Doing Our Own Thing by John McWhorter<br/>The Future Dictionary of America, Eds. Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer &amp; Nicole Krauss

How to speak, like, American
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Of America's exports, perhaps the most influential is its language. The dominance of English grows apace in the world, and despite the retention of British English in many language schools, the bias is increasingly towards its American counterpart. This prejudice is fortified by the impact of America's cultural exports of television programmes, Hollywood movies and advertising for every brand from Coca-Cola to the Gap.

According to John McWhorter's fascinating Doing Our Own Thing, this American linguistic hegemony is all the more remarkable because the language is so badly treated in its country of origin. This may not surprise those familiar with the "Bushisms" coming from America's commander in chief, who as leader of the world's most powerful nation could still say without hesitation, "I know what it's like to put food on my family."

But this is not the "degradation of language and music" McWhorter has in mind. Presidential solecisms that make us wince or laugh do not concern him, and although his tone is one of lamentation, it is distinctly unstuffy. Not for him the grammatical correctness horrified by every wrong "hopefully", or by that bane of purists, the now-ubiquitous "between you and I". In such matters, McWhorter is a relativist, as befits his position as a professor of linguistics, one happy to see new constructions and new usages.

What alarms him is a growing loss of traditional features and strengths in the written American language caused by infection from its spoken counterpart. The decline of written speech is evidenced, for McWhorter, by a growing informality that robs it of distinctiveness and distinction. He shows how an aspirational appreciation of formal conventions has disappeared from the written American landscape, dismissed now as pompous and outmoded. Written language is increasingly either talk-like and chatty, or wooden and banal.

The effect extends throughout all communications, from personal correspondence to political speeches once reprinted by newspapers. Of the latter, McWhorter shows how Americans' new lack of belief in rhetoric means that speeches are no longer vehicles for the communication of ideas. Even Dwight Eisenhower, a professional soldier and not a politician, sounded like Demosthenes compared with the White House's re-elected incumbent. And the few "orators" we have are inevitably preachers, whose expositions are spontaneous spoken outbursts. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, even Bill Clinton, speak from the heart, but very rarely from the page.

The removal of formality shows its influence in literary genres, including poetry. According to McWhorter, traditional practitioners are now confined to a hermeticist ghetto, in which a poetry industry exists to serve the interests of poetry producers rather than consumers. But there are effectively no consumers left, unless for the kind of plain-speech work of poets such as the American laureate Billy Collins, or spoken-word performers who are arguably more rapsters than poets.

McWhorter's detailed account of the "oralisation" of English is generally persuasive and always entertainingly argued, but he is less convincing in his efforts to explain why this has happened. He accepts only a minimal role for cinema, television and pop lyrics in the seepage of oral elements into the written language, but oddly sees the counter-culture of the 1960s as the key catalyst instead.

This is symbolised for McWhorter by the speeches given by one of the early protest leaders, Mario Savio, who led the Free Speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964-65. Savio's informal rhetoric is seen as typical of a growing dissident reaction against "authority", and thus against traditionally written forms of argument.

This is an arresting thesis, but it seems no more plausible than the impact of television, advertising, and "modern" education, with its unwillingness to teach writing skills. There has also been the growing influence of an African-American culture that is decidedly oral rather than written (especially in its effect on popular music), though to his credit McWhorter explores this influence at length.

Not all of this change strikes McWhorter as bad, though his two examples of its positive effect seem pretty thin - he suggests that the arbiters of language correctness now play less of a role in our lives (how does this explain the success of Lynne Truss?) and that newcomers to English no longer find a baffling divide between its oral use and the formality of its written incarnation. But though his own prose affects a chatty jauntiness, McWhorter's sympathies are clearly with the ornate and complex compositions of the past. His examples reflect a wide-ranging knowledge of popular culture, and he is full of odd, illuminating facts - not least that human beings were speaking to each other in 150,000 BC, but began to write less than 6,000 years ago.

Quite unintentionally, The Future Dictionary of America is a hopeful riposte to this critique of current written English. It brings together many of the English language's finest writers - most of them young. Part spoof, part satire, it purports to be a dictionary of English words in the year 2016, and is propelled throughout by the contributors' collective detestation of the Bush administration. It's an often pointed read, though enough of a dictionary to be more fun to browse in than read straight through. The flavour emerges from the initial model entry: " Libcon: a leftist who seeks to conserve what 'conservatives' desire to destroy, to wit social security, funded public education, the environment, scientific objectivity, social welfare, equal rights for women, the Constitution of the United States, strategic alliances, the minimum wage, gun control, and child labor laws..."

Contributors include Simon Schama, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon and editor Dave Eggers, whose McSweeney's magazine is where the book originated. Entries range from the clever and imaginative to (less often) the simply silly. The novelist Richard Powers, in the former group, pokes fun at our DNA obsession and comes up with "the Kincatenator", a kinship analyser that, by means of instant genetic analysis from DNA samples, determines the "precise familial relationship between any two individuals".

The Future Dictionary of America is beautifully produced and comes with a CD of 22 new tracks by musicians such as David Byrne and Tom Waits. If not adequate consolation for the next four years, it suggests that a healthy strain of alternative thought will be alive and well in America, and that McWhorter's linguistic decline is being partly checked by sort of the political dissidents whom he blames for starting the rot.

Andrew Rosenheim's novel 'Stillriver' is published by Hutchinson

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