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John McWhorter

John McWhorter is an American linguist, author, and commentator, renowned for his work on language and race relations. Born on October 6, 1965, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he is currently an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. McWhorter specializes in the study of creole languages, language change, and Black English. McWhorter's work extends beyond academia into the public sphere, where he is recognized for his insightful commentary on cultural and political issues, particularly those related to race and language. He is a frequent contributor to various media outlets and has authored several books. His writings, which include titles like "Talking Back, Talking Black" and "The Power of Babel," explore the complexities of language and race, advocating for a nuanced understanding of these topics. McWhorter is known for his engaging, accessible style, making complex linguistic concepts understandable to a broad audience. His contributions to linguistics and his insightful commentary on social issues have made him a prominent and respected voice in public discourse.

Books Mentioned ion People I Mostly Admire #72 with John McWhorter:

Exploring the Intersection of Linguistics and Race in John McWhorter’s Perspectives

Introduction to John McWhorter’s Insights

John McWhorter, a renowned linguist and public intellectual, recently appeared on the podcast “People I (Mostly) Admire,” hosted by Steven Levitt. The conversation delved into various topics, ranging from the intricacies of linguistics to the complex dynamics of race in America. McWhorter, known for his centrist views, offers insights that both challenge and enlighten, regardless of one’s political leaning.

The Fascinating World of Creole Languages

A significant portion of the discussion focuses on McWhorter’s specialty in linguistics—Creole languages. These languages, born out of linguistic adversity, are a blend of multiple languages, often arising in contexts like plantation slavery. McWhorter explains how adults, past the prime language-learning age, partially learn a new language and creatively expand it into a full-fledged new language. This process results in languages that are simpler and more straightforward than their parent languages. Creole languages, according to McWhorter, demonstrate how complexity in language is often accidental and unnecessary.

The Simplicity and Evolution of Languages

McWhorter challenges the notion that linguistic complexity is inherently valuable. He illustrates how languages like English and Mandarin have become streamlined compared to their related languages, a process often influenced by historical events and social changes. This conversation leads to a broader reflection on the nature of language evolution and the role of simplicity in communication.

Linguistic Evolution Mirroring Societal Changes

The conversation then shifts to how languages reflect societal changes. McWhorter highlights the evolving nature of English, particularly in informal settings. He points out that what is considered acceptable in written and spoken English has become increasingly informal over time. This evolution mirrors broader societal shifts towards a more casual form of expression.

The Complexity and Evolution of Language

In the second segment of the “People I (Mostly) Admire” podcast, John McWhorter, a linguist with a distinct viewpoint on language and race, continues his conversation with host Steven Levitt. They delve into the evolution of language complexity, with McWhorter illustrating that languages like English and Mandarin have become more streamlined compared to their ancestral forms. He argues that linguistic complexity is often accidental and not necessarily beneficial, offering a unique perspective on how languages evolve in response to societal changes and historical events.

Creole Languages and Linguistic Simplification

McWhorter emphasizes the significance of Creole languages, which he describes as new languages born from the mixing of multiple tongues in contexts like plantation slavery. He explains that these languages are often simpler and more direct than their parent languages, challenging the notion that complexity in language is inherently valuable. This discussion highlights the role of simplicity in communication and how Creole languages exemplify the natural evolution of language.

Linguistics Reflecting Societal Changes

The podcast conversation shifts to how languages, particularly English, have evolved to reflect societal changes. McWhorter notes the increasing informality in both written and spoken English, mirroring broader societal shifts towards casual expression. This observation underscores the dynamic nature of language and its ability to adapt to changing social norms and cultural trends.

McWhorter’s Analysis of Anti-Racism as a New Religion

In the final segment of the “People I (Mostly) Admire” podcast, John McWhorter delves into his critique of modern anti-racism movements, which he controversially characterizes as a new form of religion. This “third wave” of anti-racism, according to McWhorter, prioritizes the demonstration of systemic racism over tangible actions that could genuinely benefit Black communities. He argues that this approach often leads to actions that are more performative than substantive, inadvertently harming the very communities they aim to help.

The Paralysis of Action Due to Fear of Misstep

McWhorter highlights a growing issue where individuals, particularly those who are white, become so concerned about misstepping in discussions or actions related to race that they end up paralyzed. This paralysis, he suggests, can lead to avoidance rather than engagement, which is counterproductive to the goals of racial equality and understanding.

Linguistic Simplification in the Context of Race

Interestingly, McWhorter ties his linguistic expertise into the conversation on race. He observes that language evolution, particularly towards simplification and informality, parallels societal shifts, including those related to race. He suggests that understanding the natural evolution of language can offer insights into societal attitudes towards race and racism.

Conclusion: A Call for Pragmatic Approaches to Racial Issues

McWhorter concludes by advocating for more pragmatic approaches to addressing racial issues. He criticizes the current trend of virtue signaling and performative activism, urging for a focus on practical solutions that can bring about real change in the lives of Black Americans. This includes tackling educational disparities, addressing policing issues, and fostering genuine dialogues that bridge racial divides.