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Thursday, June 02, 2022

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

 Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a history of the English language, sort of. I've thoroughly enjoyed John McWhorter's books in the past, and this one is no exception. In fact, it might be even better than his others, as it's that rare academic argument that's written for non-specialists. McWhorter makes 2 points in the book that he claims are missing from traditional academic histories of the English language. First, that English gets a number of grammatical constructs from the Celtic languages:

German, Dutch, Swedish, and the gang are, by and large, variations on what happened to Proto-Germanic as it morphed along over three thousand years. They are ordinary rolls of the dice. English, however, is kinky. It has a predilection for dressing up like Welsh on lonely nights. Did you ever notice that when you learn a foreign language, one of the first things you have to unlearn as an English speaker is the way we use do in questions and in negative statements? (page 1)

He provides multiple examples if what he calls "the meaningless do", something that doesn't exist in other Germanic languages, but does exist in the Celtic languages. 

His second thesis is that English is comparatively easy, compared to not just the other German languages, but also the Indo-European languages:

English, as languages go, and especially Germanic ones, is kind of easy. Not child’s play, but it has fewer bells and whistles than German and Swedish and the rest. Foreigners are even given to saying English is “easy,” and they are on to something, to the extent that they mean that English has no lists of conjugational endings and doesn’t make some nouns masculine and others feminine. (pg. 89)

This, he claims, is the result of the invasions of the Vikings, who had to learn English as adults, and couldn't understand the nuances of Old English, stripping away genders and many other gramatical markers.

The Scandinavian Vikings left more than a bunch of words in English. They also made it an easier language. In this, in a sense, they clipped Anglophones’ wings. The Viking impact, stripping English of gender and freeing us of attending to so much else that other Germanic speakers genuflect to in every conversation, made it harder for us to master other European languages. To wit: so many people spoke English the way a lot of us speak French and Spanish that “off” English became the seedbed for literary English. (pg. 135)

As a bonus, McWhorter provides a 3rd argument that has only a little bit to do with English, which is that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is complete bollocks:

 Decade after decade, no one has turned up anything showing that grammar marches with culture and thought in the way that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claimed. At best, there are some shards of evidence that language affects thought patterns in subtle ways, which do not remotely approach the claims of Whorf. (pg. 138)

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis despite being false gets lots of popular exposure in novels, movies (think Arrival), and even many non-fiction books. McWhorter claims we like that meme and propagate it because we want it to be true, not because there's any particular reason to believe it is. Here he points to Russian:

All would agree that certain changes have occurred in prevailing beliefs in that country over the past thousand years—from brute feudalism under the tsars to Communism to glasnost to the queer blend of democracy and dictatorship of today. Yet Russian grammar during that time has always been the marvelous nightmare that it is now. Russian has changed, to be sure, but without equivalents to the Celtic adoption and the Viking disruption, and nowhere near as dramatically as English—and in no ways that could be correlated with things Peter the Great, the Romanovs, or Lenin did. (pg. 149)

 One interesting thing is that McWhorter never claims how great English is, and makes no attempt to counter-balance his description of English as an odd duck amongst languages. Perhaps at this point, with English dominating so much of the globe as the most popular second language, there's no need to defend English, but I actually think English being easier to learn and use and being relatively comprehensible even when a non-native speaker mangles it is a feature, and not a bug.

In any case, the book is full of great ideas and a lot of fun. It's also short and easily read. Try finding that combination anywhere else. Highly recommended.

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