McWhorter’s début as a public intellectual came twenty years ago, when a fracas erupted over a proposal to use Black English—then often called Ebonics—as a teaching tool in public schools in Oakland, California. The idea was roundly ridiculed. Ebonics, people said, was simply a collection of “slang and bad grammar”—not nearly enough to make a language. The TV talking head Tucker Carlson, in a typically nasty flourish, called Black English “a language where nobody knows how to conjugate the verbs,” McWhorter recalls. The pungent reaction baffled linguists, who had long appreciated—and begun to seriously study—the “languageness” of Black English and other informal speech variants, such as Jamaican Patois, Swiss German, and Haitian Creole. McWhorter, who is black, was then teaching at nearby U.C. Berkeley, and he had a long-standing scholarly interest in black speech. He became—by dint of his race and his physical proximity to the uproar—the most prominent authority on the validity of Black English as language.
In his latest book, John McWhorter celebrates the dialect that has become an American lingua franca.