John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue“The ideal antidote to Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Okay, we’ve gotten that part out of the way. Now, on to the book. John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is like manna from heaven for people who get all weak-kneed over discussions of grammar, linguistics, and how, exactly, the English language took the shape that it has today. Like other books on the subject written for the mass market–Richard Lederer’s or David Crystal’s works come to mind–it’s engaging and informative; unlike much of the rest of the (admittedly not very crowded) field, it’s also funny; McWhorter’s enthusiasm for his subject, and his tongue-in-cheek delivery, are contagious.

The best place to begin is at the ending, where the author sums up much of the 190-odd pages that went before:

The History of English we are usually given is rather static. Some marauders brought Old English to Britain. The Celts scampered away. Pretty soon the Brits went cosmopolitan and started gathering baskets of words from assorted folks, such that we now have a bigger vocabulary than before. The only thing that happened to English grammar during all this time, other than minutiae only a linguist could love, is that it lost a lot of endings, and this made word order less flexible.

That does a decent job of summing up the popular conception of how we arrived at the modern English language; it’s what we’re told in grammar school, alongside penmanship, diagramming sentences, not splitting infinitives, and never writing sentences with prepositions at the end. Only that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.

In fact, continuing the iceberg metaphor just a bit further–especially about the rest of the iceberg, the part that’s hidden beneath the surface–the Celts, and their language, happen to make up a significant part of the rest of the iceberg, not to mention a huge chunk of McWhorter’s thesis. It’s not the words that matter, y’see, so much as the things we do with them, and how we structure them.

What feels like about half the book is taken up, in large part, by the Celts–especially the Welsh and Cornish–and “meaningless do.” The Celts first: the conventional wisdom (as usual having more to do with convention than wisdom) has it that they were either killed off by marauding Germanic tribes/Norsemen/Normans, or pulled up stakes, or pulled one of the largest vanishing acts in history. Culturally and linguistically, they ceased to exist, or at least ceased to matter. McWhorter shows that the Celts gave as good as they got, their sentence structure and other grammatical goodies leaching into the languages of successive invaders.

Which brings us to “meaningless do,” a quirk that occurs in English and almost nowhere else. Except, that is, in Celtic languages. If you’ve ever said, “Did you ever notice…?” or the Andy Rooney standby “Did you ever wonder why…?” you’ve used “meaningless do,” since most of us aren’t in the habit of asking, “Noticed you ever…?”

There’s also a chapter on supposed grammatical “errors” that should be read by anyone who’s had their grammar corrected one time too many by persnickety editors, teachers, or friends, and another chapter, “Does Grammar Channel Our Thought?” that demolishes another shibboleth of linguists, that our grammar and vocabulary play a significant part in shaping how we think.

One last curveball comes in the form of the book’s final chapter. In much the same way that Biblical scholars puzzle over the sourcing of some of the stories in the Bible (okay, this bit came from Mark, this part looks borrowed from Luke, but where in the hell did that bit come from?), linguists have been stumped by words that aren’t quite as easy to trace, etymologically, than the usual suspects (Germanic, Latin, et al.). Who knew that the Phoenicians, of all people, had a hand in shaping English?

This is, in a sense, two books; Book The First deals with the Celtic influence on English (with guest appearances, and a cast of thousands), while Book the Second is a series of odds and ends that end up giving this the feel of a collection of articles rather than a single thesis upheld by subsequent chapters. This isn’t a complaint, though, just a random observation.

I could go on summarizing and pulling out examples and humorous anecdotes, but really, what makes this an enjoyable read is that the author doesn’t shy away from drawing difficult, sometimes even controversial, conclusions. They’re presented in a clear, enjoyable fashion; you don’t have to be a linguist, a writer, public speaker, or language geek of any other stripe to “get” the book, or the author’s point.

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