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Editorial 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.

Critic Reviews

"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 Ratings

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I wish it was twice as long

Fascinating story of English that continuously surprises. Well read by the author. It had me conjugating in Gaelic when my mind wandered.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Awesome

I will read anything by John McWhorter. He is very knowledgeable without being overly pedantic.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Ryan
  • Atlanta, GA, United States
  • 09-04-15

After reading, you might mention this a lot.

Where does Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Among the top 5, and I've listened to approximately 50 audiobooks.

What did you like best about this story?

The author's seamless transitions from language to language, interesting anecdotes, and fascinating hypotheses.

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

I should look for another book by John McWhorter.

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

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: A prodigious child

Any additional comments?

There are many memorable and interesting ideas presented in this book. Very well narrated, and an impressive mastery of many languages.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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ENGLISH, THE MOST FLEXIBLE LANGUAGE AROUND

Where does Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

This is one of my favorite audio books.

What did you like best about this story?

McWhorter is a fun guy and a terrific lecturer and his reading of his book was completely entertaining.

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

No.

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

Um -- a movie about the history of English? I think not.

Any additional comments?

I'm an English wonk and a writer myself and McWhorter's book on the history and genesis of the language was fascinating and enlightening.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Fun, Interesting, Educational

Fantastic narration by the author! I loved every minute of it. A lot of thought provoking theories. If you're at all interested in the history of English, this is a must read!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Michael
  • Walnut Creek, CA, United States
  • 05-02-14

Interesting and Fun Grammar with Out of the Mainst

The author/narrator’s enthusiasm and humor are among the best parts of this book. The author describes some mildly off-beat theories about the evolution of the English language. I enjoyed hearing these ideas even if I was not completely convinced. There is also a bunch of interesting fun facts about English grammar. This book refreshingly focuses mostly on grammar while most other books in this genre emphasis etymology. The material gets a bit complicated for audio from time to time and the author does not always support his theories well enough to be compelling, but overall this was interesting and fun.

It seems to me the author mischaracterizes the mainstream linguists’ hesitation to accept his theories. McWhorter repeatedly points out that the alternative to his theories is to believe some language features appeared at random. When there is insufficient evidence to support a theory about a language feature, most mainstream linguists choose to believe the source of the feature is unknown (and thus may have arisen randomly).

5 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Three or four ideas and a lot of repetition

Anyone who has listened to Professor McWhorter's Teaching Company lectures knows that he is an excellent communicator who often has something worth communicating. Unfortunately, in this book he presents three or four ideas and spends hour after hour of your life repeating them to you. Apparently, if I was a professional linguist I would be bent over in paroxysms of rage at the heresies the author serves to us in this book. Since I am not, and everything sounds like common sense worked out over and over again, I was left counting the minutes until the end. Not recommended.

5 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • hh
  • pdx United States
  • 05-18-12

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 6 people found this review helpful

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Enjoyed this much more than I expected to

I grabbed this book on a whim based mainly on the amusing title, and because I've been enjoying some linguistics podcasts lately. I thought this might be mildly interesting, informative, and since it's relatively short, it would be easy to get through. My only disappointment was that it was over so quickly. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and find myself idly thinking about some of the points the author raises while going about my day to day business. Definitely worth the listen if linguistics, grammar or the history of language seem at all interesting to you. Well written, well narrated and much more interesting than this subject sounds like it will be.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Joseph
  • Eugene, OR, United States
  • 03-31-13

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 3 people found this review helpful