Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (Kindle version) is a book that my wife gave me awhile back, and to which I finally got around to reading. It’s a bit of a strange book – it purports to challenge existing dogma about the origins of modern English, but does so in a manner that seems too casual for academia proper, and yet still too involved for most laypersons. The capsule summary of the author’s view is that Celts and Vikings are mostly responsible for some of the oddities of the English language, rather than the “punctuated equilibrium” that mainstream linguistic thought champions. The erosion of verb conjugations and the presence of meaningless “do” words are cited as some examples of these, which are found in precious few other languages.

As someone who knows very little about linguistics, I feel that I was able to understand the book’s arguments but not critique them – it seemed pretty reasonable, but without a more thorough background in the subject I’m sort of hesitant to embrace it as truth. I did find it very amusing and interesting that the author, John McWhorter, went on a bit of a tangent to attack one of the more interesting bits of language-related theory that I had read about in college: the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Back in college, I remember having some doubts about its veracity (namely, that it seemed unbelievable that a people could be limited in their ability to participate in the “modern” world just by virtue of quirks of their native tongue), but McWhorter brings up several other reasonable objections to the theory and its formulation.

All in all, I can recommend it as a thoughtful, dense, and short read. It’s unlikely to spark any epiphanies for the average person, but still an interesting book nonetheless.

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