Linguist John McWhorter thinks about language in relation to race, politics and our shared cultural history.

Why you should listen

John McWhorter studies how language has evolved -- and will evolve -- with social, historical and technological developments, in addition to studying and writing about race in America.

In recent work, he’s been urging grammarians to think of email and text messages not as the scourge of the English language but as “fingered speech,” a new form between writing and talking. These digital missives, despite their “shaggy construction,” represent an exciting new form of communication in which “lol” and “hey” are particles, he suggests, and written thoughts can be shared at the speed of talking. Should we worry that knowing how to parse "haha kk" means we'll lose the ability to read Proust? No, he told the TED Blog: "Generally there’s always been casual speech and formal speech, and people can keep the two in their heads."

McWhorter teaches at Columbia, where his students, including Yin Yin Lu, Sarah Tully, and Laura Milmed, teach him all about the world of texting. He's also a contributing editor at The New Republic and TheRoot.com. Among his books on language and on race, a selected list: What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be); Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English; and Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America.

What others say

“The man changed my mind about texting. I love to gripe about it, but John McWhorter made me rethink how I felt.” — Ginette Evans on TED.com

John McWhorter’s TED talks

John McWhorter on the TED Blog
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News

Your weekend reading: The wrong kind of Caucasian, the graduate school question, and how the Internet ruined everything

April 26, 2013

A weekly round-up of interesting, weird and useful reads from around the interwebs. In “The wrong kind of Caucasian,” Sarah Kendzior critiques the media for its tendency to demonize an entire country based on the violent acts of a few individuals. [Al Jazeera] “The Internet: A Warning from History,” or how the Internet ruined everything. […]

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Culture

The linguistic miracle of texting: John McWhorter at TED2013

February 28, 2013

More than 22 million text messages are sent across the world every day … many in truly terrible English. It’s the end of the world as we know it, many decry. The decline and fall of written language means the end for us all, right? Not so fast. Linguist John McWhorter has a great new […]

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Quotes from John McWhorter

Texting is very loose in its structure. No one thinks about capital letters or punctuation when one texts, but then again, do you think about those things when you talk?
John McWhorter
TED2013 • 1.1M views Apr 2013
Informative, Fascinating
LOL does not mean laughing out loud anymore. It's evolved into something that is much subtler.
John McWhorter
TED2013 • 1.1M views Apr 2013
Informative, Fascinating
[Texting] is a whole new way of writing that young people are developing, which they're using alongside their ordinary writing skills. … It's an expansion of their linguistic repertoire.
John McWhorter
TED2013 • 1.1M views Apr 2013
Informative, Fascinating