McWhorter, John: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

I enjoyed The Power of Babel so much that when I saw that John McWhorter had a new pop-linguistics book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, I put it at the top of my Christmas list. This is much less dense than Babel, but seems to be carefully argued as best I can tell, and is still an enjoyable read.

McWhorter argues that the traditional story of English’s evolution is much less interesting and complex than the real thing, which in his telling has two under-recognized components. First, because English co-existed with Celtic languages for centuries, weird things happened to English’s grammar like having to use “do” in questions and negative sentences. Second, because the Vikings showed up and learned English as a second language, they knocked a lot of the embellishments off of English, leaving it the least complex of the Germanic languages. (And even Proto-Germanic, McWhorter argues, is less complex than other languages descended from Proto-Indo-European. He hypothesizes that this may have been because Phoenicians learned it as a second language, but notes that so far this is just a hypothesis.)

After these two under-recognized components of English’s history, McWhorter draws broader lessons about language. English’s bastard grammar shows that, from a linguistics point of view, there’s no such thing as “errors”; arbitrary rules are just that, arbitrary. And from the reduced complexity of English after the Vikings got through with it, McWhorter argues that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language strongly channels thought) has to be wrong, because we aren’t less able to deal with complexity today than Anglo-Saxon villagers were.

None of this will be hugely surprising to those who’ve listened to his lecture series on historical linguistics, but the additional detail and the handy print nature of the book nevertheless make it worth reading. Just don’t expect anything as detailed as Babel, and you’ll be all set.

February 21, 2009: belatedly crossposted to [info]50books_poc, as discussed here.


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  1. I always cringe at the solecism that, because language is arbitrary, there are no such things as errors. The rules of bridge are arbitrary, too — but they are nevertheless the rules, and if you (say) fail to follow suit when you could have, you have Made An Error. This sentence errors contain.
    Of course, the line is sometimes fuzzy, when you find yourself in a time of transition from one standard to another.
    I also don’t see how the conclusion about Sapir/Whorf follows. Who ever said there was a connection between grammatical complexity and ability to express (or “deal with”) complexity? Certainly neither Sapir nor Whorf. If anything, strong case structure (which is what the Danes helped strip out of English) would imply more rigid categorizations than a weak case structure; I could just as easily argue that weakening case structure should lead (in a Whorfian way) to greater flexibility of thought.

  2. It’s precisely the transitions that McWhorter is talking about. At one point people were doubtless lamenting the decline of standards when the Celtic “do” was creeping in, and now it’s just how English is.
    As far as Sapir-Whorf, that was just one example.

  3. I don’t want to beat this to death — I should just read the book myself — but I don’t think I made myself clear.
    If I understand what you are saying McWhorter said about Sapir-Whorf, then it’s not any example at all, because it’s backwards (at best). He seems to be saying that Sapir-Whorf would predict that people speaking modern English would have a harder time grokking complex ideas than people speaking a language with full case structure, which is not an accurate characterization of Sapir-Whorf. Case structure has nothing to do with *expressing* complex ideas, or ideas about complexity.
    And on the ‘errors’ front, I still don’t get the point. Yes, English has changed, and what was once wrong is now correct. I don’t see how that changes the fact that it was once wrong, and that the people who made the persistent errors that led to change were, indeed, making errors. The fact that it’s standard in Modern English doesn’t somehow redeem the error ex-post-facto. If, over the next 100 years, people gradually stop putting the terminal -s on the he/she/it forms of verbs, and it becomes standard to say “he sing in the choir” and “it rain every Thursday”, that wouldn’t make it correct today, or tomorrow, or for most of the time the usage were becoming common.
    A more typical mechanism of change is that a regional usage — correct for that dialect — replaces the standard in a different region. It may sound like an error to the locals, but it isn’t, any more than “sub” replacing “grinder” as the name of a sandwich is an error.
    Does that make my objection more clear, or should I just drop it?

  4. It’s perfectly clear, I just think you and linguists think about this in different ways.

  5. Kate, thanks for recommending both the McWhorter books – they had been vaguely on my radar (probably from mentions on Language Log or Language Hat), but you got me to actually read them now.
    As for Sapir-Whorf – McWhorter’s real point (which he was merely illustrating with examples) is that until very recently there has never been any evidence that it is true at all. And those very recent results (like the Greek color test) are for very subtle effects – a far cry from the original claims about language influencing entire worldviews. This is hardly controversial within linguistics, as I recall from introductory sociolinguistics back in… 1987, I think it was.

  6. Glad to hear you read them (and liked, I presume!).

  7. Yes, I did like them (I suppose I should have mentioned that). Babel didn’t tell me an enormous amount I didn’t already know, but then I had a decent layperson’s grasp of linguistics (if I do say so myself), and it was a very lucid presentation of important material. And I did learn some things from it.
    Bastard, while as you note much less detailed than Babel, did present me with quite a few things I didn’t know or had only heard of vaguely, so it was well worth reading.

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