Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Book: Talking Back, Talking Black by John McWhorter

McWhorter, John. 2017. Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America's Lingua Franca. Bellevue Literary Press.

McWhorter is a linguistics professor at Columbia and also a bit of a public intellectual. 

This sentence from the book's final chapter captures its main point:

"I have sought to help the reader actually hear Black English in a new way, to hear it as an alternate kind of English rather than as bad grammar and a lively slang." 

Put differently, McWhorter wants you to think of Black English in relation to Standard American English like you would Swiss German in relation to High German or Scots in relation to standard British English. It seeks to persuade intelligent and curious non-linguists to adopt this view by providing a gentle introduction to relevant aspects of the academic literature on the substance and history of Black English. I found the case it makes compelling. 

Along the way, the reader learns fun new terms like "diglossia", "monophthongization", and "variationist socio-linguistics" and receives a short lesson on the history of minstrelsy. I particularly enjoyed McWhorter's takes on Harry Reid's famous comment about Obama's speaking style and on the NFL's "who dat" New Orleans Saints t-shirt controversy. And what one might call his "third way" take on the n-word provides an elegant, linguistically grounded, and new (to me at least) way to think about an old issue.

I found McWhorter's prose a delight to read. The blurb from the New Yorker review on the back cover refers to his "intelligent breeziness" - surely a compliment we can all aspire to. McWhorter also does a fine job of deploying pop culture references. I laughed aloud on numerous occasions.

Finally, the most astounding thing about this book in this age of polarization and cancel culture is McWhorter's generosity of spirit. He assumes his reader is intelligent, reasonable, interested in learning and, perhaps, in being persuaded to change their mind, and proceeds accordingly. Amazing.

Highly recommended.

I ordered this from the soon-to-reopen-for-browsing Seminary Co-op Bookstore. You can too.

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