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John McWhorter

John McWhorter
Born John Hamilton McWhorter V
1965 (age 50–51)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Nationality United States
Fields Linguistics
Institutions Cornell University
UC Berkeley
Columbia University
Education Friends Select School
Alma mater Simon's Rock College (A.A.)
Rutgers University (B.A.)
New York University (M.A.)
Stanford University (Ph.D.)

John Hamilton McWhorter V (born 1965) is an American political commentator and linguist, professor at Columbia University where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music.[1] He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations. His research specialties are how creole languages form and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
  • Political views 3
    • "Thug" controversy 3.1
  • Bibliography 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Early life

McWhorter was born and raised in Philadelphia. 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.


Since 2008, he has taught linguistics, American Studies, and in the Core Curriculum program at Columbia University and is currently an Associate Professor in the English and Comparative Literature department there. 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. He was Contributing Editor at The New Republic from 2001 to 2014. From 2006 to 2008 he was a columnist for the New York Sun and he has written columns regularly for The Root, The New York Daily News, The Daily Beast and Time Ideas.

McWhorter has 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. He makes regular public radio and television appearances on related subjects. He is interviewed frequently on National Public Radio and is a frequent contributor on 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), has appeared on The Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher, and appeared regularly on MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes.

McWhorter is the author of the courses entitled "The Story of Human Language, "Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language," "Myths, Lies and Half-Truths About English Usage," and "Language From A to Z" for CSPAN's Book Notes In Depth series.[2]

Much of his academic work has concerned creole languages and their relationship to other ones, often focusing on the Surinam creole language Saramaccan. His work has expanded to a general investigation of how adults acquiring a language "undoes" much of the complexity and irregularity that human language otherwise inevitably wends into, to varying degrees of which creoles are simply an extreme. This includes Mandarin Chinese, Persian, the modern colloquial dialects of Arabic, Swahili, and Indonesian, as well as English. He has outlined these ideas in academic format in Language Interrupted and Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity, and for the general public in What Language Is and, on English, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

McWhorter has also been a proponent of a theory that various languages on the island of Flores underwent transformation due to aggressive migrations from the nearby island of Sulawesi, and has joined scholars who document that English was profoundly influenced by the Celtic languages spoken by peoples encountered by Germanic invaders of Britain. He has also written various pieces for the media arguing that colloquial constructions such as the modern uses of "like" and "totally," and nonstandard speech in general, be considered alternate renditions of English rather than degraded ones.

Political views

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 Black English as coherent speech". McWhorter additionally notes that the conservative Manhattan Institute, for which he worked, "has always been hospitable to Democrats".[3] Regardless, McWhorter has criticized left-wing and activist educators in particular, such as Paulo Freire and Jonathan Kozol.[4] One author identifies McWhorter as a radical centrist thinker.[5]

"Thug" controversy

In April 2015, McWhorter appeared on NPR [6] and claimed that the use of the word "thug" was becoming code for "the N-word" when used by whites in reference to criminal activity. He added that recent use by President Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (for which she later apologized) could not be interpreted in the same way, given that the black community's conception of the "thug" includes an element of admiration for self-direction and survival. He did not cite a basis for these claims in the interview, which was widely misunderstood, but clarified his views in an article in the Washington Post.[7]


  • 1997: Towards a New Model of Creole Genesis ISBN 0-8204-3312-8
  • 1998: Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English ISBN 0-7382-0446-3
  • 2000: The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Contact Languages ISBN 0-520-21999-6
  • 2000: Spreading the Word : Language and Dialect in America ISBN 0-325-00198-7
  • 2000: Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America
  • 2001: The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language ISBN 0-06-052085-X
  • 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 ISBN 1-59240-016-7
  • 2005: Defining Creole ISBN 0-19-516669-8
  • 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 ISBN 1-59240-374-3
  • 2008: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English ISBN 1-59240-395-6
  • 2011: What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be) ISBN 978-1-59240-625-8
  • 2011: Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity: Why Do Languages Undress?
  • 2014: The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language ISBN 978-0-19-936158-8


  1. ^ "NY Daily News- Articles By John McWhorter". NY Daily News. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  2. ^ Lamb, Brian (2003-03-02). "Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority". Booknotes. Retrieved 2008-10-07. 
  3. ^ John McWhorter. "McWhorter, John (25 Jan 2011). "Frances Fox Piven, Jim Sleeper and Me". The New Republic.". New Republic. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  4. ^ McWhorter, John (5 March 2010). "Taking out My Eraser".  
  5. ^ Satin, Mark (2004). Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now. Westview Press and Basic Books, p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8133-4190-3.
  6. ^
  7. ^

External links

  • NPR interview on meaning of the word thug
  • Biography at Manhattan Institute
  • columnsNew York Sun
  • The New RepublicMcWhorter's blog at
  • Cato Institute Podcast: Race Relations and the War on Drugs
  • Affirmative Action at Berkeley article, debate on affirmative action
  • article about Black culture
  • Video interviews and discussions with McWhorter on
  • All about the BeatLos Angeles Times review of
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
    • , March 2, 2003.Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority interview with McWhorter on Booknotes
    • interview with McWhorter, March 2, 2008In Depth
  • Interview, Superinteressante Magazine, Brazil, February, 2008.
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