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Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care (Englisch) Taschenbuch – 3. November 2005

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'Fascinating... Generally persuasive and always entertainingly argued... An arresting thesis... McWhorter's...examples reflect a wide-ranging knowledge of popular culture, and he is full of odd, illuminating facts.'

" (Independent)

"'Every generation believes that language is in decline, but Doing Our Own Thing argues that this time the concern is real... John McWhorter's...analysis is insightful, richly documented, and yes, eloquently written.'" (Steven Pinker)


Is the English language in decline? Is contemporary music a pale imitation of the musical riches of the past? Linguist John McWhorter argues in this provocative, controversial book that the legacy of the 1960's has caused us to value the verbal and the oral over the written forms of language and music, impoverishing our culture.

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75 von 85 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Read The Power of Babel Instead 31. Dezember 2003
Von takingadayoff - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
First off, let me say that McWhorter's The Power of Babel was one of the best books on language I have read. It is so dense with information presented in a readable, positive style, that I think I'll read it again.
Doing Our Own Thing seems to have been written by McWhorter's evil twin. He assures us near the beginning that this will not be a John Simon-type screed bemoaning the degradation of language in America. Then he goes on to bemoan the degradation of language in America. He manages to be just as pedantic as any language maven about the fact that "Billy and me went to the store" is NOT an ungrammatical sentence, mentioning the same example at regular intervals throughout the book.
Doing Our Own Thing seems like a collection of the author's pet peeves loosely connected to make up a book. McWhorter is concerned about the lack of memorable public speech today and the decline in quality of lyrics, especially in musical theater. He is also annoyed by baggy pants, poetry, and Democrats.
In decrying the decline of American speech today, he claims that no public figure can extemporaneously concoct complex sentences and thoughts. Everyone speaks like a regular guy, or worse, like someone a regular guy can feel superior to. But I can recall Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton giving speeches, that while not memorable in a William Jennings Bryan or even John F. Kennedy style, were complex, yet clear. Bill Clinton's speech at the memorial service for the two security guards who were killed at the House of Representatives was eloquent, for instance.
McWhorter mentions screenwriter David Mamet as someone who is in touch with real speech and can write dialogue that is both authentic and dramatic. This was a particular surprise to me, since I recently saw Heist on video, a Mamet film, and was distracted from the plot several times by painful dialogue. Not only did all of the characters speak with the same voice, they said things like "cute as a bucketful of kittens" and "as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton." If that is authentic speech, then I must be hanging out with a different crowd than McWhorter.
And so it would seem. McWhorter mentions, more than once, that he likes to go to piano bars where you can not only listen to show tunes, but sing along. He notes that there are few straight men at these bars, and for that reason, he finds them an excellent place to meet women. Indeed.
It is not surprising that someone who loves language enough to have made it his life's work would be upset at what he perceives to be the decline of his first langauge. But sometimes his complaints have little to do with language at all. He shows us a soap ad from 1929 that has six panels and quite a bit more text than the typical print ad today. Then McWhorter wonders whether ordinary people in 1929 would have used words like "dainty," which appear in the ad (as he uses the word "exquisite" to describe this very ad). Perhaps a better observation is that few ads these days are as wordy because they need to get our attention fast. When was the last time you saw a 60-second commercial on TV? They used to exist, but now advertisers know they only have 15 seconds to get our attention. Is that a language problem, or something else?
Doing Our Own Thing is definitely readable and there is enough here to get you thinking (not unlike talk radio), but if you want to read a good book about language, I recommend Power of Babel instead.
29 von 31 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Thought-provoking and perhaps convincing, though with some weak points 5. Juli 2007
Von Christopher Culver - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Taschenbuch
John McWhorter has long had a double identity. As a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, he's written on the evolution of languages over time (THE POWER OF BABEL) and on English dialectology (WORD ON THE STREET). But he's also a cultural commentator, until recently directing his attention to the issues facing African-Americans (LOSING THE RACE and AUTHENTICALLY BLACK). In DOING OUR OWN THING: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care he combines his two interests. McWhorter claims that there's indeed a real problem with the English that we hear today in the media and from our politics, and the English we read in popular literature.

McWhorter, like all reputable linguists, will readily state that all languages are essentially equal in that they serve the basic needs of their bodies of speakers. His argument is not that English is going downhill in a way that is reducing people to unintelligent brutes who can't get their message across. No, McWhorter believes that the decline of oratorical skills and literary flair is simply depriving English-speaking culture of some beauty that people could enjoy. He pairs letters from grade-school dropouts of the 1800s with newspaper articles by professional journalists of today to show that, yes, in days of yore people used to appreciate the skill they could display in writing elegant prose, and everyone was capable of giving it a go. He puts the Gettysburg Address next to what a professional speechwriter prepared for President Bush to show that nowadays our politicians provide uninspiring and half-hearted explanations of their motivations and goals. English in the public sphere, McWhorter claims, is lame.

McWhorter has no problem with people on the street talking like they are wont to. He notes that the civil engineer of a century ago who wrote a lovely letter to his sweetheart likely used much coarser language on the job with his construction men. But there should be a place for linguistic virtuosity. Great literature, which is the very exploitation of a language's possibilities, is today rarely encountered in the mainstream media. Poetry is replaced by the Spoken Word, where there's little elegance or artfullness in the construction, just rants against the Man. Indeed, McWhorter traces much of the downhill trend to the 1960s, when the rebellion against authorities tragically entailed a rejection of fine arts, which was mistakenly seen as elitist.

McWhorter extends the argument to music, feeling that popular music today concentrates on rhythm at the expense of other parameters of music. Compare a rap song to a fine jazz tune from half a century ago: once upon a time popular music was rich. This extension is reasonable, but the musical portion of the book is so slim that it seems an after-thought; would that he have fleshed it out a bit. I'm also not sure I buy McWhorter's assertion that English-speaking cultures are the only ones neglecting linguistic virtuosity. Sure, there are cultures out there where speaking eloquently still elicits wonder, but things like poetry are dead in lots of places. Just as the average Dane if he knows who Pia Tafdrup or Ole Sarvig are, or the average Japanese young person if he'd prefer to put down his manga and enjoy some Kawabata instead. The trend may have started in the United States, fount of much international popular culture, but all developed societies are going post-literary.

I am a graduate student of linguistics because I love the diversity of human speech. I am fascinated by the rainbow of languages on Earth, and how within each there is a lively array of registers. But in English, as well as various other languages I speak, things are getting awfully monochromatic and the spice is gone. With DOING OUR OWN THING McWhorter might not be able to stop this massive trend, but it's admirable that he notices there's a problem, and the book is sure to be thought-provoking for the lovers of language, literature, and fine music among us.
26 von 31 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
A Study of America's Linguistic Transition to the Informal 13. Juli 2004
Von D. A. Martin - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
There was a time not long ago in our history when an elaborate command of the English language was considered part of the fabric of American culture. Orator Edward Everett kept a crowd hanging on his every word during his three-hour speech (yes, three hours!) at Gettysburg in 1863 because he was an excellent orator in a time when American society valued excellent orators. Even during the first half of the 20th century, a command of spoken and written English on a level that today would confound many college students was not only required by the time one finished the eighth grade, but was the social norm; ain't so anymore.
In Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, John McWhorter examines this cultural decline in the use of high-fallutin English in contemporary America. He shows that people were taught from grade school, whether or not they went on for higher education, to always put the English language in its Sunday best. W.E.B. Du Bois stands out in particular. Du Bois's first assignment in a composition class at Harvard in 1890 was to write about himself. This is what he wrote:
"For the usual purposes of identification I have been labeled in this life: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on the day after Washington's birthday, in 1868. I shall room during the present twelve-month at number twenty Flagg Street, Cambridge. As to who I really am, I am much in doubt, and can consequently give little reliable information from casual hints and observations. I doubt not that there are many who could supply better data than the writer. In the midst then of personal uncertainty I can only supply a few alleged facts from memory according to the usual way."
And if that's not enough, he finishes with this closing linguistic zinger:
"I have something to say to the world and I have taken English twelve in order to say it well."
This example speaks volumes about the cultural currency that a high command of English possessed back then, and which no longer exists. Can you imagine anyone writing or speaking like this today and not be viewed as pretentious, arrogant or just plain uppity? What happened to cause American society to no longer value such an elevated command of our language?
The authors shows that the 1960's, which scorned the American Establishment as oppressive and constricting, also caused modern-day America to view the highly stylized English of earlier generations as old-fashioned and morally suspect - hence the linguistic shift from the formal to the informal. Americans of an earlier time went out of their way to write and speak good English, and the gap between written and spoken English was indeed wide. The 1960's (McWhorter puts it around 1965 exactly) changed all that. Now, we just talk - and we write how we talk. Using dressed-up English is just so "old school." This counter-cultural revolution is also reflected in poetry, music and journalism. Furthermore, the author points our how this phenomenon is uniquely American: we just do not love our own language today like other countries love theirs (most notably France).
What new American dialect, then, best embodies this new linguistic counter-cultural paradigm? Why, Black English, of course. McWhorter points out how Americans of all stripes since the 1960's have incorporated Black English and its accompanying body language and vocal cadence into this counter-cultural toolkit. By no means criticizing Black English, he devotes considerable space in chapter five analyzing the cultural meaning of the 1970's funk music hit "Play That Funky Music, White Boy." For the P.C. crowd, try to tell a white guy to "Perform with spiritual dedication the bewitchingly vernacular songs familiar to us, young Caucasian male," and see how far that gets you.
Although the author points out that the natural evolution of language in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as all world languages evolve, he does point out some important drawbacks to the modern-day tendency to "dress down" English. This can be seen particularly in the modern education establishment, where the emphasis on the formal language acquisition of earlier generations has been all but tossed out the window. This does not bode well for anyone, but it is particularly damaging to black and immigrant schoolchildren.
McWhorter covers a lot of ground in Doing Our Own Thing, giving the reader plenty to chew on. It is a fascinating look into how the 1960's transformed American society from one that spoke the language and held it in high esteem to one in which people just talk. Regrettably, it looks as if this trend in linguistic informality (some would call it pure laziness) will continue.
3 von 3 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Written English vs. spoken English 27. April 2010
Von Ronald Kozar - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
This book is about the distinction between spoken and written language. McWhorter shows that, whenever Americans wrote things before about 1965, they tried to do so in language that was grammatically correct, aesthetically pleasing, and unabashedly literary. It would have been as unthinkable in those days to write in the same casual voice that one used for routine spoken communication as it would have been to go to town in anything other than your best suit. Today, no one wears a suit anymore, and no one tries to write in the more elaborate style of old.

McWhorter doesn't persuade me that I should, like, care. But, in making his case, he cites many little factoids and anecdotes that would fascinate anyone interested in semantics. He explains, for example, where the rule against ending sentences with prepositions came from, and how, a hundred years ago, a house under construction was "building" rather than "being built." I learned a lot, and I enjoyed the book.

A few reviewers here (most notably A. Holt) accuse McWhorter of resisting the unavoidable evolution of our language. That is the opposite of the truth. McWhorter expressly embraces the idea that there are no objectively "correct" rules in our or any language. He has no trouble at all with deviations from traditional grammar, syntax, and usage. He himself openly uses structures and neologisms that would make a schoolmarm shudder. And he explicitly scoffs at those, like me, who annoy their friends by "correcting" their grammar.
8 von 10 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
A Quest for Complexity 28. Oktober 2005
Von Book Inhaler - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
Through tracing the simplification of American speech and music over the last century (in some cases, longer), McWhorter demonstrates the loss of complexity, and with it, a love for the English (American) language. Showing his own ambivalence about, or possibly seduction by, this simplification, McWhorter shows how this continued degradation is stripping our public discourse of the very richness and precision we most need in these complex times, though he doesn't hammer this point home. (Note: This book makes much more sense if one realizes that good writing is thought on paper.) McWhorter subtly implies, though never states, that the American public's desire for the 'real,' the 'honest' and the simple, is, perhaps, a mistake.

Very well written (with a few editing mistakes!), I give it 4 stars, as it doesn't provide any ideas for changing the situation. Having said that, I am making efforts to improve my own writing and speaking as a result of this book.
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