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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

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Performance
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  •  
    Thomas Lockney Lake Oswego, OR United States 07-09-13
    Thomas Lockney Lake Oswego, OR United States 07-09-13 Member Since 2010

    professional geek

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    "Fantastic, controversial history of English"

    I've bought numerous copies of this book in printed to give to friends who I knew shared my interests in history and language. I don't know how many of them loved it as much as I did, but having the opportunity to hear McWhorter himself read the text was too much for me to resist. I had originally found out about this Author through his Great Courses lectures on The Story of Human Language (which I'm delighted to see just became available on Audible) and have sought out more of his work since then. I can't claim to have read it all, but I like his no-nonsense approach to explaining ideas. He cites pop culture references, keeping his discussion casual, but at the same time he doesn't dumb it down in any sense. If you enjoy learning about language, history or just hearing a great story -- whether the ideas he brings together in this book bear scrutiny, is hard to say -- you should definitely give this one a listen.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Michael United States 07-09-13
    Michael United States 07-09-13 Member Since 2010
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    "Concise - Excellent Author Narration"
    Any additional comments?

    Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a concise introduction to the evolution of the English language, and is a great choice for anyone who is interested in learning more about the history of English without making a huge investment of time. This book makes connections further back in history than other books and gives more focus to grammar rather than the more common emphasis on vocabulary. It gets a bit speculative about some influences, such as possible Phoenician influences, but those speculations make it more fun. It is a good companion piece to Melvyn Bragg's "The Adventure of English", also available from Audible. John McWhorter, the author, does an excellent job of narrating, and this audiobook is a great example of the value an author who is also a capable narrator can bring to narrating their own work. The passion they have for the topic comes through in their narration and it makes it fun to listen to them. Well done!

    2 of 2 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
  •  
    Kaye E Steeno New Braunfels, TX, US 03-29-12
    Kaye E Steeno New Braunfels, TX, US 03-29-12 Member Since 2004
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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
  •  
    Alifa Jerusalem, Israel 03-18-13
    Alifa Jerusalem, Israel 03-18-13 Member Since 2011
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    "McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue"

    The history of the English language is always a fun topic for me, and the author provides a new take on it, noting the less-well-known Swedish and the Irish contributions to English. In a lot of ways, it was a fun listen, and the reader was excellent, but it should be understood that the author is promoting his particular theories about English development, and you can't help wondering what the academic critics of the book might have had to say in response. Unless you are very interested in linguistics, you are not likely to try to find out how the academic arguments went after its publication.

    1 of 1 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.

    3 of 4 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.

    3 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Beth Elburn, IL, USA 04-11-12
    Beth Elburn, IL, USA 04-11-12 Member Since 2008
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    "Enjoyable Romp through the History of English"
    Where does Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    I found this book to be quite entertaining and informative. This is not the type of book I usually listen to, but the topic intrigued me so I thought I'd give it a try. I'm glad I did. The author/narrator had a well fleshed out theory about the origins of the English language. All of his ideas were quite reasonable and believable. He is also an entertaining narrator. This could have been a dry somewhat boring topic, but his added humor and pleasant voice kept me listening.


    Have you listened to any of John McWhorter’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    Never listened to John McWhorter before, but I would again.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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