John McWhorter

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John McWhorter
Born John Hamilton McWhorter V
(1965-10-01) October 1, 1965 (age 50)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Nationality American
Fields Linguistics
Institutions Cornell University
UC Berkeley
Columbia University
Education Friends Select School
Alma mater Simon's Rock College (A.A.)
Rutgers University (B.A.)
New York University (M.A.)
Stanford University (Ph.D.)

John Hamilton McWhorter V (born October 1, 1965) is an American academic, political commentator, and linguist, professor at Columbia University where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history.[1] He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations. His research specialties are how creole languages form and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.

Early life[edit]

McWhorter was born and raised in Philadelphia. He attended Friends Select School in Philadelphia, and after tenth grade was accepted to Simon's Rock College, where he earned an A.A. degree. Later, he attended Rutgers University and received a B.A. in French in 1985. He received a master's degree in American Studies from New York University and a Ph.D. in linguistics in 1993 from Stanford University.


Since 2008, he has taught linguistics, American Studies, and in the Core Curriculum program at Columbia University and is currently an Associate Professor in the English and Comparative Literature department there. After graduation McWhorter was an associate professor of linguistics at Cornell University from 1993 to 1995 before taking up a position as associate professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1995 until 2003. He left that position to become a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. He was Contributing Editor at The New Republic from 2001 to 2014. From 2006 to 2008 he was a columnist for the New York Sun and he has written columns regularly for The Root, The New York Daily News, The Daily Beast and Time Ideas.

McWhorter has published a number of books on linguistics and on race relations, of which the better known are Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why You Should, Like, Care, and Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. He makes regular public radio and television appearances on related subjects. He is interviewed frequently on National Public Radio and is a frequent contributor on He has appeared twice on Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, once in the profanity episode in his capacity as a linguistics professor, and again in the slavery reparations episode for his political views and knowledge of race relations. He has spoken at TED (2013), has appeared on The Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher, and appeared regularly on MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes.[citation needed]

McWhorter is the author of the courses entitled "The Story of Human Language, "Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language," "Myths, Lies and Half-Truths About English Usage," and "Language From A to Z" for The Teaching Company. His 2003 Authentically Black has been interview-reviewed on, and he has also been interviewed on CSPAN's Book Notes In Depth series.[2]

Much of his academic work has concerned creole languages and their relationship to other ones, often focusing on the Surinam creole language Saramaccan. His work has expanded to a general investigation of how adults acquiring a language "undoes" much of the complexity and irregularity that human language otherwise inevitably wends into, to varying degrees of which creoles are simply an extreme. This includes Mandarin Chinese, Persian, the modern colloquial dialects of Arabic, Swahili, and Indonesian, as well as English. He has outlined these ideas in academic format in Language Interrupted and Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity, and for the general public in What Language Is and, on English, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

McWhorter has also been a proponent of a theory that various languages on the island of Flores underwent transformation due to aggressive migrations from the nearby island of Sulawesi, and has joined scholars who document that English was profoundly influenced by the Celtic languages spoken by peoples encountered by Germanic invaders of Britain. He has also written various pieces for the media arguing that colloquial constructions such as the modern uses of "like" and "totally," and nonstandard speech in general, be considered alternate renditions of English rather than degraded ones.

Political views[edit]

McWhorter characterizes himself as "a cranky liberal Democrat". In support of this description, he states that while he "disagree[s] sustainedly with many of the tenets of the Civil Rights orthodoxy," he also "supports Barack Obama, reviles the War on Drugs, supports gay marriage, never voted for George Bush and writes of Black English as coherent speech". McWhorter additionally notes that the conservative Manhattan Institute, for which he worked, "has always been hospitable to Democrats".[3] Regardless, McWhorter has criticized left-wing and activist educators in particular, such as Paulo Freire and Jonathan Kozol.[4] One author identifies McWhorter as a radical centrist thinker.[5]

"Thug" controversy[edit]

In April 2015, McWhorter appeared on NPR [6] and claimed that the use of the word "thug" was becoming code for "the N-word" when used by whites in reference to criminal activity. He added that recent use by President Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (for which she later apologized) could not be interpreted in the same way, given that the black community's conception of the "thug" includes an element of admiration for self-direction and survival. He did not cite a basis for these claims in the interview, which was widely misunderstood, but clarified his views in an article in the Washington Post.[7]



  1. ^ "NY Daily News- Articles By John McWhorter". NY Daily News. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  2. ^ Lamb, Brian (2003-03-02). "Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority". Booknotes. Retrieved 2008-10-07.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  3. ^ John McWhorter. "McWhorter, John (25 Jan 2011). "Frances Fox Piven, Jim Sleeper and Me". The New Republic.". New Republic. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  4. ^ McWhorter, John (5 March 2010). "Taking out My Eraser". The New Republic. 
  5. ^ Satin, Mark (2004). Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now. Westview Press and Basic Books, p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8133-4190-3.
  6. ^ All Things Considered (2015-04-30). "The Racially Charged Meaning Behind The Word 'Thug'". NPR. Retrieved 2015-11-25. 
  7. ^ McWhorter, John. "Baltimore’s mayor and the president said ‘thugs’? Let’s not get too bent out of shape.". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-11-25. 

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