Living Language: Faculty Q&A With Linguist John McWhorter
John McWhorter may be best known for his magazine and newspaper writing about race, but the Philadelphia native is at heart a dyed-in-the-wool academic whose first inkling that he would spend his life studying languages came when he was still a preschooler and heard someone speaking a foreign language. “The idea that anybody could talk in more than one way was just mesmerizing,” he said.
McWhorter started working at Columbia in 2008 as an adjunct professor teaching Contemporary Civilization in the Core Curriculum. By then, he had become known for his essays and commentary on race-related issues in media outlets such as The New Republic, The Root.com, The New York Daily News and NPR. In no time McWhorter, who had left a tenured job on the linguistics faculty at the University of California, Berkeley to move to New York to join the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, was knee-deep in his first love, linguistics, teaching courses, advising students and supervising undergraduate theses.
Last fall, he was appointed associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, an “administrative convenience,” as he says, because Columbia does not have a linguistics department. A prolific writer who is equally comfortable appearing on The Colbert Report as he is publishing scholarly works on plantation Creoles, McWhorter is thrilled to be back in academia full time. He compares the sensation of writing for the popular press to that of eating “candy or hot dogs”—something pleasurable but also ephemeral. “The academic stuff is more like Scotch or brussels sprouts because it’s eternal,” he reflected. “Which one do I wake up thinking about? The academic, really.”
Q. How did you originally come to the study of linguistics?
At the age of 4 I heard someone speaking Hebrew, and I wanted to know Hebrew. At the time I didn’t know there were 6,000 other languages. I just heard that one. I’ve since learned that it’s a sort of kink, that some people hear someone speaking and want to learn how to do that. Then I taught myself a certain amount of Spanish when I was about 11, nothing close to fluent, but I got as far as I did because I was obsessed with language. I kept doing that as a teenager and once college was over, I knew that I would be a professor of something. I was raised with that, it was my personality. The question was: of what? The thing that I was best at was languages, and I learned that there is something called linguistics.
Q. How do you bridge your academic interests with your popular cultural criticism?
They’re two different brains. I started as an academic, and I thought that was all I was ever going to be. As for the media career, it was all just a complete accident. I was at Berkeley, and there was a fight over the ban of affirmative action. I thought that affirmative action—the way they had done it—had become obsolete. Not wrong, but enough time had passed and it was time to base affirmative action on socioeconomics. Saying that in the late 1990s in Berkeley and Oakland—you were not supposed to say that as a young black professor. I wrote an essay on the website edge.org, and the publisher of my linguistics book suggested that I expand it into a book. At first I said no: Why would anybody care what some linguist thinks about race issues? But I wrote it [Losing the Race] because I felt very passionate about the issue, and I just love writing. I really didn’t expect anybody to care as much as they did and that was the beginning of the media career. Once it happened, I wasn’t going to say no. I did not become a linguist thinking I was going to parlay it into something else, and I will not be doing any academic work on race questions. My heart still is in dealing with my weird languages.
Q. What impact is globalization having on languages?
There are about 20 languages that are slowly eating up the other 6,000. That’s essentially because of how England developed a global presence starting in the 1600s, and the language they happened to carry with them was English. What we’re seeing is an increasingly Anglophone world and an increasingly oral, rather than written world. So many of the other languages are falling by the wayside that we may lose 90 percent of the languages we have now by the year 2100.
Q. How else is language changing?
There is an increasing informality in language usage in general, and a lot of that informality is happening in English. As we lose the very stringent formality of the old-fashioned kind of prose, we’re gaining a much richer acknowledgement of the fluorescence of oral language. It’s hard to get a sense of how ordinary people spoke and what their idioms were in, say, 1912. How do we know what people were saying on the street? There are no recordings; film was silent then. Today we look online and we can see that speech, the way people talk, or when they heighten it with spoken word poetry, rap music, slogans or in well-written TV shows. That is as fascinating as somebody who can write like Milton or like Charles Dickens. So, we’re seeing a new side of language, which was mostly under the radar until very recently.
Q. What are you most interested in right now?
One of the things I’ve been working on is a theory of what happens when languages come into contact with each other. Some languages, because they are learned as much by adults as by children, become less complex than most languages are. Vikings learned English in such numbers starting in the 8th century and as a result English is less elaborate than, say, a language like Russian that doesn’t have any event like that in its history. If you find an obscure language spoken in the rain forest for example, it’s going to be complicated to an extent that we, as English speakers, could barely imagine. So I’ve been working on showing how that kind of complexity is normal and that only a few languages are relatively streamlined: I walk, you walk, he walks, we walk, you walk, they walk—that’s highly unusual for a conjugation. That’s because of English’s unique history. I’m also looking at some languages spoken in Indonesia that are much simpler than they should be and showing how that is connected to social history. My aim is to show that there is a general paradigm of language complexity and language contact that works worldwide and throughout history. It also applies to Creole languages, which is one of my specialties. Most Creole languages are much less forbiddingly complex than a language like Eskimo, and that’s because they were created by adults.
Q. What is your next book about?
I’m working on one for the general public about the idea that your language’s grammar can shape the way you think. The usual example of this is Russian, which has separate words for “dark blue” and “light blue.” If you’re Russian, do you perceive the difference between those blues more immediately than we do because we use the same word “blue” for both? Chinese is a very telegraphic language in that the typical Chinese sentence doesn’t say as much as in an English sentence; it’s all context. So if in English I say, “Yesterday, I painted the walls when I should have done something else,” in Chinese, roughly, that goes, “Yesterday, I paint walls when must something else do.” My book explains that we have to understand that all human thought processes are the same, but languages are different. So it’s not that each language gives you a different lens on the world. Once again, I’m going to be a little unpopular because most people want you to say: “I speak Italian and that makes me see the world differently than if you speak English.” I don’t think it does.
Q. Are you still writing for the popular media?
The last piece I wrote for the Daily News was about the election and the fact that Barack Obama has now been elected not once, but twice, and how that means that even though there are still racists out there and that racism is not dead, that it’s less than it used to be. And the comparison is not with 1912 or 1952, it’s with 1982. I’m getting old enough to remember a different racial America– it’s changing. And I still write for The New Republic and whoever else asks now and then.
Q. Longer term, what sorts of projects do you envision?
I’m interested in language learning techniques. I’ve always said that in the third act of my life, which I think I’m about to enter [McWhorter is 47], I would come up with methods of teaching languages that work better than the ones that I was exposed to. I want to learn from people who know how to do this; it’s not that I claim any expertise in it myself, yet. But I think that there are ways to get people speaking a language quickly, beyond what you see in Rosetta Stone and Berlitz, that people maybe haven’t thought of partly because the people who work on this tend not to be linguists. The great teachers are not linguists, and most linguists really aren’t interested. But I came into this wanting to know how I could learn Hebrew. And I’ve always thought there might be something that I could contribute to that—what you would call second-language acquisition techniques. I want to get working on that once I get more settled in here.
Q. You taught linguistics at Cornell and then at Berkeley. How does it feel to be back at a university full time?
I left academe easily in 2002, but I did come to miss it. I like having colleagues around me who are academics rather than political writers because I do feel a bit more at home in that environment. I love that there is a university library right over there that I can always use. Teaching is a lot different with wireless and Wikipedia, and I’m beginning to realize I have to completely rethink a lot of my approaches. You say something in class and they all have their phones. They can just look it up. All that makes it more fun in many ways. I like giving my lectures about things that I love. When I teach “Introduction to Linguistics,” it’s my passion. The students can feel it. You can’t ask for anything better.
—Interview by Philip Stephenson
Columbia University mourns the death of Robert Belknap, professor emeritus in the Department of Slavic Languages, who died March 17. An expert in Russian literature, particularly Dostoyevsky, he also taught Literature Humanities in the Core Curriculum for 50 years and influenced generations of Columbia students. For more information, please visit this page.
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University Professor Ronald Breslow won the 2014 American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal, the AIC’s highest award.