Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

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by John McWhorter
     
 

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A survey of the quirks and quandaries of the English language, focusing on our strange and wonderful grammar

Why do we say “I am reading a catalog” instead of “I read a catalog”? Why do we say “do” at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, Our

Overview

A survey of the quirks and quandaries of the English language, focusing on our strange and wonderful grammar

Why do we say “I am reading a catalog” instead of “I read a catalog”? Why do we say “do” at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, Our Magnificent Bastard Language distills hundreds of years of fascinating lore into one lively history.

Covering such turning points as the little-known Celtic and Welsh influences on English, the impact of the Viking raids and the Norman Conquest, and the Germanic invasions that started it all during the fifth century ad, John McWhorter narrates this colorful evolution with vigor. Drawing on revolutionary genetic and linguistic research as well as a cache of remarkable trivia about the origins of English words and syntax patterns, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue ultimately demonstrates the arbitrary, maddening nature of English— and its ironic simplicity due to its role as a streamlined lingua franca during the early formation of Britain. This is the book that language aficionados worldwide have been waiting for (and no, it’s not a sin to end a sentence with a preposition).

Editorial Reviews

Over the centuries, linguist John McWhorter (The Power of Babel) tells us, the English language has evolved in quirky ways. In fact, as he demonstrates convincingly, our "magnificent bastard tongue" has absorbed an onerous number of the grammatical equivalents of vestigial organs. Without a hint of dry pedantry, he escorts readers on a brisk Cook's tour of English's knotty origins and strange permutations.
Ammon Shea
…brief and engaging…Refreshingly, this book is neither a dry examination of academic minutiae nor an excessively simplified history. McWhorter's book is a welcome change from the sort of scholarly book in which the foundation of an idea seems often to be built on the corpses of the author's enemies…a pleasingly dissenting view—one that wears its erudition lightly.
—The New York Times
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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Library Journal

Grammar, not vocabulary, makes the English language intriguing, according to McWhorter (linguistics, Univ. of California, Berkeley; The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language). He tackles the specific challenge of explaining to general readers why English grammar diverged and became simplified compared with its Germanic-language siblings. McWhorter's answer lies with speakers of Welsh and Old Norse (the Vikings). He begins by crediting Welsh for our verb conventions, especially adding the verb do to statements such as, "Do you like cheese?" and "I do not like cheese." McWhorter fingers invading Vikings for shearing off the grammatical markings added to nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Finally, he considers the common features of Germanic and Semitic languages. Throughout, McWhorter contrasts English with other languages and exposes deep controversy among scholars. In the middle of the book, he strays from English-language development, discussing intriguing questions about grammar in general. Citations to a variety of scholarly sources along with more general ones support McWhorter's arguments. This distinctive work is recommended for public libraries with large language collections.
—Marianne Orme

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781592403950
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/30/2008
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.42(h) x 0.97(d)
Age Range:
18 - 14 Years

Meet the Author

John McWhorter is the author of the bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, and four other books. He is associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a contributing editor to The City Journal and The New Republic. He has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
NJT_Transiter More than 1 year ago
A very easy and engaging read for what seems to be a very dry subject. I never got bored. McWhorter has a nice ability to keep you wondering what he is going to say next. He also doesn't just spew facts but gives you the history and reason for certain quirks in English. I get a little kick when I sometimes hear a word and can speculate on the reason it entered the language the way it did. Thoroughly enjoyed this book.
WriterAtTheSea More than 1 year ago
A wonderfully written historical assessment of the evolvement of the English language, with all of its quirks and perplexities. A wonderful, even humorous exploration of the oddities surrounding the English language--it's syntax, grammar and vocabulary. I enjoyed this immensely!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not just for students of English or the written/spoken word. Interesting background on why we speak and write the way we do. Especially liked it because I was trained that when the gender of a subject is unknown, male pronouns are used. I was also taught that pronouns needed to match subject numbers ("Anyone interested should have his . . . " rather than "Anyone interested should have their . . . ") Author is witty and educated and the read is enjoyable and easy.
Barry Gilmour More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up on a whim. suffice to say that I have thouroughly enjoyed reading it. Mr. McWhorter's writing style made this book entertaining and informative all at once. Chock full of examples of how the English language has evolved over the centuries, it is a historical journey of the language we take for granted. The author shows examples of the various changes wrought upon the language by invading hordes and indigenous peoples. If you're only goin to buy one non-fiction book this year, make it this book. You'll be (there's that redundant be word!) pleasantly surprised.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read (or started reading) other histories of English, but this is the best. Mc Whorter looks beyond the usual vocabulary-driven analysis to look at the story of English's bizarre grammar and syntax--and does it all with style, clarity and humor while still being thorough. If this is the kind of thing you like, you'll like this.
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