John Hamilton McWhorter V
October 6, 1965
John Hamilton McWhorter V (//; born October 6, 1965) is an American linguist with a specialty in creole languages, sociolects, and Black English. He is currently associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University, where he also teaches American studies and music history. He is the author of books on race relations, hip-hop and African-American culture.
McWhorter was born and raised in Philadelphia. His father, John Hamilton McWhorter IV (1927–1996), was a college administrator, and his mother, Schelysture Gordon McWhorter (1937–2011), taught social work at Temple University. He attended Friends Select School in Philadelphia and after tenth grade was accepted to Simon's Rock College where he earned an AA degree. Later, he attended Rutgers University and received a BA degree in French in 1985. He obtained an MA degree in American Studies from New York University and a PhD degree in Linguistics in 1993 from Stanford University.
McWhorter was an associate professor of linguistics at Cornell University from 1993 to 1995, then an 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. Since 2008, he has taught linguistics, American studies, and classes in the core curriculum program at Columbia University. As Columbia's Department of Linguistics had been dissolved in 1989, McWhorter was initially assigned to the Department of English and Comparative Literature. The Program of Linguistics (including a revived undergraduate major as of 2021) is currently housed in the Department of Slavic Languages.
McWhorter is the author of the courses "The Story of Human Language"; "Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language"; "Myths, Lies and Half-Truths About English Usage"; "Language Families of the World"; and "Language From A to Z" in the series The Great Courses, produced by the Teaching Company.
McWhorter has written for Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Politico, Forbes, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Daily News, City Journal, The New York Sun, The New Yorker, The Root, The Daily Beast, and CNN. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and, after writing op-eds for The New York Times for several years, became an Opinion columnist there in 2021. He hosts the Lexicon Valley podcast — for Slate from 2016 to 2021, and currently for Booksmart Studios. He was contributing editor at The New Republic from 2001 to 2014. McWhorter has published a number of books on linguistics and on race relations, including 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.
Much of McWhorter's academic work is concerned with creole languages and their relationship to other languages, often focusing on the Surinam creole language Saramaccan. His work has expanded to a general investigation of the effect of second-language acquisition on a language. He argues that languages naturally tend toward complexity and irregularity, a tendency that is reversed only by adults acquiring the language, and creole formation is simply an extreme example of the latter. As examples, he cites English, Mandarin Chinese, Persian, the modern colloquial varieties of Arabic, Swahili, and Indonesian. He has outlined his ideas in academic format in Language Interrupted and Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity and, for the general public, in What Language Is and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. Some other linguists suggest that his notions of simplicity and complexity are impressionistic and grounded on comparisons with European languages, and they point to exceptions to his proposed correlations.
McWhorter is a vocal critic of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. In The Language Hoax, he outlines how, despite the fact language influences thought in an "infinitesimal way", and culture is expressed through language, language itself does not create different ways of thinking or determine world views.
McWhorter has also been a proponent of a theory that various languages on the island of Flores underwent transformation because of aggressive migrations from the nearby island of Sulawesi, and he has contended that English was influenced by the Celtic languages spoken by the indigenous population and which were then encountered by the Germanic invaders of Britain. He has also written various articles that argue that colloquial constructions, such as the modern uses of "like" and "totally", and other non-standard speech should be considered alternative renditions of English rather than degraded ones.
McWhorter has two daughters. He plays the piano and has appeared in musical theater productions.
Social and political views
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". McWhorter has criticized left-wing and activist educators in particular, such as Paulo Freire and Jonathan Kozol. He believes that affirmative action should be based on class rather than race. Political theorist Mark Satin identifies McWhorter as a radical centrist thinker. McWhorter is an atheist.
Views on racism
In a 2001 article, McWhorter wrote that black attitudes, rather than white racism, were what held African Americans back in the United States. According to McWhorter, "victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism underlie the general black community's response to all race-related issues", and "it's time for well-intentioned whites to stop pardoning as 'understandable' the worst of human nature whenever black people exhibit it".
In April 2015, McWhorter appeared on NPR and said that the use of the word "thug" was becoming code for "the N-word" or "black people ruining things" when used by whites in reference to criminal activity. He added that use by President Barack Obama and former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (for which she later apologized) could not be interpreted in the same way, given that the black community's use of "thug" may connote admiration for black self-direction and survival. McWhorter clarified his views in an article in the Washington Post.
Whorter has criticized the term "microaggression", as well as what he regards as the overly casual conflation of racial bias with white supremacy. He has argued that software algorithms, by themselves, cannot be racist since, unlike humans, they lack intention. He has further argued that unless the human engineers behind a technological product intend for it to discriminate against black people, any unintentional bias should be seen as a software bug that needs to be fixed ("an obstacle to achievement") rather than an issue of racism.
McWhorter criticized the 2018 book White Fragility following its resurgence in sales during the George Floyd protests beginning in May 2020, arguing that it "openly infantilized Black people" and "simply dehumanized us", and "does not see fit to address why all of this agonizing soul-searching [for residual racism by white people] is necessary to forging change in society. One might ask just how a people can be poised for making change when they have been taught that pretty much anything they say or think is racist and thus antithetical to the good."
In his 2021 book Woke Racism, McWhorter expands upon these viewpoints and argues that "third wave anti-racism" is a religion he terms "Electism" with white privilege as original sin. McWhorter likens the books White Fragility, How to Be an Antiracist and Between the World and Me to sacred religious texts. He argues that this hypothesized status as a religion explains the behavior of its adherents, whom he calls "the Elect". He advises that since the faith, being a faith, is not open to discussion, arguments with its adherents should be avoided in favor of pragmatic action against racism. McWhorter advocates three programs: ending the war on drugs, teaching reading by phonics to children lacking books at home, and free vocational education, promoting the idea that not everyone needs a four-year college education to succeed.
Free speech and cancel culture
In September 2020, McWhorter wrote an article in The Atlantic titled "Academics are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom" in which he argued that academic freedom in universities was under threat from cancel culture, pointing to evidence from the Heterodox Academy and his personal experience of "receiving missives since May  almost daily from professors living in constant fear for their career because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook". He asserted that he had received 150 such messages in just a three-week period in the early summer of 2020 and was alarmed by "how many of the letters sound as if they were written from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China". He also claimed that "very few" people who had written to him were of a conservative orientation, and instead, a common feature of the complaints he received was "people left-of-center wondering why, suddenly, to be anything but radical is to be treated as a retrograde heretic".
|Booknotes interview with McWhorter on Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority, March 2, 2003, C-SPAN|
|In Depth interview with McWhorter, March 2, 2008, C-SPAN|
- 1997: Towards a New Model of Creole Genesis ISBN 0-820-43312-8
- 1998: Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of a "Pure" Standard English ISBN 0-738-20446-3
- 2000: Spreading the Word: Language and Dialect in America ISBN 0-325-00198-7
- 2000: The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Contact Languages ISBN 0-520-21999-6
- 2000: Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America ISBN 0-684-83669-6
- 2001: The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language ISBN 0-06-052085-X
- 2003: Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority ISBN 1-592-40001-9
- 2003: Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care ISBN 1-592-40016-7
- 2005: Defining Creole ISBN 0-195-16669-8
- 2005: Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America ISBN 1-592-40188-0
- 2007: Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars ISBN 0-195-30980-4
- 2008: All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America ISBN 1-592-40374-3
- 2008: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English ISBN 1-592-40395-6
- 2011: Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity: Why Do Languages Undress? ISBN 978-1-934-07837-2
- 2011: What Language Is: (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be) ISBN 978-1-592-40625-8
- 2012: A Grammar of Saramaccan Creole (co-authored with Jeff Good) ISBN 978-3-11-027643-5
- 2014: The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language ISBN 978-0-199-36158-8
- 2016: Words on the Move: Why English Won't – and Can't – Sit Still (Like, Literally) ISBN 978-1-627-79471-8
- 2017: Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths about America's Lingua Franca ISBN 978-1-942-65820-7
- 2018: The Creole Debate ISBN 978-1-108-42864-4
- 2021: Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever ISBN 978-0-593-18879-8
- 2021: Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America ISBN 978-0-593-42306-6
- McWhorter, John H. "Lexicon Valley". Slate. The Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company. (Listen to McWhorter's pronunciation of his own name at the beginning of each podcast.)
- "John H McWhorter". Columbia University Department of Slavic Languages. Archived from the original on November 9, 2021. Retrieved November 9, 2021.
- "NY Daily News- Articles By John McWhorter". NY Daily News. Retrieved November 29, 2014.
- "CNN Profiles - John McWhorter - Linguistics scholar, Columbia University". CNN. Retrieved October 17, 2021.
- John H. McWhorter V, Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of a Pure Standard English, Perseus Publishing, 1998.
- Miller, Jason Philip (2006). "McWhorter, John". In Gates, Henry Louis; Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks (eds.). African American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195301731.013.38982. ISBN 9780195301731.
- Michael L. Ondaatje, Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, p. 174.
- "View Expert". Manhattan Institute. Retrieved June 10, 2020.
- "Lexicon Valley". Slate Magazine. July 23, 2019.
- "John H. McWhorter | Center for American Studies". americanstudies.columbia.edu.
- McWhorter, John (2007). Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 5–18. ISBN 978-0-198-04231-0.
- Ansaldo, Umberto; Lisa Lim (2015). Languages in Contact. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 194–195. ISBN 978-0-521-76795-8.
- Giuffrè, Mauro (2013). "Review: Linguistic simplicity and complexity". LINGUIST List. 24.1461. Retrieved August 20, 2016.
- "The Language Hoax". YouTube. Archived from the original on December 12, 2021.
- McWhorter, John (July 10, 2009). "What else happened to English? A brief for the Celtic hypothesis". English Language & Linguistics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 13 (2): 163–191. doi:10.1017/S1360674309002974. S2CID 120967676 – via Cambridge Core.
- McWhorter, John (April 5, 2014). "Opinion | Like, Degrading the Language? No Way". The New York Times.
- McWhorter, John (September 14, 2016). "The bonfire of Noam Chomsky: journalist Tom Wolfe targets the acclaimed linguist". Vox.
- "LSA Public Lectures on Language Series – Linguistic Society of America". www.linguisticsociety.org.
- Dreifus, Claudia (October 30, 2001). "A CONVERSATION WITH/John McWhorter; How Language Came To Be, and Change". The New York Times.
I speak three and a bit of Japanese, and can read seven.
- McWhorter, John (February 3, 2014). "Let's Stop Pretending That French Is an Important Language". The New Republic.
When I was a teenaged language nerd in the seventies and eighties, it was the tail end of a time when kids of my bent knew French first and foremost, and then likely dabbled in other Romance languages, plus some German and maybe a dash of Russian.
- Khodorkovsky, Maria (October 9, 2015). "7 Questions To A Linguist: John McWhorter Scales The "Mt. Everest" Of Russian". ALTA Language Services.
these days I am trying to teach myself Mandarin, and I am just wallowing in finally getting a feel of the inner workings of a language that isn't all about prefixes and suffixes and isn't related at all to European languages ... One language that I failed to ever really crack was Japanese, simply because it seemed that mastering the writing system would be so difficult that it wasn't worth trying if I wasn't doing it for any real reason. But these days I am climbing that mountain again with Mandarin and finding that with some quiet, semi-obsessive dedication, learning to read on the level of a child isn't impossible.
- John McWhorter (November 30, 2021). "Stephen Sondheim wrote my Life's Soundtrack". Retrieved February 21, 2022 – via The New York Times.
Way back, I ... played the lead in a small production of 'Merrily We Roll Along,' and I have played piano for productions of 'Funny Thing' and 'Into The Woods.'
- McWhorter, John (January 25, 2011). "Frances Fox Piven, Jim Sleeper and Me". The New Republic. Retrieved November 29, 2014.
- McWhorter, John (March 5, 2010). "Taking out My Eraser". The New Republic.
- McWhorter, John (December 13, 2015). "Actually, Scalia had a point". CNN. Retrieved December 3, 2016.
- McWhorter, John (January 28, 2022). "Opinion | It's Time to End Race-Based Affirmative Action". The New York Times.
- Satin, Mark (2004). Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now. Westview Press and Basic Books, p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8133-4190-3.
- McWhorter, John (October 18, 2014). "John McWhorter on Twitter". Retrieved May 28, 2019.
- McWhorter, John H. (December 13, 2015). "What's Holding Blacks Back?". City Journal. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
- All Things Considered (April 30, 2015). "The Racially Charged Meaning Behind The Word 'Thug'". NPR. Retrieved November 25, 2015.
- McWhorter, John. "Baltimore's mayor and the president said 'thugs'? Let's not get too bent out of shape". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 25, 2015.
- "Has Anti-Racism Become as Harmful as Racism? John McWhorter vs. Nikhil Singh". Reason.com. November 30, 2018. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
- Gillespie, Nick (November 9, 2018). "Debate: 'The Message of Anti-Racism Has Become as Harmful a Force in American Life as Racism Itself'". Reason.com. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
- McWhorter, John (December 23, 2018). "The Virtue Signalers Won't Change the World". The Atlantic. Retrieved July 25, 2020.
- McWhorter, John (March 21, 2014). "'Microaggression' Is the New Racism on Campus". Time.
- McWhorter, John (November 29, 2016). "The Difference Between Racial Bias and White Supremacy". Time. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
- McWhorter, John (September 12, 2016). "'Racist' Technology Is a Bug—Not a Crime". Time. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
- McWhorter, John (July 15, 2020). "The Dehumanizing Condescension of 'White Fragility'". The Atlantic. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- McWhorter, John (2021). Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. New York City: Penguin Publishing. ISBN 978-0-593-42307-3.
- McWhorter, John (September 1, 2020). "Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom". The Atlantic. Retrieved February 28, 2022.