Friday, November 21, 2003


The other day I was walking around UC Berkeley with a group of friends, and the topic of human accomplishment came up. Specifically, we discussed how some folks have the ability to effortlessly produce a huge body of accomplishments in a relatively short period of time.

To that end, I ran across a story about John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Berkeley. I'll let the NY Times tell the story about this man and his work:
Mr. McWhorter, 38, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a policy research group in New York City, is hardly the first to complain about Americans' brazen disregard for their native tongue. But unlike many others, he says the problem is not an epidemic of bad grammar.

As a linguist, he says, he knows that grammatical rules are arbitrary and that in casual conversation people have never abided by them. Rather, he argues, the fault lies with the collapse of the distinction between the written and the oral. Where formal, well-honed English was once de rigueur in public life, he argues, it has all but disappeared, supplanted by the indifferent cadences of speech and ultimately impairing our ability to think.

This bleak assessment notwithstanding, Mr. McWhorter, an intense, confident and � perhaps not surprisingly � loquacious man, is not a curmudgeon or a fuddy-duddy. Nor, for that matter, a nerd, despite a r�sum� that bristles with intellectual precociousness.

Self-taught in 12 languages � including Russian, Swedish, Swahili, Arabic and Hebrew, which he initially took up as a Philadelphia preschooler when he was 4 � he is a respected expert in Creole languages. (In his spare time, he is compiling the first written grammar of Saramaccan, a Creole language spoken by descendants of former slaves in Suriname.)

A college graduate at 19 and a tenured professor at 33, he has published seven previous books, including the controversial best seller, "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America" (The Free Press, 2000), in which he accused middle-class blacks of embracing anti-intellectualism and a cult of victimology. An African-American who is an outspoken critic of affirmative action, welfare and reparations, he has aroused the ire of many liberals and earned a reputation as a conservative.
Professor McWhorter, you're a whiz, and you win the first edition of the 'Where Do They Find the Time?' award. Future award winners will be announced occasionally on this page.

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