a real way, with the exception of…
For example, in terms of blackboard grammar rules, the only one in English that has really ever worked is the one that says “Billy and I went to the store” rather than “Billy and me.” Almost everybody in this room probably has mastered saying “Billy and I” except when you’re drunk or something like that. That’s because that’s become this matter of shame. But otherwise, all those rules that we learn, the things that everybody breaks all the time, and it never really changes.
Now Korea is interesting. If you’re talking about having an utterly opaque writing system that doesn’t fit the language structure meaningfully at all, that’s going to exert a certain downward pressure on the ability of the masses to express themselves in writing, and therefore, you’re not going to have creativity from down below that anybody is going to record because nobody can write.
But even there, it’s surprising in that the Chinese writing system — and Korean King Sejong came up with this perfect writing system that is now the envy of the world — the Chinese writing system, I would say, is a great lover of Mandarin Chinese. I’ve been working the past five years on this, and it’s at the point that I can walk by a sign and get most of it and pat myself on the back because I decided I’m going to learn that shit because, I can tell, they don’t want me to learn it, so that is why.
But the Chinese writing system is an utter, hair-raising, ridiculous, indefensible nightmare. Utter nightmare, created basically for scribes to use among themselves. It’s all like this running joke. And yet, what’s interesting is that ordinary people do use it. It’s amazing what toddlers can take in. It’s amazing what a populous can do.
You’re in a Chinese restaurant and the waiter’s doing this. That guy knows thousands of these things. It’s amazing what people can do, but you don’t want to overdo it and have Korean written in Chinese. That was, frankly, if I may insult your country — but it was 600 years ago — that was barbaric. But it’s amazing what people can make do with.
COWEN: iPad question: Miles Davis’s Porgy and Bess — what do you think?
MCWHORTER: Well, [laughs] Miles Davis is a great artist in a way of distilling into a single statement, great and sometime needless complexity. I love what he did with Porgy and Bess, but with Porgy and Bess, I like the original better just because it’s a god. But still, it’s a wonderful thing. One plays it. It’s part of one’s life. You can play it while you’re making dinner. You can play it while you’re making a lot of things.
It’s nice, but I always go to the full thing when it comes to Porgy and Bess. Miles Davis, in general, yes, he’s represented about seven times.
COWEN: And it’s the Houston Opera version you prefer, not Simon Rattle, the Houston Opera?
MCWHORTER: Yeah, that’s becoming a fuddy-duddy thing. There are people who actually — Glen Burn, et cetera — but I want the one where . . . I was 10. I was 10 and as unsentimental as I am now — saw that production. Mom dragged me by the hair, and at the end of it, I was sobbing like a baby, which is not what I do, because I was so touched, so I want the recording of that for arbitrary, sentimental reasons.
COWEN: Last two questions. One on each side. Yes?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You mentioned, from my understanding, Mandarin or pidgin being like a simplified, maybe trade or international languages to some extent.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I was wondering if there are any similarities with maybe sign languages, for maybe example, American Indian trade languages. Have linguists studied sign languages? And are there principal components like allophones or phonemes. Allotones?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Allophones.
MCWHORTER: Allotones — I like that. Sounds like a doo-wop group. Yes. The sign languages. Sign languages are studied. I was just in Israel, working with a group on that, actually, a few weeks ago. Yes, they are new languages, and so they grow up just like pidgins and Creoles. First you have a pidgin one, and then it becomes a Creole, that is a real language, and you can see how the language develops more and more complex things.
They do have phonemes. They do have allotones, [laughs] and it’s a very interesting analysis because what you see is people using their hands. You think, well, the one thing they don’t seem to have is sound. But you do have the equivalent of that. They are complex. They have all the stuff that regular languages have.
Actually, Tyler, you asked about Creoles. I remember you were talking about if new ones were being born. I knew there was something I wasn’t saying. Sign languages being born are that happening. There are many of them being born, for some reason, in Asia in particular, yes. They’re actually a very interesting new language genesis story.
COWEN: Last question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Have you done research in the Altaic language family, especially Mongolian? Because structure-wise, it’s a lot different than Latin, Greek, or any other East Asian language. If you have done so, can you share some of your findings?
MCWHORTER: This is amazing.
COWEN: A great last question.
MCWHORTER: It really is. Let’s close out with the Mongolian languages.
COWEN: And their influence on Chinese.
MCWHORTER: And there’s a whole story. Mongolian languages are cool in that, if one were going to learn a language, one would rather learn one of the Mongolian languages than, say, French or Spanish because they have a way of keeping their meanings nicely separate.
This suffix means that. This suffix means that. This suffix means that. They’re elegant in that way. Mongolian gets fun in that there are hybrid languages spoken, for example, in Tibet, where some dialect of Mandarin, some dialect of Tibetan — and Tibetan is really like 30 different languages — and then some Mongolian language, all have a train wreck, and they create this mixture language that nobody’s ever heard of outside of the village. That has happened a lot.
If by any chance, you are Mongolian, this happens with, for example, the Baarin variety, so there’s that. Then the other thing about Mongolian is that you could be a Mongolian speaker and run China for a long time, or a language related to Mongolian, and it can have no real effect on the system at all because they didn’t really talk to the population.
But the fact is, Chinese has existed in relationship to many Mongolian-speaking people up in the north for a long time. So a lot of the things that make Chinese hard are because it’s mixed with Mongolian, and you end up having this sort of hybrid system. That’s the Mongolian story of all things.
COWEN: John has written at least 20 books. They’re on Amazon. Again, his podcast is called Lexicon Valley, or just Google “John McWhorter podcast.”
MCWHORTER: Lexicon Valley.
COWEN: And, again, big hand for John. Thank you.