The main thrust of his book is so: in all languages there develops a difference between casual languages and ceremonial languages. Certain occasions demand a more formal type of speech, often using more complex grammar and vocabulary. Nonetheless, purely oral languages, while often being extremely complex grammatically, have a limited vocabulary range: any given person can only remember a few thousand words in their head at any time.
Written languages (such as French, German, Russian or English), on the other hand, can reach higher levels of complexity in vocabulary, as well as more complex sentence constructions. This is so because in writing, one has the luxury of consulting multiple sources for words beyond the memory, and can edit, lengthen and refashion expressions that in speaking would be broken up into simpler packets of information. Written languages can have a more “polished” feel, and often it is this use and mastery of reading and writing that allows for more complex constructions, more conventions and rules for language use, and more detached and studied forms of expression. Speaking is something more than just talking, rhetoric is more than just getting up and shooting off your mouth. Poetry, classical and classically-structured music in the Western sense are likewise forms of expression requiring attention to conventions and great skill in both reading and writing.
McWhorter then presents us with a dilemma: while most other literate languages have maintained a complex and polished written language quite distinct from casual spoken language, American English has largely lost this attribute. George Washington probably cussed and jawed more casually than he wrote, but for his society (as well as English-speaking society down to forty years ago), the written language and such forms of expression that rely on the writing were meant to adhere to rules of form and to a more complex vocabulary even by those users who possessed a relatively low level of education. Good language was a skill that was appreciated by many, even if they did not practice it on a daily basis. However, since sense of love and respect for the formal English language seems to have disappeared: where is the modern equivalent to illiterate
And here is the rub of McWhorter’s argument. He states that it is the Countercultural Movement beginning in the late 60’s that fundamentally changed Americans’ use of and attitudes to the English language. No native speaker is praised for “speaking beautiful English” these days, as conventions and forms are seen as imposed restrictions to be shed in favour of “keeping it real” and “saying like it is”, ie casting aside written conventions and vocabulary in favour of casual speech. George W. Bush is just one of a society that values such “Let’s roll” talk over something Roosevelt, Churchill or Kennedy would have written. Americans are taught to distrust “false” sounding words and sentences, as well as the English language as something negative (in an extended aside he mentions how English-speakers are unique in demanding that opera not be translated into something that they can understand). Individuality is prized over form and structure, and casual talk is considered more genuine than reserved talk. However, a major negative of this development is that Americans lose not just love for their language, but a more complex language in general, one that is capable to deliver complex arguments that can persuade rather than just preach to the converted. We lose room for objective debate and appreciation.
Overall, I think that this is a powerful argument. I would strongly agree that Americans have lost a love for the more complex elements of their language, and that by extension they have lost something even while making gains in terms of free expression. Popular culture and expression, while meaningful, is simply not on the level of classical writing, speaking, poetry and music: it’s easier to do, and while this may democratize it to a certain extent, it also cheapens the culture. To take an art analogy, Picasso learned to paint like a Dutch master before becoming bored and attempting to press the limits through cubism. By contrast what artist today even needs to meet such classical skills when they can throw elephant dung on a painting, create a public controversy (anyone remember this one?) and become famous? All art, including poetry, literature and rhetoric, is expressive, but historically most of it hasn’t been in-your-face. McWhorter rightly points out that while we don’t have to tolerate generalized, sanitized, saccharin popular tunes like Americans did in the 1920’s, we still have lost a level of craft in putting words to melody that no rock star really has been able to reach.
Unfortunately, McWhorter leaves us hanging. He sees this decline as inevitable and unstoppable. But then, if it really is, then why should we care? He doesn’t make a very convincing argument to me about why, if the culture has been changed once in the 1960’s, it cannot change again. Likewise, his insight on the topic seems to be spoiled by (ironically) an overly casual and anecdotal tone: his writing sometimes seems to be more Dave Barry than that of a serious linguist. While I appreciated his diversity on sources of language use, I got bored with his personal asides into his love of musical theatre and the kinds of clubs he goes to in