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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (thoughts)

November 6, 2009

Our_Magnificent_Bastard_TongueI’ve been pretty quiet around the book blogosphere this week, except for posting every day I needed to (which was every day since Tuesday!). Sorry about that-I miss y’all, but my fibro is acting up and my neck has been hurting badly all week. Yesterday, in the morning I thought it might be getting better, but when I woke up from a long-ish nap, it hurt so badly I couldn’t move it all and pretty much spend the evening in tears, watching my beloved Bones, and creating the perfect throw-pillow propping set up to read my books without any neck strain. This morning, it’s a little better but not much, so I’m going to be severely limiting my computer time! That means this review will probably be shorter than my normal ones; don’t take that as a sign that I didn’t enjoy the book!

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter is another book I read via review copy, and the publisher requested I post about it this week since the trade paperback edition has just hit the shelves here in the States. :) This is a nonfiction book about linguistics, specifically about the evolution of English grammar. If you’ve been reading the blog for awhile, you probably know I’m a language nerd; I studied Latin in high school, and in college one of my majors was Modern Languages (primary: Russian, secondary: French). And yes, I took a linguistics class. So I was really excited about this one.

And I definitely enjoyed it; I think any language or grammar nerd would. But it wasn’t perfect, and I’m going to talk about the not-great stuff first so I can gush later. McWhorter obviously has an axe to grind with his fellow academic linguists, and sometimes he spends several pages whining about why the other linguists don’t agree with his theory, even though it’s perfectly obvious that it’s the only explanation, etc., etc., etc. (Yes, I rewatched The King and I recently.) Now, in an article in an academic journal, I’d expect that. But in a ‘popular linguistics’ book, that for the most part doesn’t delve into the technical, uber-academic stuff, it felt misplaced. Also, his whininess/frustration alienated me, making me less excited about reading the rest of his writing. Most of these passages were concentrated in the first sixty or so pages, which made me really nervous; fortunately, after that they become less common. But they’re still there, so you’ll need to be able to deal with some kvetching in order to enjoy it.

The book was so much fun though! :) There are lots of pop linguistics books that look at English etymology (and McWhorter complains about that in his intro, lol), but Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue looks at the odd quirks of English grammar, and where they might have come from. I loved that; McWhorter obviously knows his stuff, and as he’s looking at Old, Middle, and Modern English, comparing it to the other Germanic languages, checking out some Welsh on the side, it was just delicious to be a part of. I was grinning from ear to ear. If you’ve ever studied another language and you’re a native English speaker, I bet it immediately made many things about English seem strange (like how we use ‘do’ in any interrogatory/negative sentence or why our verb endings only change in the he/she/it form). McWhorter has answers, based on a historical analysis of the English isles, and those answers involve not only Celts but Vikings too! (I love Medieval history.)

I also loved his occasional remarks about Russian, and the following passage had me howling with laughter (my parents wanted to know what I was reading):

English, as languages go, and especially Germanic ones, is kind of easy. …There is a canny objection one sometimes hears out there, that English is easy at first but hard to master the details of, while other languages are hard at first but easy to master the details of. Purportedly, then, Russian means starting out cracking your teeth on its tables of conjugations and case markers and gender marking, but after that it’s smooth sailing. Nonsense. English really is easy (-ish) at first and hard later, while other languages like Russian are hard at first and then just as hard later! Show me one person who has said that learning Russian is no problem after they mastered the basics-after the basics, you just keep wondering how anybody could speak the language without blacking out.


I think that gives you a good sense of McWhorter’s style too; he’s very down-to-earth and casual, even when he’s analysing grammar. It makes for a readable book that pulls you along.

I also love that McWhorter is firmly committed to the descriptive approach to linguistics (vs. the prescriptive one…basically, he thinks it’s nonsense to tell a native speaker that they’re saying something ‘wrong’). He debunks a lot of the generally accepted ‘rules’ of ‘proper’ English, and my favourite debunking involved using ‘they’ with a singular, gender-neutral meaning.

Take the idea that it is wrong to say If a student comes before I get there, they can slip their test under my office door, because student is singular and they ‘is plural.’ Linguists traditionally observe that esteemed writers have been using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for almost a thousand years. As far back as the 1400s, in the Sir Amadace story, one finds the likes of Iche mon in thayre degree (‘Each man in their degree.’)


So take that! ;)

McWhorter actually devotes quite a bit of the book to debunking, and I literally squealed with delight when I saw the heading of chapter four: Does Our Grammar Channel Our Thought?  Y’all might recall I read Spoken Here earlier this year and absolutely, positively hated it. A lot of why I hated it is that the author (who isn’t a linguist) is totally gung-ho about the idea that a person’s native language actually shapes the thoughts they can have. I think this is ridiculous, and McWhorter agrees with me! If I could, I’d quote the whole chapter to you (he actually specifically references that other book, and pokes holes in the arguments). But I’ll settle for the concluding paragraph:

The idea that the world’s six thousand languages condition six thousand different pairs of cultural glasses simply does not hold water. The truly enlightened position is that, by and large, all humans, be they Australian Aborigines, Japanese urbanites, Kalahari hunter-gatherers, Cree Indians, Serbs, Greeks, Turks, Uzbeks, Amazonians, or Manhattanites in analysis, experience life via the mental equipment shared by all members of our species. No one is “primitive,” but just as important, no one is privileged over others with a primal connection to The Real.

Ok, my neck is seizing up again. So I’ll wrap this up: this book isn’t perfect, but I really enjoyed reading it, and I’d recommend it to anyone at all curious about languages. Going through McWhorter’s backlist, I realised I’ve actually read another book by him several years ago (The Power of Babel), and there are several more that I now have my eye on.

Do you have a favourite academic interest that you also read popular nonfiction books about? What is it, and what book would you recommend as a introduction to the field? (Yes-I’m now in all-out nerd mode and need more suggestions!)

32 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2009 8:27 am

    First of all, I’m sorry your fibro is acting up and you’re in pain. I hope it gets better very soon.

    Secondly, despite the whining, this book sounds amazing. And I’m still used to academic language so I find I ignore it and don’t realize it’s even there until others comment. I love the roots of the English language historically. I’ve studied this a bit because you have to read Middle English and Latin to be a medievalist, but there is so much that I don’t know and English comes from so many different places. Instant wishlist title here – thanks Eva!

    As far as popular nonfiction goes, I still like to pretend I’m a historian even though I haven’t gone for a PhD. ;) My best recent read was Blood and Roses by Helen Castor about the Paston family throughout the Wars of the Roses. The bits about legal struggles drag on a bit, but the rest of the book is so informative and entertaining and gives a great picture of 15th century life. I don’t know if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for but I thought I’d toss it out there. =)

  2. November 6, 2009 8:29 am

    Having a masters degree in writing which entailed many a linguistics/rhetoric course, I understand why you geek out over these types of books. This sounds like a fun one to read.

    My strange obsession with pop culture nonfiction are the …. and Philosophy books. Philosophy has always intrigued me, and when they started publishing books combining television/film/books/etc. and philosophical theories, I was hooked. I couldn’t give you a favorite as I think that depends on your connection to the tv show/film/book. For example, I’m a fan of The Simpsons (Lost, Watchmen, The Undead, Harry Potter, Batman, Bullshit, etc.) and Philosophy.

  3. November 6, 2009 8:38 am

    I’m sorry to hear about your neck! That can’t be fun :(

    This does sound like a wonderful book, though! I really love linguistics. I was a linguistics major for a while, and probably have the equivalent of a minor (we didn’t have minors). I’m definitely going to have to put this one on my TBR. It sounds like a keeper! I think that it’s possible languages can shape the way you think to a minimal degree, but it’s almost impossible to tell what parts of a culture were influenced by language and not something else. It’s a chicken and an egg problem. So do languages that only count by “1, 2, many” not have a concept for 3 because they didn’t have a word, or do they not have a word for it because they didn’t need the concept? The last one is more likely, I think! Now I’ll stop rambling.

    But, oh wait! Another one that gets me is the eskimos have x number of words for snow. LIES. It’s not true. Their language is not riddled with snow words just because they live in the snow. I had a professor who would get all riled up when linguistics text books talked about it and say they were “Perpetrating that damn eskimo lie!” You would really really like her, her specialty was Russian. And she was just generally awesome.

    As for special topics I like to read about… linguistics! But I haven’t read any great books to recommend. Although, my professor always recommended The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language by Geoffrey K. Pullum (obviously ;) ) and The Language Instinct by Pinker. They’re both on my TBR and I had hoped to read them this summer for the Dewey Decimal Challenge, but didn’t get to it. Next year!

    Anyway, I think I will close this here novel I have written, and I hope you feel better!!!

  4. November 6, 2009 8:43 am

    I read McWhorter’s The Power of Babel earlier this year and liked it a lot. As you say in your review, he has a great, casual style of writing with a good sense of humor. I have never studied linguistics but I too like his ‘descriptive’ approach to language. Coincidentally, I read Spoken Here several years ago and really liked that book too – it actually got me interested in reading more about linguistics. Again, I never studied linguistics so I didn’t catch the errors, but I still appreciated hearing about these dying languages and the people who speak them.

    I was looking at my list of non-fiction books read and can’t find a discernible ‘cluster’ of interest. I apparently have a slight penchant for travel books and books about humans and the environment, but other than that I’m kind of all over the place. That said, I do recommend the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. Makes you look at the everyday task of driving in a whole new light.

    • November 6, 2009 8:44 am

      Oops, forgot to say the author of Traffic is Tom Vanderbilt.

  5. November 6, 2009 9:24 am

    This sounds like a very accessible read on a subject that I know very little about. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  6. November 6, 2009 9:24 am

    P.S Sorry to hear you aren’t feeling well and hope your neck is better soon!

  7. November 6, 2009 9:35 am

    I’m going to assume that you, as a fellow word-nerd, have already read Bill Bryson’s ‘Mother Tongue’ and Elizabeth Little’s ‘Biting the Wax Tadpole,’ and if not, do thee such. Also, I started reading Stephen Pinker’s ‘The Stuff of Thought’ and it was both hilarious and brilliant, but then I moved and lost it. *cries*

  8. November 6, 2009 9:57 am

    As an aspiring librarian, I love reading about libraries and books. I recently read Library: A History by Matthew Battles; also recommended is The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski.
    Also, have you ever heard of John Dunning’s Bookman series? They feature an antiquarian bookseller, which I think is just so fun.
    Thanks for your reviews, Eva. You’re one of my faves :)

  9. November 6, 2009 10:21 am

    I’m so sorry about your neck, and hope you are feeling better soon.

    Looks like an interesting book! I took some linguistics classes in college.

    You might like reading “Talking Hands” by Margalit Fox. While the premise is about a Bedouin community in Israel whose members are mostly genetically deaf, a lot of the book actually concentrates on the linguistics of sign language itself (more than I wanted — I wanted to know more about the people of community itself!). Still, linguistics people would probably like this one.

    Oh, and speaking of linguistics myths, there is the one that sign language is universal. It is NOT. American sign language is different than Arabic sign language, for example! Even in America some signs vary regionally.

    Getting off my own linguistics soapbox now….

    Again, hope you feel better soon!

  10. November 6, 2009 10:49 am

    Sorry to hear that your are feeling so poorly this week. I hope you are up and about soon.

    I don’t read a lot of non fiction books, but this one does sound good.

  11. November 6, 2009 11:13 am

    This sounds like a fascinating book!

    I remember reading about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in grad school–the whole idea that language shapes thought, such that speakers of different languages think differently–and being absolutely fascinated by it. I think it’s one of those things that if taken to extremes becomes silly pretty quickly. But I’m still happy to believe that in very subtle ways, like differing conceptions of how temporal events occur in relationship to each other (to reference one of the original examples used) there might be something in it.

    And then there is one of my favorite non-fiction books, Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff, which is an utterly stunning work of cognitive linguistics…and very readable.

    (I just spent a very interesting five minutes over a wikipedea reading about new thoughts on cognitive linguistics–thanks for nudge in that direction!)

  12. November 6, 2009 11:41 am

    Hope u feel better soon.

    The book sounds quite interesting. I always wanted to get in to linguistics or history but ended up as a doctor :)

  13. November 6, 2009 11:45 am

    I hope your neck feels better soon!

    This book sounds really interesting!

  14. November 6, 2009 12:19 pm

    Hello! I stumbled across your blog a few days ago so I thought I’d say hi finally. I’m sorry your fibro is acting up, and I hope it gets better soon!

    As far as non-fiction books, here’s one that I read in college that I loved: Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (about religious terrorism, it was the first book we read in my Religion and Violence class). You may also want to check out the State Department’s website – they have recommended reading for the Foreign Service Exam which covers a wide range of topics. They even include The Mother Tongue, which Raych mentioned in an above comment.

  15. November 6, 2009 1:15 pm

    I’m a language nerd too. Thank goodness I can, in all good conscience, now use “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun! Can I say how much time I’ve taken re-writing sentences in my formal writing projects just to avoid using “they” in this way???

    Wasn’t the Bones episode good (as usual)? I have a person in my life that sometimes needs reminded that life is not a DEBATE and human relationships are more complicated than they are logical! Bones cracks me up when she just “doesn’t get it.”

    Hope you feel better really soon, Eva.

  16. November 6, 2009 1:42 pm

    Sorry you fibro is being a pain in the neck (pun entirely intended). My sister has it and it is just no fun at all. I do have a book suggestion for you though: The Adventure of English: The Autobiography of a Language by Melvin Bragg

    I listened to it on audio and I really enjoyed it!

  17. November 6, 2009 1:53 pm

    Hope you’re feeling better soon, Eva!

    I’m not sure I’d read this myself, but I really enjoyed the excerpts you shared. “They” is an acceptable singular pronoun? That’ll take some getting used to, even if it’s been true for over 600 years :-).

  18. stacybuckeye permalink
    November 6, 2009 4:24 pm

    I hope you are feeling better. If anything can make you feel better it should be Bones!

  19. aartichapati permalink
    November 6, 2009 5:21 pm

    I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, Eva. I hope it passes, and that the pain subsides a bit so that you can get started on being the best grade school teacher EVER, who also teachers her students Diwali songs…

    I will keep an eye out for this book. It sounds right up my alley!

  20. November 6, 2009 11:17 pm

    I hope you feel better soon! And I thank you–and Mr. (Dr.?)McWhorter for sanction to use “they” and “their” as singulars. Yippee!!

  21. November 7, 2009 10:41 am

    I hope you’re feeling better!

    I’m currently listening to The Adventure of English, and I’m almost finished. It’s been fun, although since it’s an audiobook I’m not remembering much. :-/

    They acceptableness of they is good news! I’m going to cite that book the next time someone edits my use of they!

  22. November 7, 2009 4:06 pm

    Hope you start feeling better very soon. Even so, your review is more concise and elegant than many of the ones I spend hours trying to fashion! :)

    I haven’t read this one, but it sounds very interesting. Thanks for the excerpts. I enjoy his writing style, at least in the one book of his that I’ve read (and liked very much). It was Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care . I read it a couple of years ago but found it fascinating.

  23. November 7, 2009 4:40 pm

    I hope you feel better soon. Sorry to hear your fibro is acting up.

    I had no idea there were so many linguistic junkies online. I have Pinker’s The Language Instinct sitting on my shelves. Hoping to read it one day.

    I have an interest in education, especially when it comes to literacy and homeschooling. A few of my favorite reads are Guerrilla Learning by Grace Llewellyn, The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease, The Reading Zone by Nancie Atwell, and The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac.

    For the past year I’ve been taking more of an interest in fairy tales. My latest read in that area has been Jane Yolen’s Touch Magic. In it, Yolen explains why fairy tales and cultural myths are so important for children to know.

    Hope you feel better as you read everyone’s essay-comments! =)

  24. November 7, 2009 8:10 pm

    Sorry your fibro is acting up. “Bastard Tongue” looks like great fun, I love reading about the history of the English language and often learn things that help with my students.

  25. November 7, 2009 8:56 pm

    I just saw this book at the shop today and was wondering whether it was worth reading! Sounds like definitely yes (with skipping through the whiny sections) – I really enjoy books about words and language, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one about grammar. Fun!

    I hope you start feeling better soon! Sending good thoughts your way. :)

  26. November 9, 2009 11:25 am

    Oooh, I do like linguistics – had I been forced to choose a different major in college, linguistics would probably have been second on the list (after anthropology). This sounds like a fun book!

    Of course, I was allowed to keep my own major (biology), and my favorite pop-sci book to recommend from my own sub-field is Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation – hilarious, accessible, and informative, all in one package.

  27. November 11, 2009 9:58 pm

    This sounds absolutely fascinating and fun and now I’m geeking out about it and want to read it too! I too am a descriptivist and the quotes you share are right on.

    Again, i hope you feel better soon!

  28. November 12, 2009 6:32 pm

    O.K., I usually don’t get all pissy when someone gets offered a review copy and I don’t, but WHY DID THEY NOT ASK ME I HAVE REVIEWED SO MANY LINGUISTIC BOOKS AND HAVE BEEN WANTING THIS ONE FOR A LONG LONG TIME.

    I apologize for yelling. I hope you’re feeling better!

  29. November 16, 2009 1:07 pm

    Meghan, I remember your review of Blood and Roses-it totally made me want to read it! :)

    Trisha, I enjoy philosophy as well (especially in high school, I read lots of phil. books and thought about majoring in it).

    Lu, I knew about the eskimo words for snow thing being a lie-I always correct people too. I think I definitely would have liked your professor! :) That Pullum book sounds like fun!

    Christy, I’ve gotten more into travel books this year; I never used to read them, but now I kind of gobble them up. I’d never have considered reading ab ook about traffic, but it sounds like fun!

    Kathleen, I hope you enjoy it!

    Raych, I haven’t read the Little book-love that title!

    Bookshelf Monstrosity, I’ve read the first of the Dunning books. That Battles book sounds really neat! And thanks so much for the compliment. :)

    Valerie, wow-that sounds interesting! How can people possibly think sign language is universal?!?! That’s so weird! lol

    VIvienne, thank you!

    Charlotte, ohhh-thanks for the suggestion! Sounds like fun!

    DocShona, lol-at least you’re helping people! Have you read Gawande? I love his medical essays.

    Kailana, thank you!

    Kacqui thanks for introducing yourself. :) I’ve read Terror in the Mind of God-I thought it was quite interesting. And I’ve definitely checked out the State Department’s rec’d reading before. ;)

    Terri, I know right?! lol

    Zee, thanks for the suggestion!

    Florinda, if anyone tries to tell me I can’t use it again, I will totally bust out that example, lol.

    Stacy, thanks! And yay for Bones!

    Aarti, aww-thanks a bunch. :)

    DS, I felt the same way!

    Softdrink, I find it more difficult to remember nonfic audiobooks too. :/

    Melanie, aww-thanks! I love that title-his backlist shows me that either he or his editor has some title writing skillz, lol.

    Vasilly, yay for all us of linguistics nerds! hehe I love fairy tales too, so that Yolen book sounds fascinating.

    Gavin, I hope you enjoy it if you read it!

    Jenny, isn’t that a coincidence? :)

    Fyrefly, I read Dr. Tatiana’s, etc. earlier this year and LOVED it. :D

    Rebecca, thank you!

    JT, lol! Sorry about that!


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