John McWhorter

John Hamilton McWhorter V (/məkˈhwɔːrtər/;[1] born October 6, 1965) is an American linguist associate professor of Slavic languages[2] at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history.[3] 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 languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.

John McWhorter
John McWhorter in 2008
John Hamilton McWhorter V

(1965-10-06) October 6, 1965 (age 55)
Academic background
Academic work

Early lifeEdit

McWhorter was born and raised in Philadelphia. His father, John Hamilton McWhorter IV (1927–1996)[4] was a college administrator, and his mother Schelysture Gordon McWhorter (1937–2011) taught social work at Temple University.[5][6] He attended Friends Select School in Philadelphia, 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 French 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.[7] 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 in the Department of Slavic Languages. He was previously affiliated with the Department 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.

A popular writer, McWhorter has written for Time, The Wall Street Journal,The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Politico, Forbes, 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.[8]

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 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.[9]


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.[10] As examples, he cites English, Mandarin Chinese, Persian, the modern colloquial varieties of Arabic, Swahili, 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.[11][12]

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."[13]

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?] 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.[14] 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.[15]

In January 2017, McWhorter was one of the speakers in the Linguistic Society of America's inaugural Public Lectures on Language series.[16]

Social and political viewsEdit

McWhorter characterizes himself as "a cranky liberal Democrat." In support of this description, he states that while he "disagree[s] 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."[17] McWhorter has criticized left-wing and activist educators in particular, such as Paulo Freire and Jonathan Kozol.[18] He believes that affirmative action should be based on class rather than race.[19] Political theorist Mark Satin identifies McWhorter as a radical centrist thinker.[20]

McWhorter is an atheist.[21]

Views on racismEdit

In a 2001 article, McWhorter claimed that black people's attitudes, rather than white racism, held black people back. According to him, "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." [22]

McWhorter appeared on NPR in April 2015 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.[23][24] 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.[24]

McWhorter has debated in favor of the proposition that anti-racism has become as harmful in the United States as racism itself.[25][26] He has also described anti-racism as a "religious movement" as early as December 2018.[27]

The concept of microaggression has been criticized by McWhorter,[28] as has what he regards as the overly-casual conflation of racial bias with white supremacy.[29] and he has argued that software algorithms, 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.[30]

McWhorter criticized the bestselling 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 [for 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."[31]


External video
  Booknotes interview with McWhorter on Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority, March 2, 2003, C-SPAN
  In Depth interview with McWhorter, March 2, 2008, C-SPAN
  • 1997: Towards a New Model of Creole Genesis ISBN 0-820-43312-8
  • 1998: Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of a "Pure" Standard English ISBN 0-738-20446-3
  • 2000: Spreading the Word: Language and Dialect in America ISBN 0-325-00198-7
  • 2000: The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Contact Languages ISBN 0-520-21999-6
  • 2000: Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America ISBN 0-684-83669-6
  • 2001: The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language ISBN 0-06-052085-X
  • 2003: Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority ISBN 1-592-40001-9
  • 2003: Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care ISBN 1-592-40016-7
  • 2005: Defining Creole ISBN 0-195-16669-8
  • 2005: Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America ISBN 1-592-40188-0
  • 2007: Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars ISBN 0-195-30980-4
  • 2008: All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America ISBN 1-592-40374-3
  • 2008: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English ISBN 1-592-40395-6
  • 2011: Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity: Why Do Languages Undress? ISBN 978-1-934-07837-2
  • 2011: What Language Is: (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be) ISBN 978-1-592-40625-8
  • 2012: A Grammar of Saramaccan Creole (co-authored with Jeff Good) ISBN 978-3-11-027643-5
  • 2014: The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language ISBN 978-0-199-36158-8
  • 2016: Words on the Move: Why English Won't – and Can't – Sit Still (Like, Literally) ISBN 978-1-627-79471-8
  • 2017: Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths about America's Lingua Franca ISBN 978-1-942-65820-7
  • 2018: The Creole Debate ISBN 978-1-108-42864-4
  • 2015–: Columns in The Atlantic.

Video clipsEdit


  1. ^ McWhorter, John H. "Lexicon Valley". Slate. The Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company. (Listen to McWhorter's pronunciation of his own name at the beginning of each podcast.)
  2. ^
  3. ^ "NY Daily News- Articles By John McWhorter". NY Daily News. Retrieved November 29, 2014.
  4. ^ Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of a Pure Standard English, John H. McWhorter V, Perseus Publishing, 1998
  5. ^ Miller, Jason Philip (2006). "McWhorter, John". In Gates, Henry Louis; Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks (eds.). African American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/aasc/9780195301731.013.5211 (inactive 2020-09-07). ISBN 9780195301731.CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of September 2020 (link)
  6. ^ Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America, Michael L. Ondaatje, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, p. 174
  7. ^ "View Expert". Manhattan Institute. Retrieved 2020-06-10.
  8. ^ "John H McWhorter, Columbia University, American Studies Department".
  9. ^ "John McWhorter". IMDb. Retrieved 2020-06-10.
  10. ^ McWhorter, John (2007). Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars. Oxford University Press. pp. 5–18. ISBN 978-0-198-04231-0.
  11. ^ Ansaldo, Umberto; Lim, Lisa (2015). Languages in Contact. Cambridge University Press. pp. 194–195. ISBN 978-0-521-76795-8.
  12. ^ Giuffrè, Mauro (2013). "Review: Linguistic simplicity and complexity". LINGUIST List. 24.1461. Retrieved 20 August 2016.
  13. ^ "The Language Hoax".
  14. ^ McWhorter, J. H. (July 10, 2009). "What else happened to English? A brief for the Celtic hypothesis". English Language & Linguistics. 13 (2): 163–191. doi:10.1017/S1360674309002974 – via Cambridge Core.
  15. ^ McWhorter, John (April 5, 2014). "Opinion | Like, Degrading the Language? No Way" – via
  16. ^ "LSA Public Lectures on Language Series – Linguistic Society of America".
  17. ^ McWhorter, John (January 25, 2011). "Frances Fox Piven, Jim Sleeper and Me". The New Republic. Retrieved November 29, 2014.
  18. ^ McWhorter, John (March 5, 2010). "Taking out My Eraser". The New Republic.
  19. ^ McWhorter, John (December 13, 2015). "Actually, Scalia had a point". CNN. Retrieved December 3, 2016.
  20. ^ Satin, Mark (2004). Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now. Westview Press and Basic Books, p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8133-4190-3.
  21. ^ McWhorter, John (October 18, 2014). "John McWhorter on Twitter". Retrieved May 28, 2019.
  22. ^ "What's Holding Blacks Back?". City Journal. 2015-12-23. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  23. ^ All Things Considered (April 30, 2015). "The Racially Charged Meaning Behind The Word 'Thug'". NPR. Retrieved November 25, 2015.
  24. ^ a b McWhorter, John. "Baltimore's mayor and the president said 'thugs'? Let's not get too bent out of shape". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 25, 2015.
  25. ^ "Has Anti-Racism Become as Harmful as Racism? John McWhorter vs. Nikhil Singh". 2018-11-30. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  26. ^ "Debate: 'The Message of Anti-Racism Has Become as Harmful a Force in American Life as Racism Itself'". 2018-11-09. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  27. ^ McWhorter, John (2018-12-23). "The Virtue Signalers Won't Change the World". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2020-07-25.
  28. ^ "'Microaggression' Is the New Racism on Campus". Time. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  29. ^ "The Difference Between Racial Bias and White Supremacy". Time. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  30. ^ "'Racist' Technology Is a Bug—Not a Crime". Time. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  31. ^ McWhorter, John (July 15, 2020). "The Dehumanizing Condescension of 'White Fragility'". The Atlantic. Retrieved July 18, 2020.

External linksEdit