McWhorter on Reid on Negro dialect

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Several readers have written to wonder why no one at Language Log has written about the recent Harry Reid controversy.  In fact, one of us has, but in a different forum — John McWhorter, "Reid's Three Little Words: The Log In Our Own Eye", TNR, 1/9/2010. You should read John's article, if you haven't already.


  1. Lance said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 6:55 am

    I hope you won't take this as off-topic, but I have a question about one of the linguistics-oriented comments over there, and I'm not convinced that the comments section of TNR is the best place to get an answer to it.

    McWhorter says, at one point:

    The most “primitive” society’s languages are the ones that are the most complicated, often the backwater dialects of a language are harder than the standard – out in the sticks in Bulgaria there are often three ways to say the instead of one.

    A commenter named "blackton" calls this…

    …without a doubt, one of the dumbest things I have ever read at TNR. Please, for the love of God, 3 ways to say the is complicated, Spanish has four, so Spanish is X% more difficult, and Chinese has no the, so it must be real easy.

    Balgarski (Bulgarian) is a Slavic language. Bulgaria is an ancient country, at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle east and has been ruled over by countless empires, etc. It is not a "primitive" language, Bulgarian people don't run around in animal skins and live in caves, even the ones in the countryside have had contact with the outside world. The Bulgarian people also have a sophisticated and ancient society, filled with far more traditions and customs than an average American.

    If you want to talk about "primitive" languages, then pidgin would be an example since pidgin was designed as a simplified form of a language, atonal, with minimal rules.

    I am sorry, but that really was jaw droppingly dumb. Please don't write about something you don't know.

    Now, I know that McWhorter is a trained linguist, so I'm inclined to believe that he's not writing about something he doesn't know. And the commenter here has his (her?) own problems–I think McWhorter is talking about a dialect in "the sticks in Bulgaria" as being "backwater", whereas the commenter seems to interpret "Bulgaria" as being where the sticks are, and thus seems to think that McWhorter's is saying that Bulgaria and its national language are "primitive"; and she (he?) also discusses "pidgin" as if it's a language as opposed to a classification (to say nothing of the idea that pidgins are "designed").

    All the same, when I was reading the article, I did a double-take at McWhorter's sentence myself. So what I wonder is this: Is there something about dialects of Bulgarian that he's alluding to, about distinct lexical items for "the" in different contexts beyond just something allomorphic like the "el / la / los / las" of Spanish?

  2. Peter Taylor said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 7:33 am

    For those who were are in the dark as I (and as unamused to find that the article doesn't try to set the context), here's the most detailed account I've been able to find of what was actually said. And even that doesn't have a full sentence quote from Harry Reid.

    [(myl) One of the original news stories on the subject is here, with the full remark attributed to Reid. A British news source covered it here.]

  3. Llanci said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 7:41 am

    Isn't the point he's making that Big City Bulgarian has only one word for "the", but Back Country Bulgarian has three? It sounds similar to the way that "thee" and "thou" remained current in rural parts of England long after it died out in the cities.

    I'm not sure if this makes any sense linguistically, but maybe when a language has to be mutually understood by a lot of people who don't meet each other very often, for example in larger towns or cities, it has to become simpler in some sense.

  4. bulbul said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 9:28 am


    Llanci is correct: the point McWhorter was trying to make is that some dialects of Bulgarian exhibit greater complexity than Standard (aka 'Big City') Bulgarian. There are clearly two parts to that sentence you quoted:

    1) The most “primitive” society’s languages are the ones that are the most complicated,
    2) often the backwater dialects of a language are harder than the standard

    Maybe to some, McWhorter's meaning could have been clearer had he inserted an "and" after the comma. In any case, he was certainly not describing the Bulgarians as primitive and if you look closely, you will notice that he wasn't talking about primitive languages, but rather primitive societies. And there his meaning is quite clear – he was referring to languages like those Native Americans or First Peoples, societies which some might consider or did consider primitive, whose languages, however, are anything but (e.g.).
    As for the facts concerning the definite article in Bulgarian, I – being somewhat knowledgeable on the subject, but far from an expert – am not so sure what McWhorter means. There are in fact at least five ways to say "the" in Standard Bulgarian:
    1. suffix -ът/-ят
    2. suffix –а/–я
    3. suffix –то
    4. suffix –тa
    5. suffix –те
    Which is used depends on the gender, the number or the final of the noun/adjective in question. And though I'm sure that the backwood dialects of Bulgarian differ from Standard Bulgarian, I don't think McWhorter's example holds up.

  5. bulbul said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    those Native Americans
    … those of Native Americans …

  6. Robert S. Porter said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    Aside from the complete misread of the article, I personally find it hilarious that the commenter, "blackton", thinks he has a better understanding of linguistics than McWhorter, especially when he tries to explain his vast knowledge of Pidgins. Perhaps blacktron should read a book called Language Change and Language Contact in Pidgins and Creoles, edited by some guy named John McWhorter.

  7. SK said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    As others have noted already, taken in context McWhorter's claim is clearly that some varieties of non-standard Bulgarian have three ways of saying 'the'. It is unlikely that he would turn to such a specific and esoteric example if he just had in mind differences in form depending on gender, number or phonological environment; and if he had meant to bring these into play, he could certainly have come up with numbers higher than three (by pointing to Spanish, standard Bulgarian, and so on, as Lance and bulbul have mentioned).

    Instead, I assume he is referring to the existence of three separate definite articles (labelled e.g. 'unspecified', 'proximate' and 'distal', and each inflecting for gender and number) in some varieties of South Slavic. This is best known as a feature of standard Macedonian, which is mutually intelligible with Bulgarian; it may be that McWhorter knows of Bulgarian dialects which share this feature, or perhaps his reference is to Macedonian itself (though in that case, his geography is faulty).

  8. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    I have wondered since this faux controversy first arose how the reaction would have been had Reid talked about Obama and "African American Vernacular English."

  9. bulbul said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 10:47 am


    ah yes, that must be it. Good catch.

    it may be that McWhorter knows of Bulgarian dialects which share this feature

    Actually, the very Wikipedia article you link to points out that

    Standard Bulgarian has only the unspecified form, although three definite article forms exist in certain Bulgarian dialects, notably the vernaculars of Tran and parts of the Rhodopes

    and links to Stoykov's "Bǎlgarskata dialektologiya", p. 127.

  10. SK said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    Bulbul: so it does! Thanks.

  11. language hat said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    This is just your basic knee-jerk nationalist overreaction, inevitable if you talk about language enough (especially when it comes to places like the Balkans and South Asia, where there's plenty of linguistic/ethnic/nationalist tinder). I've gotten outraged dollops of nationalist nonsense enough times at LH to be inured to it.

    This is best known as a feature of standard Macedonian, which is mutually intelligible with Bulgarian

    Uh-oh — batten the hatches!

  12. language hat said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    Also, thanks for the link to McWhorter's excellent article, which I'm passing on to interested parties.

  13. Laughingrat said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 11:15 am

    The linguistic information in the article, what there was of it anyway, was genuinely enjoyable to read. Nevertheless, it became more interesting to notice how Mr. McWhorter subtly derails the critique of racism in how we privilege certain kinds of language. He does everything from putting "racist" in quotation marks when describing the racist opinions of White Americans (because, yes, denigrating Black English is racist); he whips out the "But Black people think this too!" non-argument; he brings out the Token Acceptable Black Person; he hints that classism is also an element of how Black English and other dialects are perceived (but only hints at it, because he likely does not want to investigate classism any more than he does racism), and pretends that mysteriously makes the racism discussion invalid; he uses insulting language ("pointy-headed") to refer to those of us who'd prefer to actually call out and eradicate racism from our culture—yes, and classism too.

    In other words, the article is steeped in privilege, written from a perspective of privilege, and encourages the perpetuation of privilege—all, of course, utterly unacknowledged by Mr. McWhorter. I am not surprised; I've also noticed some gender-essentialism while skimming Language Log posts, and although racism and sexism are different oppressions, they have similar patterns. I'm merely disappointed that as open-minded as Americans pretend to be, and as enlightened as Mr. McWhorter no doubt considers himself, that it's still considered acceptable to use one's unearned privilege to neatly sidestep questions about oppression.

  14. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 11:30 am

    If we could entertain a second-derivative comment just briefly — A comment on McWhorter's article mentioned an announcement on Washington's Metro that was jarringly not in, wotchamacallit, Black English. If any denizens of LL pass through the Washington Union Station in the afternoon nowadays, they'll hear the platform announcements delivered in a heavy French accent. At first I though it was Québécois, maybe to accommodate the daily departure of the Montréal train, but now I do believe that it's Haitian. It might as well be in backwoods Bulgarian.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    I thought it was an excellent article, although as the Bulgarian incident shows, it had a lot of one-or-two-sentence bits that were summaries of or allusions to points or arguments the LL readership might already be familiar with but the TNR readership might not. I did think that one missed opportunity (in terms of dispelling possible lurking myths or subtexts) was that McWhorter didn't really squelch the notion that the President's lack of the-dialect-in-question represents some sort of actual achievement on his part, or evidences some particular degree of intelligence or education. This was not Dan Rather sucessfully suppressing some distinctively Texan features of his idiolect in order to make it on tv (or someone like James Meredith "overcoming" whatever non-prestige AAVE features of his speech he acquired in boyhood). Rather, the President's lack of TDIQ is exactly what one would expect (but perhaps would not expect if one were a generic TNR reader with no real prior exposure to the scholarship on where language variation comes from) of someone who grew up with no household members speaking TDIQ and in locations like Hawaii and Indonesia where few if any playmates/classmates would speak it.

    Some language-savvy pundit out there should do a compare-and-contrast on the language varieties spoken by Al Smith and John Kennedy, with their different ethnicity and class signals, with perhaps some speculation as to the possible salience of those differences to why Kennedy succeeded in achieving what Smith didn't.

  16. bulbul said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 1:11 pm


    Uh-oh — batten the hatches!
    But why? It's not like SK said they were the same language…

  17. Ellen K. said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: TDIQ? While it's easy to figure out what you refer to, I'm wondering what that initialism stands for.

    @Laughingrat: Personally, I think the term racism (and racist) is too widely used. Not all prejudice is based on physical features. There's a lot of cultural prejudice out there. And it seems to me that certainly comes into play here. Calling it racist is pretending those cultural biases don't exist.

    I suppose one could argue that the term "racism" as expanded to include any predudice between two different populations, not just that which is based on physical differences. Still, I think using the term racism that way instead of using more precise language that recognizes cultural prejudice makes it harder to see and understand what's going on.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

    Ellen K.: TDIQ = the-dialect-in-question, which was a semi-jocular attempt to elide the fact that we don't necessarily have a single consensus term for what to call it that's less problematic than "Negro dialect." (I considered but rejected TLVFKAND for "The Language Variety Formerly Known As Negro Dialect," by analogy to TAFKAP / The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.) I assume BVE, which is what I remember it being commonly called when I was taking sociolinguistics circa '85 or '86, is still an acceptable variant for AAVE, but there's a separate point about whether the "V" really belongs there when we're talking about, to use McWhorter's example, Morgan Freeman reading the phone book, or any number of other individuals who convey something distinctive in their pronunciation even when their words as transcribed would be perfectly standard American English as to syntactic and lexical features.

  19. Jen said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    McWhorter said:

    "Third: Reid’s comment suggests that he associates Black English with lack of polish and low intelligence, okay."

    This is absolutely correct. If these people were more intelligent, they would have realized that SAE is the prestige dialect, and would have learned it while growing up. there is a time and place to use AAVE, and that is among friends, but not in the workforce or in school.

  20. Acilius said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    I agree with those who've said that McWhorter's article is much too terse for a general interest readership, in some places perhaps too terse for any readership other than "people who are familiar with the prose style of John McWhorter." The sentence that puzzled Lance is certainly a case in point, but there are several others. For example, it's pretty clear to me that McWhorter is not using the adjective "pointy-headed" to slam people who disagree with him as Laughingrat believes him to be, but that he is jokingly applying it to himself as a way of acknowledging that some may see his attempts to bring science to bear on the question as unnecessarily intellectual.

  21. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    "Blackton" doesn't seem to be in a good position to criticise anyone for lack of linguistic knowledge.

    As it happens, Nigerian Pidgin *is* tonal. Moreover nobody ever *designed* it, and it has quite enough rules of its own to be going on with.

    Blackton fa, in no sabi eni ting.

  22. aaron said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    Please stop deleting my comments. I'm not doing anything wrong.

    [(myl) Yes you are. Signing on with an email address of "", as you did before, will get your comments deleted every time. Ditto for "". And gmail says that "" — the most recent email address that you've tried — also doesn't exist, so I'm going to delete the rest of the comments that you've posted under that address.

    Please read our comments policy: we don't publish commenters' email addresses, but we require that they give us a valid one.]

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    Ellen K.:

    I suppose one could argue that the term "racism" as expanded to include any predudice between two different populations, not just that which is based on physical differences.

    I've talked to people who explicitly use "racism" that way.

    And there's some basis for it. For instance, "Hispanic" is widely considered a race in the U.S., despite the Census Bureau, and prejudice against Hispanics is widely considered racism. A person of European and American Indian ancestry may be considered to belong to the white, Hispanic, or Native American race, largely according to culture. On the other hand, President Obama would probably be considered to belong to the black race based solely on appearance, regardless of his culture.

    We could open up a couple more cans of worms here, such as what "race" means.

  24. Bloix said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    I found McWhorter's article informative but I do think he's misinterpreting Reid's meaning. He writes, "real life is that Harry Reid hears black speech as lowly.."

    "Lowly" is not the point. Reid, like everyone else, hears black speach as black. And it's true that most African-Americans, including highly educated and wealthy ones, have accents and speech patterns that are recognizably black. The exceptions are often people who did not grow up in African-American households – the Colin Powells and the Obamas.

    What Reid was saying is that when somewhat racist white people see someone like Powell or Obama, they say "hey, he's not so dark," and when they hear him, they say, "he doesn't sound Negro at all," and so they can just about decide that maybe he's not "really" black, or at least he's not very black, and that his good characteristics might outweigh any residual bad stuff resulting from his blackness.

    He was talking about the racism of white voters, not about his own perception of black speech.

  25. Lance said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

    Laughingrat: when you say that

    In other words, the article is steeped in privilege, written from a perspective of privilege, and encourages the perpetuation of privilege—all, of course, utterly unacknowledged by Mr. McWhorter.

    which privilege are you talking about? Because it sounds like you're saying that John McWhorter is able to say these things because of his white privilege, which seems awfully unlikely.

  26. John Cowan said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    Laughingrat: I suppose that by the Token Black Person you mean Dr. McWhorter himself?

    Jen: Learning a dialect close to but not identical with your own is no easy feat. (That's distinct from learning an accent of your dialect, which is also no easy feat, but of a different kind.) It's particularly hard if members of group A despise you for talking like a B, while members of group B despise you for talking like an A. Me, I'm just happy if I can understand people and they can understand me.

  27. v said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    I'm a Bulgarian (Macedonian ^_^), and I believe that refers to Rhodope dialects who have three different kinds of deixis in definite articles — unmarked for deixis, proximate, and distal. Some obscure (Vardar) Macedonian dialect also has this and that's why it was added to the norm when they made it in the meeting in that monastery, they were looking for features found in Yougoslav occupied territory that were not found in the Bulgarian literary language… Ironically it's much more widespread in current Bulgarian territory than in that obscure dialect from Serb occupied territory :)

  28. J. Goard said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    My research is on articles (nominal reference more generally), and I knew immediately what he meant about Bulgarian. Contact effects among the article/demonstrative systems of European languages are extremely interesting. It's too bad McWhorter didn't use a little extra space to make the comparison so that a broader audience could understand. The commenter who wrote that Spanish has four ways to say "the" missed the point completely. The Spanish singular/plural distinction isn't hard at all for English speakers, who have essentially the same conceptual distinction, and the gender distinction is difficult only in the sense that some significant rote learning must take place. By contrast, mastering a nominal reference system that is very different from one's native language (or native dialect) can be immensely difficult.


    Any thoughts on how difficult it is for Bulgarian standard speakers to accurately reproduce the dialectal distinction?

  29. Garrett Wollman said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 12:04 am

    I'd like to comment on something else in McWhorter's posting — although I suspect it's something put there by TNR's copyeditors rather than by Dr. McWhorter himself: the rendering of the shortened form of "the University of Massachusetts, Amherst" as "U. Mass Amherst". It would seem to be an odd stylebook that would turn "UMass", as it is normally written, into "U. Mass" (note only one period), so I can only assume that it's an editorial incorrection.

  30. Dhananjay said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 6:28 am

    While the comments on TNR are less linguistically sophisticated, they do emphasize what has been largely elided here (save for Bloix above), so I want to add to the chorus there:

    While being generally insightful, John McWhorter gets the most important issue in question completely wrong (Were the remarks "racist"?): "Reid’s comment suggests that he associates Black English with lack of polish and low intelligence, okay."

    Why on earth would they suggest that? They suggest that Reid thinks, as McWhorter does, that many Americans feel that way, and I infer from both Reid's remarks and McWhorter's commentary that they, being decent people so far as I know otherwise, consider this to be a lamentable if persistent state of affairs.

  31. Stephen Jones said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 7:32 am

    They suggest that Reid thinks, as McWhorter does, that many Americans feel that way,

    What McWhorter has said elsewhere is that the avoidance of Standard American English by Afro-Americans, because it seems like 'talking white', and the exclusive use of 'Negro English', gives an impression of low intelligence and lack of polish, and is one of the reasons for Afro-Americans economic inequality.

  32. Jorge said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    The sentence that caught my eye in McWhorter's article is this one:

    "That’s a shame because Black English is as systematic as standard English, and what we hear as “mistakes” are just variations, not denigrations."

    I don't think any pun was intended, but I couldn't escape it.

  33. Ken Brown said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    Llanci said: "… the way that "thee" and "thou" remained current in rural parts of England long after it died out in the cities."

    Not strictly true, it survived in urban Lancashire as long as anywhere else. I have met people who used those words naturally and productively who were born and brought up in northern suburbs of Manchester. (For example in the wonderfully-named "Besses o' th' Barn" which is near Bury) Not many speakers left I suspect, but they still exist.

  34. v said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    @ J. Goard
    I would say not terribly hard _once_ they are pointed out the similarity the articles have to pronouns from which they originated. But I don't think I've ever seen a non-speaker of those dialects bother with them, and I can't tell you how much even people who know that actually actively use it in comprehension of dialectal speech.
    In some dialects there's some remains of case in definite articles too. Check this book, section 5, for the varieties of definiteness systems in the dialects:

  35. Mark F. said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

    Dhanajay —

    When you're in the kind of rhetorical minefield that Reid was wandering into, it's not enough just to trust others to assume that you're a person of good will. If what you're saying has the risk of coming off as "Wow, he could really get elected — I mean, he's almost white!" then it's up to you to also convey the idea that you're not OK with electability being so correlated with whiteness.

    But this really is a thing where being quoted out of context can make a difference. If he had surrounded what he said with enough caveats, I'd be inclined to say he did about the best he could. And it's also a situation where apologizing for your choice of words is credible, because that really is the nature of his mistake.

  36. K said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 2:36 am

    I support that John McWhorter. Many people think America's not ready for a black linguist, but I think McWhorter has an advantage because he's light-skinned and doesn't speak with a trace of Negro dialect unless he wants to.

  37. Graeme said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    From far away (Australia) it seems odd to find such a stormy teacup over a politician saying privately what everyone knows to be true. Had Obama not been middle class, married and besuited and spoken with what passes for received, educated American english, his race would have sunk him.

    That said, on the cross-cultural, inter-racial significations of something as significant as fried chook, see:

    (In Australan blokedom, sharing your greasy fast food is up there with sharing your booze, as a gesture of mateship).

  38. Graeme said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

    Sorry, link is:

  39. Tammy said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    I am personally not versed enough to say one way or another that what Reid said was totally and utterly awful and inappropriate. I can definitely see that it has created such a terrible representation and offended a good many, yet feel it was probably not his aim to do so. I think we have all found ourselves to speak inappropriately out of sheer ignorance or lack of a better word, phrase, or approach. What is acceptable now was not back then and will most assuredly change in the future. Language is alive and evolving as do people and cultures. Trying to keep up with what is most acceptable for the time may not always be an easy task.

  40. Philip Nobile said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

    The word Negro is at the same time archaic (the United Negro College Fund changed to UNCF), reclaimed (, and common (Stanley Crouch's columns in the New York Daily News).

    I am a New York City high school teacher and heading for an administrative trial for using "Negro" with a black colleague. He asked me a question with "Negro" in it and I answered him repeating his locution.

    I would appreciate defense advice from your Languagelog folks. Thanks.

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