Pros: Brief, presents new ideas in a relaxed but scholarly way
Cons: Can be snide at times
The Bottom Line: This book is excellent for those interested in how languages (English here) work and should spark a greater interest.
For dry and arcane subjects (physics, quantum mechanics, sociology, economics, linguistics in this case) the only way a curious layman would consider reading a book on the subject is if it is engaging, simple but not simplistic, and more specifically, funny. Each of the disciplines listed have their accessible writers; as is probably obvious John McWhorter is the layman's linguist. He is always funny. I am a language geek so what I found laugh out loud funny may barely tickle another; nevertheless the humor is there.
First, I recommend it for a general audience but specifically for anyone interested in the history of English. Dr. McWhorter does not try to wow with knowledge. He usually opts for more common words where the pure academic would use the rarer ones, so the book is accessible to an A.P. level high school reader. He never condescends.
Second is the manner of the telling. All languages have a history but the plot for the history of English is quite other. It involves a tremendous amount of fighting and intermarriage (the first chapter of the book, for example is “We Speak a Miscegenated Grammar”) between Celts, Romans, Germanics of all types, Vikings, and the Norman French covering roughly 1200 years before we got to an English that we can begin to recognize as our own. English’s history has the soap opera sweep of a Russian novel. Dr. McWhorter adds regular augments the drama with bits of humor like, “Show me someone who has said that learning Russian was no problem after they mastered the basics—after the basics, you keep wondering how anybody could speak the language without blacking out.”
Any respected scholar who writes for a mass audience can fall into the trap of the incomplete-through-simplification. Linguistics is a deep hobby for me, so I can say confidently that Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue does not fall into that snare. It shares this trait with his The Power of Babel, a book that covers a broader range of languages. That said, however, it does fall into another trap.
The book is meant to dispel, a stance that can be aggressive on its own, but it also contains a series of implied attacks on other scholars. Briefly, the book is an explanation of how the standard “History of English” is wrong--not “could” be wrong, or “might be misinterpreted”; just wrong. The standard history is that English developed its peculiarities compared with its dozen Germanic cousins essentially by accident. The two main particularities are the so-called meaningless ‘do’ and our use of –ing suffix. English is alone among its family for saying “She did not walk to the store” vs “She went not to the store.” And we say “I am reading” instead of “I read.” Using a compelling argument with well sourced evidence, Dr. McWhorter insists that English’s unique grammar within the Germanic family is a product of Celtic influence (this language family has the both the meaningless do and the gerund –ing elements). Standard scholars of the history of English have insisted that the Celts were all but wiped out and the population left over was too small to exert any influence. He insists that the Welsh and Cornwall dialects were the prime influence on English’s peculiarities instead of just a marginal one.
This might sound like a picky point, but readers accustomed to the couched arguments of other lay-expert work will recognize this and it will color the view of this book. Regardless, it is well worth the couple of hours it will take to read.
Middle school English teachers, close your ears: McWhorter is about to tell us in this small volume why English grammar is messed up and why it isn't such a big deal. McWhorter, a professional linguist, is not an anything-goes libertine; see, for example, my review of his book Doing our own thing: The degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care. So this little book is about how English's distant and murky past has resulted in … more
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 … more
Creoles: not only in the tropics do they permeate English. Since Celtic times, and perhaps Proto-Germanic via the Phoenicians, our native language's warped like any other. "While the Vikings were mangling English, Welsh and Cornish people were seasoning it." (xxii) An authority on creolization, McWhorter brings to this little study lots of learning. As with "The Power of Babel" (also reviewed by me), he packs an irrepressible irreverence into a scholarly package. His gifts as a former professor … more