Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, by John McWhorter

Last week, I came to terms with the fact that I am a language nerd. I’m not fluent in any other language than English, but I’ve picked up phrases in a whole bunch of different languages. I took as many linguistics classes as an undergraduate as I could without changing my major to anthropology. I love words. I’ll admit it. Of all the languages I know parts of, I love English the most. You can say anything in it, in just about anyway you can think up. And there’s the fact that English has more words than any other language. I really love that.

One of my favorite classes as an undergrad was a history of the English language class. I learned the grand story of English from the Angles and the Jutes to the Anglo-Saxons to Chaucer to Shakespeare to the language we speak today. If you want to see how the language has changed, take a look at this:

Old English: Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, si þin nama gehalgod

Middle English: Oure Fadir that art in hevenes, halewid be thi name

Modern English: Our father who is in heaven, hallowed by your name

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter retells the story, with some differences that explain some of the odder features of our language. And, for the most part, I think his arguments make sense.

3143472English is a Germanic language that doesn’t look very much like its cousins. McWhorter spends a lot of time enumerating the differences, with mostly have to do with word order, verbs, and vocabulary. McWhorter posits that the chief reason English is this way is because of Celtic languages like Cornish and Welsh, languages that were spoken by the people in the lands that the Angles, Jutes, and assorted Germanic peoples invaded. English does two things that the Germanic languages don’t and the Celtic languages do. It’s a little complicated, but McWhorter goes on at great length about the “meaningless do” that we add to questions and sentences like crazy and the “-ing” we use for the present tense all the time. Fortunately, McWhorter doesn’t use a lot of linguistic and grammatical terminology, which is good because I didn’t know what a case or infinitive was until I took German in high school. It makes it pretty easy to get a grip on what McWhorter is talking about.

McWhorter argues that these changes came about because of Celtic-speaking adults trying to learn the language of the conquerors imperfectly. They used the sentence forms that they already knew, but adopted the new words. This explains, according to the author, why there are so few words in English that are Celtic in origin. My theory is that it’s because Celtic and Gaelic words are so damned hard to pronounce. I’ve seen words in Welsh that don’t appear to have any vowels at all. At any rate, linguists have noted that most languages don’t alter their basic grammar as radically as English has. We’ve shed case endings, grammatical gender, inflected nouns in about 1500 years. German, Danish, Icelandic, and most of the other Germanic languages still have all those things. McWhorter says that if you want to know what English would have looked like without the Celtic influence, take a look at Frisian, which is spoken on a few islands and the coast of the northern Netherlands. Another reason our grammar is much simpler than the other Germanic languages is because of the Vikings, for much the same reason: adult speakers learning a new language but not being fussed about all the different endings.

The fun of reading books about language is all the examples from other languages. My favorite is this one from page 90, which follows a discussion of the relative difficulties of learning other languages:

English really is easy(-ish) at first and hard later, while other languages like Russian are hard at first and then just as hard later! Show me one person who has said that learning Russian was no problem after they mastered the basics–after the basics, you just keep wondering how anybody could speak the language without blacking out.

The rest of the book is dotted with weird linguistic features and vocabulary from all over the world. One of the best parts of this book is when McWhorter explodes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states–in its strict interpretation–language affects how we see the world. If nothing else in this book, McWhorter shows us that if a language doesn’t have a way to express a concept or an event, the speakers either steal a word from another language (like we did with Schadenfreude) or they figure one out. McWhorter goes farther and states:

The idea that the world’s six thousand languages condition six thousand different pairs of cultural glasses simply does not hold water. The truly enlightened position is that, by and large, all humans…experience life via the mental equipment shared by all members of our species. (169)

The only problem I had with this book was that it was rather on the repetitive side. I know more than I ever want to about the “meaningless do” than I ever really wanted to. McWhorter keeps returning to the same points he made at the beginning of the book. It makes this book feel more like an overgrown essay than a book-length argument. He does make a very convincing case, and I think the Celtic and Viking explanation makes a lot more sense than English speakers just decided the drop a whole bunch of grammar over the course of a dozen generations. The reason we don’t have any documentary evidence of this is because at the time, writing was in the hands of the elite, and they didn’t waste valuable parchment, paper, ink, and effort on writing how the commoners spoke. To this day, we still don’t write bills or legal documents the way that everyone talks.

All in all, a very interesting and enlightening read. I recommend it to all the other word nerds out there.