What should I ask John McWhorter?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, with an associated public event.  Here is part of his Wikipedia profile:

John Hamilton McWhorter V…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. 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.

So what should I ask him?

And if you wish to register for February 17, here is the link.


Reperations. He supports them at this point.

How do we do this? I don't think anyone claims that only former slave owners should foot the bill considering that they are no longer wealthy to give a check for 40 million people. Also, is this monies that are given once or is it for future generations?

Also, how do we identify who is "black" and therefore entitled? In NOVA it is common to see northern african take advantage of programs designed for african americans. How we do stop this? Blood tests?

John McWorter; "Quick add on reparations - I don’t think they are a bad idea. I think we’ve already had since the 1960s, and still have, them. They were just never titled “reparations.” This is too often missed or, more often, elided."

9:20 PM - Mar 11, 2019

Came here to say this. McWhorter is awesome. He supports reparations in so far as he believes America has put significant effort through things like affirmative action to lift up blacks. He doesn't support any form of monetary payout, and to my knowledge, he doesn't support additional programs.

"He doesn't support any form of monetary payout,"

I think he does... that is why I asked. I could be wrong and I doubt Tyler will ask this sort of question anyway. But I can't imagine John won't read these comments.

I thought his previous position was some sort of affirmative action based on class, not race, and he has written critically about Black culture being responsible for black problems. But I know of at least two times he said he can get behind reparations.

I know twitter isn't real life but it feels like things are starting to turn on this matter. David Brooks supports reparations. I think all of the democratic contenders except Biden support it.

Maybe Tyler can ask him about why there are no serious Black intellectuals anymore, just advocates. People like Coates just point to white supremacy to be the explanation for everything (obesity, crime, income, education, etc.) I don't even read him anymore.

Then you have C West, Eric Michael Dyson, etc. who are clearly just blowhards competing with each other to be the most silly in the room.

And yeah, John is awesome.

"...ask him about why there are no serious Black intellectuals anymore..."

"People like Coates just point to white supremacy to be the explanation for everything (obesity, crime, income, education, etc.) I don't even read him anymore.
"Then you have C West, Eric Michael Dyson, etc. who are clearly just blowhards competing with each other to be the most silly in the room."

Your use of the term, "serious" is concerning here. That standard--highly subjective--is a useful tool for race-based exclusion. You then illustrate how that tool is applied in practice by dismissing out of hand intellectuals such as Coates, West, and Dyson. "Blowhards" and "silly" are also subjective terms that are being used to filter those intellectuals with whom I assume you disagree.
Off the top of my head, here are some "serious" black intellectuals (John McWhorter not withstanding):
Roland Fryer
Beverly Daniel Tatum
Bryan Stevenson
Carl Hart
Toni Morrison
Nikole Hannah-Jones
Henry Louis Gates
Thomas Sowell
Angela Davis

And here are biographies of 25 black intellectuals I found interesting

*Meant to say "not to mention," not "notwithstanding"

HNJ - an anti-historical journalist? TM - a novelist? AD - an actual terrorist? 😐

Those who are serious intellectuals on your list are old (Morrison, Gates, Sowell, Angela Davis).

Or they aren’t what I consider to be “public intellectuals” like Hart or Stevenson.

I'm not familiar with Nikole Hannah-Jones work outside of the 1619 project and that was clearly advocacy masquerading as history. You don't really think she studied the entire body of evidence in front of her, weighed them against each other, and neutrally arrived at her conclusion, do you?

I do like the work of Fryer despite his problems in the lab.

If you google “Eric Michael Dyson Cringe” I’m sure you’ll find all sorts of embarrassing stuff. Did you see the Munk debates? He talks how a college freshman writes.

But with a few exceptions it seems like POC who get published now basically talk/complain about being POC.

But just to be clear, I don’t think it is a problem with black people in particular. Is there any essential reason to read the NYT op-ed section anymore? When was the last time you had your mind changed by reading it? When was the last time you found anything written there even interesting? Who is todays’ Schlesinger?

What do you consider to be a "serious public intellectual" and how do you distinguish them from being a mere advocate? Also, why wouldn't you expect black intellectuals not to spend a considerable amount of time complaining about racism?

Angela Davis! Seriously? Other then racist murder what does she know?

So if we give reparations does the recipient have to pay back any welfare they received over the previous years?

The monies should be paid by Southern state governments, which fought to preserve slavery by force, as well as any corporations or other institutions that owned slaves. To the extent anyone can prove descent from slaves captured and sent back under the Fugitive Slave Act, the reparations should be paid by the US federal government. The monies should be paid to people who can prove descent from slaves.

Institutions such as governments and corporations don’t die like individuals and so their obligations are permanent so long as they exist. Requiring slave states to pay reparations seems analogous as requiring asbestos manufacturers to pay damages to the families of deceased asbestos workers. Even though none of the current shareholders or employees of those asbestos companies are responsible for asbestos use decades ago, the organization is still liable for those damages.

Why would the state governments of Rhode Island and Massachusetts be exempt from paying enormous sums in reparations?

Their citizens and states profited handsomely from the Transatlantic slave trade by trading rum for slaves, selling slaves in the West Indies for molasses, and distilling molasses into rum for the purchase and shipment of slaves through the colonial era and into the era of American independence.

The state governments themselves weren’t involved. They did not enforce slavery; to the contrary, Massachusetts even nullified the Fugitive Slave Act. If there was a trading company based in Massachusetts that traded slaves and is still around today, sure that company can be liable.

Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts profited enormously by helping to make slavery in BOTH Americas possible. Wouldn't both states have licensed or taxed their rum distilleries and their shipbuilders, their exporters of rum and their importers of molasses purchased through the decades of sales of slaves?

Pay up, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and pay up big.

You do understand that the civil war erased those state government you wish to punish and the replacements today contain zero individuals responsible for slavery. So why then would you punish them???

Following the logic, perhaps even the letter, of Fogel/Engerman Time on the Cross: Cotton saw slavery reduce it's cost. Being a perfectly competitive industry with free entry, the cost reduction was passed on to consumers in the form of a price reduction. Where did most consumption of cotton take place at the time? In Europe. Thus, Europeans should be taxed and the proceeds transferred to the offspring of slaves.

Shouldn't the CWTeam be asked for ideas first, thus allowing people to avoid repeating their undoubtedly insightful perspectives.

Do your students have plans to earn money?

Boxers of briefs?

You seem unaware that the CWTeam are well paid, with their student days a decade or more in the past.

Why do Russians value culture much more than we, Americans, do? Is it President Putin's influence?

Ask him about his experience at Simon's Rock.

Is English a creole, semi-creole, or simply a West Germanic language with Celtic, North Germanic, and Romance features?

Good question. Ask him about Creoles more generally, what they tell us about the nature of language and culture.

What impact has he seen if any on English as the result of Spanish speaking might action to the is? If there are changes are they regional in flavor or likely or unlikely to spread?

Do presidents have any lasting impact on American English?

What does he think about being John Hamilton ‘The Fifth’? Has it shaped his identity in any way? Does he think about I/II/III more as a result? If the chance arises, could there be a John Hamilton VI?

Are linguistic differences between the "elite" and laypeople a driver of populist sentiment? Does using specialized or more formal language increase hostility between groups more generally?

He surely has observed the decline of standard English across the board -- the people for whom subject-verb agreement is a mystery, and the ones who can't tell "its" from "it's" or "then" from "than," among many others.

How long does he estimate it will be before written communication is reduced to Facebook's vocabulary of 1,000+ emojis? Does he have a backup career planned if in fact this happens, or suggestions for how we might stop or reverse this trend?

Oh, from what I have heard he would probably say it has simply evolved and changed. He's against the curmudgeonly "degenerative" argument because language changes, always and forever.

I was trying to get at the sometimes opaque language used by our elites. Economists do it all the time, the post linked below made me think of the question.



The combination of an illiterate populace and an only marginally less illiterate (and economically/historically illiterate and craven) governing class does not bode well for a huge country trying to make wise decisions in the current world environment.

He let slip on a Bloggingheads video podcast with Glenn Lowry that he got his job as an affirmative action hire. I don't think he's mentioned it again since. You probably shouldn't ask him about this directly though.

You should ask about this, especially in context of any reparations discussion. He was forthright about it on blogging heads. John is frank about uncomfortable truths and this is one thing that makes conversations with him worthwhile.

"John is frank about uncomfortable truths."

Well, he has his limits. He's supported making discussions of race and genetics verbotten (look for his NRO article). Because it has no real life utility, in his opinion, and is unhelpfully incendiary.

Can you share some of the utility that these conversations bring with us?

Nah. I don't know enough about it. It's for that same reason I don't care if conversations about physics or geology or anything else in science is forbidden or not. I don't know enough to say if it should be forbidden or not.

In Japanese, the action words are the subject of a sentence. Hence, their sentences are constructed almost backwards from an English perspective. Christopher Hitchens had a unique speaking and writing style. Backwards is the way I have described his sentence structure. My very good friend writes much like Hitchens. When I pointed that out to my friend, his explanation was that he spent almost two years in Japan. ?

Yes, Japanese is subject-object-verb, so you'd say "yesterday I pizza ate" (not quite that simple but it's close). When the verb comes at the end, you can have a long sentence and start reading it understanding the things that were done by something but you don't know what actually happened until the end of the sentence.

It is interesting comparing how the experience of reading Japanese and English is different in that regard. In practice, I rarely notice a difference except in certain works of literature.

German is similarly SOV. This famously makes it very difficult to translate the first sentence of Kafka's Metamorphosis into English -- Wikipedia has an interesting discussion and chart:


My twelve year old insists on dropping the first r when saying "library." Should I continue to berate him that that sounds uneducated, or shrug because that's what happens to words over time, and for my son, library's first r's time has come?

This is a fantastic question. I also correct my children but even hear adults smarter than me pronounce the word that way. Based on some of his past interviews, he'd probably recommend not correcting others in this instance (one of his books is entitled 'Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue').

A commenter asks a good question: "What do anti-prescriptivists tell their own children?"

My children are 2 and 3, and I'm told that at those ages it's more effective just to speak around your children the way you want them to speak, rather than setting rules for them. But I've certainly thought about what I ought to tell my children eventually; here are a few thoughts, with the understanding that "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy."

1. Be age-appropriate. A nuanced rule that may work for an older teenager might not work well for a younger child.
2. Teach children to speak and write in ways that will serve them well. My goal isn't to make sure that my child follows the technical rules of grammar. My goal is to make sure that he can speak and write in ways that are clear, that make him look educated, and that will make him seem pleasant and careful rather than pompous and offputting.
There's nothing wrong with the word "ain't," which has been used for centuries, and which I can find no abstract logical reason for condemning. It's just that today using it will lead quite a few people to think the less of you -- much more so than splitting infinitives would, for instance -- and the safe bet is to avoid it, except in fairly clearly jocular contexts. Likewise, there are lots of sesquipedalian words that aren't "wrong," but that one generally shouldn't use (though one should know in case others use them).
3. Teach older children to be skeptical of language myths. I plan to teach my children to be skeptical generally. But language is one area where I've come across especially many enduring myths, including myths -- about grammar, usage, etymology, and more. Children should learn that, so that they can develop their skepticism, and so that they can better learn what the actual rules are (and of course there are rules, just rules that are dictated by actual usage).
4. Explain to older children that English is a grown order, not a made order. This is itself an interesting and useful observation, but it may also help them think about how other things (such as markets) are largely grown orders.
5. Try to get my children to be interested in -- even fascinated by -- the language. I get a lot of pleasure out of thinking, reading, and talking about language, and I hope they will, too. And I think that thinking and caring about language will make one a more knowledgeable, careful, and effective user of the language.
6. Teach children not to correct others' grammar and usage, except in certain contexts and manners in which such correction is socially acceptable. As I noted before, that's both a good way of avoiding social friction, and a good way of avoiding the embarrassment of finding that the speaker you're correcting was actually quite right, and that your correction was incorrect.


Read poetry to them -- The Owl and the Pussycat, Shel Silverstein, Paul Revere's Ride (Paula Revere works fine if it's a girl,) etc. Good construction makes words and phrasing fun and rewarding.

We can't bear to correct our 5-yr old daughter who still says "Aminal" because we think it is precious. Are we going to hell for that?

As a parent it is interesting to see that point in language development when children speak more logically than we do, because they’ve grasped the verb conjugation rules but don’t know the irregulars yet.

“where did mom go?” “She goed to work”

“He walked home, I runned home.”

Convention aside, just eliminating irregulars would make everyone better off.

Question: so why can’t we just all stop using irregulars tomorrow? Other than inertia. What is lost?

Why are some of us to resistant to language change and about Ebonics.

I think Ebonics is misunderstood and mainly used by opponents in a pejorative way to smear blacks. There isn't much difference between so-called Ebonics and regular (white) English. Reminds me of how islamo-phobes throw out misunderstood words like Shariah and Jihad - terms that most muslims were probably not aware of before 9/11 - to demonize the religion and its 1.8 billion adherents.

Ebonics is also virtually identical to the dialect of 18th century Wessex. Novelist Thomas Hardy went to great lengths to accurately record this dialect in his 19th century novels, so there are passages in The Mayor of Casterbridge that record the "I be" and "you be" constructs.

McWhorter has written that "Black English" is a separate language, not merely a separate dialect, with its own rules of grammar.

Where? Because McWhorter doesn’t think there’s a logical distinction between the two, and what difference there is is that, in popular usage, “language” refers to the written form and “dialect” is the spoken version, which doesn’t apply to AAVE.

You're right about McWhorter's views on language vs. dialect, or slang, but I don't know where you're getting that language in "popular usage" is written and dialect is spoken. McWhorter first came to fame over the Ebonics course offered in Oakland in 1996; his view was that they weren't "wrong" to declare Black English as different, but that their plan to "teach" it was foolhardy because it's quite intelligible with standard American English (I guess the same way that, in America, we don't need to teach a course on Australian English). It looks like his own views have evolved over time, albeit not drastically

1997 - https://web.stanford.edu/~rickford/ebonics/LingAnthro1.html
1998 - https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1998-oct-31-me-37858-story.html
2010 - https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129682981
2011 - https://www.npr.org/2011/04/27/135764774/the-root-whats-up-provides-a-lesson-in-ebonics

In recent years (like his 2017 book), he's gotten less descriptive and more prescriptive in his evaluations of Black English.

Does he feel safe
Using the letter
Between m and o
In a lecture
On Huckleberry Finn?

Since computers can sense emotion, and respond in the same emotional context, will retail services be overtaken by bots who sound like humans? Will the bot assume your accent, and, if not, what accent should it assume?

Why are bot voices in the service space usually female? Is that sexist, or is it that we fear a male voice in this context?

Oh is it now ok to say: there's a few cars in the parking lot.
And how about the reemergence of: Amongst.

How is he a local thinker?

He gave up tenure once, right? What does he think about that institution?

Underrated/overrated: only musicals.

Has he had David Reich? There's a lot of linguistics in that book.

Why is Russian so murderously difficult?

Has parenting given him any insights into language acquisition?

Do some white people "sound black"? Who? Where?

Why is heart and hound, not keart and hound? Why did courageous win over hearty?

If he had free rein as dean, what would he do with affirmative action? And if he was secretary of education? Dictator of the Americas?

Do Russians really distinguish more shades of blue?

Besides the letter f, how does food change language?

Which questions in linguistics he wishes more people would study? Which fewer? Which does he think would yield the most good?

Can he recommends musicals in languages other than English?

> Do Russians really distinguish more shades of blue?

There are two different "blue" words in Russian: синий (siniy) and голубой (goluboy). The range of hues covered by siniy includes navy blue and an RGB (red-green-blue) value of zero red, zero green, full blue. The range of hues covered by goluboy includes sky-blue shades and an RGB value of zero red, full green, full blue (aka "cyan" or "aqua"), although the archetypal color for it is on the bluish side of cyan/aqua.

Now, any language including English has sophisticated color vocabulary, words like "scarlet", "crimson", and so on. However, those are not words that you'd expect a small child to know. But in the case of the two Russian words for blue, they really are fundamental color words on par with red, orange, yellow, green, violet, white, gray, black, brown.

So for example, in this singsong cartoon (YouTube) with tractors of various colors and different animals, there is a siniy tractor at 0:00 and a goluboy tractor at 7:36.

And here's a video about rainbows, where the rainbow has the two blue colors. Of course that sometimes does show up in Western rainbow depictions as well, where the end colors are designated as "blue / indigo / violet". But "indigo" is not a fundamental color word in English, and in stylized representations of rainbows such as the LGBT flag which do not attempt to closely reproduce the shading gradient of an actual rainbow in the sky, there is usually just one blue color.

Some studies have claimed that Russian speakers can actually distinguish shades of blue better than English speakers, but who knows if this is a replicable result.

Why is Russian so murderously difficult?

It is not any more difficult than any other imperial language. During the Tsars and under Soviet Union literally hundreds of millions of people learned Russian as a second language, often coming from very different language families such as Turkic, Mongolian, Finno-Ugric and Kartvelian. Many of those people, particularly in Siberia and Central Asia, passed Russian on to their children rather than their own native languages. How could a “murderously” difficult language spread so effectively?

Do these other people speak Russian well? Do Russians show amusement at hearing a foreigner or non-ethnic Russian speak their language? In Japan this was definitely the case. I think China is a bit like this too.

Most of the citizens of Russia who are not ethnic Russians nevertheless speak Russian as a mother tongue.

However, in the Cold War period many Eastern Europeans from Warsaw Pact countries learned and spoke Russian with various accents. And today there are numerous "guest workers" both legal and illegal speaking broken Russian, from former Soviet countries, especially from central Asia.

So a foreigner speaking Russian in Russia is hardly something amazing or exotic, like it once was in Japan or China.

How do he and other contemporary linguists account for the relative lack of native orthographies among sub-Saharan language communities? (How many such languages are written today exclusively in Latin alphabets derived and adapted from former colonial powers or in script derived from Arabic traders?)

What does linguistics have to teach about persuading an audience? That is, if he were rewriting Aristotle's Rhetoric using only the principles of linguistics, what would he emphasize?

It has often struck me as odd that parliaments in nations with creole languages do not accept their use in debate which seems to belittle their status and disadvantages some elected members as against others.

Sounds like his mom taught social work. Would love to hear if and how her work contributed to and shaped his beliefs.

Ask McWhorter to explain the theory of universals and its underlying mechanism of recursion. Also ask McWhorter to talk about the between Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett regarding the validity of the theory of universals, and where McWhorter resolves this debate in his thinking on the matter.

Ask McWhorter to explain the theory of universals and its underlying mechanism of recursion. Also ask McWhorter to talk about the [disagreement] between Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett regarding the validity of the theory of universals, and where McWhorter resolves this debate in his thinking on the matter.

Speaking of which, when is TC going to have Noam Chomsky on CWT?

Good question.
I suppose like the 1990's Eagles reunion, when hell freezes over.
It'd be great though. Not much time left.

Why is he still an associate professor? What does that say about the value faculty place on being a public intellectual? Should we value public prominence more, or should intellectuals with interesting things to say to the public just suck it up and accept the fact that being a public figure is likely to be a hinderance to one's academic career?

Ask him about Obama's performance in eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. He delivers a pitch-perfect Black vernacular sermon, but he wasn't raised in the culture.

Also, as him why he favors have Shakespeare rendered into contemporary English, which he does. He's gotten a lot of flak for that.

Shakespeare in contemporary English is just a translation. If you think translations have value, there's no reason to object to having Shakespeare in modern English. As with all translations, some subtleties will be lost and you will also miss the opportunity to learn about the development and history of the English language by not being exposed to a primary source. So, it's a trade off, much like reading translations of Homer, Virgil, etc

Underrated or overrated: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Mc thinks it is neither nor, just wrong and/or meaningless (or key terms are inadequately specified, as in what does "think differently" mean? What is a "world-view?" BTW the expression "world-view" gives us an important clue as to where this alleged "hypothesis" originated, i.e, in German nationalism).
He's talked about this many times. It's a favorite public lecture topic (linguistically untrained people like it, or are curious, in other words).
Why it's a popular topic and attractive misconception however is an interesting question, although he doesn't have any scientific answer to that. (Many false things are believed by many people, in any case.)

How much does being linguist mess up the joy of reading? What are the negatives and the positives?
Did he like the life of Henrietta Lacks from a linguistic point of view.
Overrated or underrated: Thomas Sowell

Why will Tyler Cowen be "doing a [c]onversation" with John McWhorter instead of simply "speaking with" or even "conversing with" John McWhorter?

Why permit techspeak to intrude with so ugly a locution upon chats between any two people, even or especially if both are trained academics?

Because that is the title of the podcast, "Conversations with Tyler"

That does not explain why techspeak is permitted to dictate terms of discourse across contemporary America, even or especially among trained academics.

Americans defer to our corrupt and corrupting Tech Sector far too much (or at least enough) as it is, which helps explain the degradation of discourse outside of the Tech Sector, outside of our corrupt and corrupting Media Sector, and outside of our increasingly corrupt Academic Sector.

Do you need a safe space? You wanna cry?

No and no: I'm pleased to read and write in contemporary English, as do numerous Americans not enslaved by or to our overweening Tech, Media, and Academic Sectors:


Ask him about hip hop!

and/or ebonics

Ask what he thinks of the word "literally".

wokeness as a religion

Pinker, underrated or overrated?

Musing on future decades, will English's current lingua franca status continue through the rest of the 21st Century? Any other candidates to watch?

Agreed, good question.

Also interesting to note that the question is “will English continue to be the French language “

Please ask him on his view of the current state of affirmative action and its impact on race relations.

Please ask him to elaborate on his ideas regarding affirmative action based on class.

Does he think Universities have changed significantly during his career, and if so how?

What characteristics or atributes do his very best linguistics students have in common?

2 questions for McWhorter:

What can our educational institutions do better to teach morality, guidance, consolation in the face of defeat, and how to live a virtuous life?

Is Cornel West right when he said, "Justice is what love looks like in public"?

I have begun hammering the hell out of the T in the word “craftsmanship”. Why does it feel so right, and sound so wrong? Did we ever pronounce the T in that word?

To what extent does language influence perception. I've always been sceptical of people saying they think completely differently in different languages - it would be nice to hear from someone who seems to have thought deeply about this.

Does he really believe that language don’t differ significantly in how its speakers view the world? Is this position one of evidence or moral stance? If a person were able to speak all languages in existence would they have a deeper understanding of reality? Or one is just enough?

With a nod to My Fair Lady and those who say 'ax' instead of 'ask,' what percent of a first impression is derived from judging a person by their speech?

Over- or under-rated: Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell

Older languages tend to have the most complex grammar, and creole languages tend to have the simplest. Among older languages, is there much variation in complexity? If so, what accounts for that complexity? Geographic insularity? One-time imperial superiority? Something else?

Also, Tyler, what a fantastic choice for an interviewee. McWhorter is a really exciting scholar. I'm really looking forward to this conversation.

How does he view recent, non-Chomskian approaches to language learning (e.g., probabilistic)? Descriptively, how much are they beginning to shake the hold of purely Chomskian approaches (the minimalist program)? Normatively, how welcome or unwelcome does he regard them?

Ask him about Trump's speech and language. I know he's written articles on the subject and he's talked about it (e. g. with Glenn Loury). I know he detests Trump, but I suspect that he'll say there's nothing particularly unusual about Trump's speech patterns, just normal dysfluencies.

yeah ask him that, it is funny to see people who rejoice in the thought that they are kings of academia talk about how the real world would be great if people like them were in charge of the real world.

nobody is going to remember Trump or McWhorter a hundred years from now.

so ask him to tell us how he is an expert on the dysfluencies of other people.

Then ask him to write a sonnet, or a memorable aphorism.

He will fail, you know that, I know that.

and after he fails ask him why he detests Trump, and why he thinks anyone cares about his opinion about the dysfluencies of the man he hates so much.

then ask him to grow up.

Hilarity will ensue.

You know, every once in a while even very kind-hearted people grow tired of the arrogance of professors.

This comment will of course soon be deleted but it does not matter.

Curious. I don’t necessarily disagree but I want to ask: why would you say Trump will be forgotten in one hundred years? When Trump was elected he was compared to Andrew Jackson. Why wouldn’t Trump be remembered?

The hyperbolic left thinks Trump’s another Hitler. Surely we’ll remember the American Hitler in 2120, lol.

Why do most linguists regard themselves to be descriptivists (and often consider it to be the only legitimate manner of linguistics), but then without fail lapse into prescriptivism of either a conservative or progressive variety at the smallest disagreement or conflict?

And on a related note, when a linguist is professing to be "describing" language, to what extent does he think a linguist is in fact shaping that language in a prescriptive and/or normative manner?

Does he mind being banished by most of his academic peers due to his political views?

Has he seen The Expanse series on Amazon or read the books? If so, what does he think of the Belter Creole language spoken by the characters? If not, what is his favorite fictional Creole language?

Curious on this too, especially given the prevalence of creoles and pidgins in science fiction. I'd go further and ask if the generation of creoles is stochastic or deterministic -- might we be able to realistically imagine what creoles may form given inputs on migration patterns or, say, ethnic composition of a future space colony?

John rejects the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in large part because the arguments made supporting it are often 'just-so stories'. Does John reject evo-psych arguments too since they rely on 'just-so stories' as well?

Do you think you would more happy or more sad if you had a real job?


Creoles are sometimes given as evidence for universal grammar. (I ran across this in Ray Jackendoff's "Foundations of Language", for instance.) The story goes, people are thrown together and form a pidgin, which consists of a patchwork vocabulary and no real syntax. But the next generation turns this into a creole--a real language with grammatical rules. This story is suggestive, at least, that something weird and interesting is going on in very young language learners' minds. (It is sometimes also argued the creoles have grammatical similarities that must come from some inherent language faculty.)

How accurate is that picture of creole formation? If there's not a special part of the brain that turns pidgins into creoles, what is going on?

Here's a question about the relationship between written and oral language:

In some languages you pronouce words exactly as you write them letter by letter (like Greek). In others there's a plethora of exceptions and ad-hoc special cases (like English or Portuguese).
In the first case if you learn the sounds of the letters and you can read a passage out loud correctly, in the second you can't.

Given that oral language must have been there before the written language, how is the greek case possible? What explains that pronoucianion can easily be derived from the letter-sounds? Was there a collapse in language use, and then a re-build from the writting upwards?

Edit: there's a rudandant "AND". It should read:

When we transliterate foreign words into the English alphabet, we seem to use completely different transliteration rules, depending on the foreign language. For example, Chinese transliteration uses the letters "q" and "x" in fairly unique ways, and Hindi words that use the same sounds are transliterating using different letters.

Why does he think we do this? Why shouldn't all foreign-language words be transliterated into the English alphabet using the same set of rules, all based on the way letters are used in the English alphabet?

Did going to a Quaker high school make an impact on him, and how does it effect his day to day life as an adult?
What linguistic differences does he notice pertaining to gender (vocal fry, word choice, more than just physical differences, etc.)

Assume a young English speaker knows no other language, but wants to learn at least one more? What should they start with and why? What are the trade offs (ease of learning, usefulness for career, deeper understanding/access to literature)?

Why should people learn latin or ancient greek?

Is there something special about reading literature in the native language and why?

Is grammar classist? If it is a signifier of class, does that make enforcing grammar rules an act of distancing oneself from or providing assistance to the speaker?

What does he think of Columbia University as an institution? The (college) Core Curriculum? The Slavic department vs the American Studies department? Lee Bollinger?

What did he learn as the child of a University administrator? What does he think of administration today? How would he "fix" higher education, if he had unilateral power?

Philadelphia vs Great Barrington vs New Brunswick vs Palo Alto vs Ithaca vs Berkley vs Greenwich Village vs Morning Side? Where did he enjoy living most? What was the most stimulative and creative environment?

His top three restaurants in New York.

Is code a form of language? Math? Logic?

What can linguistics teach us about software?

What does he think about STEM? What about the rush to teach computer science earlier and earlier (and it potentially crowding out language courses)?

How should an adult study a foreign language? What does he know or believe about adult language acquisition?

How similar/different are creole languages built from the same base. For example Creole (English/French) is/was spoken in Louisiana, New Brunswick and Mauritius (and more). Each time it was developed independently. How are those three “languages” similar or different from one another? What drives those similarities or differences?

What’s the gateway for getting a bit of his love for Broadway musicals? Give me three.
Why do we even care about languages so much? It seems overrated.
If the Vikings made English simpler and that helped Britain in the long run, then why don’t we ban all intellectual meddling in teaching language?
It seems the key to learning another language is getting a boyfriend or girlfriend from that country. Which means, you have to get practice and really care. Can this be emulated elsewhere? Rather than making people sit in classes learning anything, why can’t we find a method to imitate real-world necessity. And if there is no real world application, then so be it.

It's a tough topic to bring up, but I think it would be a shame not to follow-up on some of McWhorter's 2001 City Journal article, "What’s Holding Blacks Back?" In that article, he writes:

"All through modern black American culture, even throughout black academia, the belief prevails that learning for learning’s sake is a white affair and therefore inherently disloyal to a proper black identity."

Does he still find this claim true 20 years later?

What does it mean to be loyal to a "proper black identity" in 2020?

1. Re: Trayvon, how did he make the decision to lend his credibility to a conspiracy theorist associated w/ Alex Jones? Any regrets?

2. Many young Asian Americans "talk black". Thoughts?

3. Does JM's "sounding white" when he speaks correlate with his contrarian views on race?

What has he been reading? Any recommendations? Any guilty pleasures?

Can a language be better or worse than another for any particular thing? Science? Math? etc.

I would ask him if we might all be better off if we could forget the whole past of slavery and Jim Crow, or maybe what he thinks is the best balance of dwelling on the past and trying to build a better future.

Linguistics trains you to find the underlying structure(s) of human language. The "rules".

Is that training part of why he has a conservative strain in his generally leftist political thought?

Culture cannot make humans speak in a number of ways -- it would be "unnatural". Lojban is one such example of a constructed language humans can't actually speak fluently. Culture can only make humans speak a variety of ways within a set of constraints.

Does that reflect the core of his political views and is that a reason why he cannot embrace the latest set of leftist political beliefs?

How long does it take for an elegant written language to emerge? And how does its lack impede the enjoyment of reading?

The diglossia in Arabic is wide, often forcing many Arabic speakers to prefer reading in another language entirely than formal written Arabic because it differs so greatly from a vernacular Arabic. Lebanese people, for instance, often prefer reading/writing in French because of this.

Other languages with a relatively short vernacularised written history, languages such as Malay/Indonesian, are also still developing a literary style that is readable and enjoyable.

How much does this affect the enjoyment of writing and reading?

How long would it take for the elegance to emerge over time?

John has kids. How prescriptive is he in correcting the ways that their speech and writing diverge from standard written English?

What does it take to bridge from academia to pop culture? Both of you are brilliant at making academic subjects palatable to lay audiences. But your approaches are different. How can the world have more of this?

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