John McWhorter

John Hamilton McWhorter V (/məkˈhwɔːrtər/;[1] born October 6, 1965) is an American academic and linguist who is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history.[2] 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
EducationFriends Select School
Alma mater
Scientific career

Early life

McWhorter was born and raised in Philadelphia. His father, John Hamilton McWhorter IV (1927–1996)[3] was a college administrator, and his mother Schelysture Gordon McWhorter (1937–2011) taught social work at Temple University.[4][5] 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 classes in the core curriculum program at Columbia University, where he is currently an associate professor in the English and comparative literature department. 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, CNN 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 including 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.

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 Atlantic, 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 Yorker, among others; he is also contributing editor at The Atlantic and hosts Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast.


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 towards 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.[6] 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 point to exceptions to the correlation that he proposes.[7][8]

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."

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 contend that English was influenced by the Celtic languages spoken by the indigenous population and was then encountered by the Germanic invaders of Britain.[9] 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.[10]

In January 2017, McWhorter was one of the speakers in the Linguistic Society of America's inaugural Public Lectures on Language series.[11]

Social and 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 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".[12] McWhorter has criticized left-wing and activist educators in particular, such as Paulo Freire and Jonathan Kozol.[13] He believes that affirmative action should be based on class rather than race.[14] Political theorist Mark Satin identifies McWhorter as a radical centrist thinker.[15]

McWhorter is an atheist.[16]

Views on racism

McWhorter considers that anti-racism has become as harmful a force in the United States as racism itself.[17][18] According to him, what is holding blacks back is "black attitudes" rather than white racism.[19]

In April 2015, McWhorter appeared on NPR and claimed 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.[20][21] 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.[21]

McWhorter has criticized microaggression and white supremacy theories,[22][23] and has argued that technology cannot be racist.[24]


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
  • 2015–2019: Columns in The Atlantic.

Video clips


  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. "NY Daily News- Articles By John McWhorter". NY Daily News. Retrieved November 29, 2014.
  3. Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of a Pure Standard English, John H. McWhorter V, Perseus Publishing, 1998
  4. 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. ISBN 9780195301731.
  5. Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America, Michael L. Ondaatje, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, p. 174
  6. 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.
  7. Ansaldo, Umberto; Lim, Lisa (2015). Languages in Contact. Cambridge University Press. pp. 194–195. ISBN 978-0-521-76795-8.
  8. Giuffrè, Mauro (2013). "Review: Linguistic simplicity and complexity". LINGUIST List. 24.1461. Retrieved 20 August 2016.
  9. 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.
  10. McWhorter, John (April 5, 2014). "Opinion | Like, Degrading the Language? No Way" via
  11. "LSA Public Lectures on Language Series – Linguistic Society of America".
  12. McWhorter, John (January 25, 2011). "Frances Fox Piven, Jim Sleeper and Me". The New Republic. Retrieved November 29, 2014.
  13. McWhorter, John (March 5, 2010). "Taking out My Eraser". The New Republic.
  14. McWhorter, John (December 13, 2015). "Actually, Scalia had a point". CNN. Retrieved December 3, 2016.
  15. Satin, Mark (2004). Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now. Westview Press and Basic Books, p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8133-4190-3.
  16. McWhorter, John (October 18, 2014). "John McWhorter on Twitter". Retrieved May 28, 2019.
  17. "Has Anti-Racism Become as Harmful as Racism? John McWhorter vs. Nikhil Singh". 2018-11-30. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  18. "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.
  19. "What's Holding Blacks Back?". City Journal. 2015-12-23. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  20. All Things Considered (April 30, 2015). "The Racially Charged Meaning Behind The Word 'Thug'". NPR. Retrieved November 25, 2015.
  21. 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.
  22. "'Microaggression' Is the New Racism on Campus". Time. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  23. "The Difference Between Racial Bias and White Supremacy". Time. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  24. "'Racist' Technology Is a Bug—Not a Crime". Time. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
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