A few months ago, I received John McWhorter’s new book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, in the mail and I rapidly and rapaciously read through it, enjoying myself all the while. The best part of the book is not, as you might think, that it has a “dirty” word in the title. Yes, that’s a lot of fun if you’re secretly immature like I am, but what’s better about the book is McWhorter’s proposal about what led to our modern English. (The language, not the band.)

McWhorter’s main observation in the book is that English is very strange: it’s a Germanic language that doesn’t look like any other Germanic language. You probably already knew that, especially if you’ve ever known or looked at German. If you’re up on the basic history of English, you might even offer an explanation for this, noting that the Norman Invasion in 1066 resulted in England being a temporarily bilingual country, with English the language of the commoners, but French the language of the government. As always happens in these situations, the languages influenced each other, and English underwent a few changes. And to illustrate that point, you might offer the example of Latinate words in English, which often exist almost as fancier versions to their Germanic counterparts (for instance, eat and consume). That’s what I always used to do.

But McWhorter offers a somewhat different view of the strangeness of English. Sure, he notes, there are these differences in words, but it’s not just words that take English away from its Germanic roots; it’s syntax as well. For instance, Germanic languages ask questions like Sprechen Sie Deutsch?, which transliterates to Speak you German?, whereas English asks questions like Do you speak German?, with a meaningless do tossed in for good measure. Similarly, Germanic languages have hardy case systems with lots of suffixes. English only has case-marking on pronouns (I vs. me vs. my), and even there it is slowly being lost from the language (as in the protracted death of whom).

McWhorter’s proposal is that Modern English is in some sense a creole, that invasions of England by the Danish and the Norwegians, along with a significant number of remaining Celts, resulted in a substantial proportion of Old English speakers being non-native speakers of Old English. That allowed for the loss of the Old English case system, along with the adoption of certain Celtic syntactic structures (such as the meaningless do in Do you speak German?). Yet written Old English stayed much the same, because written language is very resistant to change (witness the spelling of knight) Then the Normans took over, and that led to a century and a half where French was the written language of England. When English regained its post as the written language of England, there was no longer such a strong adherence to its old ways, and so the new written language was more like the new (spoken) Middle English, the semi-creolized and weakly simplified version of Old English. So the change the Normans wrought was far more substantial than adding a few ten-dollar words to the lexicon; it also led to the debut of a syntactically different version of English.

Not knowing much about historical linguistics myself, I’m not qualified to fully assess McWhorter’s arguments, but I didn’t see any glaring holes. However, I’m a bit concerned that he’s given short shrift to the competing theories about the history of English. The counter-proposals, which McWhorter insists are held by most historical linguists, seem like strawmen. For instance, McWhorter proposes that meaningless do spread into English by contact with Welsh, which is one of only a handful of languages in the world with meaningless do, and he claims that the opposing theory is that meaningless do just appeared in English purely coincidentally. Well, given those two options, I’d obviously take the former, as I would assume most everyone would. Yet McWhorter insists that almost all historical linguists studying English hold the opposing viewpoint, so they almost certainly have a better reason to do so than what he’s telling us. But again, historical linguistics is not an area of any expertise for me, so maybe the opposing argument is as flimsy as he portrays it.

The second half of the book is an interesting corollary to McWhorter’s “English is a bastard” proposal; since the English we revere today is the result of having essentially incompetent speakers mangle it thoroughly a millennium ago, why would we protect it now? It’s a strange twist when suddenly the book starts talking about grammar rules after discussing the details of language change, and it’s not entirely fluid. But he makes a good point, and I think it’s an argument worth having in battles against prescriptivists; language is much more resilient than it is given credit for.

So, on the whole, a pretty good book, if occasionally a bit too insistent for my taste. It’s worth a read, especially if you’re into this kind of stuff.

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