Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue
by John McWhorter
Gotham Books, 2008. 230. Nonfiction

Most Anglophiles know the traditional history of the English language. Old English came over with the Saxons. The Normans brought a wave of words from Old French and the church added some Latin and voila, Middle English. Then Shakespeare happened, and there’s Modern English. John McWhorter insists that this is only half of the story, and the boring half at that. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue he explores the evolution of English grammar rather than vocabulary and does so from an explanatory rather than descriptive standpoint. Where did we get our meaningless “Do” and our “-ing” form for basic present? From the Celts of course. Why did our case system and many other grammatical complexities collapse in the transition to Middle English? Because the Vikings were butchering Old English as their second language. Using nontraditional linguistic evidence, McWhorter tells “the untold history of English.”

Anyone who loves English will enjoy this book and its fast-paced, conversational tone. Rather than the usual high-minded, esoteric tone endemic to academia, McWhorter gives a pop-linguistics telling of the story accessible to any layman. The one fault that I did find with the book was that it is presented some controversial opinions in a pretty one-sided manner. He makes the Celtic influence on English grammar, for example, seem the only logical interpretation of history, when many linguists actually hold contrary views on the matter. Perhaps a voice for the uncannonized and underrepresented needs to be strong to be heard at all, but I still would have appreciated a bit more prevarication. With that one reservation, though, it was a fabulous read and a lot of fun.


No comments: