Miranda Metheny speaks to John McWhorter, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, on the sidelines of the 3rd Polyglot Conference in New York City, where he spoke about “why the world looks the same in any language”. He has written a number of books on linguistics (including Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language) and race relations (including Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America).
Why did you choose linguistics as an academic discipline?
I chose linguistics because I knew when I was a teenager that I seemed to have a talent for learning languages—or at least a fierce interest in learning them—and what interested me was the languages rather than the literature. So I got my BA in French, but that was really getting a BA in Victor Hugo. What really interested me was how French worked and how many other languages work. And I actually just hit up through being bookish—that there’s a field called linguistics. I dove into it not really knowing a whole lot about it, and I was lucky, because it’s very easy to be a big fan of learning languages. I know one person who calls himself a ‘languist’—but not really be interested in what linguistics happens to be.
I happened to find linguistics interesting and the rest of it was history, but that was really by chance. I didn’t take an introduction to linguistics course in college. I didn’t know anything about what Noam Chomsky did until I read my first book in linguistics as a grad student. It wasn’t the way I think people get interested in linguistics now; it was really just that I loved languages and figured that meant I wanted to be a linguist, and I was just a nerd in general.
My mother had a PhD, and I assumed that I would get one—it seemed like what I was going to do. But the question was, in what? And linguistics seemed to make the most sense. And here I am, so that’s the real answer.
Although you’ve worked with many languages, you’ve chosen English as your particular specialisation. Why?
No, no. To be perfectly honest, for a long time, I never wanted to work on English. I found English boring, partly because my reason for being an academic is not to study myself. My reason for being an academic is to study that which is beyond myself, that which I find exotic. So for a long time I wasn’t interested in English, including black English, but again, by accident, I became interested in how some languages seem much less needlessly complex than others. And English was one of those languages.
Initially, many people I spoke to seemed skeptical that there was anything special about English. And as always, what makes me write books is when people are skeptical about something and I want to prove my point. And so I wrote an article on how English was rendered simpler than how it “should be” because of the Viking invasions. That made me much more interested in English history than I ever had been before. But still I never thought of myself as a history of English specialist. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue I wrote because I had just written one of my angry race books and I wanted some candy. I had no idea anyone would buy it—and it turned out to be one of my most successful books.
Gradually I’ve wound up kind of playing a history of English specialist on TV, but for me when I wake up and I think about a language—and I’m not saying this just to sound exotic—it’s Russian. I find Russian absolutely mesmerising. But because I also write for the media and I also wanna write books that people will read, you can’t sell Russian in America. Russian is not our language. So you have to specialise more in English, if you’re gonna write something for the New York Times. But really, I never chose English. And for a long time I avoided it, because it was too familiar.
You have a prolific range of popular linguistics books. Why have you so ardently pursued the promotion of ideas about linguistics to the general public?
Because the way a normal person thinks about language and the truth of language are such different things, and the gulf between those two things is so fascinating.
I think that one, the public is interested in language. And two, the public is more interested in it than they know, because there’s so much going on in the way we talk that you would never think of unless you knew a little about linguistics. So—it’s a mission.
And also—if we’re worried about linguistic discrimination, you can’t make it go away by saying “Don’t discriminate!” That doesn’t work. You have to explain to people what’s going on. Or linguistic chauvinism. It’s easy to think of English as a mighty language and most of the rest of the languages of the world as dialects spoken by smaller groups of people. It’s perfectly natural to think that. Yet if you’re a linguist you know that all of those small languages are actually fascinating in so many ways.
No one’s going to learn all that going to a university library. You have to bring that to the public by translating it. So there’s a lot that the public needs to know. It’s like astronomy. Our job as public linguists is to try to be conduits between the university library shelf and the Internet.
Your work also concerns itself often with ideas about power, equality, and egalitarianism. Why did you choose to focus on these issues?
That is not my main focus in language, I am not a sociolinguist.
Let’s put it this way. Almost, to a man, all American linguists who are black are sociolinguists. It is therefore quite natural to assume that I am one, especially because when I write for the media it’s often about social issues because the media is interested in that and not verbs et cetera.
But my interest in language was not primarily driven by a sociological agenda. My race writing is. I just wrote a book about Black English that would be coming out next year—that one is motivated in part by wanting to defend that dialect from the way people think of it. But that book has come after a great many others.
That’s not my main impulse. My main impulse is geek. I like trying to teach myself Russian—that’s where it really starts. The rest of it is what I think a public linguist ought to do. So yes I favour linguistic egalitarianism, I want to disabuse the public of nonsense. I do that because I think linguists who have academic training are in a position to do it. But that’s not why I became a linguist.
How much of a place do you think popular linguistics currently has in the public sphere of discussion? And how do you see this evolving?
Linguistics is at an interesting phase as a public discipline because we’re always pushing a rock up a hill and really, we haven’t reached the top until there is some series on TV—we need a documentary, you know? There are documentaries about the history of English, there are documentaries about language that are really basically pitches for Chomsky and the notion of Universal Grammar. There needs to be a fun, sassy documentary about linguistics as it really is that the public would enjoy. That would put a button on what’s been going on. There was a series called The Story of Language in the ‘80s and in my day, that was what used to be shown in classes, but now it’s only on VHS and the hairstyles look funny. There needs to be a new one, and then I think we’d turn a corner.
You’ve written about the rise of lightly optimised versions of world languages. How different do you see these lightly optimised languages as being from the traditional idea of a creole language?
It’s a matter of degree. So these lightly optimised languages, you could call them ‘simplified’, slightly. If you take a language and you simplify it extremely and build it back up, that’s a creole, whereas what we’re seeing in Copenhagen and Oslo, those are not creoles, but they are not what would’ve happened to the language under normal conditions where it’s just native speakers speaking it.
It’s like comparing Norwegian to Icelandic. Icelandic is a language that bristles with cases and conjugations like Latin. Norewegian is oddly naked because of what happened in Norway a long time ago. But that’s happening again because of immigration. So now there’s this new variety of Norwegian they call Kebab-norsk which is in the same relationship with the standard Norwegian as Norwegian is to Icelandic. And if you look at, for example, all the new immigrants to Germany now, they’re going to continue speaking a version of this in German. If the Slavic-speaking countries take in as many immigrants as it seems like they’re going to, we’re now also going to see versions of that with Serbo-Croatian. We’re going see versions of that with Greek. That’s going to keep happening all over.
They’re not creoles, but there’s a need for another name for them. Right now, they’re often called ethnolects, but the public will never embrace that. So somebody maybe needs to come up with another name.
You’ve argued quite forcibly against prescribing language use. How do you respond to critics that say that aggressive descriptivism is itself a form of prescriptivism?
Well, what that basically comes down to is that any linguist knows that there are ways of speaking that you have to learn in order to function in society beyond roughly your backyard. That’s not going to change. Nobody denies it. No linguist says that people should ignore the fact that it is preferred in some settings that you say “Billy and I went to the store” rather than “Billy and me.” What the linguist is saying is that those rules are not based on any kind of logic or any kind of scientific principle, and the reason that’s important is because it means that when you hear somebody using one of these prescribed constructions, they’re not doing something that’s dirty, broken, or wrong.
Yes, if somebody is saying “acks” instead of “ask” when making a public speech, that’s unfortunate. They should say “ask” just like they should wear underwear, just like they shouldn’t be using a cane today, just like they shouldn’t be wearing a waist coat, just like in 1950 they would have to have been wearing a suit. Fashion is arbitrary, just like things with language.
So… it’s not that any linguist is saying everybody should be able to talk the way they want to—they should in an ideal world, but we’re not in it and we’re never going to be in it. What we’re saying is the person who is speaking in a non-standard language is not scientifically wrong and illogical and stupid. And frankly, that’s fact. There are no possible opinions about it. If there’s one thing linguists know, it’s that these things are fact. We’ve studied how these rules came about, we know some things about how language works. So descriptivism is not aggressive, it’s not a position, its fact. What is debatable is whether or not somebody should have to adhere to fashions or norms in public.
I don’t know any linguist who says we should all be able to speak the way we want. We’re all of the same opinion. But when we say there’s no such thing as illogical language, that is as factual as the operations of the Law of Gravity. And frankly, people don’t like that. I understand how that wouldn’t be welcomed, I can put myself in the head of somebody who happened not to know anything about linguistics listening to me say that. I get it, it’s not welcomed. Unfortunately we’re also correct.
The Economist noted that being a keen language learner is surprisingly atypical among academics like yourself. Why do you think this is the case?
Learning another language means that you’re picking up something where you’re going be less articulate for the most part. I think for a lot of academics, it’s almost our nature that we’re pretty articulate, intellectually confident people, so why would you want to learn a language where you’re not going be as articulate. I think more to the point is that being an academic linguist does not mean you take great joy in learning another language. You can be an excellent academic linguist, and only be able to speak your own language. You can be an incredible polyglot and find linguistics quite dull. So just generally, if you were at a linguistics conference, you would probably find that fewer people at the conference are interested in learning languages for no reason than at this conference here.
A polyglot and an academic linguist are different animals, although sometimes there’s an overlap. You’re probably a better linguist if you know a lot about three or four languages, I would say, although there are many linguists who would disagree with that. I have known brilliant linguists whose interest in learning other languages was minimal. It can happen. That seems uninspiring from the outside but what linguistics is about is something you can address pretty well. I should say you should probably know two. To only know your own one language, you’re probably gonna miss something because language manifests itself in different ways. To fully understand what language is you probably want to know at least two languages. You don’t have to know 12, so it varies. That’s a messy answer, but it works.
How possible do you think it is that emoticons and emojis might become a standardised and accepted part of any language?
Impossible, because what emojis are is an attempt to get what’s called pragmatics into texting. Pragmatics is how you express yourself, your emotions, your commitment, your sense of how intuitive or counterintuitive something is. It’s an aspect of language that you aren’t taught in grammar school. Not all linguists are even terribly concerned with pragmatics. But the whole issue of what a word like “anyway” means, or what you mean when you say “well, I think….” What’s the “well”? It’s not for nothing. It has a function one wants to analyse. Those sort of things are pragmatics.
Emojis are a way of getting the pragmatics into things. For one thing, that means that there cannot be a language completely composed of emojis any more than a language that can be composed of words like “anyway,” “well,” “like,” and “yknow.” If I say those, it presumes that we actually talked about something. So you can’t do that. You can do it as a stunt but that’s all it’ll ever be. Also, the emojis are never going to stay completely the same, because language never does. And especially since ways in which you convey yourself emotionally always changes, because emotion is volatile. And so right now many people are saying “I know right” and that seems so normal. Nobody was saying “I know right” in 1990—I’m old enough to remember. People spoke the way they do now in 1990 for the most part, but nobody was saying “I know right.” In 1990, “totally” was not being used the way it is now—it meant its dictionary meaning. The idea of saying “oh, she’s totally gonna call” just hadn’t happened yet. These things are always cycling and those things are going to keep cycling and therefore emojis are going to keep cycling. I’m not exactly sure what that eggplant symbol (🍆) is supposed to mean. Whatever it means, people are not going to be using the eggplant in 20 years. It’ll be something else. I’m thinking that because a student mentioned it the other day (I know it’s an erection or something). That will change. There’ll be some other way of indicating that.
So one, no emoji language. And two, they’ll always keep changing.