In John McWhorter’s book Doing Our Own Thing. The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should Like Care, has one two main points; specifically that the English language is moving toward being an oral language and that humans are social creatures who crave contact with others (the best way for achieving this contact is through conversing with others, thus leading to a more orally centered language). Mr. McWhorter uses several examples to make his argument quite clear. McWhorter makes a distinction between past and present usages of English as an example and goes on to use the cell phone, the type of language used in email messages, the current television programs and the influences of African Americans and other minority groups. These examples lead McWhorter to conclude that English is moving toward a more oral centered existence because people need to connect with one another.
McWhorter makes an easy distinction between the more print centered English. He argues that the printed materials even from the recent past were only accessible to the educated class, and were readily only understood by other in the educated realm. McWhorter says that “the educated class are the main stewards of a nations language” (McWhorter 229 2003). He also believes that this class is becoming more and more lax with their adherence to the rigorous rules of past norms. McWhorter thinks that this is an important difference because the people who are in this class will be the people ‘best situated to present and impart higher levels of language to future generations” (McWhorter 230 2003). Also, McWhorter argues, perhaps more importantly to his over all argument, that a person would much rather talk than read. Most people would gladly spend an hour chatting on the phone than an hour reading. McWhorter argues that this is the case because we as humans are social animals and as reading is a sort of simulated conversation we would all chose actual interaction. Any device that allows us more room to talk is going to be used frequently.
McWhorter uses the use of cell phones as another example to demonstrate the move to an oral language and to show the social nature of humans. At this point in time, nearly everyone has a cell phone, and just as many use it constantly – in the airport, checking out at a grocery store, in the movie theatre, on the bus or train, even some while in the restroom! McWhorter argues that the cell phone allowed “people to return to our natural state”, one of being in a close group of people who know each other and spend all day talking. This is an interesting point, especially when one considers T-Mobile’s calling plan that lets you incorporate your “top 5” people you call most often (regardless of network, land or wireless line). Your “top 5” could easily have been the close knit group of people you would have spent all day talking with had you been in a hunter-gatherer society. I believe this is a real life example of the phenomena McWhorter describes. I don’t think there could be a better example.
McWhorter believes that African American English has had a large influence on mainstream English. He says that “white America becomes a blacker place by the year.” Interracial marriages happen every day, the children from these marriages refer to themselves as “biracial” and include aspects of each culture into their everyday lives – including the way they use language. I know Asian people who love rap music, even artists in Japan and Korea are “rappers.” If it has spread that far, it must have already infiltrated mainstream American English. Each group of immigrants who learn English are adding to the variation of the language. Most people are to trust someone more readily who uses familiar English rather than text book English and as we are trying subconsciously to get back to our hunter-gatherer relationships, trust and familiarity are a strong footing.
Another way African American English usage has become more mainstream is through television. Many more sitcoms are based on an African American family, thus exposing “white-America” to more and more “black English.” Also, television has provided instant access to information on all subjects. This was previously only accomplished by reading a newspaper. This is yet another blow to the written form of English.
McWhorter also believes that email is a writing style born from an oral language. Email messages often contain misspellings, punctuation errors, and are missing proper capitalizations. If one were to read an email with all this mistakes aloud, others would easily understand and not notice any sort of punctuation or lexical errors, let alone proper capitalization. McWhorter states that “We write e-mails like we talk.” I would agree with this statement, but I also believe that people write letter just like they talk. I still write lengthy letter to friends and family. Granted these people essentially belong to my “hunter-gatherer” close knit group, but I would argue that an email I would send them would be written much differently. My letters are written like I talk, but my emails are an even more simplification of how I talk. I enjoy writing letters, so I hope the written letter remains an intact form of communication although McWhorter already believes that the letter is an historical concept. Again, using informal language seems to connect us all again, into somewhat of a global village where everyone talks all the time getting us closer to our hunter-gatherer roots.
McWhorter believes that English is moving to a more oral tradition than a written one. He expects that all the influences of the native languages each immigrant group brings to English will shape it in ways never seen before. After all, the more people who don’t speak a language natively, the more that language will change just based on usage. Also, the continued use of more orally based forms of information will lead to change. Currently e-mail, instant messaging, cell phones, and text messaging are the main ways people communicate with one another. Email is a shorter, less rule conforming form of written English and many would strongly argue that text and instant messaging are hardly forms of written English at all. These forms of communication will reduce the amount of rules that are commonly adhered to in formal written English. This will eventually lead to an oral only language.
McWhorter believes that things might end differently for English, if native English speakers loved their language like many native speakers of other languages do. Native speakers of French regard the proper use of their language in the utmost importance. For a non-native French speaker to make a mistake when speaking with a native speaker is a huge slap in the face to french language and the native speaker will let you know so. No native speaker of English will ignore any further communication in their native language if a non-native speaker mistakenly leaves out an article. If native English speakers did this, there would not be such rampant use of text or instant messages or email with so many errors; there would be an active presence in the oral expression of the language to maintain rules and structures. This presence does not exist in the oral expression of native speakers.
Since our desire for concrete connection to other human beings is strong, and a movement is already happening to allow us this connection, it would make sense that our language would become more orally based. Especially considering how infrequently the majority of the American people read newspapers, books, or journal articles. Magazines are the most popular printed form of English among Americans, and those definitely written in a form that sounds like a gossiper talking. Not only this, but those magazines only encourage other people to talk. And when people would rather talk than read, you’re already moving towards an oral tradition rather than a written one.
McWhorter taking the prescriptivism approach to language. He has simply described the way Americans use English and are likely to continue to use it based on the current pattern. McWhorter says “The American typically relates warmly to the use of English to the extent that it summons the oral, while passing from indifference to discomfort to the extent that its use leans to the stringent artifice of written language.” This sentence completely summarizes McWhorter’s view towards the current and future state of English.
I would want to argue that native speakers of English would say something along the lines of “I love how he uses English.” But after much thought I have concluded that any argument I thought I had would actually be another example McWhorter could use in his next book.