Bard College at Simon's Rock: the Early College

Unraveling the Perplexities of Language

John McWhorter ’81

Linguist, Author, Professor

The mysteries of language first tantalized John McWhorter when he was four years old, and his fascination never wavered.

John is now a professor of linguistics, English, and comparative literature at Columbia University, and previously taught at Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

He was previously a contributing editor for The New Republic, has written for the New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, CNN, and The Daily Beast, and appeared on Good Morning America, Today, and The Colbert Report.

John has given two TED Talks, “Txting is killing language, JK!!!” and “4 reasons to learn a new language,” and was invited to speak at the Linguistic Society of America’s inaugural Public Lectures on Language series. He has hosted Slate’s popular podcast Lexicon Valley since 2016.

John received his AA at Simon’s Rock, where he first envisioned a career path in linguistics.

John earned his BA in French at Rutgers University, MA in American Studies at NYU, and PhD in Linguistics at Stanford University.

John’s research focuses on the formation of creole languages—and how grammar changes through a combination of social and historical factors. He is a vocal critic of the notion that “language channels thought” and has joined scholars who contend that English was influenced by the Celtic languages.

An author of 20 books on language and race relations, including The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, John was nominated for a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Nonfiction, for his book Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America.

The New Yorker review of his most recent book, Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths about America’s Lingua Franca, suggests that John “demonstrates the ‘legitimacy’ of Black English by uncovering its complexity and sophistication, as well as the still unfolding journey that has led to its creation. … [His] intelligent breeziness is the source of the book’s considerable charm.”

As part of a team of professors and experts selected by The Great Courses, an educational resource available to lifelong learners worldwide, John crafts customized and entertaining courses that are both comprehensive and fascinating.

Career Inspiration

Simon’s Rock French Professor René Biber assigned texts that John initially found challenging, but as his mastery of French vocabulary increased, he discovered that “really reading French felt good.” John also excelled in Latin with Pat Ackerman, who suggested that language was his calling. John values the relationships he developed with his professors, and the intense and rewarding experience Simon’s Rock provided. “I became a linguist here.”

Pat’s and René’s encouragement helped guide John toward a career in linguistics, he recounted during the alumni speakers series Uncommon Journeys.

Watch: Uncommon Journeys

John shares how his journey to becoming a linguist began at Simon’s Rock.

Simon’s Rock influenced my career path in that the student-teacher ratio was such that you could get a really warm, genuine kind of support.

John served on the Simon’s Rock Board of Overseers and delivered the 2009 Simon’s Rock commencement speech.


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