Monday, January 22, 2007

Doing Our Own Thing: the degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care

by John McWhorter

First of all, I didn't finish this book. I didn't even get to the part about music. I first noticed this book on the shelf when I started working at the library six and a half years ago, but I didn't check it out until about a year and a half ago. Then it sat on my shelf, getting renewed again and again, for almost a year before I actually picked it up and started to read it.

I've been accused of being a grammar geek, a purist, too conservative when it comes to language — and worse. But I'm really not as conservative as some have made me out to be; I'm more than willing to allow for casual usage, new terminology, and the like. What I cannot abide are changes in language that are nothing more than accommodations of lazy, careless, sloppy usage. Yes, rules are made to be broken, but one ought to know the rules first.

That said, I'm absolutely thrilled by this book. The author is not insisting on correct grammar at all times; indeed, he has many positive things to say about the richness and usefulness of casual expression. The point of the book is that we're losing out when we fail to take advantage, in appropriate situations, of the rhetorical power of formal speaking.

A perfect example is President George W. Bush, whose choppy sound-bite style of speaking actually appeals to many people, in part because it doesn't sound like a speech; it sounds like he's just talking. On the other hand we have the endangered breed of speakers, such as Al Gore, whose speeches are more like written words read aloud (which they essentially are) and therefore can use structures, styles, and rhetorical techniques that are difficult to employ spontaneously.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, this dumbing-down is a very recent trend. Used to be that people of all education levels could appreciate and understand oratory in a style that seems to most people today to be old-fashioned, baroque, snobbish, brainy, etc.

Now, I really need to just wrap this up. It took me forever to read the book, and I didn't even finish, and somehow I've gotten bogged down in writing this. I haven't been adding to my blog nearly as much as I'd like, so I need to move on!

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