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Education Reporter

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Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, John McWhorter, Gotham Books, 2003, 254 pp.

Berkeley linguistics professor John McWhorter has written a fascinating analysis of the decline of American respect for the English language over the last hundred years. Combining an acute ear for pop culture with a polymathic familiarity with languages and musical styles, McWhorter convinces the reader of the relentless trend to more casual usage with countless examples of oratory, poetry, songs and random quotes.

Modern America "is a country where rigorously polished language . . . is considered insincere," he writes. This trait "is only a few decades old and leaves us culturally and even intellectually deprived." It is also culturally anomalous; French, Russian, Turkish, British and tribal societies today show much greater appreciation for well-crafted language than do Americans.

Some of the blame for hastening the deterioration of our relationship to English is laid at the feet of educators with an ideological animus against teaching excellence in writing, vocabulary words or challenging literature. Textbook editors "exist in a culture of language teaching in which, since the late sixties, to celebrate English would be morally backward." Elitism, drill and literary craftsmanship are out; multiculturalism, political correctness and uninhibited self-expression are in. It is apparently too much to expect immigrants and disadvantaged children to learn good English.

The author makes it clear, however, that the education establishment did not cause the degradation of American English; it simply reflected the Zeitgeist prevailing since anti-authoritarian attitudes took hold in the 1960s beginning with the civil rights movement. Before and since then, technological changes such as the microphone, telephone, television, cell phone and e-mail also weakened our connection to the written word and enhanced the position of unvarnished oral expression.

Unfortunately, McWhorter is not the man to lead the charge to restore a more-elevated use of English. As a linguist, he doesn't believe in grammatical rules, and he blithely ignores many such rules in his writing. As a hip young professor on the Berkeley campus, he has no desire to appear old-fashioned, and he believes little can be done about the trend against formal English anyway.

"The times have changed, permanently," he concludes. English has become a tool for easy global communication, the new Esperanto — but no longer a source of national pride or esthetic pleasure.

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