Spreading the Word: Language and Dialect in America
John McWhorter (2000)
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Pp. x + 83
ISBN 0-325-00198-7 (paper)
The subject of dialect and what constitutes "standard" English is one of the most contentious issues in sociolinguistics today. It involves answering such weighty questions as: What is the exact relationship between standard languages and dialects? How should non-standard English be treated in the classroom? What really makes a standard language? Contrary to popular perception, the topic of American dialects and standard English is not a new topic. It has had a long history. It was not until the end of the 19th century that the United States institutionalized (but not legalized) an English only, standard English policy. Even the very controversial subject of "Black English" has been debated back and forth in academic circles for more than 35 years.
John McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, has joined the fray with his new book, Spreading the Word: Language and Dialect in America. This slim book (only 83 pages) is intended to be a general introduction to the subject of dialects for American teachers (K-12), teacher educators, and administrators. Basically, McWhorter has two core theses he wants to advance.
His first thesis, which is laid out in the first two chapters, is that "The idea that there is one 'best' English shining in the sky is so intuitively plausible, and so relentlessly hammered into us throughout our lives, that it is natural for teachers to consider part of their jobs to be upholding standard English. . . . However, we are misled in thinking of varieties of English other than the standard as 'wrong.' . . . We will see in this book that other kinds of English are not bastardizations of standard English but variations upon the basic plan of English, of which the standard is but one" (p. ix).
McWhorter supports this observation by showing that dialects "develop alongside standard varieties, not from them" (p. 7) and "are chosen according to geopolitical accident, not according to anything inherent in the dialect itself" (p. 8). Furthermore, "colloquial dialects are as complex and nuanced as standard ones" (p. 10) and "if a person speaks a colloquial dialect, it is not a symptom of an inabilty to speak a standard one" (p. 14). He also differentiates dialects from slang and shows that they are not cases of "linguistic laziness" (p.17), nor are they grammatically incorrect, but internally consistent, logical, rule-based systems. [-1-]
His second thesis, which is also strongly argued for in the first chapter, is "What we must always recall, however, is that even if the rest of the world is often unaware of this, the job of school is to add a new layer to a child's speech repertoire, not to undo the one they already have" (p. 15, emphasis in original). Or as he states it in the introduction, "rather than approach other kinds of English as something to teach students out of, we can celebrate the other kinds of English they speak, as well as other kinds, while adding standard English as a new part of their repertoires" (p. ix, emphasis in original).
Chapter 3, "They Just Mix Them Up!," is concerned with a discussion of code-switching, the migration of words, and the hybrid structure of creoles, "Spanglish," and pidgins. In this chapter, McWhorter makes the frequently overlooked point that colloquial dialects and mixed speech varieties are entirely natural phenomena, as are language mixing and changing. "Languages change, to various extents, in various directions. Changing and mixing are as inherent to the life of a language as they are to the lives of the humans who speak them, but despite the upheaval, human speech always 'resolves to the tonic chord,' to speak musically, remaining always a coherent system. Thus, dialects of a language emerge within the context of constant transformation and cross-fertilization that nevertheless always maintains fundamental stability" (p. 58).
The final chapter, number 4, is titled "The Linguistic Rain Forest." McWhorter's purpose is to "take us on a trip through eight languages spoken by large immigrant groups in the United States today, which children in classrooms now commonly speak at home" (p. 62). He then gives a brief linguistic and grammatical overview of Chinese, Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, Hindi, Amharic, Hebrew, and Tagalog. He concludes the book on a metaphor: "No longer a place where a few close relatives of English like Spanish, Italian, and German hide in the bushes waiting to come out at night while America is asleep [sic]. Modern America is nothing less than a linguistic rain forest" (pp. 75 - 76).
One strong point of this book is that McWhorter has an ability to simplify complex linguistic issues and explain their essence in clear language. Specifically, his discussions of slang, creoles, and pidgins (his specialty) and language change are good.
I found some areas covered troublesome, however. In terms of his second main thesis, there are two problems. First, McWhorter fails to concretely explain precisely how a teacher can go about "adding a new layer" while not undoing the speech repertoire the student already has. Although he is arguing for an addition to rather than a replacement of standard English, and freely acknowledges the social advancement value of standard English, I am still unsure exactly how he thinks this should be done. While teaching 6th and 7th grade English to Sioux Indian children on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1983, I had some experience with the daily practical difficulties associated with attempting to teach standard English while also carefully trying not to impose upon Lakota, the local language. While these problems were and are not insurmountable, guidance is necessary. In short, a good discussion and listing of practical techniques or teaching tools on how to accomplish the "adding" would have been helpful in this chapter. Although McWhorter has written some short exercises for students at the end of each chapter, the activities in this section are not that instructive. [-2-]
There is another question which McWhorter fails to address. Does adding standard English instruction to the vernacular dialect put a misguided and pedagogically suspect emphasis on linguistic habits (i.e., the vernacular dialect itself) that really need no reinforcement because they are used in the students' home environments every day? And does this emphasis actually hinder the process of learning English? For example, some native teachers in the Caribbean have suggested that the local lingua franca, which is an English-based creole, is an impediment to teaching standard English.
In regard to the final chapter, unfortunately, McWhorter's excursion through the "linguistic rain forest" is not that informative for teachers, is rather dry, and ultimately seems superflous to the intent of the book.
In conclusion, this book unhappily suffers from several flaws. As an introduction to the study of dialects, it is uneven and too selective. Because the book is so short, and McWhorter unfortunately wastes important space on tangential topics such as those in the last chapter, important issues that may be of interest to teachers are not discussed. Such topics include the influence of politics on standard English, the Oakland Eubonics controversy, the reasons why standard English became standard, and the various roles standard English plays in American life. In addition, oddly for a supposed introductory book, McWhorter has no references for further reading within the chapters, and his bibliography is very limited because of its generality and its listing many dated books.
As the practical primer it was intended to be, this book is limited. If used in teacher development, it needs to be supplemented by some other sources.
University of Petroleum, Beijing, China
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