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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue - John McWhorter

Read for the 2011 TBR Lite Challenge.

One of my hobbies is languages. Back when I had seemingly unlimited amounts of free time, and a full academic library at my disposal (I do miss college…), I spent a great deal of time looking at dictionaries and reading up on basics of a variety of languages I found interesting. (As a remnant of this time, I still collect lists of how different names appear in various languages.) All this is a roundabout way of explaining how I first encountered John McWhorter’s work – though his book The Power of Babel, which is an interesting survey of the what makes the languages of the world tick. I’d recommend that book to anyone interested in language – there’s no linguistic degree required to appreciate it.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a summation of the author’s observations of why some of the interesting features of English grammar that makes our language very different than our other Germanic language cousins came into being. It’s definitely a drier book than The Power of Babel. This is not to say that a linguistics degree is required, but I’d recommend more than a passing interest in language and language history if you want to tackle this book. It might be a bit dry otherwise.

It’s actually pretty interesting subject matter, with some interesting things to think about. The author mentions that many people ascribe the strength of English to its ability to take on words from other languages, but this book points out several ways that English has taken on grammatical features from other languages, and how those have created a language that is quite different than its nearest relatives. There are three main focuses: how the Celtic languages (mainly Welsh and Cornish) influenced the use of the word 'do' in our verb forms, how Old Norse shaved off many of our verb endings, and how going back to the very routes of English in Proto-Germanic, how Phoenician may have influenced that base language to be very different than its other Indo-European cousins even before English was ever on the picture. Interesting stuff if you have an interest in how English became English.

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