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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English [Kindle Edition]

John McWhorter

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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).

Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende

John McWhorter is the author of the bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, and four other books. He is associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a contributing editor to The City Journal and The New Republic. He has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.


  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • Dateigröße: 395 KB
  • Seitenzahl der Print-Ausgabe: 268 Seiten
  • ISBN-Quelle für Seitenzahl: 1592403956
  • Verlag: Gotham Books (30. Oktober 2008)
  • Verkauf durch: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Sprache: Englisch
  • Text-to-Speech (Vorlesemodus): Aktiviert
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  • Amazon Bestseller-Rang: #124.962 Bezahlt in Kindle-Shop (Siehe Top 100 Bezahlt in Kindle-Shop)

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Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen auf (beta) 4.0 von 5 Sternen  86 Rezensionen
163 von 169 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Not the vanilla version 30. November 2008
Von Found Highways - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
To paraphrase John McWhorter: Normal people are interested in words while linguists are interested in grammar.

In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter calls this everyday, normal-person view of the English language "the vanilla version" of the history of English. In this version Germanic tribes invaded England, pushed the Celts to the fringes of the British Isles, and eventually Old English (Beowulf) became Middle English (Chaucer) became Modern English (Shakespeare), with infusions of Latin and Norman French after the Conquest in 1066. In the vanilla version, English lost its case endings on its own and became the most gramatically simple Germanic language.

McWhorter, a specialist in creoles and contact languages, has another theory, which gives the Celtic languages (especially Welsh and Cornish) credit for influencing the grammar of English.

He pays as much attention to history as to linguistics, and presents evidence that large numbers of Celts were not exterminated by the small numbers of Vikings who invaded and eventually settled in the northern and eastern part of England, the Danelaw. He demonstrates that English (unlike every other Germanic language) has grammatical features in common with Celtic languages--for instance, the "meaningless do" ("Do we eat apples?") and using gerunds (like "using" in "I'm using a gerund") as a normal present tense.

In fact, hardly any other language has these features, so it's just not reasonable to assume English and Celtic developed them coincidentally.

McWhorter says we've been misled by what he calls the "post-Norman Conquest blackout of written English," the 150 years or so after the Norman invasion when French became the "scribal" language in England. The changes to Old English (with the typical features of a Germanic language like Old Norse, from which it is descended) must have been happening earlier in the vernacular language, but scribes recorded the more old-fashioned, conservative forms of written English. (I'm writing this review in a more conservative style of English than I use in speech. That's what people do when they write--they do things like use "whom" instead of "who" as a direct object, or they use a lot of parenthetical remarks.)

Over the course of more than a century after 1066, English scribes got out of the habit of writing in that conservative, "scribal" English--they wrote in French. After succeeding generations of immigrants and their descendants began speaking English instead of French, they started writing legal and other documents in their own language--English--but they felt free to transcribe an English closer to the way they actually spoke.

So what appears to be a sudden simplification of grammatical structures (losing case endings, etc.) actually happened gradually due to the influence of languages that English was in contact with, like Welsh or Cornish.

McWhorter also touches on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language determines culture, or "channels thought," as McWhorter puts it. He disagrees with this hypothesis. If you want to read the opposite view, try another interesting new book--Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett.

I haven't even mentioned McWhorter's theory about the influence of Phoenician on Scandinavian and Germanic languages, and therefore English.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a relatively short book (small format, 197 pp.) but it's full of information I'd never read before about the history of English. I agree with McWhorter's last word:

69 von 72 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen "A Revisionist History of English" 16. November 2008
Von Stanley H. Nemeth - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
Linguist John McWhorter in his latest work advances a very well argued contrarian view of the development of the English language. The prevailing conventional view is that changes in English over time principally involve just the addition of new words from Latin, French, and, in the ages of exploration, words from everywhere. The conventional view rests centrally on the "hard evidence" reflected in surviving writings. Very adroitly, McWhorter reminds us that in early societies the written language was scribal and thus no necessary reflection of what the bulk of the non-literate population actually spoke. Nonetheless, the conventional view at its narrowest takes what merely survives in writing as a picture of the whole, imagining in doing so that it is being scientific and avoiding "airy assumptions." History, however, McWhorter reminds us, invariably involves much that is lost, requiring as well a reconstruction of events based on high levels of probability.

McWhorter rests his contrarian case on such arguments as he deals with other surviving bits of circumstantial evidence. His chief argument is that the history of English may best be understood as a consequence of the mixing of languages, not merely the addition of new words from foreign sources or the consequence of changes that "just happened." He seeks to explain the principal changes, not merely and dully to document them. Starting with the invasion of the British Isles by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes after the Roman departure, McWhorter disputes the notion that these invaders completed a successful Holocaust on the native Celtic peoples. He contends that two of the oddest features in English, separating it not only from other Germanic tongues but from all the other world's languages as well are the meaningless "Do" in such questions as "Do you do the dishes?" and in negatives, "No I don't do them," and the use of the present progressive, "I am doing the dishes," where other languages normally use just the present form, "I do the dishes." McWhorter's reminder is that these oddities were found in the neighboring tongues of Welsh and Cornish, and nowhere else. Occam's razor points to the conclusion that these Celtic tongues added certain features to Old English grammar, features which only become apparent in documents once English writing years later comes closer to actual English speaking.

While the Celts added such features to old English, the later Viking invaders, learning English as a Second Language, stripped it of many of its "hard" to master Germanic attributes. Thus, Old English had many of its endings shaved off, and it stands alone among European languages as free of gendered nouns.

McWhorter also presents a compelling critique of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that a specific language's grammatical structure determines the thought patterns of its speakers. His convincing rebuttal is that homo sapiens in essential respects are alike the world over, and that their needs and interests influence grammatical structure, not vice-versa.

Finally, McWhorter considers possible influences affecting Proto-Germanic even before one of its branches became Old English. He raises the possibility of a Semitic influence here, perhaps the result of European voyages by colonizing Phoenicians - all in all, a provocative hypothesis, deserving to be better known and worthy of further exploration.

This is a lucidly written and frequently witty account of today's lingua franca's history. It is at its heart a fascinating piece of detective work, and it is certain to interest a wide variety of readers.
66 von 71 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Celts and Vikings and Phoenicians, Oh My! 4. Februar 2009
Von Richard Posner - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Verifizierter Kauf
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter (Gotham Books) is the most entertaining book about linguistics that I've read. As a teacher and writer, I love English and its quirks, but I never could get my mind around all the charts, graphs, and jargon of formal linguistics. This book gave me a nice language fix without sounding like a calculus text.

It's relevant to mention that McWhorter is black, because a racial subtext runs through this book. McWhorter's linguistic specialty is Creole languages--those lilting mash-ups created by black slaves out of native tongues and European languages. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, he suggests that English is a kind of Creole, and chides "traditional" linguists for ignoring the way English was "gumbo-ed" by the Celts, Vikings, and Phoenicians.

First, McWhorter attempts to show that Celts had a significant effect on Old English, evident in our unique use of the "meaningless do" (we say "Do you want to go shopping" whereas all other languages say something like "Want you to go shopping?") and progressive constructions (we say "Mary is singing" whereas all other languages say something like "Mary sings."). In another chapter, McWhorter agrees that Norse invasions of Angle-land caused many of our inflectional endings to drop off but goes further and insists that Norse influence truly battered our grammar. Finally, McWhorter goes out on an intriguing limb in proposing that Phoenician influenced Proto-Germanic (he gives as evidence striking similarities in Germanic and Semitic words). In the middle of these assaults on traditional linguistics, McWhorter pops in a rant against grammar rules, insisting that all grammar is just fashion.

All of this is fascinating and persuasively argued, with loads of examples; in fact, the avalanche of examples might bury all but the most committed reader. The "racial" undercurrent is an unspoken--well, partially spoken--complaint that traditional linguists want English to have a "purer" history than it does, and that the influences McWhorter argues for are those of common people speaking English, rather than educated people writing English. Traditional linguists dismiss the possibility of Celtic or Phoenician influence, McWhorter implies, just as they refuse to accept Creole tongues as real languages. Even the "all grammar is fashion" chapter carries a whiff of the Ebonics debate.

However, McWhorter's tone is always good-humored, and he writes delightfully. He makes strong cases for his theories, though I don't know enough formal linguistics to counter-argue (and McWhorter seems to be fluent in about forty different tongues!). I'm willing to agree with much of what he says, though I'm not as ready to dismantle Standard Written English as he is. If you enjoy English as a language, if you are curious about how and why we say things the way we do, if you like a good CSI story, and especially if you've wanted to know more about the history of English but were intimidated by forbidding textbooks, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue--a quick read at under 200 pages--can have you daydreaming about wild Celts, hairy Vikings, and exotic Phoenicians all chattering away and creating the rich and peculiar language we call English.
44 von 52 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
2.0 von 5 Sternen Three ideas, 256 pages 16. Januar 2010
Von Fíal - Veröffentlicht auf
I trashed another of John McWhorter's books, and I must say that this one was better written. But it suffers from the same logorrhea as the first. After hearing the intriguing idea that English grammar was strongly influenced by Welsh, I was ready for a chapter on that. But it went on for half the book, going round and round in circles repeating the same point. I mean, it just went on and on and kept saying the same thing.

Did you know English grammar was probably profoundly influenced by Welsh? Do you need to hear that again? Wait, I think you do.

Let's talk about it some more here!

Etc. etc. etc. Do you get the idea?

Okay! Now let's talk some more about it! Some scholars don't take it seriously that English grammar could be strongly influenced by Welsh. Can you believe that? Let's discuss that here.

The second idea in the book is that the Semitic languages affected the structure and vocabulary of ancient Indo-European. This again is a possibly unprovable hypothesis, but fascinating. Here, I would have liked more solid info, but at least what was presented was done concisely and interestingly.

The third idea is simply that grammar and language change all the time, and that they are created by their users. Hence there is no *linguistic* reason not to say "Me and Steve went to the store" or "She gave a party for Steve and I." This is not a new idea to anyone who has read anything in linguistics, but it can be useful to announce it to newbies.

This section, too, goes on and on and on and on.

On the whole, Mr McWhorter is an entertaining writer in brief doses. He makes some interesting points, but you won't easily find their tiny arms waving in the flood of repetitive assertions. The book is a magazine article stre-e-e-e-tched into a way-too-long book.

I have hope though! The footnotes were manageable this time.
12 von 14 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen Interesting read but too much repetition 1. März 2009
Von Eduardo Antico - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
John McWhorter's "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue" is an easy read, in terms of length and understanding of the material. He has a lot of intriguing points regarding our perception on the origins of the English Language. In addition of the obvious Germanic and Romantic influences, Celtic, Welsh, and Scandinavian also gave much of the features that are unique to English today, particularly the use of "do", "-ing", and the disappearance of conjugation and casings.

Counterexamples, borrowed from a wide array of foreign languages, are generously presented to challenge the current academic and layman assumption about languages, especially on the perceived notion of language and cultural consciousness, and how this is ultimately shaped by the "political vogue" of the academic community. I think this is the most valuable part of this book. The last chapter on proto-Germanic is definitely a very interesting read and, for me as a non-linguist, a fascinating detective story.

However, this book will present very well as an academic article, a literary magazine serial, or someone's Ph.D. thesis on linguistics. As a book, I find that McWhorter dwells on the same few points over and over again. I was hoping that he could either condense the contents or include more examples.
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