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In 2002, the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks was marked in New York City by the reading of the Gettysburg Address. It was, as many commentators noted, an odd choice of eulogy, comparing as it did the unwitting and innocent victims of a terrorist attack to the willing and active [End Page 220] participants in a bloody civil war. In Doing Our Own Thing, the Berkeley linguist John McWhorter asserts that this strange choice was the result of a decline in American public discourse. A "particular kind of artful English, formerly taken for granted as crucial to legitimate expression on the civic stage has" he argues, "virtually disappeared" (p. xiv). For McWhorter, this lack of contemporary public oratory is merely part of a broader linguistic decline that has affected all aspects of American life and culture.
There has, he suggests, been a dumbing-down of the language. Whereas Americans once took care to craft their language, public and private, McWhorter argues, there is now a casualness to their speech and writing which affects all aspects of their existence. The nature of this decline is best captured by McWhorter's anecdote about his research into Gullah, an obscure Creole dialect. In response to his inquiries about local speech patterns, an elderly black woman in Greenwood, Mississippi responded: "Well, seems like most folks, they speak pretty good English, but some people, it seems like they just talk" (p. 2). Whereas Americans once spoke pretty good English, McWhorter believes, now, for the most part, they just talk. In Doing Our Own Thing, he seeks to identify not only evidence for his thesis, but also the causes and consequences of this decline.
Evidence of linguistic decline is, McWhorter believes, to be found in our public discourse (as evidenced by the contemporary use of the Gettysburg Address), and in the rise of rap music and popular lyrics at the expense of poetry—he notes that as late as the 1960s, the poet Marianne Moore was a guest on The Tonight Show twice. Less intuitively perhaps, he identifies the same decline in the decreased popularity of piano bars, and the rising popularity of cell-phones. What all these examples of have in common, McWhorter suggests, is a turn towards an oral as opposed to a written culture. Speech has, he says, become something of a "dress-down affair" (p. 49), and this has infected both our written word and public oratory. The "modern American speech writer" he notes, "tends strongly to operate under a guiding imperative not to sound too high a note" (p. 47). McWhorter contrasts this with examples from the nineteenth-century—with letters from ordinary soldiers to their sweethearts, and with Edward Everett's two-hour plus address at Gettysburg—which show that "we live in an America with a distinctly different relationship to the English language than an America still within living memory" (p. 167).
For McWhorter, the causes of this decline are clear. The 1960s counterculture, in its efforts to "Speak Truth to Power, abandoned the formal conventions of previous generations' speech, and adopted its own more casual approach to public discourse. Indeed, McWhorter feels confident enough to identify "a single year when America lost its love for its language": 1965 (p. 183). The consequences of this decline are, for McWhorter, similarly obvious. Among them, the shift to an oral culture is held to be responsible for: the election of George W. Bush—Al Gore's "studied articulateness is certainly one of the major [End Page 221] factors that blocked him from winning the presidency" (p. xxi); the decline of contemporary political debate—more formal written language is, says McWhorter, "a better vehicle for objective argument than speech" (p. 35); and the increasingly obtuse nature of academic language. Indeed, McWhorter asserts that Judith Butler...