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I was somewhat confused by Mlinko's claim that English "uniquely" has verbs that follow the pattern "drink/drank/drunk." Actually, variants of this pattern can be found in all Germanic languages. The same is true of the consonant shifts that she mentions: p to f, t to th, and k to h; these shifts are the common property of all the languages that we call Germanic. Far from being merely a radical innovator among Germanic languages, English actually exhibits a peculiar conservatism: its preservation of the two th sounds (that is, both the voiced and voiceless variants of this sound), which most other Germanic languages have lost, either partially or completely.

While I agree that modern English is indeed a mongrel, this does not mean that it is lawless. Occasionally, the admixture of new words does undermine old rules, but eventually it also creates new rules. A prime example of this process is the creation of verbs out of nouns, for example the verb "to fish" out of the noun "fish." The new verbs that English has created in this way almost never followed the old pattern of "drink/drank/drunk" (for that would have been "fish/fash/fush"), but rather created a new pattern: "fish/fished/fished," which has now (after many centuries) become the new standard for all verbs that we call "regular," including nearly all verbs that English has borrowed from other languages.

Sometimes, nonstandard pronunciations of words lead to nonstandard rules. For example, consider the nonstandard English phrase "have your picture took." This phrase is most likely to be used by a speaker who pronounces the word "taking" like "takin'." In this person's dialect, "have your picture taken," which is the standard form, sounds incorrect, because it is indistinguishable from "have your picture taking," which would make no sense.

Rather than argue "against rules," I would argue that an educated speaker of English, and most particularly a teacher of English, should be familiar not only with the standard rules for English, but with some nonstandard rules as well.

It is unfortunate but inevitable that the culture wars have invaded our contested notions of correct grammar. I believe a serious caretaker of the English language should stress two things: (1) Standard English is not white, and white English is not standard. (2) Written English is not spoken English, and spoken English is not written English.

I can illustrate my first point best by illustrating the second point. The sentence "I only danced with Margaret," is ambiguous in writing, though not in speaking. When speaking, I can make my meaning clear using intonation: I either mean "I only danced with Margaret" or "I only danced with Margaret." In writing, I need to be more careful. Either I have to use italics or capital letters to make my intonation clear (as I have done here), or I have to reformulate the sentence so that word order does the work of intonation, either by writing, "With Margaret, I only danced," or "I danced only with Margaret," depending on my meaning.

Since writing lacks the advantage of intonation, it has a deficit in comparison to spoken language that needs to be supplemented in some way. Writing requires a more careful consideration not only of word order but also of word choice; and it generally requires a larger vocabulary. No matter what color your skin may be, it will not make you a better writer.

It is possible that blacks are generally better speakers and listeners (if not better writers) of US English than whites, because they (unlike most whites) are familiar with more than one set of rules. This advantage would surely transfer to writing as well, if only blacks felt that there was more reciprocity, that is, if they felt that whites were as interested in black dialects as blacks are compelled to be interested in white dialects. This hypothesis, if true, would lend some support to my claim that we should learn some nonstandard rules for English, alongside the standard ones, especially if we are teachers.

Eric Paul Jacobsen

West Saint Paul, MN

Jun 29 2009 - 5:41am

Web Letter

Ange Mlinko's review is more of a highlights than a review. McWhorter is kind of a linguistics bad boy, and his writings have all the swagger of this persona. He is also a bad boy when it comes to race, being black but going against long-held beliefs in the black community. Being a bad boy means going against the status quo, and such people are needed in the world. But the obvious dislike of the "rules" is a bit misplaced. All languages have rules.

I once read a piece by Vince Deloria (Lakota, I think) who described grammar as a white man's invention. Maybe the terms are, but even Lakota has grammar, even if Mr. Deloria thinks grammar came from the outside. How else do speakers understand one another? How do I know you were talking about something in the past if I don't recognize "were XXX-ing" as a past continuous form? As a former ESL teacher, I can attest to the necessity of rules when learning a language, and those rules exist even when not explicitly stated. When I goof up in Spanish and confuse the gender of a word, that causes my wife (a native speaker) to have a mental hiccup, and she corrects me (or not, depending on my level of self-esteem at the time). The same goes for us native speakers of English. If a learner says "I goed" instead of "I went," we immediately know that was wrong. Some of us even know that the non-native speaker applied the past tense rule too broadly.

Sure, there are differences among native speakers. Subsets of the rules, dialects, whatever. Some are regional, some by social class, etc. Slang plays a role too, though McWhorter is talking about those minor grammatical differences, not vocabulary. But these regional variations are being squelched by the same mass media forces that are doing away with other languages in the world, although it could be argued that the standard language of mass media may evolve separately from the spoken vernaculars, as is the case in the Arab world (don't know if Modern Standard Arabic evolved or was created, so I'd appreciate being set straight without righteous indignation).

Anyway, enjoyed the piece. Sorry this babbled on so.

Scott Faulstick

Washington, DC

Jun 23 2009 - 2:59pm

Web Letter

Mr. McWhorter has also written a pair of books on the black experience in America. The emphasis is on the extent to which popular culture has gone out of its way to denigrate academic excellence among blacks.

For too long, the role model that was held up was like the 1970s' Mr. T. or comparatively uncouth sports figures.

His critique of the immense damages done in the name of "affirmative action" is classic. He points to the difference between a fair chance to take a reasonable test and the racist type of categorizing, as with Sotomayor's now-famous discrimination against the white firefighters.

By the way, Professor McWhorter is himself black.

John D. Froelich

Upper Darby, PA

Jun 17 2009 - 1:49pm