John Hamilton McWhorter V (born October 6, 1965) is an American academic and linguist who is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations. His research specializes on how creole languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.
A popular writer, McWhorter has written for Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Politico, Forbes, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Daily News, City Journal, The New Yorker, among others; he also hosts Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast.
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, CNN 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 Bloggingheads.tv including ten years of discussions with Glenn Loury. 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, 2016), has appeared on The Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher, and appeared regularly on MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes.
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"; and "Language From A to Z" in the series The Great Courses, produced by the Teaching Company.
Much of McWhorter's academic work has concerned creoles 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 towards complexity and irregularity, and that this tendency is only reversed by adults acquiring the language, of which creole formation is simply an extreme example. As examples, he cites English, Mandarin Chinese, Persian, the modern colloquial varieties of Arabic, Swahili, and Indonesian. 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 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 point to exceptions to the correlation he proposes.
McWhorter is a vocal critic of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In The Language Hoax, he outlines his opposition to the notion that "language channels thought."
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 contend that English was influenced by the Celtic languages spoken by the indigenous population 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 alternative renditions of English rather than degraded ones.
In January 2017, McWhorter was one of the speakers in the Linguistic Society of America's inaugural Public Lectures on Language series.
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. One author identifies McWhorter as a radical centrist thinker.
In April 2015, McWhorter appeared on NPR and claimed 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 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 use of "thug" may positively connote admiration for black self-direction and survival. McWhorter clarified his views in an article in the Washington Post.
|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|