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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

di John McWhorter

UtentiRecensioniPopolaritàMedia votiCitazioni
1,0473614,402 (3.75)62
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.… (altro)

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» Vedi le 62 citazioni

There are only like three ideas in this book: 1) English is a weird Germanic language because of Celtic influence, 2) Sapir-Whorf is wrong, 3) English might have Phoenician influence. I had read this in another review, but thought that meant "these are the three /big/ ideas." No. These are the /only/ ideas in the book. Could have been a blog post. In fact, was a blog post: a fantastic blog post by McWhorter, making the same points, and directed me towards this book to learn more. It's a good funnel on his part, but feels like a scam on mine.

Anyway. McWhorter doesn't seem to know his audience. He argues for about half the book that English has Celtic influence, clearly to defend himself against other professional linguists. So is it written for them? Absolutely not; it calls fricatives "hissy sounds" and goes on a great deal about "what constitutes evidence." By all appearances, this is a book written for the layperson, except that the layperson is more than happy to take McWhorter on faith that English does in fact have Celtic influence.

Am I happy I read it? Absolutely not. Should you? No. But you should read his blog post instead. https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-english-so-weirdly-different-from-other-languages ( )
  isovector | Dec 13, 2020 |
Short, pithy, fun to read. And I now know a bit more about linguistics and how it works. ( )
  AstonishingChristina | Oct 3, 2020 |
I went to a Grammar School (no, really) so you'd think I'd know a bit about the history of English grammar. Turns out, to misquote Donald Rumsfeld, that when it comes to my knowledge of grammar not only are there are known unknowns — that is to say, I know there are some things I do not know — but there are also unknown unknowns, the ones I didn’t know I didn’t know.

I knew, for example, that English is a weird mix of Germanic and Romance languages. I know German has three genders and French two genders. And so I knew it was a little odd that English is genderless, but I didn't know why English is genderless. Apparently the standard textbook explanation is that this just happened. Languages change and drift over time, and English drifted from having male spoons, female forks, and neuter knives to having plain old sexless cutlery. This explanation seems a little unlikely to me, but then dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor of maths, not of comparative linguistics.

An unknown unknown for me was English's predilection towards a single verb from it's catalogue of a few hundred thousand, the verb to do. I know enough French that this quirk of English should have been more obvious to me, and yet I'd utterly overlooked it. Here's a typical conversation in French (names have been changed to protect the innocent):
Moi: Sais-tu ce que j'ecris?
Matthias: Non, je ne sais pas.
Moi: Zut alors! Tu es un pamplemousse!
Verbs abound in this example, to know, to write, to be. But not a do in sight. In English we merrily drop two dos in a sentence: “Do you know what I am doing?”, and another one in the response: “No, I do not.” French would settle for the odd-to-English-ears “Know-you what I am doing?” and thence “No, I know not.” But English is the odd one, most languages don't have this extraneous do floating about pell-mell and everywhither. And even English sounds odd if you happen to drop a do into a sentence that is traditionally a do-free zone. If you finally understand a difficult concept you'd probably not say “Aha, I do see now” and yet if a Tyrannosaurus Rex ran past the window we'd happily ask “Did you see that?” Quite where this obsession with do came from is something I'd never even wondered. Again, the answer usually given is to be found in the linguistic hypothesis that John McWhorter colourfully refers to as “shitte happens.”

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is essentially a two hundred page repudiation of this hypothesis, that the development of English over the past two millennia can be summed up by “our vocabulary changed because of the Vikings, the Normans, and the Bard, and our grammar changed because, well, shitte happens.” (As an aside, if someone tells you over the phone that they're on a one-way train to shitte station, then they're either in trouble, or else they're actually on the train to Shitte Station.) McWhorter is an engaging writer and makes his point coherently and in a manner entertaining enough to belie the slightly dry subject matter. I suspect that classically trained language scholars might be tearing their hair out at his care free use of common sense over masses of data taken from contemporary documents, but then that's one of his points: people don't write like they speak, so drawing conclusions solely from the written record is always going to give misleading results. This discrepancy can still be seen today. I, for example, have a bad habit when speaking of tailing off mid-sentence and assuming people know what I was going to say next, but when I'm writing… ( )
  imlee | Jul 7, 2020 |
I went to a Grammar School (no, really) so you'd think I'd know a bit about the history of English grammar. Turns out, to misquote Donald Rumsfeld, that when it comes to my knowledge of grammar not only are there are known unknowns — that is to say, I know there are some things I do not know — but there are also unknown unknowns, the ones I didn’t know I didn’t know.

I knew, for example, that English is a weird mix of Germanic and Romance languages. I know German has three genders and French two genders. And so I knew it was a little odd that English is genderless, but I didn't know why English is genderless. Apparently the standard textbook explanation is that this just happened. Languages change and drift over time, and English drifted from having male spoons, female forks, and neuter knives to having plain old sexless cutlery. This explanation seems a little unlikely to me, but then dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor of maths, not of comparative linguistics.

An unknown unknown for me was English's predilection towards a single verb from it's catalogue of a few hundred thousand, the verb to do. I know enough French that this quirk of English should have been more obvious to me, and yet I'd utterly overlooked it. Here's a typical conversation in French (names have been changed to protect the innocent):
Moi: Sais-tu ce que j'ecris?
Matthias: Non, je ne sais pas.
Moi: Zut alors! Tu es un pamplemousse!
Verbs abound in this example, to know, to write, to be. But not a do in sight. In English we merrily drop two dos in a sentence: “Do you know what I am doing?”, and another one in the response: “No, I do not.” French would settle for the odd-to-English-ears “Know-you what I am doing?” and thence “No, I know not.” But English is the odd one, most languages don't have this extraneous do floating about pell-mell and everywhither. And even English sounds odd if you happen to drop a do into a sentence that is traditionally a do-free zone. If you finally understand a difficult concept you'd probably not say “Aha, I do see now” and yet if a Tyrannosaurus Rex ran past the window we'd happily ask “Did you see that?” Quite where this obsession with do came from is something I'd never even wondered. Again, the answer usually given is to be found in the linguistic hypothesis that John McWhorter colourfully refers to as “shitte happens.”

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is essentially a two hundred page repudiation of this hypothesis, that the development of English over the past two millennia can be summed up by “our vocabulary changed because of the Vikings, the Normans, and the Bard, and our grammar changed because, well, shitte happens.” (As an aside, if someone tells you over the phone that they're on a one-way train to shitte station, then they're either in trouble, or else they're actually on the train to Shitte Station.) McWhorter is an engaging writer and makes his point coherently and in a manner entertaining enough to belie the slightly dry subject matter. I suspect that classically trained language scholars might be tearing their hair out at his care free use of common sense over masses of data taken from contemporary documents, but then that's one of his points: people don't write like they speak, so drawing conclusions solely from the written record is always going to give misleading results. This discrepancy can still be seen today. I, for example, have a bad habit when speaking of tailing off mid-sentence and assuming people know what I was going to say next, but when I'm writing… ( )
  leezeebee | Jul 6, 2020 |
I listened to the audio book version, read by the author. On the whole, it was interesting, but it turns out I'm not as interested in language as I had expected, so the low rating is more because of my pack of interest. Some of the jokes fell flat for me, but it was clear that the author was very passionate about the topic. I think some interested in language or social history would probably love it. ( )
  obtusata | Jan 9, 2020 |
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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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