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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English

109 customer reviews
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ISBN-10: 1592403956
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This evolutionary history of the English language from author and editor McWhorter (The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language) isn't an easy read, but those fascinated by words and grammar will find it informative, provocative and even invigorating. McWhorter's history takes on some old mysteries and widely-believed theories, mounting a solid argument for the Celtic influence on English language that literary research has for years dismissed; he also patiently explains such drastic changes as the shift from Old English to Middle English (the differences between written and spoken language explain a lot). Those who have learned English as a second language will recognize McWhorter's assertion that "English really is easy(-ish) at first and hard later"; for that, he says, we can "blame... the Danish and Scandinavian" influence. McWhorter further proves his bona fides with deft analogies, like a comparison between the evolution of English and popping a wheelie on a bicycle; he also debunks, handily, the popular notion that "a language's grammar and the way its words pattern reflect aspects of its speakers' culture and the way they think." McWhorter's iconoclastic impulses and refreshing enthusiasm makes this worth a look for anyone with a love for the language.
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About the Author

John McWhorter is the author of The Power of Babel and numerous other acclaimed books, most recently All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America (Gotham Books, 2008). A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to The New Republic, he has taught linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and has been widely profiled in the media.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham (October 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592403956
  • ASIN: B002BWQ59K
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (109 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,441,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

79 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Stanley H. Nemeth on November 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Linguist John McWhorter in his latest work advances a very well argued contrarian view of the development of the English language. The prevailing conventional view is that changes in English over time principally involve just the addition of new words from Latin, French, and, in the ages of exploration, words from everywhere. The conventional view rests centrally on the "hard evidence" reflected in surviving writings. Very adroitly, McWhorter reminds us that in early societies the written language was scribal and thus no necessary reflection of what the bulk of the non-literate population actually spoke. Nonetheless, the conventional view at its narrowest takes what merely survives in writing as a picture of the whole, imagining in doing so that it is being scientific and avoiding "airy assumptions." History, however, McWhorter reminds us, invariably involves much that is lost, requiring as well a reconstruction of events based on high levels of probability.

McWhorter rests his contrarian case on such arguments as he deals with other surviving bits of circumstantial evidence. His chief argument is that the history of English may best be understood as a consequence of the mixing of languages, not merely the addition of new words from foreign sources or the consequence of changes that "just happened." He seeks to explain the principal changes, not merely and dully to document them. Starting with the invasion of the British Isles by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes after the Roman departure, McWhorter disputes the notion that these invaders completed a successful Holocaust on the native Celtic peoples.
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84 of 90 people found the following review helpful By Richard Posner on February 4, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter (Gotham Books) is the most entertaining book about linguistics that I've read. As a teacher and writer, I love English and its quirks, but I never could get my mind around all the charts, graphs, and jargon of formal linguistics. This book gave me a nice language fix without sounding like a calculus text.

It's relevant to mention that McWhorter is black, because a racial subtext runs through this book. McWhorter's linguistic specialty is Creole languages--those lilting mash-ups created by black slaves out of native tongues and European languages. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, he suggests that English is a kind of Creole, and chides "traditional" linguists for ignoring the way English was "gumbo-ed" by the Celts, Vikings, and Phoenicians.

First, McWhorter attempts to show that Celts had a significant effect on Old English, evident in our unique use of the "meaningless do" (we say "Do you want to go shopping" whereas all other languages say something like "Want you to go shopping?") and progressive constructions (we say "Mary is singing" whereas all other languages say something like "Mary sings."). In another chapter, McWhorter agrees that Norse invasions of Angle-land caused many of our inflectional endings to drop off but goes further and insists that Norse influence truly battered our grammar. Finally, McWhorter goes out on an intriguing limb in proposing that Phoenician influenced Proto-Germanic (he gives as evidence striking similarities in Germanic and Semitic words). In the middle of these assaults on traditional linguistics, McWhorter pops in a rant against grammar rules, insisting that all grammar is just fashion.
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57 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Fíal on January 15, 2010
Format: Paperback
I trashed another of John McWhorter's books, and I must say that this one was better written. But it suffers from the same logorrhea as the first. After hearing the intriguing idea that English grammar was strongly influenced by Welsh, I was ready for a chapter on that. But it went on for half the book, going round and round in circles repeating the same point. I mean, it just went on and on and kept saying the same thing.

Did you know English grammar was probably profoundly influenced by Welsh? Do you need to hear that again? Wait, I think you do.

Let's talk about it some more here!

Etc. etc. etc. Do you get the idea?

Okay! Now let's talk some more about it! Some scholars don't take it seriously that English grammar could be strongly influenced by Welsh. Can you believe that? Let's discuss that here.

The second idea in the book is that the Semitic languages affected the structure and vocabulary of ancient Indo-European. This again is a possibly unprovable hypothesis, but fascinating. Here, I would have liked more solid info, but at least what was presented was done concisely and interestingly.

The third idea is simply that grammar and language change all the time, and that they are created by their users. Hence there is no *linguistic* reason not to say "Me and Steve went to the store" or "She gave a party for Steve and I." This is not a new idea to anyone who has read anything in linguistics, but it can be useful to announce it to newbies.

This section, too, goes on and on and on and on.

On the whole, Mr McWhorter is an entertaining writer in brief doses. He makes some interesting points, but you won't easily find their tiny arms waving in the flood of repetitive assertions. The book is a magazine article stre-e-e-e-tched into a way-too-long book.

I have hope though! The footnotes were manageable this time.
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