Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue/ The Untold Story of English by John McWhorter

Summary: Every area of study has its rebels and story tellers. McWhorter’s is rebelling by claiming that English gained more from the Celts than others.

One of the joys of reading is picking up a book in a subject area that you know nothing about and just diving in.

I am going through a bit of reading malaise.  I have found in the past that I need to read something completely different. And I have not been excited about my on-deck audiobooks.  So I picked this up last week when it was on sale for $1.99 on audiobook with some promotional credits (making it free for me and still technically keeping to my buying no more than 1 book a month pledge.)

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is about linguistics and the history of English.  The subtitle is over reach and probably written with marketing in mind.  But the basic book is five arguments about why we need to pay more attention to grammar in the history of English and less attention to borrowed words and etymology.

Everyone knows that English borrowed a bunch of Viking and French words as part of its development. McWhorter says that more important is the fact that English has borrowed a lot of grammar as well.

The first section is trying to show that English grammar is ‘miscegenated’.  He does this by spending a lot of time talking about how we use the word ‘do’.  Much of the time ‘do’ is a meaningless word.  Or how the ‘-ing’ ending is used in English.  All seemingly technical (it is) and boring (it isn’t.)

I listened to this as an audiobook and would recommend that method.  There are a few places where seeing the words would probably help. But McWhorter is a specialist in comparative grammar.  So he can actually say all of these things in a variety of languages and you can hear the differences in words and the how and why makes a lot of sense.

The controversy of the book is from his insistence that English gained a lot of is strangeness in grammar from it influence from Celtic languages (second section).  Which evidently is a controversial position, although it seems to be well documented in the book.

McWhorter rants through the third section against the grammar police.  The right way of writing and speaking is an agreed upon convention, not a hard rule.  English has too many exceptions to claim that the rules really exist (or make sense.)  And he talks about how often our grammar has changed. He is not suggesting that we should not have rules of grammar or against teaching them to students. But he does suggest that the grammar police should probably step back a bit and realize that many of the rules that they are fighting for are relatively recent grammar rules or rules that imports from Latin or French and do not make as much sense in English.

The fourth section of the book dismantles the idea that we think a particular way because of our language and grammar.  He strongly dismisses this argument and suggests that it has retained is position as a real idea because it sounds good in popular circles, not because the specialists think there is evidence for it.  And if anything, it is the opposite.  That we do not have words and grammar because of our thought patterns, not we have thought patters because of our words and grammar.

The final section is about really ancient English history.  English is a germanic language.  McWhorter believes that one of the reason that English in particular is good at accepting changes to its grammar and words is that proto-German was significantly influenced by another language (he suggests Phoenician as a good possibility, but it is just his best guess.)

Overall while this was way more technical than I would have probably chosen if I had to pick it again, it was an enjoyable read.  This probably did start off as three or four essays that were then tied together into a whole.  But it feels relatively coherent.  There is a bit of a problem of repetition, but that is part of the way he is making his argument.

Again, I would recommend the audiobook for this.  It is good to hear the languages and there are parts that you can zone out a bit and not really miss anything.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook 

2 Comments

After listening to the audiobook I decided to get some of his Great Courses lectures (also sold on audible). I liked those better. He’s a lot more engaging lecturing than reading from a book and the material is somewhat less technical. His Great Courses series The Story of Human Language is a good overview of linguistics and Language A to Z is an interesting collection of short explorations of language oddities.

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