Biographical Analysis of John Mcwhorter

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  • Topic: Language, Ket language, Ket people
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Han Bin Kim
Comp II, Class B
Assignment 2, Draft 1
February 23, 2013
John McWhorter Interview

Over the years I have interviewed a good number of people, but there has never been anyone quite like John McWhorter. Upon reading the article “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English” as published in the 2009 Fall edition of World Affairs, I found myself delighted by the mellow but powerful tone and the writer who could use it with such ease. Here was a man with brains, consideration, and humor. Lost in my reveries about what McWhorter would be like, I didn’t quite realize that I had somehow dialed his office number until a deep voice filtered through the receiver. “Yes? McWhorter speaking.”

With a tingling sense of nervousness I had forgotten since my rookie days, I introduced myself and asked if he could spare time for a brief interview. He replied, “Interviews, my dear sir, are rarely brief,” and I could almost hear his smile. There was that brilliant wit which had inspired him to state that there were “no feminine-gendered tables that talk like Penelope Cruz.” (McWhorter, 251) After a turn or two of friendly wrangling, he gently suggested meeting Saturday afternoon at a quiet café we both knew. I agreed to the designated rendezvous and, unable to control the temptation, asked, “How long have you said café like that?” The way McWhorter pronounced the word was this: the ‘c’ was sweeter and lighter, in the way Italians and Spaniards speak, and the ‘f’ was said like a soft ‘p’—sounding simply foreign. He said simply, “Since I was very young.” I already knew that he had “taught himself languages as a hobby since childhood” (McWhorter, 247), and unsatisfied as I was with his answer, I vowed that Saturday would be a new day.

On Saturday afternoon I drove down a peaceful country road and walked silently into the café. A tall man stood with his back to me, gazing out the large French window, and without prologue asked, “Isn’t that a beautiful poem right in front of us? Anne Shirley said it a century ago, but I’ll take the liberty to repeat it. The lines and verses are only the outward garments of the poem; the real poem is the soul within them… and that beautiful scene is the soul of an unwritten poem.” I smiled quietly at his analytical but sensitive analogy, reminded immediately of his description of the word ‘ał— “an evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that sounds like wind passing through just such a branch.” (McWhorter, 247) I later asked him what his childhood nickname had been, and laughing, he confessed that he had most often been called “poet”. Small wonder for a man who could condense a long, everyday sentence—say, for example, “there are an innumerable number of books that could have summed up to no mean weight”—into three pithy, creative, imagery-filled words: “Bookstore shelves groan.” (McWhorter, 247)

He folded his long self into the armchair, crossing his legs, and leaning slightly forward he told me to sit down. As I sat, I remarked, “You look a great deal like I imagined you to be.” His quiet question and intelligent gaze compelled me to elucidate. I had gathered much of the premises from his writing. The contrasting thoughts “I hardly rejoice when a language dies” (McWhorter, 247) and “Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one?” (McWhorter, 252) could hardly have revealed themselves in a single piece of writing unless the writer was a man of exceptionally precise, cold logic. Thus I had already envisioned the deep-set, handsome eyes that flashed fire from under his brow, and the firmly set mouth. I had also imagined him to be a handsome man, and he was that, too. Humor saved the chin from tapering too sharply, the mouth from being dour: “Spanish speakers do not go about routinely imagining tables as cooing in feminine tones.” (McWhorter, 249)

McWhorter laughed at my analysis, wryly telling me that I...
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