John Hamilton McWhorter V (; born October 6, 1965) is an American linguist and associate professor
of English and comparative literature at Columbia University
, where he teaches linguistics
, American studies
, and music history
. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations
, and his writing has appeared in many prominent magazines. His research specializes on how creole language
s form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.
McWhorter was born and raised in Philadelphia
. His father, John Hamilton McWhorter IV (1927–1996) was a college administrator, and his mother Schelysture Gordon McWhorter (1937–2011) taught social work at Temple University
. He attended Friends Select School
, 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 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
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
. Since 2008, he has taught linguistics, American studies, and classes in the core curriculum program at Columbia University
, where he is currently an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature.
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"; "Language Families of the World"; and "Language From A to Z" in the series The Great Courses
, produced by the Teaching Company.
McWhorter has written for ''Time
'', ''The Wall Street Journal
'', ''The Chronicle of Higher Education
'', ''The New York Times
'', ''The Washington Post
'', ''The New Republic
'', ''The Chicago Tribune
'', ''The New York Daily News
'', ''City Journal
'', ''The New York Sun
'', ''The New Yorker
'', ''The Root
'', ''The New York Daily News
'', ''The Daily Beast
'', and CNN
; he is also contributing editor
at ''The Atlantic
'' and hosts ''Slate
''s ''Lexicon Valley'' podcast. He was contributing editor at ''The New Republic
'' from 2001 to 2014. McWhorter has also 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
McWhorter 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 more than 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
Much of McWhorter's academic work is concerned with 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 toward complexity and irregularity, a tendency that is reversed only by adults acquiring the language, and creole formation is simply an extreme example of the latter. As examples, he cites English, Mandarin Chinese
, the modern colloquial varieties of Arabic
, and Indonesian
. He has outlined his 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 they point to exceptions to the correlation that 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 because of aggressive migrations from the nearby island of Sulawesi
, and he has joined scholars who contend that English was influenced
by the Celtic languages
spoken by the indigenous population and was then encountered by the Germanic invaders
of Britain. He has also written various pieces for the media that argue that colloquial constructions, such as the modern uses of "like" and "totally," and other non-standard speech should 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.
Social and political views
McWhorter characterizes himself as "a cranky liberal Democrat
." In support of this description, he states that while he "disagree
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. Political theorist Mark Satin
identifies McWhorter as a radical centrist
thinker. McWhorter is an atheist
Views on racism
In a 2001 article, McWhorter wrote that black attitudes, rather than white racism, were what held black people back. According to McWhorter, "victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism underlie the general black community’s response to all race-related issues," and "it’s time for well-intentioned whites to stop pardoning as 'understandable' the worst of human nature whenever black people exhibit it."
In April 2015, McWhorter appeared on NPR
and said 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 use by President Obama
and former 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''.
McWhorter has debated in favor of the proposition that anti-racism
has become as harmful in the United States as racism
itself. He has also described anti-racism as a "religious movement" as early as December 2018.
The concept of microaggression
has been criticized by McWhorter, as has what he regards as the overly casual conflation of racial bias
with white supremacy
, and he has argued that software algorithm
s, by themselves, cannot be racist since they lack intention as humans do. He has further argued that unless the human engineers behind a technological
product intend for it to discriminate against black people, any unintentional bias should be seen as a software bug
that needs to be fixed ("an obstacle to achievement") rather than an issue of racism.
McWhorter criticized the 2018 book ''White Fragility
'' following its resurgence in sales during the George Floyd protests
beginning in May 2020, arguing that it "openly infantilized Black people" and "simply dehumanized us," and "does not see fit to address why all of this agonizing soul-searching or residual racism by white people
is necessary to forging change in society. One might ask just how a people can be poised for making change when they have been taught that pretty much anything they say or think is racist and thus antithetical to the good."
* 1997: ''Towards a New Model of Creole Genesis''
* 1998: ''Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of a "Pure" Standard English''
* 2000: ''Spreading the Word: Language and Dialect in America''
* 2000: ''The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Contact Languages''
* 2000: ''Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America
* 2001: ''The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language''
* 2003: ''Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority''
* 2003: ''Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care''
* 2005: ''Defining Creole''
* 2005: ''Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America''
* 2007: ''Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars''
* 2008: ''All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America''
* 2008: ''Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English''
* 2011: ''Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity: Why Do Languages Undress?''
* 2011: ''What Language Is: (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be)''
* 2012: ''A Grammar of Saramaccan Creole'' (co-authored with Jeff Good)
* 2014: ''The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language''
* 2016: ''Words on the Move: Why English Won't – and Can't – Sit Still (Like, Literally)''
* 2017: ''Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths about America's Lingua Franca''
* 2018: ''The Creole Debate''
* 2015–Columns in The Atlantic
Donald Trump's Way Of Speaking is 'Oddly Adolescent'
Are Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki and Na'vi real languages?
4 Reasons to Learn a New Language
A Critical Look at the 1619 Project
– The Glenn Show
''New York Sun'' columnsMcWhorter's blog at ''The New Republic''Video interviews and discussions with McWhorter
''The Atlantic'' columns
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Category:New York (state) Democrats
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Category:Writers from Philadelphia
Category:Radical centrist writers
Category:Rutgers University alumni
Category:Stanford University alumni
Category:Educators from Philadelphia
Category:Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
Category:Friends Select School alumni
Category:Linguists of pidgins and creoles
Category:University of California, Berkeley faculty