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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold…
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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English

by John McWhorter

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A short, fairly easy read. McWhorter essentially gives his mission statement for the work on the last page: here are some underground, indie stories on why English is the way it is. He's winsome in his approach, and his sense of humor really helps keep the book moving. And as for his arguments? Well, I can't argue with them, nor do I want to after what I read. (Judging from Amazon reviews, however, many are willing to argue with him.) ( )
  wordsampersand | Dec 6, 2018 |
Was a hard slog start to finish.

Written for linguists, not a mass audience.

Could have used a good editor.

Contains one or two ideas that made it worth reading.

I'd love to see the author debate a grammarian friend of mine about who and whom. ( )
1 vote NewsieQ | Oct 31, 2018 |
People who have followed me for a while will probably guess that I'm a fan of John McWhorter's work. I enjoy his common sense approach to linguistics, particularly when he applies it to the English language. And so this book was exactly what I wanted, an exploration of the influences on and development of English syntax.

One of my favorite quotes, from James Nicoll, is: "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." But no language is entirely about vocabulary as McWhorter shows us. If the only changes language ever made was stealing words from other languages, all spoken languages would sound very different from what we're used to. Language evolution is about syntax/grammar, about how speakers of other languages influence a language by getting it wrong for so long, and so pervasively, that the "wrong" syntax becomes the accepted one, and finally the "right" one. Ultimately Nicoll's comments about English miss the part where English got the crap kicked out of it by the Celts and the Vikings, but lived to tell the tale. In a new form of English.

One of the most interesting things about this book is how McWhorter makes his case for the influence of Celtic languages, specifically Cornish and Welsh, on some of the most basic English syntax, most specifically the "meaningless do." In English we ask things like "What do you want?" using do as... well, a kind of place marker. It has no real meaning; the action here is about wanting, not doing. And no other proto-Germanic language uses that construction. But Celtic languages do. And so in spite of the insistence of many linguists that Celtic tongues had no effect on English, McWhorter shows how they absolutely did, and in some very essential ways.

We know English was influenced by the Roman invasion, but what really kicked snot out of the language were the waves of Viking invaders, who dropped out huge hunks of English grammar when they settled in the islands, and began to intermarry with the locals. Gender markers? We don't need no stinking gender markers. Nominative, Genitive, Dative cases? Forgeddaboutit. Just, y'know talk until someone understands what you want. Their children grew up hearing Mom or Dad getting it wrong, and they did the same, and eventually English became simpler, and more direct.

McWhorter doesn't have a lot of patience with language purists as a result, and points out that none of them seem to want to change back to what English originally was, they just want to keep it from changing now. And that's nonsense. English, as with every other language on the planet, will change or it will die.

I always come away from one of John McWhorter's books with the sense that we speak a wonderful, vital, rich, and flexible language that will live on in spite of the people who want to freeze it in time. In 500 years it may sound different, but it'll still be English. ( )
  Tracy_Rowan | Apr 27, 2018 |
This is an excellent book on the history of English and the surprising influences that have occurred. McWhorter contends there are a number of grammatical oddities that make English really unique. The first is the extensive use of the meaning "do", where some form of the word "do" is freqently inserted into Englsih sentences and not just for questions or helping the sentence be negative. Like "he did do this" beyond "he did this". McWhorter posits this comes from the WElsh, which is the only other language with this construction. When the Angles and Saxons settles in England they spent a lot of time intermingling and the meaningless do is one of the exchanges between the two. Another construction English has is having the progressive present (i.e. adding -ing all the time). The Welsh language had much less influence. The amount and type of interchange when languages are in contact are unpredictable.

Another area, and much better recorded in other language histories is the influence of Old Norse prepositions on English, starting in the north of England where the Vikings first landed.

McWhorter spends a chapter trying to dispose of the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses, which states that a language and its grammaticali construction has a great influence on thought. Most professional linguists do not spend time on this, so he is obviously speaking to a more lay audience on this issue. What he doesn't tease out well is how many people who are bilingual will find one language has specific expressions that are a whole lot better than the approximation in the other language. So, it is easy for a person to jump to the conclusion that language really does influence thought. This book was written in 2008, and the work of the linguist Dan Everett had not taken firm hold. This is where a small Amazon language, Piraha, seems to flout many rules of how the rest of the world uses language.

I will say that I am glad that McWhorter does not use any of the Chomskyan generative grammar apparatus, as that would have been a distraction. ( )
  vpfluke | Sep 15, 2017 |
Pedantic and tedious ( )
  Kitty.Cunningham | Jul 19, 2017 |
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Epigraph
Dedication
First words
Introduction

Was it really all just about words?
One

We Speak a

Miscegenated Grammar
The Welshness of English
The first chapter in the new history of English is that bastardization I mentioned.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
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).

Table of Contents
Introduction
Chapter One: We Speak a Miscegenated Grammar
Chapter Two: A Lesson from the Celtic Impact
Chapter Three: We Speak a Battered Grammar
Chapter Four: Does Our Grammar Channel Our Thought?
Chapter Five: Skeletons in the Closet
Notes on Sources
Acknowledgments
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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, author McWhorter distills hundreds of years of lore into one lively history. Covering 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, and drawing on genetic and linguistic research as well as a cache of trivia about the origins of English words and syntax patterns, McWhorter 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 have been waiting for.--From publisher description.… (more)

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