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A survey of the quirks and quandaries of the English language, focusing on our strange and wonderful grammar Why do we say "I am reading a catalog" instead of "I read a catalog"? Why do we say "do" at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, Our Magnificent Bastard Language distills hundreds of years of A survey of the quirks and quandaries of the English language, focusing on our strange and wonderful grammar Why do we say "I am reading a catalog" instead of "I read a catalog"? Why do we say "do" at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, Our Magnificent Bastard Language distills hundreds of years of fascinating lore into one lively history. Covering such turning points as the little-known Celtic and Welsh influences on English, the impact of the Viking raids and the Norman Conquest, and the Germanic invasions that started it all during the fifth century ad, John McWhorter narrates this colorful evolution with vigor. Drawing on revolutionary genetic and linguistic research as well as a cache of remarkable trivia about the origins of English words and syntax patterns, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue ultimately demonstrates the arbitrary, maddening nature of English--and its ironic simplicity due to its role as a streamlined lingua franca during the early formation of Britain. This is the book that language aficionados worldwide have been waiting for (and no, it's not a sin to end a sentence with a preposition).


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A survey of the quirks and quandaries of the English language, focusing on our strange and wonderful grammar Why do we say "I am reading a catalog" instead of "I read a catalog"? Why do we say "do" at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, Our Magnificent Bastard Language distills hundreds of years of A survey of the quirks and quandaries of the English language, focusing on our strange and wonderful grammar Why do we say "I am reading a catalog" instead of "I read a catalog"? Why do we say "do" at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, Our Magnificent Bastard Language distills hundreds of years of fascinating lore into one lively history. Covering such turning points as the little-known Celtic and Welsh influences on English, the impact of the Viking raids and the Norman Conquest, and the Germanic invasions that started it all during the fifth century ad, John McWhorter narrates this colorful evolution with vigor. Drawing on revolutionary genetic and linguistic research as well as a cache of remarkable trivia about the origins of English words and syntax patterns, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue ultimately demonstrates the arbitrary, maddening nature of English--and its ironic simplicity due to its role as a streamlined lingua franca during the early formation of Britain. This is the book that language aficionados worldwide have been waiting for (and no, it's not a sin to end a sentence with a preposition).

30 review for Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

  1. 4 out of 5

    Manny

    A fantastic book! I have not come across anyone, not even Steven Pinker, who does such a good job of showing you how exciting linguistics can be. His bold and unconventional history of the English language was full of ideas I'd never seen before, but which made excellent sense. And, before I get into the review proper, a contrite apology to Jordan. She gave it to me six months ago as a birthday present, and somehow I didn't open it until last week. Well, Jordan, thank you, and I'll try to be A fantastic book! I have not come across anyone, not even Steven Pinker, who does such a good job of showing you how exciting linguistics can be. His bold and unconventional history of the English language was full of ideas I'd never seen before, but which made excellent sense. And, before I get into the review proper, a contrite apology to Jordan. She gave it to me six months ago as a birthday present, and somehow I didn't open it until last week. Well, Jordan, thank you, and I'll try to be more alert next time! So, the book. I'm a linguist of sorts myself, though a rather different kind to McWhorter: his work has centered around the things that happen to grammar when different languages come into contact with each other, while I use grammar as a way to construct speech-enabled software. But, as you'll see a bit later, the fact that we both give a central place to grammar means that our research directions have more to do with each other than you might first think. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, McWhorter looks at the history of the English language from his unusual viewpoint. The language has clearly changed a lot since it came into existence; why did it evolve the way it did? McWhorter's answer is that the big changes happened when speakers of different languages started mingling together. He focuses on three changes of this kind. The rest of this review is available elsewhere (the location cannot be given for Goodreads policy reasons)

  2. 4 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    Like many on this site, I decided to read this because of Mannys enthusiastic review. And I am glad I did. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it seemed high time that I understand something of the languages history. This book was an excellent choice, since it focused on that aspect of English most pesky to foreign speakersgrammarwhile avoiding the too-often-told story of the growth of English vocabulary via French and Latin. McWhorter begins by focusing on two distinctive features of Like many on this site, I decided to read this because of Manny’s enthusiastic review. And I am glad I did. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it seemed high time that I understand something of the language’s history. This book was an excellent choice, since it focused on that aspect of English most pesky to foreign speakers—grammar—while avoiding the too-often-told story of the growth of English vocabulary via French and Latin. McWhorter begins by focusing on two distinctive features of English grammar: the so-called ‘meaningless’ do (as in, “Do you eat rabbits?”) and the use of the progressive in order to talk about the present (as in, “I am going,” rather than simply “I go”). Not coincidentally, these two aspects of English cause some of the most persistent errors in my students. In Spanish, just like in every other European language I know, there is no auxiliary verb needed for negations or questions. You can simply ask “¿Comes conejos?” Similarly, in Spanish, as in German or French, you can use the simple present to refer to what you are doing now; thus, a Spaniard can say “Voy” (I go) to express a current movement, and they reserve “Estoy yendo” (I am going) for special emphasis. Curiously, no other Germanic language has these features. Indeed, they are absent (according to McWhorter) from every other European language, with the notable exception of the Celtic languages (specifically, Welsh and Cornish). This leads him to the quite natural supposition that the indigenous Celtic languages exerted an influence on the Old English spoken by the invading Anglo-Saxons. He musters quite a number of evidences and arguments in support of this thesis, to the extent that I was pretty worn out by the end of the chapter. To be fair, this idea is considered quite controversial in the academic community, so McWhorter felt the need to champion it in full battle array. Nevertheless I think the maxim “Know your audience” applies here. I presume most readers of this book will be, like me, non-specialists, with little reason to be skeptical of the Celtic influence; to the contrary, it struck me as extremely plausible. So McWhorter’s harping on the point was simply taxing. In any case, if he is looking to influence the academic community, a short popular book is not the medium to do it. McWhorter’s next chapter deals with the Viking influence, which he holds responsible for the jettisoning of much of Old English’s serpentine Germanic grammar, resulting in the relatively “easy” language we have today. And he rounds out the book by making the considerably more speculative argument that Proto-Germanic diverged in such a distinctive way from Proto-Indo-European because a large number of Semitic speakers (Phoenicians who had made it to Denmark) learned the language. At this point I began to have reservations about McWhorter's method. Despite the reasonableness of the Celtic-English and the Scandinavian-English hypotheses, the cumulative effects of McWhorter's arguments was to weaken each. McWhorter’s specialty is researching how languages influenced one another historically; and one begins to suspect that this academic orientation leads him to see evidence for this phenomenon everywhere. To me it is unsatisfying to write a history of English as a series of stories, however plausible, of how it was influenced by other languages. This is because, logically, in order for there to be distinct languages capable of mixing there must first be languages capable of transforming without any linguistic contact. It can all begin to sound like a biologist who insists that the reason elephants have tusks is because proto-elephants mated with proto-walruses epochs ago. This is an unfair comparison, of course; and to repeat I think his Celtic argument is quite strong. However, the more one reads, the more McWhorter’s method can begin to sound unsettlingly like Just-So stories. Some inconsistencies in the arguments make this clear. For example, he brushes aside the paucity of Celtic vocabulary in English, while citing the many Scandinavian loan-words as evidence for Viking influence (not to mention the possible Semitic loan-words in Proto-Germanic). To me it seems prima facie dubious that Welsh and Cornish speakers were able to fundamentally transform English's grammar without leaving a considerable stockpile of loanwords. Importing words is the most natural thing in the world when learning a foreign language. I do it all the time, as do my students. To objections like these McWhorter is always able to point to a case where a similar event occurred as the scenario he is describing. But, again, one surmises that the corpus of available examples is large enough to back up any claim he wishes to impose. McWhorter criticizes other linguists for ignoring the causes of language change. But is invoking the influence of other languages a satisfying explanation? To me this is of the same order as arguing that life on Earth originally came from Mars. Perhaps, but how does life arise in the first place? Now, it may be unfair of me to nitpick what is, after all, a popular book. But if McWhorter saw fit to include so much argument in favor of his uncommonly-held opinions, I think it behooves readers to be somewhat skeptical, especially since the general reader has no specialized knowledge to ground her acceptance or rejection of McWhorter’s conclusions. For my part, I think a more expository and less polemical book on the history of English would have made for far more pleasing reading. Yet McWhorter is an engaging writer and an original thinker, so it was valuable to learn of his approach to linguistics.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Terence

    This is an extraordinarily delightful little book that highlights some of English's lesser known idiosyncrasies because, as the author notes, English is not just a collection of words, nor is its genius an markedly unusual openness to new vocabulary. I first encountered John McWhorter with his book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language Paperback, which traced the evolution of languages from a "first language" and which is also highly recommended. (Actually, having read The Singing This is an extraordinarily delightful little book that highlights some of English's lesser known idiosyncrasies because, as the author notes, English is not just a collection of words, nor is its genius an markedly unusual openness to new vocabulary. I first encountered John McWhorter with his book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language Paperback, which traced the evolution of languages from a "first language" and which is also highly recommended. (Actually, having read The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music Language Mind and Body Paperback, one could argue that there never was a "first language" since it's entirely possible that the first homo sapiens with the language instinct were talking to themselves before they ever began communicating with each other.) This book continues in Babel's vein, focusing on English. The first chapter discusses two characteristics of English not found in any of its Germanic cousins but that is found in Celtic languages. Namely, the meaningless "do" and using the present participle (-ing) to express the present tense. For example, in the sentence "Did she go to the store?," "do" isn't really necessary - "She went to the store?" could (and does in other tongues) work just as well but English doesn't like to say it that way. And while it's fallen out of use in modern English, Shakespeare used it in positive statements all the time - "She did go to the store, Yorick!" And in all other Germanic languages (and, again, in nearly every other extant ones), to say you are doing something in the present tense, you say (for example) "Er schreibt" - "he writes." English, however, likes to say "He is writing," reserved "he writes" for something like "He writes for a newspaper" or "He writes every morning from 9 to 10." In Chapter 2, McWhorter focuses on the somewhat arbitrary nature of grammar. While he supports the idea that a language needs a standard grammar and that it should be taught, as a linguist McWhorter wants to point out that language and grammar are constantly evolving and that nonstandard grammar is only "wrong" depending on context. Arguing before the Supreme Court, one probably wants to avoid ebonics or Jamaican patois but within the appropriate milieux, those two variants make perfect sense (and are no less expressive and complex than standard English, no matter the detractors). Chapter 3 discusses why English has lost the case endings that learners of other Indo-European languages must struggle with (amo, amas, amat...). Briefly, it's all the fault of the Vikings. In the 8th century AD much of north and central Britain fell to Viking invaders (the Danelaw), effectively wiping out all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms except for Wessex. However, the Northmen were in a decided minority and wound up learning Old English as a second language. Being adults learning a second language, they learned it imperfectly, dropping the case endings and passing on this "battered" English to their children. (McWhorter points out that the only case ending to survive in Northumbrian English was one that matched its Scandinavian equivalent - the dative plural, as it happens, pp. 115-6.) In Chapter 4, McWhorter sets out to demolish the popularly conceived idea that grammar shapes thought. First posited in any serious manner by Benjamin Whorf, the idea is that a language's grammar shapes how its speakers view the world. Thus, the Kawesqar of Chile have no concept of the future because they have no future tense marking. Of course, neither does Japanese, yet it is perfectly capable of letting its speakers express themselves regarding future events. And then there's Whorf's prime example - the Hopi language, which he claimed had no tense marking at all. This turns out to be nonsense - the Hopi are capable of understanding tense and their language can and does make temporal distinctions. They just don't do it as English speakers do. McWhorter does allow that the neo-Whorfian reformulation of Whorf's original thesis may hold some validity but not much explanatory power. It may highlight an interesting quirk in a language, but little else. As McWhorter writes: "The idea that the world's six thousand languages condition six thousand different pairs of cultural glasses simply does not hold water. The truly enlightened position is that, by and large, all humans...experience life via the mental equipment shared by all members of our species. No one is `primitive,' but just as important, no one is privileged over others with a primal connection to The Real" (p. 169). The final chapter is the most exciting for me because McWhorter discusses a hypothesis for why proto-Germanic (English's "grandfather") developed an interesting characteristic - a sound shift from "p," "t" and "k" to "f," "th" and "h," respectively. The sound morphing is unusual in that the former sounds are stops, the latter fricatives ("hissy" sounds in McWhorter's words). It's hard to see why, in isolation, a "p" would become an "f." However, if proto-German had been in contact with a language rich in fricatives, it's more than possible. Recent archaeological evidence and linguistic reconstructions are suggesting that a Semitic influence is responsible, most likely Phoenician or Punic (Carthage), Phoenician's "daughter." Both civilizations had documented contact with Northern Europe around the right time (last half of the 1st millennium BC). The evidence is circumstantial, probably forever so, but strongly suggestive. Phoenicia had trading stations on the Atlantic side of Gibraltar (the Tarshish of Biblical fame) and Britain had long been a source of tin so it's not impossible to imagine a relatively large Semitic presence in proto-Germanic's bailiwick whose only evidence remains in the oddities of Germanic sound change. I strongly recommend this general work, even if you're not particularly interested in languages. It's short and written entirely for a nonspecialist audience but appeals to language fans as well. I'll also take this opportunity to recommend McWhorter's other work.

  4. 4 out of 5

    David

    I read McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" a few years ago and thought it was terrific. His subsequent effort, "Doing our own Thing", was a major disappointment - self-indulgent, undisciplined, and essentially pointless. So I would have skipped this one (a cover blurb that squeezes the chestnuts "rollicking tour" and "rousing celebration" into the same sentence is generally not a good sign). Did I really need reassurance from yet another linguist that it's OK to split an infinitive, or to end a I read McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" a few years ago and thought it was terrific. His subsequent effort, "Doing our own Thing", was a major disappointment - self-indulgent, undisciplined, and essentially pointless. So I would have skipped this one (a cover blurb that squeezes the chestnuts "rollicking tour" and "rousing celebration" into the same sentence is generally not a good sign). Did I really need reassurance from yet another linguist that it's OK to split an infinitive, or to end a sentence with a preposition? But then there was Manny's recent rave review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/.... My reaction? Modified rapture at best. There's a kind of forced flashiness to McWhorter's style that I don't particularly enjoy. Calling English a dolphin in a family of assorted types of deer (the Germanic relatives of English) gets the point across, but the metaphor is nowhere near as clever as McWhorter seems to think, and spinning it out across two paragraphs ("antlered, fleet-footed, big-brown-eyed variations on a theme" - yeah, dude, we know what the word "deer" means, as if you hadn't already enumerated "antelopes, springboks, kudu, and so on" earlier in the sentence) is irritating, to say the least. For the first 60 pages of this book, McWhorter sets out to answer the question of why English favors the use of "be" and "do" as auxiliary verbs in constructions like "I'm watching TV" (actual present, as opposed to the habitual present "I watch TV", a distinction which confuses the bejasus out of most non-native speakers), in questions ("do you watch"?), or negative statements. None of its immediate relatives, either on the Germanic or the Romance side, uses such a construction. Fair enough, it's not a completely boring question, though it's hardly the major mystery he makes it out to be either. I figured out the answer to this at about age 5, when I first started to learn Irish (Gaelic) -- it's a Celtic thing, see? So that extended first chapter, in which the only point that is being developed is that the Celtic languages (Irish, Welsh, Scots Gaelic) influenced English syntax, hardly qualifies as a major revelation. Unfortunately, McWhorter beats it into the ground like the proverbial dead horse. For 60 pages. You start the second chapter with a sense of profound relief only to find - unspeakable horror - that he's not done. More statement of the profoundly obvious. I guess this is the major reason for my inability to share Manny's rabid enthusiasm for this book. Like so many of his colleagues, McWhorter expends a lot of effort in addressing what I consider to be obvious linguistic strawmen - the notion that linguistics is just about etymology, the red herring of grammatical hypercorrectness, the idea that vocabulary is the only measure of influence of one language on another, the spectacularly uninteresting strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It's as if he's writing for a readership consisting exclusively of people who have never undergone the intellectual exercise of learning a second language. Because if you've ever gone through that particular struggle, it seems to me that you're guaranteed to have thought about language deeply enough to make much of the material in this book seem like little more than a statement of the bloody obvious. And yeah, what the hell - it's a book about language, so I'll bitch. The shorthand term McWhorter uses throughout, that English employs a "meaningless do", seems infelicitous at best.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Becky

    Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Yup. That is a for real, honest to goodness grammatically correct sentence in the English language. Why it wasn't included in this book is a mystery for the ages, because it's a great bit of wordplay that shows how simple and yet crazy this language can be. But still, this book was very interesting, if pretty academic and technical. This is the type of book that I would want to read along with the audio, because I learn best Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Yup. That is a for real, honest to goodness grammatically correct sentence in the English language. Why it wasn't included in this book is a mystery for the ages, because it's a great bit of wordplay that shows how simple and yet crazy this language can be. But still, this book was very interesting, if pretty academic and technical. This is the type of book that I would want to read along with the audio, because I learn best visually, but just listening was informative, even if I didn't absorb as much of it as I would have liked. I did enjoy the etymology info, and the analysis of whether language plays any role in how people think - for instance if a language has no tenses other than present (I write vs I will write or I have written, for example), does that mean that the people who speak it have no concept of time? The author claims no, and I agree, though some have made claims of this nature in the past. It just makes no sense to me. Words are only part of language. Tone, context, prefixes and suffixes, etc also factor in. I liked the author's reading of this book, and I think he did a great job with it, not only in English, but also all of the other comparison languages. This was quite interesting and if you like language or etymology, I definitely recommend it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Aerin

    Seems like every book on linguistics published in the past few decades has been contractually required to include a takedown of both Sapir-Whorfianism (the idea that a language's grammar/vocabulary shapes its speakers' worldview in any compelling way) and prescriptivism (imposing arbitrary rules of "correct" usage, despite the common and widely-understood use of "incorrect" grammar). And that's fine, I didn't mind listening to McWhorter play me the hits one more time. But this book also included Seems like every book on linguistics published in the past few decades has been contractually required to include a takedown of both Sapir-Whorfianism (the idea that a language's grammar/vocabulary shapes its speakers' worldview in any compelling way) and prescriptivism (imposing arbitrary rules of "correct" usage, despite the common and widely-understood use of "incorrect" grammar). And that's fine, I didn't mind listening to McWhorter play me the hits one more time. But this book also included some theories that were new to me, and very interesting: 1) There is convincing evidence that Old & Middle English were shaped by generations of influence from Celtic-speaking adults learning the language and "seasoning" it with their own grammar, particularly meaningless "do" ("Do you like cats?" as opposed to something like "Like you cats?") and progressive "ing" ("I am feeding the cats" rather than "I feed the cats [right now]"). Both of these are found in the Celtic dialects of Welsh and Cornish, but in no other Indo-European languages, so McWhorter surmises that their appearance in English must be due to the influence of these dialects. This is controversial because it has been widely believed that Anglo-Saxon invaders killed off nearly all the Celts in Britain in the 6th Century, long before the English language picked up these quirks. McWhorter points out several flaws in this assumption. 2) The much-vaunted influence of French-speaking Normans (who conquered England in 1066 and maintained cultural influence for centuries) is, according to McWhorter, overstated. Sure, English still includes many French-derived words as a result of this history, but they were largely for "fancy" things associated with the aristocracy (e.g. the lords ate French-derived pork; poor farmers raised English-derived swine), and there really wasn't a lot of direct linguistic mixing. The ruling Normans mostly kept to themselves, and left very little imprint on grammar. 3) The stronger influence on English grammar - particularly in simplifying it, filing off case endings and so forth - came from the 8th-Century Viking invaders, who actually integrated with the local population and learned their language - though imperfectly, as adult-learners tend to. 4) Even further back, Proto-Germanic appears to have been strongly shaped by contact with some other group of people, resulting in a similar simplification (Germanic languages are far less inflected than most other Indo-European ones) as well as a vast set new of vocabulary (often having to do with the sea, sailing, marine animals, and a few other specific topics). In all, about 1/3 of Proto-Germanic words have no cognate in other Indo-European languages. It's unclear who these people would have been, but McWhorter cites evidence for speakers of Semitic languages (e.g. Akkadian, Aramaic) as well as (shakier) evidence for Phoenician explorers & traders. In general, the simplicity of English (and to a lesser extent, all Germanic languages) compared to the rest of the Indo-European family can be attributed to the influence - or bastardization, as McWhorter calls it - of multiple other cultures over the centuries. Non-native speakers today have a relatively easy time learning English as a result of these ancient non-native speakers ignoring or standardizing many of the language's complexities.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Becky

    What a fun book! This is one of those rare times where I would suggest having the audio and actually following along in the book. The audio is wonderful because you actually get to hear all the wonderful languages McWhorter is referencing, also well as just here him gush and laugh while narrating. You can tell just how passionate he is about linguistics as well as making linguistics a known subject to the genpop. It was a lot of fun. But if you had the book to follow along in as well then you What a fun book! This is one of those rare times where I would suggest having the audio and actually following along in the book. The audio is wonderful because you actually get to hear all the wonderful languages McWhorter is referencing, also well as just here him gush and laugh while narrating. You can tell just how passionate he is about linguistics as well as making linguistics a known subject to the genpop. It was a lot of fun. But if you had the book to follow along in as well then you would have the visual comparison of the sentence structures. That would also be very interesting to look at. None of it is too detailed, it really is just a basic introductory book. If you had any linguistic classes in college you will surely have heard most of this. I took Latin and German so we frequently touched on these subjects, but I never had a chance to go in depth into any of them. Truly fascinating subject, especially the history and formation of languages. So it will be old news to some people but in general I really appreciated his method. My only real complaint is that occasionally the analogies seemed forced and went on for too long. Thats not much a complaint though. All in all I thoroughly suggest this book. Its really made me reconsider English and how I speak and write ever day. What fun! #deathtomeaningless'do'

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lavinia

    Never thought Linguistics can be so much fun! Too many details to discuss. But if you ever wondered why, for instance, "you" has the same form for both singular and plural, why we say "aren't I" instead of the more logical "amn't I", why we use the meaningless "do" or "they" as a singular pronoun instead of he/she when the gender is not clear, you might get some answers or at least accept the fact that, in the author's own words, "shitte happens". He uses facts, comparison, logic and fun to Never thought Linguistics can be so much fun! Too many details to discuss. But if you ever wondered why, for instance, "you" has the same form for both singular and plural, why we say "aren't I" instead of the more logical "amn't I", why we use the meaningless "do" or "they" as a singular pronoun instead of he/she when the gender is not clear, you might get some answers or at least accept the fact that, in the author's own words, "shitte happens". He uses facts, comparison, logic and fun to explain why English is so different from all the other languages, how its grammar changed more over the years than other Germanic languages and emphasizes the differences between spoken and written language. The book is delightful, so well structured, documented & written, you don't need to be an English major or a linguist to enjoy it.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ross Blocher

    If the history of language excites you (as it does me), this is a fun, quick and accessible book. John McWhorter is a linguist, and his excitement for language is palpable. I recommend the audiobook version: McWhorter himself narrates, and he is admirably capable of rendering the various foreign language passages as they are meant to be heard (and not as I might have imagined them), and various lines are customized to apply to those listening rather than reading. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue If the history of language excites you (as it does me), this is a fun, quick and accessible book. John McWhorter is a linguist, and his excitement for language is palpable. I recommend the audiobook version: McWhorter himself narrates, and he is admirably capable of rendering the various foreign language passages as they are meant to be heard (and not as I might have imagined them), and various lines are customized to apply to those listening rather than reading. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is, of course, referring to English. McWhorter is making a few cases here: a major one is that English owes some of its structural oddities, when compared with other Germanic languages, to an early (5th/6th century) interaction with Celtic and Welsh speakers. He holds this position in opposition to mainstream linguist consensus, and we get to hear his side of the argument. I am not familiar with the other side's position, so I can't offer perspective on the debate itself. McWhorter strikes me as persuasive, even if I am subtly suspicious of how he characterizes the opposing viewpoint. The prime suspects in this analysis are English's progressive verb formations ("I am writing..." instead of simply "I write") and the presence of "meaningless do": an oft-repeated phrase in this book referring to our odd use of the word "do" ("Do you see my hairbrush?") that does not in itself convey any meaning. Twelve-or-so Germanic languages never managed to sprout these features, yet Celtic and Welsh have them. Coincidence? McWhorter spends a fair amount of time (maybe even an unfair amount: it gets repetitive) unpacking this argument and defending against counters. For example, he must explain why Celtic vocabulary did not also creep into English (he points to similar transfers in other language clashes), and why we don't see written evidence of this influence for nearly a millennium (written records enforced Old English grammar, and it wasn't until after the Norman conquest forced scribes to write in French for 150 years that English returned in written form with its Old English tradition broken and the vernacular in place). I read this at a convenient time, as I am currently 143 days into studying German (using Duolingo and Memrise, apps which both keep records of "streaks"). There are constant references to German grammar and the difficulty of learning German that were helpful in terms of contextualizing what I've learned so far, and providing commiseration. Another major point about English origins focused on Viking influence. This Viking "butchery" involved a great simplification of English grammar, removing a number of cases (dative, accusative, and so forth) and uncoupling the gendering of nouns. McWhorter demonstrates how the timing works out for Vikings to have influenced our grammar simply by being second-language speakers and not picking up on all the complex conjugation rules. This butchered English was then adopted by their children and passed along. Another hypothesis is that even farther back in time, somewhere before Proto-Germanic had fully separated from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), there was the influence of a Semitic language (he points the finger at Phoenician) in softening some of the hard sounds of PIE into the softer ones we see in Germanic languages. For example, f in "father" or German "vater" instead of the p in latin "pater". He makes the case for a few of some dozen-or-so words, and the historical context of Phoenician voyages, but admits this is a hypothesis that would require much more supporting evidence in order to claim as fact. And we may never have it. For now, it's an intriguing possibility. There is one section of the book that doesn't fall under the banner of "our magnificent bastard tongue", but I'm guessing McWhorter found it was a pressing topic that he wanted to address. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that language structure dictates the underlying mental perception of the world, and so languages that contain unique words or constructions give their speakers special insight into the relevant concepts. There's a strong and weak form of this hypothesis, and McWhorter argues at length against the strong form while conceding that in small ways language does influence thought patterns. I agree on this, and am not sure how many people would take the stronger form seriously. Another fun theme in the book is taking down the pervasive grammar rules: the province of pedants. You can't end a sentence with a preposition! You can't refer to "Sam and me" going to the store! You can't use the pronoun "they" when referring to a singular subject! And so on. Language is a living, mutating creature, and McWhorter laughs at those who try to freeze it in place or plant arbitrary usage flags. He points out many examples of illogic baked into English, and many hills that past pedants have died upon. As Baruch Spinoza said, "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." This is a book that encourages us all to observe, enjoy, and understand.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Phrodrick

    In the main John McWhorter is indulging himself in his area of expertise seeming demanding us to care about arguments within a fairly specialized study of language. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue may be little more than an effort to appeal to the populist interest in grammar that began with the fairly popular Eats, Shoots and Leaves. That was an effort to bring to the commoners the rather esoteric debate over the Oxford comma, McWhorter wants to argue for something else. What is that something In the main John McWhorter is indulging himself in his area of expertise seeming demanding us to care about arguments within a fairly specialized study of language. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue may be little more than an effort to appeal to the populist interest in grammar that began with the fairly popular Eats, Shoots and Leaves. That was an effort to bring to the commoners the rather esoteric debate over the Oxford comma, McWhorter wants to argue for something else. What is that something else? To tell you I’d have to care or have a lot of education in a specialized area. The idea is that somewhere between its proto Germanic roots and the modern English we all love, some things happened. Like all spoken languages, rules were made up or changed or imported from whoever happened to be speaking at the time. Since England played host to various invaders, many of them Norse, but of various particular varieties, they all had a whack at getting the grammar from there to here. Tellingly, most of this was done absent a written record so the debate is properly between experts who have to agree that they are all speculating. McWhorter may be the more correct for all his displays of abstract, or is it obscure learning<?>. It is hard to know who he is pushing against and if they are as determined in their opinion. I came to resent the notion that he was going to go past the learned within his profession to get us folk excited. Then, having read the best sentence in the book; the one beginning, “For the Final Chapter…” He writes: “Second, there is no logical conception of “proper” grammar as distinct from “bad” grammar that people lapse into out of ignorance or laziness,” Balderdash. How about this for a simple logical conception? Either a particular construction promotes communication or it confuses. The reason for rules in a language is to create a common set of expectations such that a listener, and more importantly the reader does not have to guess what the words in that sequence are meant to mean. I suspect that McWhorter was particularly careful about the way the words on his contract were assembled, prefixed and suffixed. Besides issues like regionalisms and the instability of fad expressions, meaning cannot be reliably conveyed absent some common rules about how things are said and written. Some odd hundred years ago, it may not have mattered if a typical Welshman was instantly understood by a random Irishman. Likely they would never meet. Mine is not a plea for the kind of purity and fixity that the French expend so much energy to enforce, all languages are always in flux, including some of the dead ones. People still make words for use in Latin and Hebrew having been written by people with none of the common forms of 21st century technology have modern speakers who have made a leap across millennia. Languages change. And no charge for that insight.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    I am not an expert, but I did major in Linguistics in college. I found McWhorter's arguments horribly oversimplified and tedious to read. I'm glad that he is putting linguistic scholarship out there for the general public, but someone with even a rudimentary knowledge (or even a grammar or history nerd) would know. Being familiar with some of the counter-arguments he suggests, I can say that he presents them in a manner intended to make them appear somewhat foolish, rather than addressing them I am not an expert, but I did major in Linguistics in college. I found McWhorter's arguments horribly oversimplified and tedious to read. I'm glad that he is putting linguistic scholarship out there for the general public, but someone with even a rudimentary knowledge (or even a grammar or history nerd) would know. Being familiar with some of the counter-arguments he suggests, I can say that he presents them in a manner intended to make them appear somewhat foolish, rather than addressing them properly. He does make good arguments about the adaptations he suggests, but the manner in which he goes about it is distracting and annoying. Going on a several-page rant about cars as a thinly-disguised metaphor for grammar is just beating the reader over the head with a stick, trying to make a point. The book is self-referential, perhaps in an attempt to be light-hearted and comedic, but it fails miserably. The same examples come up again and again, and it feels like the author feels the need to impress the reader with his wide familiarity with languages. He makes many references to certain other languages and the places he traveled (sorry he was unable to find lemonade while in Scandenavia). The section on the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis was mocking. The hypothesis does not mean that people can't understand a concept their language has no word for, it is about what one is obliged to think about every time ones speaks. McWhorter dismisses the idea of something happening without any basis, but doesn't address the dozens of times within the history of Germanic or of English where we really have documented cases of that happening, ie the Great English Vowel Shift. I found his idea that Germanic may have had Phoenician influences interesting… I don't feel the need to attribute Grimm's law to Phoenician sound changes- sounds moving around are not nearly as improbably as the author makes them sound. The fact that a third of Germanic words don't have an easily identifiable PIE relating is intriguing, but some of the words he cites are words that are very rarely adopted in linguistic shadings. The Online Etymology Dictionary proposes that in some cases, a desire to avoid "taboo" words may have lead to the adoption of other words, such as replacing the PIE *esen- with a less taboo word, something based on *bhle and which turns up in English as "blood." These alternatives get no space in McWhorter's account. If you have an interest in linguistics, this may be an interesting read. Overall, I found it annoying to read and enjoyed neither McWhorter's manner of presenting his ideas nor the ideas themselves.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Grumpus

    I love languages and learning how English developed and sounded over time is fascinating. This is definitely a book that you should listen to as the author himself reads it. It is an auditory treat to hear the history of English and other languages from whence it grew.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    John McWhorter has done it again! For those who love language, there is no author better to educate and entertain on all matters linguistic. In the current work, he proves that Celtic grammatical structures have given English its "meaningless do" (as in "Do you know what I mean?") and its normative progressive present tense (as in "I am writing" rather than the more usual in other Germanic languages "I write"). He, in fact, rather belabors the point in the first chapter to an extent that can John McWhorter has done it again! For those who love language, there is no author better to educate and entertain on all matters linguistic. In the current work, he proves that Celtic grammatical structures have given English its "meaningless do" (as in "Do you know what I mean?") and its normative progressive present tense (as in "I am writing" rather than the more usual in other Germanic languages "I write"). He, in fact, rather belabors the point in the first chapter to an extent that can only be the result of some nasty academic attacks he must have endured on this particular topic. He expands a reference in his 2003 book, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care into a comprehensive discussion of the Viking role in simplifying English that explains many of the differences between Old and Middle English. He shows a somewhat less conservative side than he has shown in other works in his demonstration that getting fussy over grammatical errors (such as split infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions) is a futile occupation, since it is through errors that language changes and changes in language are inevitable. Finally, he takes on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and usefully corrects the more radical views that our language gives us our worldview, because our thinking is directed along narrow grooves dictated by our grammar. All of this is much more fun than I have made it sound in this brief synopsis. Try it; you'll like it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Maria

    While written in an entertaining and humorous tone, the author belabors a few points a little too much for my taste. He spends almost 70 pages establishing why he is unique among all linguists because of his belief that English has been influenced by Celtic languages. It really could have been written in half the length but he seems to enjoy his own voice.  There are multiple examples provided to support his theories, & he has made this accessible to non-academics, but his tone of "us" While written in an entertaining and humorous tone, the author belabors a few points a little too much for my taste. He spends almost 70 pages establishing why he is unique among all linguists because of his belief that English has been influenced by Celtic languages. It really could have been written in half the length but he seems to enjoy his own voice.  There are multiple examples provided to support his theories, & he has made this accessible to non-academics, but his tone of "us" (anyone who agrees with him) vs. "them" (anyone who doesn't) is a little off putting bc he puts people on the defensive unnecessarily.  I'd recommend this in conjunction with an earlier book on the history of English bc this doesn't really delve into a history but sets out to debunk earlier theories about the history. So it's better read after other texts that outline more fully the actual history rather than simply focusing on a few idiosyncrasies of the English language.  It is a fast read and enjoyable, but by no means a definitive text for anyone who wants a basic history of how English came to be. 

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    When someone says to me in the course of conversation, "Here's an idea I had" I think to myself, "okay, let's see." When someone runs up to me and grabs me by the bicep and says, "I'm telling you, man! This is how it went down!" I'm inclined to back away. Listen, I don't know Fact One about the linguistic anthropology community. This is the first of John McWhorter's books that I've ever read. I don't know if he's King of the Hill or some weirdo that hangs out in the gutters. What I can tell you, When someone says to me in the course of conversation, "Here's an idea I had" I think to myself, "okay, let's see." When someone runs up to me and grabs me by the bicep and says, "I'm telling you, man! This is how it went down!" I'm inclined to back away. Listen, I don't know Fact One about the linguistic anthropology community. This is the first of John McWhorter's books that I've ever read. I don't know if he's King of the Hill or some weirdo that hangs out in the gutters. What I can tell you, though, is that his attitude throughout this book was off-putting to the degree that I'm inclined to disbelieve his theories just based on how weirdly insistent he was that he's correct. Okay, to cut him some slack I recognize that he was looking for a conversational tone; this isn't some research article. Still, I marked a couple of phrases: "The genocide story [a theory at odds with his own], then, has fallen apart. Genes, archaeology, documentary evidence, and sheer common sense leave it dead in the water." "In any case, the paucity of Celtic words in English is no argument at all against meaningless do and present-tense -ing being due to Celtic influence." [during an analogy about language influence] "The Robinsons learned how to play piano with their feet from the Jonses. Period." "Those who are uninterested in reporting this car are playing Monopoly, while those who are interested in reporting the attack on it are the ones bringing in a game of Clue and finding little interest." There are more, of course, but I feel that'll suffice. I was constantly distracted by McWhorter's desperate need to prove that he alone knows the truth about all this, man, and those other guys, they ... they don't know bupkis! See, this is how it is! Two stars for a few instances of getting me interested in linguistic theory occasionally, minus all the rest of the stars for questionable attitude.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mahala Helf

    Six assertions of unexplained significance are belabored into the first three repetitious soporific chapters(literally--1st & last book in all my years that put me to sleep within a page time after time): 1. Most linguists study individual languages & are ignorant of others. 2. This ignorance causes them to exceptionalize and mistake the reasons for changes in the English language. 3. John McWhorter aloneable to synthesis research and theory about all languages to discern the errors. 3. Six assertions of unexplained significance are belabored into the first three repetitious soporific chapters(literally--1st & last book in all my years that put me to sleep within a page time after time): 1. Most linguists study individual languages & are ignorant of others. 2. This ignorance causes them to exceptionalize and mistake the reasons for changes in the English language. 3. John McWhorter aloneable to synthesis research and theory about all languages to discern the errors. 3. Changes in grammar from Old English to Middle English are remarkable and ignored by linguists in favor of attention to vocabulary changes. 4. Celtic and Viking influence account for these remarkable grammar changes. 5. The written texts linguists have relied on do not reflect Old & Middle English as it was actually spoke by any of the non-scribes . 6. English grammar is simpler than that of many other languages. Tortorous analogies from McWhorter’s life and times are roadblocks, not detours. Nothing is illuminated. Start with chapter 4,” Does Our Grammar Channel Our Thought?” It’s accessible without being codescending, succinct and better-edited

  17. 4 out of 5

    Joe Kraus

    I am a nerd, of course, but not even I expect to find linguistics riveting and funny. Thats what happens, though, when you find yourself reading something by a brilliant thinker whos not afraid to challenge many of his fields presuppositions and who can spin a good story out of otherwise dry stuff. McWhorter has a couple of ideas that he both presents with stunning clarity and that he juxtaposes to the dominant thinking of other linguists. Above all, he has a sense that language carries the I am a nerd, of course, but not even I expect to find linguistics riveting and funny. That’s what happens, though, when you find yourself reading something by a brilliant thinker who’s not afraid to challenge many of his field’s presuppositions and who can spin a good story out of otherwise dry stuff. McWhorter has a couple of ideas that he both presents with stunning clarity and that he juxtaposes to the dominant thinking of other linguists. Above all, he has a sense that language carries the residue of the people who spoke it rather than the conquerors of those people. It’s a great and liberating sense as far as I’m concerned; these conquered people often vanished from history, but they have left their mark in the way we speak. The first theory he explores is the notion that our English grammar owes far more to the Celts than we have otherwise imagined. When the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes arrived as conquerors, they did not, as some historians have insisted, wipe out the existing Celtic population. Instead, they became an upper-class; as recent DNA evidence suggests, the Celtic Britons seem responsible for more than 90 percent of the genetic make-up of modern-day English. The official language the island came to speak was indeed “Old English,” a descendent of Old German, but it had a number of grammatical quirks, mostly an absence of case endings and verb conjugations as well as an odd “meaningless do” that featured in sentences like “Do you want…” Where conventional linguistic history has it that these features either just fell away from disuse (something that did not happen to most other descendants of Old German) or emerged as quirks in the case of the “meaningless do,” McWhorter marshals all sorts of evidence to show that what we see is the evidence of a conquered people attempting to speak a new language but mangling it in the process. The Celtic British language indeed featured some of those grammatical elements, and it seems fairly convincing to think that those “second language speakers” of that time – who constituted a substantial majority – mis-learned the invaders’ way of speaking. McWhorter applies similar thinking in a later era. Convention has it that the Norman Invasion, with its French speakers, infused Middle English with the novelties that eventually turned it into Modern English. And it is clear that we receive many Romance-language words through that transfusion. But vocabulary is a more superficial change in language than its core grammar. McWhorter argues that there were simply never enough Normans around to influence the everyday language; there were perhaps only ten thousand on an island with millions in population, and many of them rarely interacted with the common people. Instead, says McWhorter, there’s a much more substantial infusion of population from a series of Viking raids. Those small-time conquerors – who tended to land near the coasts and establish colonies that eventually intermarried with the existing population – were ultimately both more numerous and more engaged in the commerce of everyday life. They are the ones, McWorter says, who brought about the further erosion of conjugation and case endings that is distinct to English. What’s more, he points out triumphantly, while the written record will always be far behind the conventional ways most people talk, the written records show that such changes began in the regions where the Vikings settled rather than in places closer to Norman strongholds. He offers one more intriguing hypothesis from the same pattern of analysis. He notes that Old German is itself already a somewhat trimmed down version of its precursor Old Indo-European. Among other strange changes, it’s a rare language that goes from hard consonants tike ‘P’ to softer ones like “F,” as in Pater becoming Father. Using a kind of CSI—History of Language, he speculates that it’s possible the alternation we see is the result of a transfusion from the way Semitic speakers would have learned and bastardized the language. Then, in perhaps the most speculative part of the book, he considers the possibility that the Phoenicians of Carthage – they of the Punic Wars, and speakers of Semitic Akkadian – may have had a larger geographic presence in the Scandinavian areas where Old German first emerged. That is, he proposes that our language has never been “pure,” that it has always been altered by contact with peoples who, though they have not gone onto political power, have mis-learned and passed along a new kind of speech. If all that weren’t enough – a coherent story that gives a glimpse of academic controversy and still manages to stitch together different historical developments – this also offers the best grammatical defense I have ever heard for why I should let go the, to-me, ear-scraping sound of using the plural “them” to refer to individuals as a gender-neutral pronoun. First, he says, there’s evidence for such a use going back to Shakespeare and before; it’s always been a part of the language. Second, he reminds me, no language is without its logical inconsistency. He offers a lot of great examples I can’t reconstruct, but most persuasively he points at the example of “aren’t I?” I’d never thought of it before, but – if numerical agreement is so important – then why does the singular I take the plural aren’t in such a situation? Logically it should be “amn’t I,” but we hear that as wrong. It’s just a reminder that this is how language works. It’s always got some illogical elements from its strange inheritance, and it’s never going to be entirely consistent. What we have with which to write and speak is, it turns out, the record of many long-defeated peoples. We’ve lost their ideas and many of their words, but something of their experience has crept into what we know through the bastardization process of linguistic change. I knew a lot of this going in, but McWhorter makes me feel smarter, and he certainly entertained me along the way.

  18. 4 out of 5

    stormin

    I am rapidly becoming a really big fan of Dr. McWhorter, and I've got to say that anyone who isn't listening to him read his own books is totally missing out. One of the things that's so fun is to hear him read all the foreign language snippets or stress the English language with his gift for accents and humor. Really: you *have* to get the audiobook version of this. (His Great Courses class, "Language A to Z" is also fantastic.) I do think that the summaries of this book are a little misleading. I am rapidly becoming a really big fan of Dr. McWhorter, and I've got to say that anyone who isn't listening to him read his own books is totally missing out. One of the things that's so fun is to hear him read all the foreign language snippets or stress the English language with his gift for accents and humor. Really: you *have* to get the audiobook version of this. (His Great Courses class, "Language A to Z" is also fantastic.) I do think that the summaries of this book are a little misleading. It's not just a kind of fun, aimless look at English. He actually spends the book developing a very specific thesis about the origin of the English language. The thesis has a few parts: 1. English grammar got simplified when a bunch of Vikings who colonized England started learning it as a second language 2. English grammar picked up some of its most distinctive traits (e.g. the use of meaningless "do" as in, "Do you know..." and the use of the progressive for present tense, like "I am reading...") from Celtic languages. 3. Germanic (of which English is the outlier) is itself an outlier among Indo-European languages because of the influence of Phoenicians (who spoke a Semitic language that gave Germanic a lot of its distinctive characteristics.) There are a couple of other philosophical points he makes along the way. Most prominently, he attacks the idea of "correct" grammar by pointing out that English is a simplified, bastardized version of its former selves (Middle and especially High English) that was created when people started saying things that would have been improper at the time (e.g. dropping verb endings) but which sound natural to us now. He also spends some time with a take-down of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis aka linguistic relativity. Like the attack on the notion of "proper" grammar, this can be seen as a political exercise, although thankfully the politics are pretty subdued. No proper language means there's no basis for denigrating non-standard dialects of English (aka Ebonics) which are just as valid as any other dialect. That argument might have political implications, but the fact is that McWhorter (as far as I can tell) conclusively wins it. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that language influences the way people think in major ways, such that you can draw a parallel between the language and the culture of the people who speak that language. The political problem there is it has been used as a kind of benevolent racism: the founders exoticized and idealized "native" populations (especially the Hopi) in ways that kind of recapitulate the highlight reel of the Noble Savage myth. The problem is that his take-down of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis wasn't *nearly* as convincing as his take down of the "proper grammar" myth. It mostly seemed to consist of overstating the hypothesis in ways that seemed so silly as to make me suspect he wasn't playing straight with what proponents would say if they could speak for themselves. He also admitted, at the end, that recent evidence was vindicating a more nuanced version of the Sapir-Whort hypothesis, but even then he left out by far the most interesting research (that I've heard of). He talked about indigenous peoples who have no word for numbers (for example) and also can't count. That's a kind of dumb example because there's no way to really tell which way the causation goes. He also mentioned studies about how speakers of languages with gendered nouns (like German) can be found to identify gender traits with objects based on grammatical gender. German speakers see keys in masculine terms (heavy, strong, useful) and Spanish speakers see keys in masculine terms (small, delicate, ornate) because "key" is male or female in the languages, respectively. Interesting, but hardly more than a curiosity. But what about much, much more interesting research that finds that tenseless languages (ones where future tense is implied rather than gramatically denoted) have different attitudes towards savings and retirement (e.g. things that happen in the future) than languages which are more grammatically explicit about future tense? This is a much more significant relationship between linguistics and behavior (ergo: world view) and it doesn't even come up. See, for example: "The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets." (Link) All in all, it was still an incredible, eye-opening, wonderful book and my biggest complaint is that I wish it were longer. My second complaint, however, is that I wish the discussion of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was more robust. UPDATE: I emailed Dr. McWhorter about this, and he let me know that his newest book takes on Sapir-Whorf directly: The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. He also tells me that he will be recording an audiobook version of this one as well. The research that I mentioned in this review is addressed there, so I'm anxious to get a copy of it.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mary Soderstrom

    For my next non-fiction project, I'm been rummaging around in paleolinguistics and paleohistory: I'll tell you just why in a future post. Suffice to say that my most recent reading has led me back to the delightful Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter. His unstated thesis is that English is a Creole language, with nothing pejorative intended in the phrase. What happened to English is that it was transformed when a prolonged wave of newcomers struggled to For my next non-fiction project, I'm been rummaging around in paleolinguistics and paleohistory: I'll tell you just why in a future post. Suffice to say that my most recent reading has led me back to the delightful Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter. His unstated thesis is that English is a Creole language, with nothing pejorative intended in the phrase. What happened to English is that it was transformed when a prolonged wave of newcomers struggled to communicate with the people already living in England, dropping grammatical niceties right and left. The result of this simplification is a Modern English that does not routinely give gender to nouns the way every other language in Europe does, has eliminated the case markers that make German, Latin and Ancient Greek such chores to learn, and picked up some interesting features found only in Cornish and Welsh. McWhorter is a youngish linguistic scholar who has spent much time researching creoles, the new languages which people create when invaders, immigrants or people otherwise thrown together must figure out how to talk to each other and to a larger community. He argues that what has happened to English (and perhaps to an ancestor language, Proto-Germanic) over time is not a simply borrowing of thousands and thousands of words, but more fundamental changes in the way sentences are structured. Languages and how people express themselves is something I find fascinating. This year I also had the pleasure of reading Mark Abley’s books, Spoken Here and The Prodigal Tongue which also deal with the history of language and where language, particularly English, is going. Abley tells a good story, but there is more here than well chosen anecdotes and some remarkable little known facts. Spoken Here has an important political question as its subtext. Abley is an Anglohone Quebec writer and Spoken Here was written against the backdrop of Quebec politics. Francophones think their language is in danger, while Anglophones here jealousy guard theirs, but nowhere in this book does Abley mention this, I think. Nor does McWhorter, an African-American, talk much about Black English even though he has been criticized for comments he’s made elsewhere. While Abley’s and McWhorter’s books can be read with pleasure by language buffs of whatever colour or place of residence, a careful appreciation of them requires a little parsing of them for their political grammar. Speaking (or at least understanding) the same language is essential for determining where we go from here. By the way, McWhorter- has nothing against heading toward a more electronic culture. He recently gave a TED lecture in which he called text messages "a linguistic miracle." Because the short, abreviation-filled communications bounce back and forth, they are much closer to how we speak than written communication has been up until now. This "fingered speech" is far from being the end of the world. Language has always been changing he says. In his talk he cites :a passage from 1956 bemoaning the decline of language in young people … and then three more, all the way back to 63 AD when a pedant lamented everyone’s terrible Latin. (That “terrible Latin” eventually became French.) " McWhorter says, “Being fluent in spoken language, written language and writing-like-speaking language is an unconscious balancing act that allows each “speaker” to expand his or her linguistic repertoire."

  20. 5 out of 5

    Georg

    A very interesting book with some new theories about the development of the English language from its Germanic roots. I like his comparisons of the members of the gang and even more since I am familiar with two of them (ok, one and a half). McWhorter shows without any prejudice that not only all human beings are equal but also all languages though they are very different. Its an interesting point that a language with an easy grammar might be a bigger challenge for the speaker and that the A very interesting book with some new theories about the development of the English language from its Germanic roots. I like his comparisons of the members of the “gang” and even more since I am familiar with two of them (ok, one and a half). McWhorter shows without any prejudice that not only all human beings are equal but also all languages though they are very different. It’s an interesting point that a language with an “easy” grammar might be a bigger challenge for the speaker and that the English “meaningless do” really is as meaningless as our “der/die/das”. As a pedant I can’t stop here. So just some petty criticism without substantial weight. 1. Call me humourless but I don’t need cheap jokes to read a scientific book. When he cites Shakespeare he does not need to tell me that Shakespeare did not refer to “Sports Illustrated” when he mentions a “magazine”. 2. “Ich tue vielleicht den Sack aufschneiden” is not an “option”, not even in a grammatical sense. That’s a sentence you would only tolerate coming from a toddler, but it just isn’t German even if all the single words are correct. 3. How to proof that the Phoenicians were in Germany and/or Denmark to teach us idiots good Phoenician grammar? One of the Phoenician Gods was called “Baal”. And one of our Germanic Gods was called “Balder”. Not exactly compelling if you consider that the Phoenicians as well as the Gotes had hundred of Gods and it would be more astounding if there were not two of them with similar names.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Anne

    Written by a linguist but intended for a lay audience, I found this an intriguing, short read. Yes, there was much talk of grammar but it wasn't too over the top as to put me into a grammar trance. And even though it's not really a scholarly work, the author really, really wants to win his major argument (English grammar was influenced by Celtic-speaking people) therefore he thoroughly covered all aspects of his thesis (some might say it got a little repetitive). Actually, his major argument is Written by a linguist but intended for a lay audience, I found this an intriguing, short read. Yes, there was much talk of grammar but it wasn't too over the top as to put me into a grammar trance. And even though it's not really a scholarly work, the author really, really wants to win his major argument (English grammar was influenced by Celtic-speaking people) therefore he thoroughly covered all aspects of his thesis (some might say it got a little repetitive). Actually, his major argument is that there never was a "pure" or "pristine" form of English somewhere in the deep past. Rather, English, and its root languages, were influenced by an assortment of peoples throughout time (oh, and not just in vocabulary, but in fundamental grammar, as well). Quite frankly, I have no problem believing this. But I leave it to the linguists to fight the details out amongst themselves (i.e. this will probably be the last language book I read in a while ;)

  22. 4 out of 5

    Troy Blackford

    This was very interesting. I did expect a book about all the words that we have taken into English from other languages, but I'm glad that I got so much more than that. McWhorter instead focuses on how our grammar has absorbed elements from other languages, specifically Welsh, and makes a case for a linguistic argument that I sense is aimed more at other linguists, whom he hopes to convince, rather than at laypeople. Though it definitely convinced me, I should add. Following that, he delves into This was very interesting. I did expect a book about all the words that we have taken into English from other languages, but I'm glad that I got so much more than that. McWhorter instead focuses on how our grammar has absorbed elements from other languages, specifically Welsh, and makes a case for a linguistic argument that I sense is aimed more at other linguists, whom he hopes to convince, rather than at laypeople. Though it definitely convinced me, I should add. Following that, he delves into some other interesting facets of English history, and deconstructs the extreme interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which I agree has been brutally overblown. A very engaging and well-written (not to mention authoritative) account of some of the fascinating history of 'Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue,' the English language. I will definitely be reading more by McWhorter.

  23. 4 out of 5

    John

    I give the book three stars because: a) I'm a linguistics geek and b) I really like the author's sense-of-humor, which came through loud-and-clear on audio, but perhaps not so well in print. However, I could understand if other folks gave up on this one. As with Bart Ehrman's books on The Bible, McWhorter comes at the central premise - English grammar structure derives from a Celtic influence - from slightly different angles, turning a work that would make a fantastic article (or in this case I give the book three stars because: a) I'm a linguistics geek and b) I really like the author's sense-of-humor, which came through loud-and-clear on audio, but perhaps not so well in print. However, I could understand if other folks gave up on this one. As with Bart Ehrman's books on The Bible, McWhorter comes at the central premise - English grammar structure derives from a Celtic influence - from slightly different angles, turning a work that would make a fantastic article (or in this case podcast) into an overlong book.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kaethe Douglas

    3/31/2010 McWhorter presents the reader with a mystery: why does English have the particular grammatical quirks that it does? He then proceeds to make a convincing, and amusing case for the culprits he has identified, notably by comparison to other times and places where languages have been brought together. It's simple, it's straightforward, it's plausible, and it's entertaining, even for those who know nothing of grammar. And it makes a nice companion to all those books (which I love) about 3/31/2010 McWhorter presents the reader with a mystery: why does English have the particular grammatical quirks that it does? He then proceeds to make a convincing, and amusing case for the culprits he has identified, notably by comparison to other times and places where languages have been brought together. It's simple, it's straightforward, it's plausible, and it's entertaining, even for those who know nothing of grammar. And it makes a nice companion to all those books (which I love) about all the words English has borrowed from other languages. Library copy.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    Really enjoyed this exploration of English's origins outside of the usual "Latin + German" story. Especially as a student of Irish Gaelic, I loved reading more about the Celtic and Welsh influences on modern English.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tracy Rowan

    People who have followed me for a while will probably guess that I'm a fan of John McWhorter's work. I enjoy his common sense approach to linguistics, particularly when he applies it to the English language.  And so this book was exactly what I wanted, an exploration of the influences on and development of English syntax. One of my favorite quotes, from James Nicoll, is: "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't People who have followed me for a while will probably guess that I'm a fan of John McWhorter's work. I enjoy his common sense approach to linguistics, particularly when he applies it to the English language.  And so this book was exactly what I wanted, an exploration of the influences on and development of English syntax. One of my favorite quotes, from James Nicoll, is: "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." But no language is entirely about vocabulary as McWhorter shows us. If the only changes language ever made was stealing words from other languages, all spoken languages would sound very different from what we're used to. Language evolution is about syntax/grammar, about how speakers of other languages influence a language by getting it wrong for so long, and so pervasively, that the "wrong" syntax becomes the accepted one, and finally the "right" one. Ultimately Nicoll's comments about English miss the part where English got the crap kicked out of it by the Celts and the Vikings, but lived to tell the tale. In a new form of English. One of the most interesting things about this book is how McWhorter makes his case for the influence of Celtic languages, specifically Cornish and Welsh, on some of the most basic English syntax, most specifically the "meaningless do." In English we ask  things like "What do you want?" using do as... well, a kind of place marker.  It has no real meaning; the action here is about wanting, not doing.  And no other proto-Germanic language uses that construction.  But Celtic languages do. And so in spite of the insistence of many linguists that Celtic tongues had no effect on English, McWhorter shows how they absolutely did, and in some very essential ways. We know English was influenced by the Roman invasion, but what really kicked snot out of the language were the waves of Viking invaders, who dropped out huge hunks of English grammar when they settled in the islands, and began to intermarry with the locals. Gender markers?  We don't need no stinking gender markers.  Nominative, Genitive, Dative cases?  Forgeddaboutit.  Just, y'know talk until someone understands what you want. Their children grew up hearing Mom or Dad getting it wrong, and they did the same, and eventually English became simpler, and more direct. McWhorter doesn't have a lot of patience with language purists as a result, and points out that none of them seem to want to change back to what English originally was, they just want to keep it from changing now.  And that's nonsense.  English, as with every other language on the planet, will change or it will die.  I always come away from one of John McWhorter's books with the sense that we speak a wonderful, vital, rich, and flexible language that will live on in spite of the people who want to freeze it in time. In 500 years it may sound different, but it'll still be English.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Lis Carey

    John McWhorter gives us another lively, fascinating, informative look at language, especially the English language. English is an offshoot of North Germanic, and in some ways those connections are obvious. In other ways, English is a bit weird even by North Germanic standards--and one section is devoted to making clear how very much the Germanic languages departed, early on, from the norms of essentially all the other Indo-European languages. He also gives us his theory as to how this happened. John McWhorter gives us another lively, fascinating, informative look at language, especially the English language. English is an offshoot of North Germanic, and in some ways those connections are obvious. In other ways, English is a bit weird even by North Germanic standards--and one section is devoted to making clear how very much the Germanic languages departed, early on, from the norms of essentially all the other Indo-European languages. He also gives us his theory as to how this happened. But the main focus is English, and English has it's own weird traits. We often talk about all the vocabulary English has borrowed, or stolen, from other languages. McWhorter points out that all languages take useful vocabulary where they find it, and English is a bit unusual in having encountered so many different languages so early in its development. What makes English different from other North Germanic languages and their descendants is grammar. One of the grammatical oddities of English is what linguists call "meaningless do." As in, "Do you know her?" "Do you want to go to the pool?" It's a word that is doing no grammatical work at all, and there is no equivalent in most Indo-European language, and specifically not in the Germanic languages most closely related to English. We use it many times a day, and never think it sounds odd, but it is odd. Where did it come from? Note: McWhorter is not a big fan of the theory that changes in a language "just happen" that purely by chance resemble structures in other, unrelated languages that happen to be nearby. There's a similar construction in a couple of languages Old English had a lot of contact with, though, and McWhorter lays out the evidence in, I think, convincing detail. The other notably weird thing about English compared to its relatives is the nearly-complete loss of the case endings all the other Germanic languages have. McWhorter also thinks the standard explanation for this is mistaken, and makes a very good case for his alternative explanation. There's a lot more to this book, but these are some of the highlights. It's enjoyable, informative, and a really good listen. Recommended.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Dana Sweeney

    An entertaining and informative read, if sometimes a little granular & lacking in a cohesive argumentative arc. I found McWhorters contrarian case for Celtic influence on English grammar to be most compelling and convincing. Even in the absence of a visible Celtic vocabulary in English, I am entirely persuaded by his examples of twin (and globally unusual) grammar structures between Celtic languages and English, which are entirely unfamiliar to other Germanic languages. How has this been An entertaining and informative read, if sometimes a little granular & lacking in a cohesive argumentative arc. I found McWhorter’s contrarian case for Celtic influence on English grammar to be most compelling and convincing. Even in the absence of a visible Celtic vocabulary in English, I am entirely persuaded by his examples of twin (and globally unusual) grammar structures between Celtic languages and English, which are entirely unfamiliar to other Germanic languages. How has this been ignored for so long by scholars of the history of English, who have not bothered to learn Gaelic, Welsh, or Cornish before declaring the languages obsolete? Who supposes a Germanic language could be imposed upon an entire language family with no consequence or evolution? This is not only a linguistically (specifically syntactically) groundbreaking case, but also an historically upending argument that contests the long held belief in Celtic erasure in ancient Britain (excluding Ireland). SUPER interesting stuff — I wish the whole book had been about it. McWhorter’s other sections I found less impressive. After beginning the book with a highly detailed argument about the influence of Celtic languages, he then sprinted through two more cases with less compelling evidence & sprinkled in an ill-fit section about language theory. The case for Viking influence on English grammar felt a spare imitation of the preceding chapter. His refutation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was solid, but out-of-place and well trodden. His final case for Semitic languages influencing proto-Germanic through the Phoenicians was highly speculative and felt rushed. Cohesion suffered. Overall, I am pleased with / intrigued by the first third of the book (the Celtic case) and a little disappointed with the rest. Well written for a popular audience, but ultimately not as convincing as I’d hoped.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Breslin

    While capable of ordering food and drink, and inquiring as to the location of toilets and train stations in a few other languages, I can really only speak one. Fortunately, it happens to be the best one. Or at least, the one with the most bizarre pedigree. English's uniquely distinctive characteristics are a central tenet of this book. The eye-opening aspect of this treatise is that this has relatively little to do with English's diverse vocabulary, a hodgepodge smorgasbord borrowed, stolen and While capable of ordering food and drink, and inquiring as to the location of toilets and train stations in a few other languages, I can really only speak one. Fortunately, it happens to be the best one. Or at least, the one with the most bizarre pedigree. English's uniquely distinctive characteristics are a central tenet of this book. The eye-opening aspect of this treatise is that this has relatively little to do with English's diverse vocabulary, a hodgepodge smorgasbord borrowed, stolen and leased with an option to buy from dozens and dozens of other languages, but rather its grammar. I have no idea how many languages linguist John McWhorter speaks, but I'm guessing it's a lot, and he could probably ask for the bathroom just about anywhere indoor plumbing exists. Polyglots such as he irritate me by throwing my unimpressive monoglot status in my face. What makes it worse is that he's just a damn fine writer as well. He entertains while he educates. Makes you grin while you think. It's infuriating. McWhorter develops a few theories specifically regarding the origins of aspects of English grammar, theories that often conflict with accepted mainstream linguistic dogma. He develops these theories so well and in such detail that it seems, at least to a non-linguist such as myself, virtually inarguable, but of course, that's what you get when you are exposed to only one side of an argument, and I'm not likely to read the other side any time soon, because grammar is typically much much less interesting than vocabulary and etymology, and few mainstream linguists have managed to pull off the extraordinary trick of making grammar interesting and fun. All in all, a magnificent book. .................................... Magnificicent: from Old French magnificent, a back-formation from Latin magnificentior, comparative of magnificus "great, elevated, noble, distinguished," literally "doing great deeds," from magnus "great" (from Proto-Indo-European root *meg- "great") + combining form of facere "to make" (from Proto-Indo-European root *dhe- "to set, put"). Note: Etymologies of English vocabulary such as this are precisely what this book does not focus on. Ending the previous sentence with a preposition and why that's okay and other aspects of word order and grammar are.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sandy D.

    Recommended by a blogger at the Ann Arbor library, and rightly so - McWhorter is a funny writer and a historical linguist. I'm a little shocked at how well he writes, given the fact that he studies linguistics, in fact. Anthropologists in general do not write well for the general reader (with the exception of Robert Sapolsky, whom I adore, and Kent Flannery, who has written a few truly funny paragraphs that are stuck in the middle of boring-to-anyone-outside-the-field archaeological monographs). Recommended by a blogger at the Ann Arbor library, and rightly so - McWhorter is a funny writer and a historical linguist. I'm a little shocked at how well he writes, given the fact that he studies linguistics, in fact. Anthropologists in general do not write well for the general reader (with the exception of Robert Sapolsky, whom I adore, and Kent Flannery, who has written a few truly funny paragraphs that are stuck in the middle of boring-to-anyone-outside-the-field archaeological monographs). So anyway, McWhorter describes the mid-400 AD period when Old English speakers (Angles and Saxons and Jutes) met the Celts, and we got all kinds of weird Celtic things in English, like the "meaningless do". I never realized how much we use the word "do" without it doing anything. And then we've got the Vikings prancing in and dropping words and truncating our grammar about four centuries later. Which makes it hard for us English speakers to learn Dutch or German or Swedish. And he pulls in Twain and Monopoly and Clue and Chaucer and Shakespeare and the Norman Conquest and Phoenicians in the first millenium BC and it's all so clear. And even when he disagrees with other linguists, he's funny and yet respectful. I can't get over it. I was only mildly interested in the topic, but now I want to read whatever else he's written.

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