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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

3.8 (1697 )
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Performance
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  •  
    AGB Switzerland 05-13-15
    AGB Switzerland 05-13-15 Member Since 2014
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    Story
    "Interesting take on the evolution of our language"

    The book describes the "untold" side of the evolution of English, which fascinates me as someone who grew up in the Caribbean (surrounded by a mix of Caribbean Standard English, dialect, American English and British English) and has lived on the West Coast of the USA and in Europe.

    It focuses on grammar, and makes some provocative links and conclusions. The author is also the reader, which allows him to show his enthusiasm and passion for the material and convey his meaning in a way that I think would have been hard even anyone else to deliver. Listening to the pronunciation of the many foreign words and phrases provided a much more authentic experience than I would have had if I had opted for the print edition.

    At times I found he was a bit repetitive in his presentation of the arguments against some more-accepted or conventional theories. I had already bought into his hypothesis, and didn't need more convincing, but in a couple cases, the discussion continued well after I was "sold".

    Putting that aside, I enjoyed the book a great deal and learned a lot from it. I would recommend it for anyone interested in knowing more about where some of the unique features of English come from. (Hey, isn't that a preposition at the end of that sentence?) It also makes me question what the future might bring, with so many people learning English as a second language: does this have greater similarity to the Celts learning English and "stewing" elements into it, or to the Vikings agressive simplification of it? Or will it give rise to a different effect altogether?

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    John Ashton 04-29-15
    John Ashton 04-29-15 Listener Since 2007
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    "Interesting for lovers of language"
    If you could sum up Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue in three words, what would they be?

    New, Different approach


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    The English language


    Which character – as performed by John McWhorter – was your favorite?

    This book had to be read by the author. An excellent job.


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    If I had the time


    Any additional comments?

    I read along with the Kindle book which helped on many of the foreign words.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Doug Stuart 04-23-15
    Doug Stuart 04-23-15
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    "Best audiobook I've heard"

    There have been great narrators but this author is amazingly articulate and natural. All audiobooks should be modeled after the performance in this audiobook.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rob APO, AA USA 04-17-15
    Rob APO, AA USA 04-17-15 Member Since 2014

    delblanco10

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    "Small rewards for the layman reader."

    There were parts that were really interesting, but I struggled to follow throughout. The author also uses a lot of analogies that are difficult to keep up with at times. Worth it overall, but be ready to trail off occasionally of you're not already sharp on linguistic history.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    OneCanuck 04-13-15
    OneCanuck 04-13-15 Member Since 2013
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    "A great book, lots to learn"

    A very good book, well worth the time. Made even better by the author's narration. It taught me a lot.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    GC 04-11-15
    GC 04-11-15 Member Since 2014
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    "Outstanding."

    I enjoyed this enormously. I'm no linguist, but it was incredibly interesting to learn how languages evolve and differentiate. It was very well presented.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Reader OH, USA 04-05-15
    Reader OH, USA 04-05-15 Member Since 2013

    reader

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    "Don't waste your credit on this book"
    What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

    Nothing. It is a dreadful book. The author/narrator is annoying from the start.


    Has Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue turned you off from other books in this genre?

    No. However, I have had a few bad experiences with academic authors pretending to have expertise completely out of their areas of study. Consequently, they lose credibility.


    How did the narrator detract from the book?

    His tone was so emphatically patronizing. I don't how anyone could stand to be talked to in that condescending manner. I could not. I have a PhD in psycho-linguistics so the content was not unfamiliar. However, the tangents into esoteric details about the insignificant aspects of our language were boring.


    What character would you cut from Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue?

    This was not a novel.


    Any additional comments?

    I really tried to listen all the way through, clinging to the hope that it would get better. It did not. It got worse. Please don't waste the time.

    The author begins by revealing a complete lack of knowledge of history when he writes about genocide. I'm amazed no one has confronted him about this. I let that go, hoping the linguistic information would be worth listening further. However, when he claims that the way he uses English is the "correct" way even when that way defies rules of grammar then we realize that he shows a lack of appreciation for well-spoken and written English.

    Linguists generally describe the way language is used, but he goes too far. He prescribes how language ought to be used according to his own esoteric rules.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Carolanna Salt Lake City, UT 03-31-15
    Carolanna Salt Lake City, UT 03-31-15 Member Since 2015
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    "The History of English"

    John McWhorter, an expert on creole language and a contributor on the fantastic linguistics for laypeople blog Language Log, clearly explains the influences Celtic and Old Norse had on the development of English in a way that's engaging, diverting, and easily accessible for people without previous knowledge of the science of linguistics, along the way dismantling many prevalent myths about English.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    M. J. Christensen Tucson, AZ. 03-26-15
    M. J. Christensen Tucson, AZ. 03-26-15 Member Since 2011
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    "Meaningless "Do" And More"

    Very interesting look at the history of the English language through its syntax and usage. Renowned linguist McWhorter makes a case for Celtic influence on the development of English. I had to remember my grammar lessons from grade school (a long time ago!) to follow some of the book, but his explanations helped. This is a book that I could listen to a number of times.

    McWhorter's narration is excellent and his pronunciation of other languages is first rate.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Roger C. Masi 03-26-15 Member Since 2013
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    "Good for linguists."

    The story was good for people who enjoy the subtle details about English. Otherwise to a typical reader it was a bit nuanced and boring unless you truly have passion in the subject.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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