Monday, September 2, 2019

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, by John McWhorter (author, narrator)

Audible Studios, November 2009 (original publication October 2008)

John McWhorter gives us another lively, fascinating, informative look at language, especially the English language.

English is an offshoot of North Germanic, and in some ways those connections are obvious. In other ways, English is a bit weird even by North Germanic standards--and one section is devoted to making clear how very much the Germanic languages departed, early on, from the norms of essentially all the other Indo-European languages. He also gives us his theory as to how this happened.

But the main focus is English, and English has it's own weird traits. We often talk about all the vocabulary English has borrowed, or stolen, from other languages. McWhorter points out that all languages take useful vocabulary where they find it, and English is a bit unusual in having encountered so many different languages so early in its development.

What makes English different from other North Germanic languages and their descendants is grammar. One of the grammatical oddities of English is what linguists call "meaningless do." As in, "Do you know her?" "Do you want to go to the pool?" It's a word that is doing no grammatical work at all, and there is no equivalent in most Indo-European language, and specifically not in the Germanic languages most closely related to English. We use it many times a day, and never think it sounds odd, but it is odd. Where did it come from? Note: McWhorter is not a big fan of the theory that changes in a language "just happen" that purely by chance resemble structures in other, unrelated languages that happen to be nearby.

There's a similar construction in a couple of languages Old English had a lot of contact with, though, and McWhorter lays out the evidence in, I think, convincing detail.

The other notably weird thing about English compared to its relatives is the nearly-complete loss of the case endings all the other Germanic languages have. McWhorter also thinks the standard explanation for this is mistaken, and makes a very good case for his alternative explanation.

There's a lot more to this book, but these are some of the highlights. It's enjoyable, informative, and a really good listen.


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