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‘Word On The Street: Debunking The Myth Of A Pure Standard English’, by John McWhorter – book essay

Word On The Street: Debunking The Myth Of A Pure Standard EnglishWord On The Street: Debunking The Myth Of A Pure Standard English by John McWhorter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes, the courage to express my thoughts in English as a second language meets with insidious challenges between the grammarian Scylla and fault-finding Charybdis, lurking in the safety of anonymity on social media to stalk the prey with perverted joy. So, it is only natural for me to find encouragement from the books reassuring me that the mastery of language does not equate with intelligence. So, it is no wonder that I have the pleasure of reading  Word on the Street, an invigorating narrative told in scholastic zeal and impressive erudition flavored with street-smart audacity. McWhorter, who belongs to the constellation of brilliant linguists, such as Samuel Johnson and Steven Pinker, talks about language in terms of social and cultural contexts, making the academic subject a hot topic of a Charlie Rose talk show.

McWhorter takes his view against language relativism that language shapes thoughts. The possession of words does not determine the thought process to contextualize the mentalese. Therefore, slang, idioms, and parlance outside the elite group of society and the educated middle class are not denigrated as improper English. In this sense, Pidgeon English, the quaintly charming admixture of scattered English words and a speaker’s native language, is not a corrupt version of pristine English but a hybrid of languages born out of the ingenuity of the human mind and changeability of language in nature. Isn’t English a living proof of the incredible amalgamation of languages still undergoing evolution? Who would have thought that English of the underclass would shine as a lingua franca?

What strikes me most about the book, which concurs to his fellow linguist Pinker’s point of view on language not as a touchstone for one’s cognitive ability, is that solecism in spoken and written language does not reflect the user’s less desirable trait of academic ineptitude. To put it more bluntly, just because your grammar is besotted with errors doesn’t mean you don’t know what you are saying, or forthright, you are less intelligent. Take Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance polymath, who had no fewer than six grammar books on Latin and Greek to grasp the syntax of the classical dead languages he was so hopeless to learn thanks to his lack of formal education. In fact, da Vinci’s writings are ridden with misspellings and amorphous sentence fragments, just as Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte showed in their manuscripts. So, did their imperfect language skills overrule their force of imagination and contextualizing it in words? Does this betray that language shapes thought? 

McWhorter can transcend the demarcation of race in the communication of this extensive knowledge about the subject drawn from a wealth of learning and scholastic industry with urban wit and debonair guy attitude to his readers, academic or general. His intelligence freely crosses over time gaps, chasms between class divide across continents and oceans with a universal theme of words that we, as human creatures, have spoken thus far. And he tells it using full of scintillating metaphors, examples, and anecdotes, which helps the reader comprehend otherwise monotonously academic subject without pressure and enjoyably. Samuel Johnson said that the possession of knowledge is to share it, and the possessor of the knowledge shines when he applies the knowledge to the crowd of life. Well, Word on the Street shows it all.

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