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)
Aside from what seemed to be some minor glitches in the recording, this book is a delightfully edifying exploration of how English has become a unique language among the Indo-European languages. Why did we shed cases? Where does the "do" question construction come from? Or the present "-ing" verb tense come from, among many other interesting features of a language influenced by many waves of immigration, invasion, and cultural mingling.
While I admit to being an analytical, I am definitely not a linguist; still, I loved this book. The author /narrator is superb. The route he takes is not straight or easy to follow, but having said that, it is a great journey, especially if you have ever tried to learn a language other than English. Want to smile, wrinkle your brow, tickle your brain? This is your book. In short, I personally loved listening to this book and I am not effusive by nature.
I've never read everyone else but the author tells us that all traditional thought is wrong and he is correct and it leaves me skeptical.
The Author/Narrator does a great job emoting on a subject about which he is clearly passionate. I lost interest early on though, when he began to beat dead horses.
Rather than a book full of anecdotes and tidbits of research data, the story became one which can be summarized as:
"A bunch of people who are (at best) stodgy academics or (at worst) just ignorant hacks think <<insert their hypothesis>>. If you read their books and scholarly articles it'd probably be over your head, so I'll put here in layperson's terms why they're wrong. Never mind the fact that they'll never read this and you'll never read their articles and books. Let me just drone on with example after humorous example why I'm right and they're just stupid.
Ok now for chapter 2: more of the same..."
Overall I learned some things and it was somewhat entertaining but I seriously considered getting my Audible credit back.
If you know in great detail all the t-crossing and i-dotting grammatical tenses and rules in English and other languages, and are fascinated by them then you'll probably love this book.
If you are looking for some cool stories about how English became what it is today, prepare to trudge through patiently and prepare to be underwhelmed by content and overwhelmed by tedium.
McWhorter presents a handful of interesting nuggets regarding the English language, but for me his discusses his ideas in such a sporadic way, running on too many tangents for my personal patience.
I appreciated his enthusiasm, as it's evident in both the strong writing style and his narration; I did not appreciate the lack of organized thought. At first, it reads like it will follow a logical or even natural progression; but, McWhorter hops around so much, I frequently found myself frustrated because I could no longer remember the original topic nor follow his train of thought.
It read like a stream of consciousness or a poorly presented lecture more than a written piece for laymen.
If you have even a passing interest in linguistics and the evolution of language, I would definitely recommend this. You can tell the author is really passionate about the subject and presents an interesting and well supported theory about the influences on the English language that don't seem to be widely held or taught, but his arguments seem sound from my outside-observer-with-a-passing-interest perspective. I found this book interesting and accessible, and I didn't need any prior knowledge to understand what he talking about. I think this book will have something for people knowledgeable on the subject as well as for people exploring a new topic.
I am not sure if the audible version of this book is better or worse than the printed version. I found it valuable to hear the pronunciation of the words referenced but found myself missing the opportunity to flip back and forth to compare examples.
Great book for anyone that has ever wondered about the many exceptions and strange parts of the English language - or any language for that matter. The author explains many common elements with the cultural and historical background to make sense of it. Very interesting read, wish there were more like this.
The Celtic impact
This story attempts to trace connections to root languages for some of the more unique features of English grammar and word usage. It points out features of the language that most native speakers rarely consider, particularly "meaningless do", and "ing". Overall I enjoyed how the story explored the English language as a work in progress, rather than the state of perfection which is often taught in grammar school.
Over the course of the story, the author is very fluid in describing what linguists understand about the ways languages interact with and around each other. It was interesting to hear how languages that coexist with a significant number of native speakers tend to be stable, although flavored with grammar from each side.
A fun story, if you can have fun retracing the steps of a language going back two or three generations. If you're looking for a book on conventional usage, details on word roots, or don't have any interest in grammar - this isn't the book for you.
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