Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

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Linguist John McWhorter dives into the unique syntax of English and explains why no other language is like it. He looks at how English grammar and sentence construction have changed more over the centuries than related Germanic languages, and traces these ties to the survival of Celtic grammatical forms after the Germanic tribes first invaded Britain. He outlines the differences between written and spoken English, and explains how this has misled our understanding of English's ...
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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

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Overview

Linguist John McWhorter dives into the unique syntax of English and explains why no other language is like it. He looks at how English grammar and sentence construction have changed more over the centuries than related Germanic languages, and traces these ties to the survival of Celtic grammatical forms after the Germanic tribes first invaded Britain. He outlines the differences between written and spoken English, and explains how this has misled our understanding of English's evolution.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592403950
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/30/2008
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.42 (h) x 0.97 (d)

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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Table of Contents


Introduction
1 We Speak a Miscegenated Grammar 1
2 A Lesson from the Celtic Impact 63
3 We Speak a Battered Grammar 89
4 Does Our Grammar Channel Our Thought? 137
5 Skeletons in the Closet 171 Notes on Sources 199 Acknowledgments 213 Index 217
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 9, 2010

    A wonderful "biography" of our language

    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.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 24, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Historical, technical and FUN!

    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!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2010

    Good Information

    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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 31, 2011

    Fascinating and Highly Entertaining

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2010

    Makes linguistic history fun (OK, as fun as possible)

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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