The Myth of Standard English in the Book Word on the Street by John McWhorter

In his book “Word on the Street,” Linguist John McWhorter attempts to debunk the myth of “pure” Standard English by pointing at the varying nature of English through slang, syntax, sound, and meanings of words over time. He claims that the “illogical” status of some elements in language does not necessarily mean they are wrong. Rather, they are considered illogical because they are not commonly used today as they were in the era of old English. McWhorter supports his argument with the analogy of a lava lamp and the argument of the four levels of language – these will be further elucidated in this essay.

            McWhorter likens language to a lava lamp for the reason that lava always changes its form through time. The image of lava in a lava lamp at one point can mesmerize an observer, but there is no basis under which it can be considered superior and better than another image of the same lava that appeared some time ago. The joy an observer gets when observing a lava lamp come from the infinite expressions and variations of the lava. Just as to the flow of a lava stream, new things are essential to language. “If we plug in the lava lamp, and the clump doesn’t move, then it’s broken – in the same way, the only languages linguists have found that aren’t changing are the ones which have been nosed out by another language” (McWhorter, 74). Therefore, when critics associate language with a lava lamp, they will begin to notice the constantly changing nature of English.            

 McWhorter furthers his argument by pointing at the four levels of language mixture that explain how languages mix as well as how they adapt elements uniquely. The first level is when a language adapts simple words from another language as a result of bilingualism. The second level is when adopts language structures in addition to words and phrases. Level three occurs when languages mix in great degrees such that an entirely new language emerges while the last level is the combination and transformation of two languages into an intertwined language. Using these explanations, McWhorter points at the varying nature of English as language and the myth of “pure” Standard English.

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