Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A Magnificent Book Told in a Magnificent Bastard Tongue

This past weekend, I read what I quickly realized was my favorite language book of the year, John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

This fascinating book is not about words, as interesting as they are. Instead, it is about grammar. Why is English grammar different from that of the other Germanic languages? As Mr. McWhorter puts it:

“English’s Germanic relatives are like assorted varieties of deer-antelopes, springboks, kudu, and so on-antlered, fleet-footed, big-brown-eyed variations on a theme. English is some dolphin swooping around underwater, all but hairless, echolocating and holding its breath. Dolphins are mammals like deer: they give birth to live young and are warm-blooded. But clearly the dolphin has strayed from the basic mammalian game plan to an extent that no deer has.” (p. xx)

Mr. McWhorter explores how English came to be the dolphin it is and, as you can tell from the quote, he does so in an entertaining, easy-to-understand way (he also calls English “kinky…(with) a predilection for dressing up like Welsh on lonely nights.” (1))

So what exactly happened to make English so deviant? Why do we have the “meaningless ‘do’” in negatives and in question sentences? Why do we employ verb-noun progressives to express the present tense (i.e. “I am walking to my office”)? Why do we have certain sounds that other Indo-European languages don’t? Why are there no genders in English? And why do linguists not discuss these issues or, if they do, why do they fall into certain assumptions about language and in particular about the English language? Why do linguistics mostly look at how contact with other cultures and languages influenced vocabulary but not grammar?

Mr. McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a columnist for The Sun, reviews the evidence for and against the ways that the following tongues influenced and bastardized English grammar: the Celtic languages via Welsh and Cornish, Old Norse thanks to the invading Vikings, and the Semitic languages Akkadian and Aramaic. He makes very solid and persuasive cases for all these language groups, which I will not summarize here because I’d rather you just read his hard-to-put-down book.

My one complaint was that the sources weren’t more detailed, but I have to keep in mind that Mr. McWhorter wanted this book to be popular and not scientific, and that’s why there aren’t long footnotes and bibliographical lists.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who knows and uses the English language. English is unique and if you want to know why it is the way it is – and if you use it, you should want to understand it – this book will offer you insight into its grammar. A magnificent bastard tongue indeed.

P.S. Check back later in the week for Brave New Words’ first give-away – a copy of John McWhorter’s magnificent book, courtesy of his publisher, Gotham.

1 comment:

Maya said...

There was a classic book on language called The Mother Tongue. It must be out of print by now, but it was what started my passion for language and its history, way back in the early seventies.