John McWhorter

John Hamilton McWhorter V / b. 1965 / Professor of Linguistics, Author, Political Commentator, Podcaster

Note: The specific sources of the following quotations are provided where known. Otherwise, quotations may be assumed to derive from McWhorter’s numerous writings, commentaries, and podcasts.

Black Americans

[I] would argue that native-born blacks are so vastly less “African” than actual Africans that calling ourselves “African American” is not only illogical but almost disrespectful to African immigrants. Here are people who were born in Africa, speak African languages, eat African food, dance in African ways, remember African stories, and will spiritually always be a part of Africa—and we stand up and insist that we, too, are “African” because Jesse Jackson said so?

I am not “African American”—I am black American.

As far as I’m concerned, and this is a big theme of mine, I’m not interested in white people loving me. It’s an unrealistic expectation. Black people don’t love anybody but themselves.

Black English

It would be good if teachers could genuinely understand that black English is not mistakes, it’s just different English, and that what you want to do is add an additional dialect to black students’ repertoire rather than teaching them out of what’s thought of as a bad habit, like sloppy posture or chewing with your mouth open.

Ebonics—or black English, as I prefer to call it—is one of a great many dialects of English. And so English comes in a great many varieties, and black English is one of them.

The contribution of West African languages to Ebonics is absolutely infinitesimal. What it actually is is a very interesting hybrid of regional dialects of Great Britain that slaves in America were exposed to because they often worked alongside the indentured servants who spoke those dialects that we often learn about in school.

Black English is something which—it’s a natural system in itself. And even though it is a dialect of English, it can be very difficult for people who don’t speak it, or who haven’t been raised in it, to understand when it’s running by quickly, spoken in particular by young men colloquially to each other. So that really is an issue.

Black English is simpler than standard English in some ways; for example, it often gets by with just “be” and drops “am,” “is,” and “are.” That’s because black English arose when adult African slaves learned the language.

People think of black English as ungrammatical, but it bears the same relationship to standard English as contemporary Hebrew does to ancient Hebrew.


The war on drugs is what makes thugs.


Black boys do commit more violent offenses in public schools than other kids. Period. This means that if we follow these prophets’ advice and go easier on black boys, we hinder the education of other black students. The Elect earnestly decry that most black kids go to school with only other black kids, because it fits into their agenda to point out “segregation.” But that “segregation” also entails that the black boys they think should be allowed to beat other kids up in school are handing out the beatings to other black kids.

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (2021).

Electronic Media

“LOL” is one of several texting expressions that convey nuance in a system where you don’t have the voice and face to do it the way you normally would.

People banging away on their smartphones are fluently using a code separate from the one they use in actual writing, but a code it is, to which linguists are currently devoting articles.


As languages go, English is pretty user friendly. If you look at a tiny language spoken somewhere that most of us have never heard of, chances are it’s going to be so complicated that you have a hard time imagining how people can walk around speaking it without having a stroke.

English, however, is kinky. It has a predilection for dressing up like Welsh on lonely nights.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English (2008).

Human Nature

A person you excuse from any genuine challenge is a person you do not truly respect.

Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (2000).

If you want to learn about how humans differ, study cultures. However, if you want insight as to what makes all humans worldwide the same, beyond genetics, there are few better places to start than how language works.

The Language Hoax (2014).


Language is always evolving, and we should enjoy it for what it is, not use it to divide us.

Language is a technology that’s 5,000 years old. We keep using it because it works.

Learning languages makes you more tolerant and understanding of other cultures.

Loving your language means a command of its vocabulary beyond the level of the everyday.

Most languages spoken by a few thousand people are so complicated they make your head swim; a Siberian yak herder’s language is much more complicated than a Manhattan bond trader’s.

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (2002).

Language overlaps with culture but is not subsumed by it.

Because all languages are and have always been in a state of continual transformation, anything we see in a language today is the result of change.

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (2002).

Don’t tell the Scandinavians I said this, but “Swedish,” “Norwegian,” and “Danish” are all really one “language.”

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (2002).


Rap and spoken word have reawakened the country to poetry in itself. Texting and Twitter encourage creative uses of casual language, in ways I have celebrated widely. But we’ve fallen behind on savoring the formal layer of our language.

In the nineteenth century, poetry was a bestselling genre rather than the cultish phenomenon it is now.

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care (2003).

For all but the sliver of poetry fans, over the past forty years popular song lyrics have been the nation’s poetry.

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care (2003).

Poetry that tames language into tight structures and yet manages to move us comes off as a feat, paralleling ballet or athletic talent in harnessing craft to beauty. When poetry is based on a less rigorous, more impressionistic definition of craft, its appeal depends more on whether one happens to be individually constituted to “get it” for various reasons. The audience narrows: poetry becomes more like tai chi than baseball.

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care (2003).


We need the hard left to point us to new ways of thinking. However, we need them to go back to doing this while seated, with the rest of us, rather than standing up and getting their way by calling us moral perverts if we disagree with them and calling this speaking truth to power.”

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (2021).

We must neither behave as children by resisting honesty, nor allow ourselves to be treated as children by having honesty withheld.

Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (2000).

Prescriptive Grammar

Languages are not homogenous. There is no such thing as “proper” English. There is no “pure” anything.

Slang is one of the most important aspects of a language.

People have been warning us that language was going to the dogs ever since Latin started turning into French.

As a linguist, I see the arbitrariness of strictures editors force on me as a writer.

Prescriptive grammar has spread linguistic insecurity like a plague among English speakers for centuries, numbs us to the aesthetic richness of non-standard speech, and distracts us from attending to genuine issues of linguistic style in writing.

Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of “Pure” Standard English (2001).

In an ideal world, the time English speakers devote to steeling themselves against, and complaining about, things like Billy and me, singular they, and impact as a verb would be better spent attending to genuine matters of graceful oral and written expression.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English (2008).

Nota bene: linguists savor articulateness in speech and fine composition in writing as much as anyone else. Our position is not—I repeat, not—that we should chuck standards of graceful composition. All of us are agreed that there is usefulness in a standard variety of a language, whose artful and effective usage requires tutelage. No argument there.

The argument is about what constitutes artful and effective usage.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English (2008).

Linguists traditionally observe that esteemed writers have been using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for almost a thousand years. As far back as the 1400s, in the Sir Amadace story, one finds the likes of “Iche mon in thayre degree” [Each man in their degree].


Racism is not dead. Definitely, there are these biases.

The only way that residual racist feelings could affect legislation, in my opinion, is through a lack of priorities, from not doing things.

Social Mores

The difference between educated people and uneducated people is that educated people have been opened up to the notion that you can disagree without fighting; whereas uneducated people, in conversation, seek to always agree—everybody agrees and agrees and that’s considered basic social libation.


Every third person in the world is a drama queen. And crying “victim,” especially when you’re not really a victim in any real way, feels good. It feels good to cry victim if you’re not one.