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
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.
"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)
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.
I quite appreciate audio books that are narrated by the author, and this one is no exception. In addition to getting the author's intonation as they wanted it, McWhorter also pronounces the German, Welsh, and other foreign words with ease, and much better than I ever could in my own head. Well worth the purchase.
I'll definitely be recommending this book to my friends. I don't usually write reviews, but this is one of the best books I've heard this year. I enjoy learning about alternative theories that challenge the established wisdom in a compelling way, and this book fits that bill perfectly. The only thing I didn't love about this book is that it was too short--I didn't want it to end!
The author is so passionate about his topic and seems to be having a blast, which makes for a great listen. He has a gift for explaining even pretty technical issues in his field in layman's terms, making them funny and memorable. It's like listening to your favorite uncle hold forth, if he just happens to be an eccentric linguistics professor with a great sense of humor who speaks multiple languages brilliantly.
For me one of the best parts of the book was the author's impressive facility at pronouncing phrases from a wide range of languages. I guess that shouldn't be surprising since he is a professional linguist. But this guy is pretty amazing. He not only does Old and Middle English, but ancient and modern versions of Celtic, Gaelic, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Hebrew, Afrikaans, Armenian, Akkadian, Yiddish, and many more. (Although I'm not a linguist, I've studied a handful of these languages, and all his accents sounded pitch-perfect to me.) There was only one point where I noticed that he used a "voice double" (I think for a Chinese phrase, if I recall correctly), and I really wondered why, lol, since up to that point he seemed to be able to do everything.
I almost didn't buy this book because I saw a review that said the author spent too much time attacking the standard interpretation, and that it got to be too much in the last part of the book. I'm thinking that reviewer must not have listened through to the end, because the last topic he discusses is more speculative, and he isn't combative about it at all. (In fact, he's downright polite, lol.)
Also, although the author is certainly passionate about his subject, his arguments throughout are quite logical, based on historical evidence and common sense. I was always learning something new and never found his presentation to be grating or repetitive.
I do think he could have cut short his discussion of a side topic--whether language forms the way we think. Not because that discussion wasn't interesting (it was fascinating)--but because it is covered in another book he wrote, and now I feel like I've heard the highlights and it might not be worth buying that book. Also, I just wanted to hear more about the topic of THIS book.
But overall, I really enjoyed this book from start to finish and am going to go buy another one of this author's books now. :)
The author seems to connect well with a non specialist audience. Some of the examples are hard to follow in audio format. Nonetheless he clarifies and makes interesting an obscure subject.
McWhorter is engaging, entertaining and enlightening. I love listening to his theories about language and am in awe of his scholarship. He has twice shaken my unrecognized assumptions about English and language in general. One, that there are rules of grammar that are immutable, and, two, that our language shapes our thinking. Wrong on both counts.
I loved his rant about the Celtic influences on English.
Himself. Or maybe when he imitated an Englishwoman.
A lusty linguist slap down
This is a scholarly work that was beyond my level. But, thought provoking. I have a new appreciation for linguist. It is not light reading. Keep the bed side lamp on.
the once and future language of civilized planet Earth... no really, 20 words??? OK Then
For anyone with a slight linguistic bent (or even just someone irritated with the seeming nuance of grammar class), this book is a great read! McWhorter's narration adds extra depth with the occasional off text comment thrown in. Highly recommended!!!
Audible has helped me expand my appreciation for history, science and the arts. The Great Courses series are illuminating. More please!!
This is a wonderful tour thru the roots of our present day English language. At times a bit erudite for this science major but generally quite interesting and very well delivered. The fact that I am considering a second listen conveys my interest in this fascinating topic.
I've read a few books on the history and development of English. In a way, Mr. McWhorter diagnosed how most of those were written, as 'travelogues' in search of where the words in English came from. But not really information about how or why.
This book 'fixes' that. The author wasn't afraid to state directly his thesis as to how and why English became what English became. I won't include spoilers but some of his suppositions are certainly surprising.
But he laid out much information of which I was unaware. I've studied Latin, German and Spanish, but am not fluent in any. However I understand the ideas of verb conjugation across cases, noun endings and word ordering to appreciate how odd English really is. And now I better appreciate WHY I had the issues I did in studying these non-native (to me) languages.
I'd actually recommend this book to anyone who plans to study non-English languages. It might give you some warning of pitfalls.
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