Word Nerd

John McWhorter is best known as a cultural critic who garners bouquets and brickbats from left and right alike. But he’s really a linguistics geek at heart.

December 2020

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Word Nerd

Illustrations by James Yang

In Genesis 11, the earth was “of one language and of one speech” before the Tower of Babel; in the life of John McWhorter, no language but English existed before an encounter with Shirley, a girl with brown eyes and burgundy overalls. He’d endured neither great flood nor generations of wandering. It was 1970. He was 5, taking a piano lesson with his childhood crush on the day his lifelong passion for language was sparked. 

“She walked out,” he recalls, “and started talking to her parents in this other language. And I asked my mother, ‘What are they doing?’ and she said, ‘They’re speaking another language.’ ” His mother asked Shirley’s which one it was and then told him, “Hebrew.” On the ride home, McWhorter cried. “I was in tears that she could do something I couldn’t,” he says, but he was also overwhelmed by competing emotions: excitement that other languages existed and distress at being cut off from the girl of his dreams. This is where the biblical allusion falters: After Babel, the speech of humans is confounded as they are scattered upon the earth in the story of their own separateness and fall from grace; for McWhorter, the fall, the babble, the vast confounding of dialects and tongues is precisely where his grace begins. 

Photo of McWhorter smiling.McWhorter (Photo: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)

In the half-century since that revelation, McWhorter, PhD ’93, has published in biblical proportions—20 books and counting, not to mention a deluge of articles. Some books came in quick succession. (“I practically wrote one with the left hand and one with the right hand,” he says of two recent oeuvres.) A self-professed “language nerd,” he delves into linguistic oddities, penning reams of etymological analysis with humor and intellectual pugnacity. And in the process of defending the legitimacy of Black English—a dialect he can’t speak though his parents did—he has become a controversial commentator on race, refusing to join any one camp while championing views held dear by the left and by the right. A professor of linguistics first at Cornell, then UC Berkeley and now Columbia, he spent nearly a decade writing for a Republican think tank yet calls himself “a cranky liberal Democrat.” His career upends the portrait of the moderate as a humdrum, fence-sitting mix of liberal and conservative. Rather, McWhorter is fierce and unapologetic in his views and inspires the question: What is it like to be a Black moderate in America’s culture of partisan extremes?

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McWhorter grew up in Mount Airy, a middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood often recognized as one of America’s first successfully integrated communities. In the 1950s and 1960s, its residents banded together to resist the forces driving segregation elsewhere: redlining, panic selling and blockbusting—a tactic in which building developers and real estate agents stoke racial fears to persuade white homeowners to sell at low prices. 

“It was a Black existence,” McWhorter recalls, “where financial struggle had nothing to do with anything, and I did not have interracial conflicts.” He attended integrated Quaker and Montessori schools, and his parents worked at Temple University while completing degrees there: John Hamilton McWhorter IV, an administrator, earned his BA, and Schelysture Ann Gordon, a social work instructor, finished her PhD. “The main thing that I got from my upbringing,” McWhorter says, “is that, to me, the middle-class Black person was ordinary.”

‘There’s only so much you can do when you’re 7 or 8.’

It was during this period that Shirley spoke those fateful Hebrew words and the structure of McWhorter’s existence irreversibly shifted. At school, he learned that a rabbi taught Hebrew classes in the late afternoons, and he scratched a note on the blackboard, asking how he could learn it too. The rabbi left him a paper printed with the Yiddish alphabet. (Years later, McWhorter would frame it.) At home, he found a dictionary with an appendix containing thousands of words translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish and Yiddish, and he used it to render “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in each language. “There’s only so much you can do when you’re 7 or 8,” he says.

The next sign that he had “the sickness”—his term for his language obsession—was when, at school, he harassed his Spanish instructor into teaching him the past tense. “I’m, like, 9,” he recalls, “and I had a sense that if we’re really going to say anything, we have to be able to refer to things that happened before.” He also searched libraries for self-teaching language books and practiced translating his thoughts in the shower. (“I look back,” he says, “and I realize that that was not normal.”) By the time he was 11, he owned the Living Language Course on Spanish, a four-record set whose 40 lessons he repeatedly worked his way through. 

Illustration of young boy flying above the Earth, with words in various languages around him.

That year, his family moved across the Delaware River to Lawnside, N.J., a bedroom community of Philadelphia that, established by abolitionists in 1840, was the first self-governing Black municipality north of the Mason-Dixon Line. He recalls the suburban “almost mansions” and, as in Mount Airy, a feeling of safety. “It’s not every Black person in the ’70s and ’80s who grew up in that kind of neighborhood—not Fresh Prince of Bel-Air rich, nothing like that, but just very Leave It to Beaver and every single face is Black.”

Although McWhorter was a strong student, his schoolwork came second to his obsessions, which included memorizing types of cars, the body’s organs, the presidents and first ladies, dinosaurs (still an obsession) and, of course, languages (in middle school, he attempted to make a family tree for every language in the world). “It’s becoming unfashionable to say Asperger’s,” McWhorter points out, “but I would definitely be on that spectrum.”

After finishing 10th grade, he attended Simon’s Rock College, received an associate’s degree, and transferred to Rutgers, where he completed a bachelor’s in French by the time he was 20. He then moved to New York City to sate an obsession with Broadway musicals and try out American studies by doing a master’s at NYU. All the while, his “sickness” grew. “If somebody I’m close to speaks another language,” he says, “I want that language. I feel like if I don’t have any command of that language, then I am missing a part of them.” Over the years, various girlfriends would whet his appetite for German, Russian and Japanese, but in New York, straphanging and reading, he remained unsure of his direction. “Obviously I’m a professor,” he recalls thinking. “What else would I be? And so the question is, what am I going to get a PhD in? What can I get really good recommendations for and excel at, and I thought, by default, that’s language, but it’s not literature. It’s this thing called linguistics, which I didn’t really know much about.”

Before Stanford, McWhorter hadn’t forged deep bonds with alma maters, having attended each of them briefly. “Stanford was really where I went to college,” he says. Unlike most grad students, he lived on campus for the full five years and befriended undergraduates, who weren’t much younger. “I was a very young 22, and I was not experienced with the ways of the world,” he says. “The campus was my home.” He began doing theater, playing piano for stage productions, and formed a tight-knit artistic community. He recalls that period as an awakening that made him into an academic and a performer, not only in theater but also when he taught as a TA. “I never knew this, but I had a talent for public speaking. I think it’s the combination of a casual speaking style and having a kind of a pompous professorial voice.” (Addressing McWhorter’s performative skills, Geoffrey Pullum, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, says, “He is a terrific stage performer and a fantastic teacher. I remember Larry Hyman saying to me that he had, in his capacity as chair of the department of linguistics at Berkeley, observed John teaching a large class, and he had never in his life seen anyone with such a talent at it.”)

For his dissertation, McWhorter focused on Saramaccan, a creole whose 58,000 speakers live in Suriname and are largely descended from escaped enslaved peoples. At the time, a debate raged within linguistics as to whether a universal grammar existed—an idea put forth by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky—and whether new languages such as Saramaccan could spontaneously arise: “a fascinating notion,” McWhorter says, “that our genetic imprint for language could express directly in this language that arose just 300 years ago.” After linguistic analysis of Saramaccan, however, McWhorter concluded that it was largely derived from two African languages, Fongbe and Kikongo, as well as English and Portuguese. 

In the years since his PhD, McWhorter has rendered linguistics accessible to a broad public. Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology and himself the author of several books on language, describes him as “America’s foremost popular explainer and commentator on language.” And if McWhorter’s work has a through line, it might be language’s constant evolution. “One of the hardest notions for a human being to shake is that a language is something that is, when it is actually something always becoming. They tell you a word is a thing, when it’s actually something going on,” he writes in Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally). “Yet, in real time, a word’s going on often feels more like it’s going off—as in off the rails. Rather marvelous, then, is that precisely the kinds of things that sound so disorderly, so inattendant, so ‘wrong,’ are precisely how Latin became French.”

‘Many hated me instantly—but at least everything was honest. I like that better.’

His playful analyses convey language’s vitality and ludic transformations, as with the little word like—“so much more than some isolated thing clinically described in a dictionary with a definition,” he writes. “Think of a cold, limp, slimy squid splayed wet on a cutting board, its lifeless tentacles dribbling in coils, about to be sliced into calamari rings—in comparison to the brutally fleet, remorseless, dynamic creatures squid are when alive underwater.” Appraising like’s many uses—among them hesitation (“Like, wow!”), hedge (“This is, like, the only way”), counterexpectation (“It was, like, her!”) and quotative marker (“He was like, ‘It’s OK.’ ”)—he concludes that like strictly defined as a preposition “is wet on a cutting board.”

To those who bemoan language change, McWhorter points out that meat once referred to food,  flesh to meat, loaf  to bread, bread to small pieces of food, wort to vegetables and apple to fruit in general. He also tackles literally (the bête noire of many old-school grammarians and a source of outrage when dictionaries gave it a second, nonliteral definition in 2013). McWhorter points out that today’s speakers aren’t to blame, since literally was also the bête noire of writers Ambrose Bierce and H.W. Fowler in the early 1900s. McWhorter then examines literally from so many angles over so many pages that the thought of him breathing air outside a library would seem outlandish to anyone who didn’t know that his obsession with language began when he was 5. Even so, his argument is easy reading and a possible course of treatment for apoplectic hard-liners hoping to manage their blood pressure in face of the masses vociferously enjoying literally in all its linguistic plasticity. In fact, his explanation is so pleasurable that paraphrasing it would constitute a spoiler (not a common concern when describing a book on linguistics). Suffice it to say that literally, by indicating the speaker’s sincerity as much as the factuality of what is spoken, has become a contronym (a word with opposite meanings) and, in its evolution, totally has precedents in English. 

Such questions of legitimate usage also arise in McWhorter’s writings on Black English, though here his story gets more contentious, reminding us of the many ways language can divide us. 

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McWhorter made his first foray onto the public stage in December 1996, when the Oakland school board passed a resolution mandating some instruction in Black English both to support its legitimacy as a language and to help teach Standard English. Their goal was to improve academic performance while making the district eligible for more bilingual-education funds. The popular response was largely negative, with commentators denying that Black English was a language and calling it a mix of slang and grammatically incorrect English. 

As a Black linguistics professor then at Berkeley, McWhorter was well positioned to weigh in. He publicly argued that Black English wasn’t bad English but rather a dialect of English, a position he later elaborated in his 2000 book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. “The things that look sloppy in Black English,” he writes, “only look that way because we cannot help seeing them as developments from standard English, when in fact they developed alongside and separately from standard English, making Black English one of hundreds of the world’s variations upon not standard English, but the now extinct ancestor of all Englishes.

McWhorter reprised this argument in 2017, with Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca, in which he writes that “Black English must be introduced via a collection of ways in which it is more complex than Standard English, not less.” As an example, he cites the phrase, “I ain’t got no food up in my house,” referring to the up as an intimacy marker. “In this instance, up signifies that the place you’re in is familiar and comfortable.” Another feature of Black English’s complexity is the ways it conveys counter expectation with done, as in “You done growed up.” He goes on to say that “a sentence with done is always about something the speaker finds somewhat surprising, contrary to what was expected.”

And yet, for McWhorter, Black English has been a source of discomfort. In “Thick of Tongue,” a 2016 Guernica essay, he shares his uncertainty as to why he never learned to speak it (though he understands it well): “I’m tempted to say that as an inveterate nerd I identified more with the teachers and students at the private schools I attended, who were mostly white. But plenty of middle-class black kids—of whom, by the 1970s, there were more every year—went to school with whites and played at home with blacks and emerged sounding like home, not school.” Though his parents’ not having much contact with their families of origin might have been a factor, Black English was nonetheless a constant presence. “I grew up with it in my ears,” he says. “I was never under the impression that Black English was wrong.”

In the larger American society, he points out, not being able to speak Standard English presents a greater problem. “It’s harder to get an apartment,” he says. “It’s harder to get or to keep a job. You’re considered dumb by many people.” And yet his struggle has been that some Black people are put off by his voice. “It can sound chilly. It sounds white. There are a lot of people—and I completely get why—who think you started out being bidialectal like them but then that you switched yourself into only talking the ‘white’ way because you like white people better—you think you’re better than Black people.”

Age, though, has softened perceptions of how he speaks. “A woman can get teased for sounding like she’s white,” he says, “but for a man it’s more of a social sin. You’re not quite masculine. You’re not tough. But the older I get, the less of a problem it is because I’m beginning to be processed as professorial, as an older gent.”

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One doesn’t have to look far to find criticism of McWhorter. Some of it dates back to the Oakland controversy, when he in fact opposed the school board’s resolution. In an email widely circulated at that time, he wrote that the district should not use textbooks in Black English or translation exercises between Black English and Standard English since children who grow up speaking varieties of English elsewhere have no problem “making the two-inch jump between such close dialects.” He argued that Black children suffer academically because “1. Inner city backgrounds do not prepare many children to be receptive to education in school; 2. The schools are underfunded and often awful; 3. Reading is not taught properly in many schools period, compounding the ill effects of the above.”

A few years later, in Losing the Race, McWhorter argued against affirmative action on the basis of race (he favors it for class) and posited that some of the Black community’s struggles could be attributed to a culture of anti-intellectualism and victimhood. “Basically, back in the day,” McWhorter says, “I knew I didn’t think like many Black (and white) people around me but kept quiet. That meant many people thought they liked me when if they had known me better, they wouldn’t have. When I ‘came out,’ starting with Losing the Race, one thing I wanted was for everyone to know immediately that I do not think the way they have reason to assume an educated Black person must. That meant many hated me instantly—but at least everything was honest. I like that better.”

Bolstering the perception of McWhorter as a conservative was his time as a senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute, a Republican think tank in New York City. Having read his writing on race, an editor there invited him to work for the institute. In 2002, McWhorter accepted, eager, he says, “to see all the Broadway shows.”

At the institute, McWhorter researched how to improve education for underserved children, fund inner-city churches to support Black communities and improve prisoner reentry into society (a project for which the institute partnered with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, ’91, MA ’92, then mayor of Newark, N.J.). “People have to realize that 20 years ago was a very different kind of Republicanism than what we see now,” McWhorter says. He ended up working for the institute until 2009, a period during which the intersection between its goals and his rapidly narrowed. Finally, he says, “they fired me very sweetly,” covering his health care for a year afterward. 

Pullum, who has known McWhorter for more than a decade and ranks him as one of “the top two or three public linguists in the world,” has observed his complex career trajectory. “John’s original and unorthodox ideas about race and politics led linguists (so many of whom are left-wing liberals) to see him as too conservative,” Pullum recalls. “For the Republicans who dominated the Manhattan Institute, of course, he seemed dangerously close to being a liberal Democrat (which is how John himself describes his politics). So for a few years, neither his academic field nor his employers saw him as ideologically trustworthy. But John follows his own course; he is not interested in being fashionable or popular or correct.”

McWhorter himself is quick to distance himself from Republican orthodoxy. “I’m not a right-winger,” he says. Rather, he believes that each idea should be evaluated on its own merits and not because of its affiliation with any ideological camp. American political theorist Mark Satin, in his 2004 book, Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now, describes the “radical middle” as “politics that combines the best of the left and the right” and satisfies “a hunger for a politics that expresses us as we really are—practical and visionary, mature and imaginative, sensible and creative, all at once.” Satin goes on to describe McWhorter’s views as “an arguably radical middle perspective.” As for calling himself “a cranky liberal Democrat,” McWhorter says, “I will take issue with things that don’t seem to make logical sense to me even if they go against the orthodoxy of the side that I consider myself to formally belong to.” 

On July 7, 2020, McWhorter joined 153 prominent artists and intellectuals, including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Cornel West, Malcolm Gladwell and Gloria Steinem, in speaking out in favor of dialogue. Together, they signed “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which ran in Harper’s and read, in part, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Twenty days later, speaking to the New York Times, McWhorter said that he’d recently heard from more than 100 professors and graduate students, most of whom he described as being left of center, who feared suffering professionally if they aroused the ire of the far left. Addressing how McWhorter has himself come under fire, Pinker, another of the letter’s co-signers, says, “The fact that he is an independent thinker and a rejecter of all ideologies, doctrines, dogmas and party lines has led to occasional labeling as a political conservative, but this is lazy pigeonholing and utterly inaccurate.”

McWhorter attributes his views on race to his upbringing. “I was one of that fortunate post-civil rights middle class,” he says. “I found that around 1990, when I was in grad school, around the time of the Rodney King riots, an educated Black person was expected to sound a note of despair and alarm, as if the mid-’60s hadn’t really happened and America still remained a racist cesspool.” Wanting to understand these perceptions, he spent time speaking to people and doing research. “I know now,” he says, “that the keystone of the feeling many Black people have that racism remains a central problem in their lives is the police—is abuse at the hands of the cops. I hate to say that in the 1990s, I didn’t know that to the extent that I should have because that had nothing to do with Mount Airy. You had no contact with the police.”

‘If I didn't have my daily dose of Mandarin, that would feel like not having one of my feet.’

While McWhorter holds that his views in Losing the Race haven’t changed, he is now careful to acknowledge racism and abuse by the police in his work and public discourse. “I have more of a sensitivity now than I did 25 years ago,” he says. And he strongly believes that racism does exist and that stopping such policies as the war on drugs—while legalizing drugs—would transform Black communities within a decade. “We need to completely reconceive what the function of the cops is in society,” he says. “Not only would it get fewer Black people murdered by the cops, but it would get fewer white people murdered by the cops, and, more to the point, it would mean that the cops would not be in a position to harass and make life miserable for Black people for supposed violations of the peace and the war on drugs.”

During the George Floyd protests, McWhorter’s linguistic and political commentary converged to find a point of agreement with the left. True to his view of language not as “something that is” but as “something always becoming,” he penned an essay in the Atlantic in favor of revising the definition of racism to include societal racial disparities such as unequal access to health care or super-markets, “because it is indisputable that racial disparities stem from bias-infused barriers.” He reminds us that a word’s meaning lies in its use and that the more complex definition is “shared by legions of people, especially educated ones, across our nation.”

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After the Manhattan Institute, McWhorter found his way to a professorship at Columbia, a fortuitous move in no way part of a career strategy. “None of this was planned,” he says. “I’m in some ways a very feckless, immature person who somehow always lands on his feet. You should definitely know that, because I have a pompous, careful way of speaking that makes it sound like I planned my life the way I speak. I did not. I just have a weird way of talking.”

Rather, he was thinking that he loved his languages. “I want to share with the public that which fascinates me,” he says, which he does by teaching linguistics at Columbia and writing books. “And I have a fundamental desire to make my case,” he adds. “I’m like a person who likes to fight, except it’s not with my hands. It’s with my brain. Instead of going to a bar and punching somebody, I wish to make an argument in a way that it’s impregnable.”

Engaging with racial issues feels more like a duty, and in each of his obsessions, he tries to see the Black angle. “I am committed to trying to make the world better,” he says, but when he wakes up, he isn’t thinking about race. “I’m thinking about Estonian. I’m thinking about some ancient comic strip. I’ll maybe be thinking about race issues three hours later. At heart, I’m a geek.” 

He now lives in Jackson Heights, and since Spanish is so commonly spoken there, he recently ordered a record player online so that his 8-year-old daughter—the older of two—can share the experience of how he learned with the Living Language record set as a child. Meanwhile, he is finishing writing Nine Nasty Words, a book about profanity, slated to be published in May 2021, and is teaching himself Mandarin. “If I didn’t have my daily dose of Mandarin,” he says, “that would feel like not having one of my feet. It’s an illness, and it’s written about—how some of us have an irrational desire to learn foreign languages, and not necessarily in order to get in touch with the culture but just out of our fascination with there being these other codes that you can speak and read. I am definitely one of those people.” 

Deni Ellis Béchard is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at dbechard@stanford.edu.

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