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English: That Bastard of Language and Other Linguistic Thoughts

  • Jun 8, 2013

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."

And by the way, I've started my own book review blog: Not So Solitary a Pleasure: A Blog about Books: http://notsosolitaryapleasure.blogspot.com

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June 09, 2013
Interesting perspectives!
More Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue... reviews
review by . February 07, 2011
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 …
review by . September 02, 2010
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, …
review by . April 18, 2009
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 …
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Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her new collection of short stories, Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography, will be published by Oberon Press in November, … more
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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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ISBN-10: 1592403956
ISBN-13: 978-1592403950
Author: John McWhorter
Genre: Reference
Publisher: Gotham
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