Fearful Symmetries

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18 February, 2010

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

I've seen and read interviews with John McWhorter before but they all related to race relations and never his chosen field – linguistics. But a recent trip to the bookstore yielded a copy of his 2008 book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English at a more than reasonable price.



McWhorter isn't my introduction to the tale of my native tongue. Instead that honor goes to The Story of English and the odd episode of The Adventure of English. So I'm familiar enough with the whole Celts meeting the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes followed by the Norman invasion, the Great Vowel Shift, and so on. Luckily McWhorter isn't interested in giving what we might call the "standard" history of English which he criticizes as being "a story about words". Instead he focuses on grammar and the vast amount of it that English has lost in contrast to its fellow Germanic languages.

Despite being a book for the layreader, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is also a shot across the bow of many a linguist's boat as it argues that English took on a lot more from Welsh than McWhorter's profession generally allows. Not being in the field, I can't comment on intra-linguist squabbles but I'll take McWhorter's word that his view on the matter is distinctly in the minority. The crux of his argument is that English has a couple features that other Germanic languages do not and that Welsh does. Oh, and Cornish too.

The first is the "meaningless do" which English uses in questions and negative statements. He gives a couple examples: "Did you ever notice…?" and "I did not notice." Most other languages get these across in ways that translate literally as "Noticed you ever?" and "I not notice." The second oddity is how English uses the –ing suffix for the present progressive. "I am writing", for example. Other languages indicate the present progressive by simply saying what amounts to "I write."

Traditional histories of English limit the impact of Welsh on English very severely and McWhorter takes ample time overturning established thought by looking back at the historical record. He persuasively argues that the Celts did not suffer genocide and so there were plenty of them around to influence the nascent English. In addition, he patiently explains to the reader why the written record of Old English is not a reliable indicator of how Joe Six-Flagon actually spoke. Hence the Celts dramatically influenced English as evidenced the by the "meaningless do" and -ing suffix which English shares in common with Celtic languages but not with fellow Germanic languages.

A later chapter will no doubt unamuse followers of Wittgenstein as McWhorter shows that our grammar does not channel our thought as the German philosopher and others would have it. He takes on linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf who postulated that the Hopi think of time in a very different way from Westerners and so their language had "no words, grammatical forms, constructions, or expressions that refer directly to what we call 'time'". McWhorter offers no quarter and explicitly demonstrates that Whorf was dead wrong. It's a blast sitting back and watching the linguists feud.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is dotted with plenty of history and tales of how English came to be the language it is today. McWhorter writes in an anecdote-laden informal style and takes his time in explaining the concepts that the people in his field eat, sleep, and breathe. In addition, readers will pick up some interesting tidbits about human languages generally as well as specific ones that have absolutely no relation to English. Reading about such concepts as verb order in Germanic languages has never been so much fun.
|| Palmer, 6:03 PM

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