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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  4,924 ratings  ·  680 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
Paperback, 230 pages
Published October 30th 2008 by Gotham (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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3.78  · 
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 ·  4,924 ratings  ·  680 reviews

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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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" (anyon
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. Chan
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
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.
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
Feb 07, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: english, non-fiction
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
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
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
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
Andrew Breslin
Dec 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
While capable of ordering food and drink, and inquiring as to the location of toilets and train stations in a few other languages, I can really only speak one. Fortunately, it happens to be the best one. Or at least, the one with the most bizarre pedigree.

English's uniquely distinctive characteristics are a central tenet of this book. The eye-opening aspect of this treatise is that this has relatively little to do with English's diverse vocabulary, a hodgepodge smorgasbord borrowed, stolen and
Sandy D.
Recommended by a blogger at the Ann Arbor library, and rightly so - McWhorter is a funny writer and a historical linguist. I'm a little shocked at how well he writes, given the fact that he studies linguistics, in fact. Anthropologists in general do not write well for the general reader (with the exception of Robert Sapolsky, whom I adore, and Kent Flannery, who has written a few truly funny paragraphs that are stuck in the middle of boring-to-anyone-outside-the-field archaeological monographs). ...more
Mar 30, 2011 rated it it was ok
While I find the subject of this book very interesting, the author's tone and style are extraordinarily grating. He can't make a point but once, and has to hammer it home over and over again, in the most condescending language possible. He whines and bitches his way through his explanations: "The Welsh! The Cornish! Arrg! My colleagues are idiots!!" "Viking pillaging of the English tongue! just LOOK at the geography, you morons!" Then he takes a really random break in his study of English to den ...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.
Bryan Hobbs
May 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I don't think there are any spoilers to worry about here. This is a book that language douches, such as myself, would enjoy and everyone else would believe to be very dry and incomprehensible.

If you enjoyed Bill Bryson's books on English, you should find this book enjoyable as well.
Dichotomy Girl
Apr 11, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015, non-fiction
I found the first half really enjoyable, the second half not as much.
Mar 16, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: audiobooks, history
I loved that the rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition was described as a "nineteenth century fetish".
Nicholas Whyte
Mar 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a short book (less than 200 pages), looking at grammar. McWhorter makes five main points, one of which was completely new and intriguing to me.

1) That the '-ing' present progressive and 'do' constructions in English come from Celtic languages. I had twigged to the former while dabbling in Irish last year; but it seems that both Welsh and Cornish also use the verb 'do' in the equivalent of questions and negatives - Do you agree? I don't agree. McWhorter argues th
Mar 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I'm so grateful that my dear friend and collegemate Jacob suggested this book to me because it's wonderful. I minored in linguistics in college, so I'm no great expert, but it's something that has fascinated me throughout my life. I'm that annoying person who reminds you that no, English is not a Romance language (like Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian); it is in fact a Germanic language. I did just that at Mystic Seaport this weekend when the cooper and I began discussing the e ...more
Ryan Long
Jun 30, 2012 rated it liked it
This was a decent piece of revisionist linguistic history. The arguments are well-reasoned, and the prose is nice. People with an affinity for language will like this book. More specifically, native English speakers who know at least a couple of foreign languages will have a good time reading this book.

A few criticisms:

First, the book is written at least at a high school reading level, perhaps even a junior high reading level. I realize that making the language a bit more intellectual would put
Angela Forfia
Feb 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
The vast majority of linguistics books for the mass market are books about the history of words. If you pick up a typical history of the English language, you will learn about words we got from the Vikings, words we got from the French, words we got from the colonial era...with very little information about the structure of the English language itself. While these books are full of fun factoids--did you know shampoo comes from Hindi?--they never get to the heart of what makes language fascinatin ...more
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“English, however, is kinky. It has a predilection for dressing up like Welsh on lonely nights.” 25 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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