Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

And now for something a little different! This week, we’re bringing you a book review. As in other fields, the volume of literature on the subject of linguistics can be daunting. (That’s volume-the-amount, not volume-a-book-in-a-series.) We’re not going to tell you how to spend your time, but there’s a whole lot more to explore about language than we can cover on a humble blog like ours (though we’re sure going to try!). With our reviews, which we’re going to start sneaking in from time to time, we hope we’ll be able to share what you absolutely must check out and what you shouldn’t waste your time on.

To kick things off, I recently listened to John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, read by the author (also available in print, but infinitely harder to consume while commuting in America—I recommend the format that works best for you).

Broadly speaking, there are two types of works written on linguistics: those written by linguists for linguists, and those written for the general public, i.e. pop linguistics1 (a merely categorical label that is by no means derogatory). Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is the latter.

Like many linguistic books written for a broader audience, OMBT tells the history of English. As a peopled narrative full of kings, revolutions, dusty manuscripts, and Vikings, it’s a much more accessible topic than, say, syntactic theory, which perhaps explains and excuses the greater percentage of mainstream publications devoted to the history of English. While OMBT is another addition to this delightful genre, it does a few things that set it apart from the crowd (I mean, even beyond its snappy title).

First, McWhorter explicitly eschews telling an etymological history, both because there are many works on the subject and because boiling the story of a language down to a series of lexical vignettes paints an incomplete picture. Instead, he tackles the much harder task of explaining the evolution of some uniquely English grammatical features, such as our dependence on the word ‘do’ when forming questions and negative statements. To make his points, McWhorter must explain some basic syntax, how the constructions work in English, and how they work in other languages. Admittedly, I am at an unfair advantage for understanding such discussions, but even so, the examples felt well-chosen, and the explanations should be accessible even to casual readers.

OMBT is also notable for its tone. Where many books present their facts and call it a day, McWhorter invites the reader a little into the world of academia. He doesn’t just state his assertions; he explains the prevailing opinions and then proceeds to argue his side, authoritatively stating his conclusions. (Oh, yes, indeed. We don’t know everything about linguistics yet, including about the development of English. We’re still hashing out the whereto’s and the whyfor’s.) One of the main points he argues for is the influence of language contact over internal factors in syntactic changes that took place in English. For linguists, it should be an interesting read on alternate theories. For non-linguists (our own darling wuggles), it’s a thought-provoking place to start. I would warn against taking either the author’s views or the prevailing views he fairly lays out as immutable gospel; rather, think of this as a jumping off point to investigate more and draw your own conclusions.2 While this is a book that could be enjoyed for its own sake, the tone seems to invite further discussion.

My general impression of this book is a favorable one, but there are some quirks I find a bit perplexing. While I love the tone of discussion and debate, it’s a curious choice for a book written for the mass public rather than a paper for a conference of like-minded language enthusiasts. Was the goal really to spark thought (as I generously concluded above), or is the book a soap box to draw innocent bystanders over to one side of an argument they didn’t know anybody was having?

I also found myself wishing that the topic of the book was more tightly focused. The first two thirds of the book explore syntactic changes and argue for the influence of language contact. Now, obviously not all changes in a language can be explained by a single force (just as not all problems are nails, and they can’t all be solved with a hammer), but I was still taken aback when the last two chapters jumped to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Grimm’s Law, respectively. McWhorter does use these topics to make some interesting points and observations, but their inclusion at all came as an odd surprise given the talking points and goals laid out in the introduction. Don’t be put off, though. The inclusion of Sapir, Whorf, and Grimm doesn’t truly hinder the book’s broader mission, and their chapters are worthy reads both in their own right and in the grander scheme of the rest of the text.

It’s not the one book I wish was required reading for humanity. It’s probably not even the first book on linguistics or English I would recommend, but I truly, deeply enjoyed OMBT, and I think you might, too. 3

Notes

1 Like our blog.
2I’ve been working with fifth graders lately (10-year-olds). Does it show?
3You know, since you’re at least interested enough in the topic to be reading this blog.

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