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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

de John McWhorter

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1,2694415,123 (3.71)70
Why do we say "I am reading a catalog" instead of "I read a catalog"? Why do we say "do" at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, author McWhorter distills hundreds of years of lore into one lively history. Covering the little-known Celtic and Welsh influences on English, the impact of the Viking raids and the Norman Conquest, and the Germanic invasions that started it all during the fifth century AD, and drawing on genetic and linguistic research as well as a cache of trivia about the origins of English words and syntax patterns, McWhorter ultimately demonstrates the arbitrary, maddening nature of English--and its ironic simplicity, due to its role as a streamlined lingua franca during the early formation of Britain. This is the book that language aficionados have been waiting for.--From publisher description.… (mais)
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A linguistics book for the lay reader, it is like listening to an excellent lecturer argue his opinions on his subject of expertise at a casual get-together with friends who are not in academia. McWhorter here takes on what he calls the "official history" of English, which in his persuasive view has made significant mistakes.

Whereas the "official history" decided that the Celtic languages had little to no impact on English, McWhorter argues that speakers of Welsh and Cornish changed English grammar to a significant degree, applying the very different grammar rules of their native tongue to the new Old English tongue they learned from the Anglo-Saxon invaders. This explains why “Said she to my daughter that my father alone come is and himself better feels” makes no sense in English, whereas a similar construction would in any other Germanic language. It's the Celtic grammar making our English sentence construction so different from our language cousins. This happened because the native Celts were likely to have hung around as a majority of the population rather than being comprehensively slaughtered as the "official history" has it, so their changes to Old English stuck. Celtic also gave to English the "meaningless 'do'", as in "Do you want it?" instead of just "You want it?" This makes me want to start a band and name it Meaningless Do...

When the waves of Vikings invaded centuries later, these people spoke Old Norse. McWhorter argues that an effect of all these adult males learning the language spoken in this land they'd just settled in, and taken wives from, is that they simplified it a lot, ie, spoke it "wrong". Thus English dropped a lot of features such as gendered nouns and case endings in the mouths of the "English Vikings", and they passed this battered language down to their children. These changes from Old English to Middle English are evident first in North England and gradually spreading southwards, which corresponds with the fact that the Vikings concentrated in the North.

Aside from other arguments in the book, McWhorter makes a plea I'm very sympathetic to: we shouldn't fret over our language continuing to evolve and change. Language always has. There is no such thing as "pure" English; it has been beaten up and changed massively already. No one would argue that we shouldn't speak this "perverted" modern English and go back to Old English. So if people start saying "who" when they 'should' say "whom"... eh, so what. English has lost lots of case markers already.

Entertaining and informative. ( )
  lelandleslie | Feb 24, 2024 |
I found this discussion of the actual history of the English language delightful. This was not a surprise, as I have enjoyed other books by Mr. McWhorter, as well as the podcast he inherited, "Lexicon Valley." Anyone looking for a compelling, insightful, and eminently readable argument for how English developed could do no better than Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.
  libwen | Feb 9, 2024 |
Very erudite and interesting. English is result of absorbing Celtic grammar (meaningless do) and being spoken as a second language by Vikings who simplified it. It also seems very likely to have a lot of simplifications and words originally imported from Phoenicians! ( )
  jvgravy | Feb 15, 2023 |
Fantastic book. Most people know that English is a Germanic language heavily influenced by French and Latin. This is discussed in this book, but he goes farther. One of the major influences are the Celts specifically the Welsh. If you have ever wondered about how and why we use 'do' and 'ing', you will get answers. Also discussed, is the Viking influence. These are both influences that separate English from other Germanic languages. And lastly, he discusses what may have influenced the Germanic languages that set them apart from other Indo-European languages. He gives a strong argument for a Semitic language impacting Prot0-German. This is a fun book, a fast and easy read and you come away from it with a much greater understanding of English. ( )
  Nefersw | Jan 14, 2022 |
Table of Contents
Introduction
One - WE SPEAK A MISCEGENATED GRAMMAR
Two - A LESSON FROM THE CELTIC IMPACT
Three - WE SPEAK A BATTERED GRAMMAR
Four - DOES OUR GRAMMAR CHANNEL OUR THOUGHT?
Five - SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET
Notes on Sources
Acknowledgements
Index

More grammar then I cared for. ( )
  kevn57 | Dec 8, 2021 |
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It’s basically a combination of two items, each of which would ideally be very slim: a primer on descriptivist views of language (no, English isn’t going to hell in a handbasket), and a popularization of McWhorter’s work on creolization and the history of English. The latter takes up most of the book, and it is, to my mind, overwritten and unnecessarily repetitive.
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Introduction

Was it really all just about words?
One

We Speak a

Miscegenated Grammar
The Welshness of English
The first chapter in the new history of English is that bastardization I mentioned.
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Why do we say "I am reading a catalog" instead of "I read a catalog"? Why do we say "do" at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, author McWhorter distills hundreds of years of lore into one lively history. Covering the little-known Celtic and Welsh influences on English, the impact of the Viking raids and the Norman Conquest, and the Germanic invasions that started it all during the fifth century AD, and drawing on genetic and linguistic research as well as a cache of trivia about the origins of English words and syntax patterns, McWhorter ultimately demonstrates the arbitrary, maddening nature of English--and its ironic simplicity, due to its role as a streamlined lingua franca during the early formation of Britain. This is the book that language aficionados have been waiting for.--From publisher description.

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