Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

I have recently finished John McWhorter’s book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. McWhorter is a leading American linguistics professor who specialises in creoles. This book is about how English got to be the way it is. It has a quirky structure. I’ll begin by looking at chapters one and three, which deal with the impact of the Celts and the Vikings respectively. I mentioned before that McWhorter is an expert in creoles. This is relevant here because Modern English is in some sense a Creole. 

The typical comment you hear about English is that it is easy to get into but difficult to master. This may well be true, but Russian is difficult to get into and remains hideously complicated after that. We need to set English in its linguistic context. Firstly it is one of the Indo-European languages, whose parent language, known as Proto-Indo-European, is thought to have been spoken before 3000 BCE. And within this family we are one of the Germanic languages. English, though, doesn’t look like any other Germanic language. Its chief characteristic is its relative simplicity. I can imagine my students groaning when they hear this. No language is easy to learn. But English can make a claim to been one of the easier ones. It may not be Esperanto, but as world languages go, it is pretty user-friendly. We have very few declensions. We don’t have case endings. There are no tones like Chinese. English conjugations really are a piece of cake: I live – he lives.

There are differences in vocabulary between English and other Germanic languages. But what really sets us apart is the grammar. English does have some particular wrinkles that are not shared by any of our fellow Germanic languages. Chapter one looks at the Celtic influence. For instance we have the meaningless do, which we use in questions and negatives – Do you speak German?  Other Germanic languages don’t have this quirk. This feature has its origins in the Celtic languages spoken inEngland before the arrival of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. In chapter three, he deals with the wholesale loss of inflectional endings in English. Languages change. But why has English, alone among its Germanic relatives, lost so many of them? When a language is used in a place more by people as a second language than as a first language, then it starts to simplify. In the case of English he “blames” the Vikings. Old English was not dissimilar to their own language. They were able to get by but some of the more complicated features such as its case and tense markings were left by the wayside. The language revered today emerged more than a thousand years ago from the mouths of incompetent speakers.

This ties in with one of the tropes in this blog – spontaneous order. Languages are complex decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. We use them confidently without much explicit understanding of their structure or of how they develop. But no language can ever make perfect sense there will always be leakage.

The second chapter is an attack on language pedants. McWhorter writes: “The lesson, quite simply, is that the conception that new ways of putting things are mistakes is an illusion.” The question he poses is why it was OK for English to morph in the past but not now. Did English somehow acquire perfection at some mythical point in the past?  Much of this variation was by chance.

Language is much more resilient than it is given credit for. We keep hearing that English is on the verge of collapse. Perhaps the Cassandras can give us an approximate forecast as to the date when English goes beyond repair. McWhorter  gives us some comical examples of what used to irritate prescriptivists in the nineteenth century:

 “Bad” English

What you were supposed to say

born in

born at

all the time  

always

lit 

lighted

make a choice

choose

the first two children

the two first children

the house is being built

 

the house is building

The word standpoint was considered absurd because you weren’t actually standing anywhere. These criticisms seem uncannily similar to what we hear today.

I’m going to spend less time talking about the last two chapters – or should that be the two last chapters? In chapter four he debunks the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In its most extreme form it states that the language we speak is a straight-jacket that restricts our ability to think, reason, and understand. In English we have one word know, whereas languages like French and Spanish have two. Does that mean that speakers of these languages have a heightened awareness of the difference between knowing trigonometry and knowing Bill? I don’t think so. I’d like to quote McWhorter’s conclusion:

The idea that the world’s 6,000 languages conditions 6,000 pairs of cultural glasses simply does not hold water.  ….we all experience life by the mental equipment shared by all members of our species. No one is primitive. Just as important no one is privileged over others with a primal connection to the real.”

In the fifth and final chapter McWhorter goes out on an intriguing limb in proposing that Phoenician influenced Proto-Germanic (he gives as evidence striking similarities in Germanic and Semitic words)

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” is by no means a complete chronicle of our language. I am not an expert in historical linguistics. The book is decidedly idiosyncratic. His style may irritate you: “English, however, is kinky. It has a predilection for dressing up like Welsh on lonely nights.” I just happen to like it. It is a short book and cannot be considered a definitive history of English. I haven’t read it but David Crystal’s 600-page The Stories of English will provide you with a more complete overview. I have read Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English, which was also a TV series.   But I can still recommend this short book. And if you can get hold of the same author’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. There may not be any dead pandas, but you will learn a lot more about how languages really are.

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One Response to Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

  1. […] about this kind of thing. Some people just have too much time on their hands. See my previous post Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. But I know people like this kind of stuff and so here is a selection of the readers’ […]

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