Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter

I saw this book in the store, and of course I was immediately grabbed by its fantastic title. After reading a couple of paragraphs I knew I had to read the whole thing.

In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter shows that the grammar of English (as opposed to its vocabulary) has been much more influenced by contact with other languages than is widely recognized. McWhorter argues first that the Celts, who inhabited Britain before the invading Angles and Saxons brought the seeds of English there, have influenced the language more than is usually acknowledged, but these influences have been mostly neglected because they affect grammar rather than vocabulary, which is easier to study.

The second influence McWhorter explores is that of the Vikings who invaded Britain beginning in the 8th century. Since these Old Norse-speaking invaders would have learned English as adults, they would have spoken a simplified form of the language, with fewer word endings marking case (subject, object, etc), for example. These changes only became apparent in the written record with the rise of Middle English as a literary language in the 12th century. McWhorter argues that written Old English was a scriptural language largely divorced from the contemporary spoken English, much like medieval Latin or classical Chinese. Only when the written language began to more closely reflect the spoken one, in Middle English, hundreds of years after the changes actually happened, did these simplifications appear in the written record.

In demonstrating that these causalities have been dismissed by mainstream linguistics, McWhorter walks a thin line. He wants to show that he’s considered the prior literature, and that his ideas are original, but he has to avoid boring readers who aren’t interested in this academic debate. Mostly he succeeds, although the occasional arguments that have no use but to establish academic precedence are somewhat distracting when they occur.

A late chapter investigates the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, largely demolishing the idea that the grammar of our language can enforce certain “channels” of thought. I read most of the chapter thinking “but,… but,…” thinking of examples of vocabulary that at least greatly simplifies thinking about certain concepts (for example, bokeh in photography was largely ignored by westerners until the desire to consider the idea was so great that we adopted the word for it from the Japanese) until McWhorter got around to conceding that vocabulary does have some influence on our ability to reason in detail.

Overall, a really interesting book, and one that added a lot to my understanding of where the English language comes from.

P.S. McWhorter gets extra bonus points for this editorial on NPR about the recent change in the meaning of the word “troop”. I initially had much the same thought — using “troop” to indicate a single person rather than a group of them, is somewhat demeaning to those people, especially since we often use the word to talk about soldiers who’ve been killed in battle. I’m somewhat more accepting of the word now, seeing as we do seem to need some word to talk about armed forces members without distinguishing between soldiers, seamen, marines, and airmen; for example, when we don’t know for sure which branch of service as given “troop” was part of.


One Response to “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter”

  1. […] an exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (see Wikipedia) that language strongly limits thought. More recent linguistic thought has all but rejected Sapir-Whorf, more or less nullifying the premise of Babel-17. But remember, […]

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