Oratory rant that loses the crowd

Doing Our Own Thing
October 7, 2005

In my cellar I keep a special cupboard called the Old Curiosity Box. It provides light relief when I am angrily failing to find a couple of curtain hooks or a Phillips screwdriver. As well as dreadful pop singles such as Yummy, Yummy, Yummy and Leader of the Pack , it contains books whose shared feature is that they are unintentionally comic. Notable among them are a guide for Christians about sly ways to convert their Jewish neighbours; a book called Treat Baldness the Natural Way, which takes 150 pages to say that I should massage my scalp and eat wholefoods; the first Noddy book, truly a dark vision of 21st-century Britain, with its harrowing description of a long, brutal and totally pointless immigration tribunal; and others that good taste prevents me from mentioning.

John McWhorter's book on language and music has now joined this select group. McWhorter is a serious scholar from the University of California at Berkeley, who has done work on creole languages. He has also written several perfectly adequate popular books on language, but this latest one is a disaster. His central argument is that the art of speech-making has been lost in modern America, and that this is a bad thing. Gone are the halcyon days of yesteryear (apologies, it is hard to write about oratory without slipping into the style) when spellbinding public speakers such as Edward Everett (who? exactly!) could hold audiences rapt for several hours with dazzling rhetoric. Modern politicians have to sound "folksy", and this is, in McWhorter's view, an enormous loss.

Tacked on to this are random indignant thoughts about the decline of music and poetry. Is it not scandalous, he asks, that many operas nowadays are performed in the original language? (Actually, surtitles have solved this problem, if it is a problem, for many opera lovers, but that is too humdrum a thought for our angry writer). Instead of masterpieces such as Jerome Kern's The Way You Look Tonight , we get rubbish like rap and house music.

"We cheerily admit that Bob Dylan can't sing and still elevate him to bardlike status", writes our outraged author. Very few people can recite large chunks of poetry by heart, he complains.

In passing, McWhorter makes worried noises about high levels of immigration into the US; praises Enoch Powell's "old-fashioned, unreconstructed patriotism for his country" (as opposed to patriotism that was not for his country?); and bemoans the "leftward tilt" of journalists and educators.

Where do you begin with this bizarre jumble of misplaced rage? The title is awful enough: its ironic use of "like" is meant to lure the reader into thinking that this is a grumpy book about how today's young people do not talk proper.

McWhorter in fact devotes a sensible couple of pages to mocking this kind of grumpiness: but in that case, why use a title that reinforces it, with words like "degradation" that play right into people's prejudices? Then there is the incessant use of the deceptive "we", as in the Bob Dylan sentence above. "We do not love English", writes McWhorter. "We do not cherish formal renditions of our language", he says. "We will continue to thrill to English yoked to orally based charisma."

Hold on, who is this "we" person? Second-rate writers use this device when they want to appear to say "everyone", but in fact mean "I and a few of my friends". A similar cheap device is to refer to "the American soul" or "psyche", as McWhorter does repeatedly. How come you never hear about "the Belgian soul" or "the Guatemalan psyche"?

McWhorter's analysis of contemporary culture, a crucial part of his argument, rests on crass abstractions such as "the counterculture of the Sixties", which he blames for many of America's current ills. Today we supposedly suffer under what he calls "the cult of the informal". The language of novelists such as Dave Eggers, which often flouts the rules of standard English, "is now an established cultural hallmark". No qualification, no "arguably", no trace of the realisation that claims such as this are vacuous.

McWhorter loves to tell anecdotes in support of his grievances rather than give real evidence. Typically they involve an experience with a non-American, and conclude "Can you, dear reader, imagine an American doing that?". He met a Russian student on campus once who could recite many "elegant, baroque strophes of Pushkin", and goes on to say that "the notion of an American student" being similarly versed in Robert Frost is "utterly weird" because "we lost our taste for poetry" long ago. Yes, iambic pentameters now have no place in the American soul. What a pity.

As for McWhorter's central argument, has oratory indeed declined in America? Anyone who watched the speeches in the recent US Presidential elections will have noticed the candidates' simple, clear language, free of rhetoric, in which they dealt with the real issues facing the American people. Yes, surely McWhorter is on to something.

I do not have the space to comment on some of McWhorter's off-the-wall comments about British sitcoms; a strange Google experiment that allegedly shows that Brits care more about their language than Americans do; a discussion of two sentences from the Hebrew Bible that are wrongly punctuated so that they are nonsense; some shabby gibes at Andrew Lloyd Webber; and the overblown writing style from the first page to the last.

All these things add to the enormous pleasure that the book has given me. I plan to be amused by it for years to come. In fact, I think I will go to look for some curtain hooks right away.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies, Brighton University.

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

Author - John McWhorter
Publisher - Heinemann
Pages - 6
Price - £17.99 and £7.99
ISBN - 0 434 01058 8and 0 09 944535 2

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