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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

The Untold History of English
Narrated by: John McWhorter
Length: 5 hrs and 22 mins
Categories: History, World
4 out of 5 stars (3,182 ratings)

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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)

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He Does Know What He's Doing

You and me, as English speakers, do not really know why we're saying what we're saying, because English really is, as John McWhorter tells us, a magnificently bastardized language. So he's going to explain why you "say" something but he "says" it, why he doesn't believe what "they" say about language and culture (for example, why its says nothing about us if we identify our silverware as masculine, feminine, or gender neutral), and why you should not be "frightened" by the idea of German orphans having originated in ancient Phoenicia.

OK, that all sounds rather obtuse. That's because I'm trying to cram into those two run-on sentences a number of concepts McWhorter covers in his book -- why it's OK to say "you and me" instead of "you and I", why we use the word "do" so much when it doesn't actually mean anything in that context, why we say "we're saying" so often instead of "we say" (and how we would sound like Yoda if we spoke English the way most other Germanic languages are spoken).

And he explains why we say "they" so much when we mean "he" or "she" (and why only "he" or "she" have an "s" at the end of their verbs), why we say "going to" to indicate the future (and that the first written instance of this usage in Shakespeare literally meant the act of "going to" do something), why our nouns don't have genders as in Spanish or German, and how some words with ambiguous etymologies (like "frighten") may have come into our language from as long ago and far away as ancient Phoenicia.

And McWhorter does it all without getting too academic, despite being a professor of linguistics, and in an entertaining tone, which he himself narrates (although I was put off on two or three occasions when there was a little laugh in his narration when he was contradicting other linguists or linguistic theories). I found myself repeating many of his examples to friends and family during the time I was listening to the book and afterwards.

I vastly prefer fiction to non-fiction, but every once in a while, I enjoy a good work of non-fiction, and I've come to believe that such books, when not too weighty in subject matter, make for good audiobooks. If you're interested in a subject like how the English language evolved, with influences as broad as Welsh, Cornish, Old Norse, French, Latin, and maybe even Phoenician, and what it says about culture, then and now, I would highly recommend this book as an easy, entertaining, and illuminating listen.

25 of 25 people found this review helpful

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Great for casual linguists

For those with only a passing interest in the history of English, I recommend "The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language". It's a more casual overview of the English language that focuses more on history and vocabulary (a very good listen).

That being said, "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue" is a great listen for those interested in the origins and evolution of the English language told not only through history and vocabulary but also through grammar and linguistics.

Don't freak out, the treatment of grammar is fairly straightforward and mostly limited to examples of case endings or nouns having genders. This will be familiar to anyone who has studied a Romance or Germanic language. (Basically, the Vikings helped kill off our case endings)

Etymologies tend to be fairly straightforward too, e.g. the author provides examples of how sounds from Indo-European words (e.g. "peter" (can't do the correct symbols) tend to change in fairly predictable ways in various languages, cf. Latin "pater" or French "pere") to Old Norse "fadir", or Germanic "vater" (pronounced "fah-ter").

That's about as scary/difficult as the etymologies get.

There is also a big chunk of a chapter dedicated to unique English peculiarities like our use of the (mostly) meaningless word "do" (e.g. "this doesn't work" instead of "this not work") and our use of "ing" to convey a present state of doing something, rather than just the present active indicative ("I'm typing" instead of "I type") (The Celts are responsible!)

The author also addresses how and why written English was different from spoken English, the theory that language shapes the way we think (he mostly disagrees), and the Semitic influences on the proto-Germanic language.

144 of 149 people found this review helpful

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Oh the joy!

Now this book made sense to me. I love the history, but the story of the language in syntax and context was so much more compelling than just the etymologies,I could have listened to twice this book. I was very interested that this was read by the author, excellent job, the foreign pronunciations in all dialects were astounding and just plain fun to listen to.

50 of 53 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Brilliant Linguist makes his case

Not many authors read their own work very well, but McWhorter is superb - and who else could read snatches from so many languages and get them right (or at least plausible!)? The content of the book is outstanding. McWhorter makes his case for the strong Welsh influence on English despite the low number of Welsh words, and when he gets to the Carthaginian influence on ancient proto-Germanic, I was delighted. Unlike many scientists, McWhorter never overclaims; where the evidence is thin and the ideas are speculations, he says so and never lets you forget it. When you're through listening to this book, you understand the bones of our language better than ever.

56 of 61 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Enjoyable, Entertaining and Educational

Any student of English even, if just elementary school grammar, knows English is weird. This book help explain why and how it got that way. I loved this book.

I tutored English as a Second Language for a couple of years and I wish had known some of this before starting to tutor. It would have made explaining some of the quirks about English easier.

I enjoyed the narration as well. John McWhoter is enthusiastic about is work and that comes through to the listener.

37 of 40 people found this review helpful

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A great find for language nerds

Any additional comments?

I was excited (and convinced) by the author's thesis that Old English was influenced by Welsh. It's a revolutionary idea, since most scholars who study Germanic languages ONLY study Germanic languages, but it's a very convincing explanation of one of English's peculiar quirks.

Whereas many "history of the language" titles deal mostly with etymologies of words and phrases, McWhorter is concerned mostly with grammar--notably, the differences in grammar that set English apart from other Germanic languages. For that reason, it might be heavy going for people with a casual interest and little knowledge of linguistic terminology. But the author's tone and wit help to keep it interesting. My husband, who has no background in linguistics but is curious about many topics, enjoyed it and got something out of it.

24 of 26 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Fascinating. No, really.

I don't know how boring I must be to become so engrossed in a text about the history of English grammar, but I was rapt nonetheless. McWhorter makes some good points and backs them up, but is realistic about the chances of his conclusions being adopted by the linguistics community.


A book so dependent on the way words are pronounced SHOULD be read by a linguist and fortunately McWhorter is a very good narrator. He sounds neither dry nor melodramatic. My only complaint is that when speaking Japanese his accent is almost as bad as my own, but given the number of languages referenced he does an admirable job of delivering phrases from such a wide range of sources.

38 of 42 people found this review helpful

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There is no need to argue...

The information was great, but the author wrote the entire book as if he was responding to a linguistic theory that he disagreed with, constantly referring to how his argument refutes the standard theories. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the standard theories and would have greatly appreciated if he had simply stated his own case convincingly instead. Frankly, the most frustrating part about it was how easy it would be to simply edited out the arguing parts. They were neither informative nor helpful and were thus, completely superfluous.

10 of 11 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Interesting

Interesting concepts that I hadn't heard before. The author reads his own book. He had to since there are lots (i.e. a few too many) spoken examples from various languages. Nevertheless, the author renders his ideas clearly and humorously.

14 of 16 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Magnificent 'Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue'

This book was fabulous! And read by the author! Really, nobody else could have read it with all the original language references. Besides that, the content was tremendously interesting written in an extremely easy-to-understand and skillful style that showed the author's tremendous knowledge on the subject as well as his good sense of humor. I would recommend this book to anyone.

19 of 22 people found this review helpful

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  • Lord Peridot
  • 05-17-19

Compelling and Persuasive

McWhorter is a brilliant linguist and a skilled communicator. He has much to say and he's well worth listening to. Amongst his others audiobooks is a set of lectures which makes a good introduction to the subject, entitled "The Story of Human Language".

In this book, his personally revised history of English, he presents a compelling case that the most interesting thing about English is not the etymology of its words but the origin of its somewhat unique grammar both within the family of Germanic languages and within languages in general. From what he says, and he says this rather repetitively, the conventional histories of English largely ignore its grammar and when they do visit grammatical issues the explanations given are wan and unconvincing, as though English underwent various changes by some mysterious and unknowable whim otherwise called happenstance. Well the Prof. ain't too happy with that explanation! Oh no! He explains repeatedly that the changes seen in English grammar from Proto Germanic to Modern English have perfectly good explanations. And he is good enough to share his views with us. Its as if he is liberating himself from some sort of academic duress which leads him to repeatedly justify his conclusions even though they seem perfectly reasonable, even compelling to the uninititiated listener. Given his jocular and casual communication style this repetition can become a bit irritating. But its wholly worthwhile staying with the audiobook all the way through.

As for the substance of his argument, he argues that English has been much affected grammatically by the adjacent Celtic speaking communities of Cornwall and Wales. In particular, this explains the use of the meaningless "Do" verb in English and our frequent use of participles ending in "ing". In English we would say "Did you like it?" but "Liked you it?" is a much more normal grammatical construct. Similarly "Will you be walking?" compared to "Will you walk?". As for the loss in English of gender, cases, suffixes, reflexive verbs and & other grammatical features the explanation here is the proximity of the invading Vikings, that is the Danelaw, when England was half ruled by the Danes and half by the Anglo-Saxons. This meant that two close descendants of Proto Germanic were living side by side and when you have two very similar languages next to each other it can cause confusion, resulting in a loss of suffixes and so forth. Not sure this is the Prof's own theory as have read this before.

He goes on to point out that written English in earlier centuries or even today is not always a good indication of how people actually speak a language. In other words that written texts tend to lag behind the spoken language, using older more conservative forms. He also argues that when a nation is conquered by an elite, that elite does not necessarily communicate with the conquered people directly and so may not affect their language much. Instead they may communicate their will through a few deputies and translators. And the Norman invasion of 1066 may well be an example of this phenomenon.

In McWhorter's phrase, English grammar came about by being beaten up by invaders, traders and neighbours. They were busy people who had other things to think about than the niceties of each other's grammars and so the much simpler grammar of English came about by accident. And perhaps most interesting of all, not only did English experience this transformation, but so did Proto Germanic itself, although at an earlier time. The evidence for this comprises the fact that Proto Germanic has a simpler grammar in terms of cases and verb moods than many other Indo European languages including Latin, Slav and Celtic. Furthermore, a sizeable proportion of its vocabulary can't be traced easily to Indo European roots and seems more similar to Phonecian a Semitic language. The word "Sea" as opposed to Indo European "Mare" is an example. And archaeological evidence shows that the Phonecians apparently did trade all the way up into the North Sea. So they may well have set up a trading post or even colony on the misty shores of what is now Denmark and Holland.

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  • Geo Paul
  • 12-29-14

Brilliant!

Well written, well narrated and witty. Captivating and gripping from start to finish. This has changed the way I think about the English language and it will continue to do so in the future. Well done, John McWhorter!

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Jareth
  • 04-13-13

Brilliant and insightful

This book was a great listen just as it was a great read the first time, it has thought me a lot about the English language as a whole and I would recommend it to anyone

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  • Thomas Gurnett
  • 08-10-19

A fun interesting look at English

Was enjoyable to listen to. A bit repetitive at times, but does explain the reason behind some of our odd wording choices.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 08-08-19

It's Okay

I wanted some knowledge on English for school but I think for me it was too specific and not generally as I would have liked.

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  • Debra
  • 07-07-16

loved it


I thoroughly enjoyed this attempt to explain the intricacies of our weird language

I found it easy to listen to and easy to take in.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful