Marian Miner Cook

A distinctive
feature of social and
cultural life at CMC


Word Wars: Wokeism and the Battle Over Language

Fri, January 26, 2024
Dinner Program
John McWhorter

Linguists traditionally criticize prescriptivism: attempts by certain grammarians to enforce how language should be from the outside, in contrast to linguists’ descriptivism, which seeks, like the biologist, to describe what language actually is. While traditional prescriptivism is somewhat on the wane, a new strain of it is emanating from the left, in the form of suggestions (and rather stern ones) for how we should refer to groups of people, as well as to alter words and expressions in order to avoid possibly offending same. This new prescriptivism is no more organic to societal development than the older kind was, but it can seem otherwise from a simultaneous trend: the imposition of politically radical ideas through pronounced reliance on Latinate vocabulary that lends an air of complexity and legitimacy to ideas that often seem more subject to critique when expressed with more straightforwad Germanic vocabulary. 

Professor John McWhorter, the renowned Columbia University linguist, New York Times writer, and prolific commentator on language, race, culture, and society, will discuss these concurrent developments with suggestions for the future.

John McWhorter teaches linguistics at Columbia University, as well as Western Civilization and music history. He specializes in language change and language contact, and is the author of The Missing Spanish Creoles, Language Simplicity and Complexity, and The Creole Debate. He has written extensively on issues related to linguistics, race, and other topics for Time, The New York Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, The New Republic and elsewhere, and has been a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic. For the general public he is the author of The Power of Babel, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, Talking Back, Talking Black, and other books, including Nine Nasty Words and Woke Racism, both of which were New York Times bestsellers. He hosts the Lexicon Valley language podcast, has authored six audiovisual sets on language for the Great Courses company, and has written a weekly newsletter for the New York Times since August 2021.

Professor McWhorter will deliver the Spring 2024 lecture for the Res Publica Society Speaker Series, and is the 2023-2024 Valach Family speaker.

Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum

Claremont McKenna College
385 E. Eighth Street
Claremont, CA 91711


Phone: (909) 621-8244 
Fax: (909) 621-8579