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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English
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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 Cant 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.
Top Customer Reviews
In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter calls this everyday, normal-person view of the English language "the vanilla version" of the history of English. In this version Germanic tribes invaded England, pushed the Celts to the fringes of the British Isles, and eventually Old English (Beowulf) became Middle English (Chaucer) became Modern English (Shakespeare), with infusions of Latin and Norman French after the Conquest in 1066. In the vanilla version, English lost its case endings on its own and became the most gramatically simple Germanic language.
McWhorter, a specialist in creoles and contact languages, has another theory, which gives the Celtic languages (especially Welsh and Cornish) credit for influencing the grammar of English.
He pays as much attention to history as to linguistics, and presents evidence that large numbers of Celts were not exterminated by the small numbers of Vikings who invaded and eventually settled in the northern and eastern part of England, the Danelaw. He demonstrates that English (unlike every other Germanic language) has grammatical features in common with Celtic languages--for instance, the "meaningless do" ("Do we eat apples?") and using gerunds (like "using" in "I'm using a gerund") as a normal present tense.
In fact, hardly any other language has these features, so it's just not reasonable to assume English and Celtic developed them coincidentally.
McWhorter says we've been misled by what he calls the "post-Norman Conquest blackout of written English," the 150 years or so after the Norman invasion when French became the "scribal" language in England. The changes to Old English (with the typical features of a Germanic language like Old Norse, from which it is descended) must have been happening earlier in the vernacular language, but scribes recorded the more old-fashioned, conservative forms of written English. (I'm writing this review in a more conservative style of English than I use in speech. That's what people do when they write--they do things like use "whom" instead of "who" as a direct object, or they use a lot of parenthetical remarks.)
Over the course of more than a century after 1066, English scribes got out of the habit of writing in that conservative, "scribal" English--they wrote in French. After succeeding generations of immigrants and their descendants began speaking English instead of French, they started writing legal and other documents in their own language--English--but they felt free to transcribe an English closer to the way they actually spoke.
So what appears to be a sudden simplification of grammatical structures (losing case endings, etc.) actually happened gradually due to the influence of languages that English was in contact with, like Welsh or Cornish.
McWhorter also touches on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language determines culture, or "channels thought," as McWhorter puts it. He disagrees with this hypothesis. If you want to read the opposite view, try another interesting new book--Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett.
I haven't even mentioned McWhorter's theory about the influence of Phoenician on Scandinavian and Germanic languages, and therefore English.
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a relatively short book (small format, 197 pp.) but it's full of information I'd never read before about the history of English. I agree with McWhorter's last word:
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. He contends that two of the oddest features in English, separating it not only from other Germanic tongues but from all the other world's languages as well are the meaningless "Do" in such questions as "Do you do the dishes?" and in negatives, "No I don't do them," and the use of the present progressive, "I am doing the dishes," where other languages normally use just the present form, "I do the dishes." McWhorter's reminder is that these oddities were found in the neighboring tongues of Welsh and Cornish, and nowhere else. Occam's razor points to the conclusion that these Celtic tongues added certain features to Old English grammar, features which only become apparent in documents once English writing years later comes closer to actual English speaking.
While the Celts added such features to old English, the later Viking invaders, learning English as a Second Language, stripped it of many of its "hard" to master Germanic attributes. Thus, Old English had many of its endings shaved off, and it stands alone among European languages as free of gendered nouns.
McWhorter also presents a compelling critique of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that a specific language's grammatical structure determines the thought patterns of its speakers. His convincing rebuttal is that homo sapiens in essential respects are alike the world over, and that their needs and interests influence grammatical structure, not vice-versa.
Finally, McWhorter considers possible influences affecting Proto-Germanic even before one of its branches became Old English. He raises the possibility of a Semitic influence here, perhaps the result of European voyages by colonizing Phoenicians - all in all, a provocative hypothesis, deserving to be better known and worthy of further exploration.
This is a lucidly written and frequently witty account of today's lingua franca's history. It is at its heart a fascinating piece of detective work, and it is certain to interest a wide variety of readers.