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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  6,386 ratings  ·  872 reviews
A survey of the quirks and quandaries of the English language, focusing on our strange and wonderful grammar

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, Our Magnificent Bastard Language distills hundreds of years of f
Hardcover, 230 pages
Published November 1st 2008 by Gotham Books (first published October 1st 2008)
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Helio I got more out of Bryson's book than this one. Both offer up some humour but the Mother Tongue covers more ground. McWhorter spends sixty pages going …moreI got more out of Bryson's book than this one. Both offer up some humour but the Mother Tongue covers more ground. McWhorter spends sixty pages going on about "meaningless do" when six pages would do. He does make a good case for why we done did do it.(less)
Kathleen Actually, after posting this, I have to walk it back. According to my instructor, Swedes will tell you that the "en" words are the common gender, and …moreActually, after posting this, I have to walk it back. According to my instructor, Swedes will tell you that the "en" words are the common gender, and the "ett" words are neuter, but linguists and grammarians classify them differently. This is a fascinating discovery for me! (less)

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A fantastic book! I have not come across anyone, not even Steven Pinker, who does such a good job of showing you how exciting linguistics can be. His bold and unconventional history of the English language was full of ideas I'd never seen before, but which made excellent sense. And, before I get into the review proper, a contrite apology to Jordan. She gave it to me six months ago as a birthday present, and somehow I didn't open it until last week. Well, Jordan, thank you, and I'll try to be mor ...more
Roy Lotz
Like many on this site, I decided to read this because of Manny’s enthusiastic review. And I am glad I did. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it seemed high time that I understand something of the language’s history. This book was an excellent choice, since it focused on that aspect of English most pesky to foreign speakers—grammar—while avoiding the too-often-told story of the growth of English vocabulary via French and Latin.

McWhorter begins by focusing on two distinctive features
Nov 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Language/linguistics fans
This is an extraordinarily delightful little book that highlights some of English's lesser known idiosyncrasies because, as the author notes, English is not just a collection of words, nor is its genius an markedly unusual openness to new vocabulary.

I first encountered John McWhorter with his book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language Paperback, which traced the evolution of languages from a "first language" and which is also highly recommended. (Actually, having read The Singing Nea
Feb 01, 2010 rated it it was ok
I read McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" a few years ago and thought it was terrific. His subsequent effort, "Doing our own Thing", was a major disappointment - self-indulgent, undisciplined, and essentially pointless. So I would have skipped this one (a cover blurb that squeezes the chestnuts "rollicking tour" and "rousing celebration" into the same sentence is generally not a good sign). Did I really need reassurance from yet another linguist that it's OK to split an infinitive, or to end a sen ...more
Jan 11, 2020 rated it it was ok
In the main John McWhorter is indulging himself in his area of expertise seeming demanding us to care about arguments within a fairly specialized study of language. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue may be little more than an effort to appeal to the populist interest in grammar that began with the fairly popular Eats, Shoots and Leaves. That was an effort to bring to the commoners the rather esoteric debate over the Oxford comma, McWhorter wants to argue for something else.

What is that something el
Nov 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Yup. That is a for real, honest to goodness grammatically correct sentence in the English language. Why it wasn't included in this book is a mystery for the ages, because it's a great bit of wordplay that shows how simple and yet crazy this language can be.

But still, this book was very interesting, if pretty academic and technical. This is the type of book that I would want to read along with the audio, because I learn best visual
Aug 09, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Seems like every book on linguistics published in the past few decades has been contractually required to include a takedown of both Sapir-Whorfianism (the idea that a language's grammar/vocabulary shapes its speakers' worldview in any compelling way) and prescriptivism (imposing arbitrary rules of "correct" usage, despite the common and widely-understood use of "incorrect" grammar). And that's fine, I didn't mind listening to McWhorter play me the hits one more time.

But this book also included
Apr 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
What a fun book! This is one of those rare times where I would suggest having the audio and actually following along in the book. The audio is wonderful because you actually get to hear all the wonderful languages McWhorter is referencing, also well as just here him gush and laugh while narrating. You can tell just how passionate he is about linguistics as well as making linguistics a known subject to the genpop. It was a lot of fun. But if you had the book to follow along in as well then you wo ...more
Feb 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010, non-fiction, in-en
Never thought Linguistics can be so much fun! Too many details to discuss. But if you ever wondered why, for instance, "you" has the same form for both singular and plural, why we say "aren't I" instead of the more logical "amn't I", why we use the meaningless "do" or "they" as a singular pronoun instead of he/she when the gender is not clear, you might get some answers or at least accept the fact that, in the author's own words, "shitte happens". He uses facts, comparison, logic and fun to expl ...more
Feb 12, 2012 rated it did not like it
I am not an expert, but I did major in Linguistics in college. I found McWhorter's arguments horribly oversimplified and tedious to read. I'm glad that he is putting linguistic scholarship out there for the general public, but someone with even a rudimentary knowledge (or even a grammar or history nerd) would know.

Being familiar with some of the counter-arguments he suggests, I can say that he presents them in a manner intended to make them appear somewhat foolish, rather than addressing them pr
Jamie Smith
Oct 12, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: language
The first John McWhorter book I read was The Power of Babel, a serendipitous find in an airport bookstore. I spent the cross country flight deeply immersed in it, and was inspired to look for other books that focused on the intersection of language and history. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is not as engaging as Power of Babel, and while its writing style is accessible to non-specialists with an interest in languages, some of its content seems to be directed towards other linguists. McWhorter t ...more
Ross Blocher
Jul 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
If the history of language excites you (as it does me), this is a fun, quick and accessible book. John McWhorter is a linguist, and his excitement for language is palpable. I recommend the audiobook version: McWhorter himself narrates, and he is admirably capable of rendering the various foreign language passages as they are meant to be heard (and not as I might have imagined them), and various lines are customized to apply to those listening rather than reading.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is
Mar 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I love languages and learning how English developed and sounded over time is fascinating. This is definitely a book that you should listen to as the author himself reads it. It is an auditory treat to hear the history of English and other languages from whence it grew.
Oct 15, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
When someone says to me in the course of conversation, "Here's an idea I had" I think to myself, "okay, let's see."

When someone runs up to me and grabs me by the bicep and says, "I'm telling you, man! This is how it went down!" I'm inclined to back away.

Listen, I don't know Fact One about the linguistic anthropology community. This is the first of John McWhorter's books that I've ever read. I don't know if he's King of the Hill or some weirdo that hangs out in the gutters. What I can tell you, t
Mar 01, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction-read
John McWhorter has done it again! For those who love language, there is no author better to educate and entertain on all matters linguistic. In the current work, he proves that Celtic grammatical structures have given English its "meaningless do" (as in "Do you know what I mean?") and its normative progressive present tense (as in "I am writing" rather than the more usual in other Germanic languages "I write"). He, in fact, rather belabors the point in the first chapter to an extent that can onl ...more
Mahala Helf
Jun 22, 2009 rated it did not like it
Six assertions of unexplained significance are belabored into the first three repetitious soporific chapters(literally--1st & last book in all my years that put me to sleep within a page time after time):

1. Most linguists study individual languages & are ignorant of others.
2. This ignorance causes them to exceptionalize and mistake the reasons for changes in the English language.
3. John McWhorter aloneable to synthesis research and theory about all languages to discern the errors.
3. Changes in g
Jul 13, 2011 rated it liked it
While written in an entertaining and humorous tone, the author belabors a few points a little too much for my taste. He spends almost 70 pages establishing why he is unique among all linguists because of his belief that English has been influenced by Celtic languages. It really could have been written in half the length but he seems to enjoy his own voice. 

There are multiple examples provided to support his theories, & he has made this accessible to non-academics, but his tone of "us" (anyone wh
Isil Arican
Well, this was little painful.

I love reading about languages - how they came to be, how they evolved, what is the story behind the words… That was the reason I chose this book, in fact, it was recommended to me by Amazon based upon the earlier purchases I made on this subject. I started to read it with having no idea who the author was, and was hoping for a fun and informative journey into the history of English grammar.

Instead I found a book full of strawman arguments, and mostly it felt like t
Joe Kraus
Dec 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I am a nerd, of course, but not even I expect to find linguistics riveting and funny. That’s what happens, though, when you find yourself reading something by a brilliant thinker who’s not afraid to challenge many of his field’s presuppositions and who can spin a good story out of otherwise dry stuff.

McWhorter has a couple of ideas that he both presents with stunning clarity and that he juxtaposes to the dominant thinking of other linguists. Above all, he has a sense that language carries the re
Sep 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
I am rapidly becoming a really big fan of Dr. McWhorter, and I've got to say that anyone who isn't listening to him read his own books is totally missing out. One of the things that's so fun is to hear him read all the foreign language snippets or stress the English language with his gift for accents and humor. Really: you *have* to get the audiobook version of this. (His Great Courses class, "Language A to Z" is also fantastic.)

I do think that the summaries of this book are a little misleading.
3/31/2010 McWhorter presents the reader with a mystery: why does English have the particular grammatical quirks that it does? He then proceeds to make a convincing, and amusing case for the culprits he has identified, notably by comparison to other times and places where languages have been brought together. It's simple, it's straightforward, it's plausible, and it's entertaining, even for those who know nothing of grammar. And it makes a nice companion to all those books (which I love) about al ...more
Mary Soderstrom
Jun 08, 2013 rated it really liked it

For my next non-fiction project, I'm been rummaging around in paleolinguistics and paleohistory: I'll tell you just why in a future post. Suffice to say that my most recent reading has led me back to the delightful Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter.

His unstated thesis is that English is a Creole language, with nothing pejorative intended in the phrase. What happened to English is that it was transformed when a prolonged wave of newcomers struggled to
Nov 24, 2019 rated it liked it
This is a pretty short and entertaining review of why English is so different from its closest cousins: the other twelve or so Germanic languages. There are three main characteristics that McWhorter explains that have no parallels.

The first one is the use of meaningless “do” in questions and negation (did you see him? No I did not.). The second is the odd continuous “-ing” to indicate present tense. In other Germanic languages, saying “I write” is perfectly normal to indicate that you are curren
Feb 07, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, english
A very interesting book with some new theories about the development of the English language from its Germanic roots. I like his comparisons of the members of the “gang” and even more since I am familiar with two of them (ok, one and a half). McWhorter shows without any prejudice that not only all human beings are equal but also all languages though they are very different. It’s an interesting point that a language with an “easy” grammar might be a bigger challenge for the speaker and that the E ...more
Sep 06, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bn-concept-group
Well, apparently there's a lot more to John McWhorter than that he just happens to be the guy that wrote this book. I guess once you've created a reputation as an esteemed, literate, intellectual African-American schooled in serious linguistics research, people will start throwing you in front of a camera and asking what you think about Obama and what your politics are (social conservatism). Of course I had to watch a few, and couldn't get beyond the fact that his upper lip absolutely does not m ...more
Mar 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
Written by a linguist but intended for a lay audience, I found this an intriguing, short read. Yes, there was much talk of grammar but it wasn't too over the top as to put me into a grammar trance. And even though it's not really a scholarly work, the author really, really wants to win his major argument (English grammar was influenced by Celtic-speaking people) therefore he thoroughly covered all aspects of his thesis (some might say it got a little repetitive).

Actually, his major argument is
Troy Blackford
May 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
This was very interesting. I did expect a book about all the words that we have taken into English from other languages, but I'm glad that I got so much more than that. McWhorter instead focuses on how our grammar has absorbed elements from other languages, specifically Welsh, and makes a case for a linguistic argument that I sense is aimed more at other linguists, whom he hopes to convince, rather than at laypeople. Though it definitely convinced me, I should add.

Following that, he delves into
Feb 22, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook, audible
I give the book three stars because: a) I'm a linguistics geek and b) I really like the author's sense-of-humor, which came through loud-and-clear on audio, but perhaps not so well in print. However, I could understand if other folks gave up on this one. As with Bart Ehrman's books on The Bible, McWhorter comes at the central premise - English grammar structure derives from a Celtic influence - from slightly different angles, turning a work that would make a fantastic article (or in this case po ...more
Dec 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Really enjoyed this exploration of English's origins outside of the usual "Latin + German" story. Especially as a student of Irish Gaelic, I loved reading more about the Celtic and Welsh influences on modern English. ...more
Tracy Rowan
Apr 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
People who have followed me for a while will probably guess that I'm a fan of John McWhorter's work. I enjoy his common sense approach to linguistics, particularly when he applies it to the English language.  And so this book was exactly what I wanted, an exploration of the influences on and development of English syntax.

One of my favorite quotes, from James Nicoll, is: "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't
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John Hamilton McWhorter (Professor McWhorter uses neither his title nor his middle initial as an author) is an American academic and linguist who is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations. His research spec ...more

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“English, however, is kinky. It has a predilection for dressing up like Welsh on lonely nights.” 44 likes
“Oh, those lapses, darling. So many of us walk around letting fly with “errors.” We could do better, but we’re so slovenly, so rushed amid the hurly-burly of modern life, so imprinted by the “let it all hang out” ethos of the sixties, that we don’t bother to observe the “rules” of “correct” grammar.

To a linguist, if I may share, these “rules” occupy the exact same place as the notion of astrology, alchemy, and medicine being based on the four humors. The “rules” make no logical sense in terms of the history of our language, or what languages around the world are like.

Nota bene: linguists savor articulateness in speech and fine composition in writing as much as anyone else. Our position is not—I repeat, not—that we should chuck standards of graceful composition. All of us are agreed that there is usefulness in a standard variety of a language, whose artful and effective usage requires tutelage. No argument there.

The argument is about what constitutes artful and effective usage. Quite a few notions that get around out there have nothing to do with grace or clarity, and are just based on misconceptions about how languages work.

Yet, in my experience, to try to get these things across to laymen often results in the person’s verging on anger. There is a sense that these “rules” just must be right, and that linguists’ purported expertise on language must be somehow flawed on this score. We are, it is said, permissive—perhaps along the lines of the notorious leftist tilt among academics, or maybe as an outgrowth of the roots of linguistics in anthropology, which teaches that all cultures are equal. In any case, we are wrong. Maybe we have a point here and there, but only that.”
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