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Book Review: John McWhorter’s “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”

John McWhorter, author of “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” and linguistics professor at Columbia University. One of his research interests is how socio-historical phenomena affect languages. It is that interest, it would seem, that is further investigated throughout the current book. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is essentially a history of the English language that seeks to explain the mysterious grammatical complexities of our native tongue. Where many people might argue that some grammatical phenomena are the result of mere chance, McWhorter details a journey through history, a story of people mixing, interacting, and infecting one another’s speech. In this way, the author lends evidence to the English narrative that serves to explain why English is the way it is and why it isn’t something else.

The author’s perspective is that there is too much emphasis on the fancy foreign vocabulary that has been borrowed into English and not enough focus on the grammatical changes. He points out that plenty of people from different cultures who interact end up sharing and blending language and that English is not any more special than any of the other cases. He seeks to dispel the age old story of English; that it came from Old English to Modern English primarily by Germanic tribes invading Britain and then getting three loads of words dumped on them first by the Danish and Norwegian vikings, then the french, and finally by the latin found in works by classical authors. McWhorter writes, “English is more peculiar among its relatives, and even the world’s languages as a whole, in what has happened to its grammar than in what has happened to its vocabulary” (McWhorter). He thinks that English grammar is complex due to the nature of the language’s travels.

While McWhorter does not address any cultural, racial, linguistic, or gender issues in a negatively critical manner, he does make some mention of the nature of things insofar as they pertain to the development of the present state of English. He merely notes that part there was a blending of people, culture, and language between the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in Britain with the Celts. People blending aside, McWhorter does not make many conclusions pertaining to gender (as both genders use language similarly). He explains the linguistic issues of English as a result of many people coexisting, commingling, and cohabitating.

Some of the practical or concrete implications of the topics in this book is that it offers insight into why English might be so difficult for others to learn. This knowledge may help teachers to have patience with students as they are attempting to acquire the language. Outside of that, this book serves as more of a friendly and approachable non-linguist-layperson guide into some of the peculiarities of English grammar with a little history behind said peculiarities presented in an entertaining format.

As an ESL teacher, this book has better prepared me with the knowledge I need to better advocate for my students to people who are curious about, ignorant of, or hostile to English learners. I have gained a better understanding into why English is as difficult as it is and better relate that difficulty to those who may not believe it so. With this knowledge, I am equipped to advocate for my students by making clear the nature of the strain and laboriousness that English learners undertake when attempting to learn the language.

As an ESL teacher, some people may ask me questions about the English language. It is to my great appreciation, then, that this book as given me some potential answers to the most inquisitive of the populace.

For instance:

Question 1: “Why does English have a meaningless ‘do’ in polar questions such as: ‘do you like rice?’ and in negative statements such as: ‘I do not love the bears.’ The ‘do’ in each phrase does not exactly mean anything”.

Answer: The meaningless ‘do’ is a legitimate feature in the Celtic language (and Cornish and Welsh) and, after years of interaction between those languages and English in blended families and mixed friends, the ‘do’ jumped into the English grammar. Initially, it was more prominent than it is nowadays, but change is the nature of language and eventually some uses of ‘do’ in English fell away. One such example of a ‘do’ once had but now forgotten was the ‘do’ in a construction such as “I do eat” where today we simply say “I eat”.

Question 2: “Why does English use a verb-noun progressive construction to denote present tense such as I am running?” No other Germanic language uses a construction like this to do that.

Answer: In fact,  other languages that do this are Welsh and Cornish. A product from the influence that blending cultures has on a language (in this case English).

Question 3/4: “Why were there some rules in English I learned about such as: don’t end sentences with prepositions or don’t’ split infinitives, yet people do those exact things in writing and in speech?”

Answer: The answer is in our history, in dealing with prepositions, people wanted to emulate Latin, which does not end sentences with prepositions, but English is its own beast and so naturally goes its own way with where prepositions land. Regarding the rule against splitting infinitives, it also stems from Latin. However, the difference is that in Latin, infinitives are just one word such that ‘to run’ may be realized as the made up Latin version of ‘torun’. Whereas in English, infinitives take the form of two words ‘to’ and some verb such as ‘run’. It is easy to split infinitives with other words when they are already split apart.

This book is most certainly intended for popular consumption and as such, it is certainly not a text book or research report. The information is presented in a manner that makes the book a ‘page-turner’ and keeps the interest of the reader.  This style of writing, for this sort of information, is the spice or seasoning needed to make this area of linguistics more than bland meat. It is the unfortunate truth that much of the linguistic literature can be bland and any author who writes with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt is a blessing.

In conclusion, this book is an excellent read. It succeeds in setting the record straight insofar as how English came to be. It successfully dispels any illusions as to how English has changed over the years. The book is written in such a style that makes it more like reading a story or account of the people who molded English over the years and that makes it a pleasurable read. I would certainly recommend this book to any person (outside of ESL/Linguistics) as well as any person within the ESL or Linguistics community.