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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English | [John McWhorter]

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English

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 Tongue distills hundreds of years of fascinating lore into one lively history.
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Audible Editor Reviews

There is something about the English language. Belonging to the Proto-Germanic language group, English has a structure that is oddly, weirdly different from other Germanic languages. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, John McWhorter has achieved nothing less than a new understanding of the historic formation of the English language — in McWhorter’s words “a revised conception of what English is and why”. The linguist and public intellectual McWhorter accomplished this scholarly feat outside the tight restrictor box of academic publications. He did it with a popular book and thoroughly convincing arguments framed in richly entertaining, informal colloquial language.

The audiobook production of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue takes McWhorter’s transformation of scholarship to a new level. The book is about the spoken word and how and why the English language’s structure — that is the syntax, and which linguists term the “grammar” — changed through time. McWhorter tells the story the way it should be told: in spoken English by a master of the subject of how the languages under study sounded. The author has a remarkable, animated narrative voice and his delivery has an engaging and captivating personal touch. He is a great teacher with a world-class set of pipes, who clearly has developed a special relationship with studio microphones.

McWhorter’s intent is “to fill in a chapter of The History of English that has not been presented to the lay public, partly because it is a chapter even scholars of English’s development have rarely engaged at length”. The changes of English under study are from spoken Old English before 787 C.E. and the Viking invasions and the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the Middle English of Chaucer’s time. (With Chaucer we are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the English we easily recognize today.) The influences that altered the language, in McWhorter’s new formulation, include how, beginning in 787 C.E., the Viking invaders “beat up the English language in the same way that we beat up foreign languages in class rooms”, and thus shed some of the English grammar, and the native British Celtic Welsh and Cornish “mixed their native grammars with English grammar”. After the Norman Invasion, French was the language of a relatively small ruling class and was thus the written language. But with the Hundreds Years’ War between England and France, English again became the ruling language, and the changes that had been created in spoken English found their way into written Middle English.

Listening to McWhorter articulate his points with his extraordinarily expressive, polemically powerful voice, and cutting through and continually upending the scrabble board of flabby etymological presumptions of the established view — it is like nothing you’ve ever heard. The audio edition of this groundbreaking work, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue – an otherwise scholarly study twice transformed into a popular book and then into the audiobook that gives such impressive expressive voice to the changes of the English language — is a milestone in audiobook production. —David Chasey

Publisher's Summary

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 Tongue 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 A.D., 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.)

©2008 John McWhorter; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.

What the Critics Say

"McWhorter's iconoclastic impulses and refreshing enthusiasm makes this worth a look for anyone with a love for the language." (Publishers Weekly)

"McWhorter’s energetic, brash delivery of his own spirited and iconoclastic text will appeal to everyone who appreciates the range and caliber of today’s audio production. In some ways, audio is superior to printed text in portraying tone, attitude, values, and in this case, a discussion whose theme is the sound and grammar of words." (AudioFile)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

3.7 (1293 )
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Performance
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  •  
    A. Yoshida 04-26-14
    A. Yoshida 04-26-14
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "For an aspiring linguist"

    This is a book for aspiring linguists. It's interesting to know how the English language got so weird, like why some words change vowels to change tense (sing and sang) and some words just have something added at the end (wait and waited). The author explains the influences of Germanic, Celtic, Welsh, and Latin languages. It was also fascinating to learn that while we feel English makes sense and seems "normal," it's actually quite the oddball compared to other European languages. Other languages have two or three genders: feminine, masculine, and neutral. It's common in other European languages to refer to inanimate objects as either male or female. The author also gives examples of words like "ask", "question", and "interrogate" coming from Proto-Germanic, French, and Latin influences, respectively. Proto-Germanic words are simple, brute. French is polite. Latin is commanding. Hence, why there are so many Latin terms for law and legal contracts. If you don't have a deep fascination for linguistics, it's a little hard getting through the parts that cover the evolution of sounds and words from period to period or how the word "daughter" is similar with examples given in German, Norse, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, and a dozen other languages.

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joseph Eugene, OR, United States 03-31-13
    Joseph Eugene, OR, United States 03-31-13 Member Since 2012
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    "A different Story of the English Language"
    Where does Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    I would rank this book at the top of the list, considering I couldn't stop listening. I used to hate English because of the way it changed so radically from its earlier form. After listening to why it changed so much I have a new respect of our language.


    What other book might you compare Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue to and why?

    History of Germanic languages.


    What does John McWhorter bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    Sometimes reading about grammar and linguistics can be boring but listening to it brings out the story so that it is extremely interesting. Grammar is history.


    If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

    Footsteps of the English Language through 1000 years.


    Any additional comments?

    Not only does the Author tell us why English changed but where possibly the Proto-Germanic languages sprung from.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    John S. Seattle, WA United States 04-24-10
    John S. Seattle, WA United States 04-24-10 Member Since 2005
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    "I was torn"

    I liked the author's sense of humor, and he does a good job reading the text. However, the material truly does repeat itself, giving the effect of an article fleshed to book length.

    13 of 17 people found this review helpful
  •  
    crazybatcow East Coast, Canada 04-01-11
    crazybatcow East Coast, Canada 04-01-11 Member Since 2007

    I like Jack Reacher style characters regardless of setting. Put them in outer space, in modern America, in a military setting, on an alien planet... no worries. Book has non moralistic vigilante-justice? Sign me up! (oh, I read urban fantasy, soft and hard sci-fi, trashy vampire and zombie novels too)

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    "Probably better in audio than print"

    It's pretty much exactly what you'd expect: a bit of a background on why English is the kind of language it is. Not particularly surprising or novel, but it was interesting enough to pass the time. English seems to be different from its "related" languages and the author is quite, err, let's use the word "adamant" (rather than ranting) about the Celtic impact on English. Yes, he does admit that traditional scholars disagree and offers his own "evidence" but it isn't his disagreement with the establishment that got a little annoying but his repetitive "digs" on the subject.

    I think it's very suitable for audio because he discusses nuances of language/pronunciation which I don't think would have been as noticeable in writing. He narrates it fairly well, but you can tell it's not his primary job. I think his pronunciation of foreign words was clear enough, and I have no idea if it was correct.

    10 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Maryam MERRITT ISLAND, FL, United States 07-29-13
    Maryam MERRITT ISLAND, FL, United States 07-29-13 Member Since 2012
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    "There is no need to argue..."

    The information was great, but the author wrote the entire book as if he was responding to a linguistic theory that he disagreed with, constantly referring to how his argument refutes the standard theories. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the standard theories and would have greatly appreciated if he had simply stated his own case convincingly instead. Frankly, the most frustrating part about it was how easy it would be to simply edited out the arguing parts. They were neither informative nor helpful and were thus, completely superfluous.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Neil Chisholm Buninyong, Australia 03-03-13
    Neil Chisholm Buninyong, Australia 03-03-13 Member Since 2011

    "fabric artist and quilter"

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    "English Grammar as I've never heard it taught"

    I wasn't expecting this book to be on English grammar, but an up to date version of where words came from. But what the book explained was the impact of the grammar of existing languages (gaelic, cornish, welsh etc) on English. How and why English is different from very similar languages that developed from proto-german in the years BC. It made fascinating listening not least due to the fact that the narrator was the researcher and made it fun and amusing to listen to.

    My father was a stickler for correct English both spoken and written. I remember my childhood being spent constantly corrected for incorrectly constructed English. I now appreciate those lessons and take great joy when I see poorly structured or incorrect English spoken or written, particularly if its by someone who should know better. If I had been taught the reason why English is oddly constructed I might have made less mistakes but this book and the research is relatively new

    I am sure that my father would have revelled in this book, I know I particularly enjoyed it and anyone with an interest in languages and the development of English would also enjoy this book.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    hh pdx United States 05-18-12
    hh pdx United States 05-18-12 Listener Since 2003

    hh01

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    "Interesting, but guilty of what he warns against"
    Any additional comments?

    Whorter has some very interesting things to say and since he is something of an "odd man out" from majority thinking, it is natural that much of his points are "push off" points. He makes some of them very well, too, but tends to go too far, becoming guilty of the very same kind of arrogance he accuses others of displaying. The last hour is shockingly preachy and just plain odd.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kaye E Steeno New Braunfels, TX, US 03-29-12
    Kaye E Steeno New Braunfels, TX, US 03-29-12 Member Since 2004
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Probably better in print"

    I find the history of the English language to be fascinating, so when I saw this book I thought it was perfect for me. It wasn't. It is more a history of English grammar than of words and I found it difficult to follow the grammar by just listening. Many of the points made were very interesting, but if I could have seen the words rather than just hearing them I probably would have understood it better. You have to be an English teacher (I was) or someone really interested in how languages differ (a linguist) to understand and enjoy this one.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Amazon Customer 10-23-13
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Couldn't finish"
    What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

    For a book aimed at a general audience, McWhorter belabors, seriously belabors the first point in the book to utter tedium. Besides that, his repeated incredulity at his thesis regarding the Celtic influence on English not being widely accepted by linguists detracts from the material. Yes, I understand they don't agree; you don't have to tell me 20 times. It got to the point I just couldn't listen any further.


    Would you ever listen to anything by John McWhorter again?

    Not likely


    Would you be willing to try another one of John McWhorter’s performances?

    No


    8 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Dubi New York, NY, United States 09-02-14
    Dubi New York, NY, United States 09-02-14

    People say I resemble my dog (and vice-versa). He can hear sounds I can't hear, but I'm the one who listens to audiobooks.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "He Does Know What He's Doing"

    You and me, as English speakers, do not really know why we're saying what we're saying, because English really is, as John McWhorter tells us, a magnificently bastardized language. So he's going to explain why you "say" something but he "says" it, why he doesn't believe what "they" say about language and culture (for example, why its says nothing about us if we identify our silverware as masculine, feminine, or gender neutral), and why you should not be "frightened" by the idea of German orphans having originated in ancient Phoenicia.

    OK, that all sounds rather obtuse. That's because I'm trying to cram into those two run-on sentences a number of concepts McWhorter covers in his book -- why it's OK to say "you and me" instead of "you and I", why we use the word "do" so much when it doesn't actually mean anything in that context, why we say "we're saying" so often instead of "we say" (and how we would sound like Yoda if we spoke English the way most other Germanic languages are spoken).

    And he explains why we say "they" so much when we mean "he" or "she" (and why only "he" or "she" have an "s" at the end of their verbs), why we say "going to" to indicate the future (and that the first written instance of this usage in Shakespeare literally meant the act of "going to" do something), why our nouns don't have genders as in Spanish or German, and how some words with ambiguous etymologies (like "frighten") may have come into our language from as long ago and far away as ancient Phoenicia.

    And McWhorter does it all without getting too academic, despite being a professor of linguistics, and in an entertaining tone, which he himself narrates (although I was put off on two or three occasions when there was a little laugh in his narration when he was contradicting other linguists or linguistic theories). I found myself repeating many of his examples to friends and family during the time I was listening to the book and afterwards.

    I vastly prefer fiction to non-fiction, but every once in a while, I enjoy a good work of non-fiction, and I've come to believe that such books, when not too weighty in subject matter, make for good audiobooks. If you're interested in a subject like how the English language evolved, with influences as broad as Welsh, Cornish, Old Norse, French, Latin, and maybe even Phoenician, and what it says about culture, then and now, I would highly recommend this book as an easy, entertaining, and illuminating listen.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Showing: 11-20 of 88 results PREVIOUS1239NEXT
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  • Geo Paul
    12/29/14
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Brilliant!"

    Well written, well narrated and witty. Captivating and gripping from start to finish. This has changed the way I think about the English language and it will continue to do so in the future. Well done, John McWhorter!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Jareth
    Bridport, United Kingdom
    4/13/13
    Overall
    "Brilliant and insightful"

    This book was a great listen just as it was a great read the first time, it has thought me a lot about the English language as a whole and I would recommend it to anyone

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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