John McWhorter's “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”
Gotham Books, 2008
A Review by Melissa J. Nussbaum
The Linguist John McWhorter subtitles his book, “The Untold History of English,” and he delivers on that promise. There is little in the way of the usual tale, such as we might know from PBS's “The Story of English” or the Baugh and Cable textbooks used in introductory linguistic classes around the globe. But there's a great deal about the structure of language, the ways in which language families differ, and how historical situations of language contact have left their imprint on the language today.
This tasty little tome clocks in at just over 200 pages, but it navigates everything from orphan Germanic loanwords to the mysterious, meaningless “do” that permeates every question we ask today. Along the way, McWhorter gets in his licks at linguists who ignore everything outside their own area of interest, prescriptivists who tell us we speak wrongly, and academics pushing discredited theories about the structure of languages dictating types of thought. In some ways, the book is the author's rant against academic inertia. But it's a very polite rant, rendered in a breezy, conversational fashion.
McWhorter studies creoles, languages that grow out of a contact situation, passed on by adult learners in an abbreviated, altered form. It's common to find that an English word traces back to Latin, French, Greek, or some other language, but McWhorter makes the point that this situation is not unusual. Languages in contact exchange words. As he puts it, “Languages like sex,” and he points out that pretty much every language borrows from its neighbors. For McWhorter, the story isn't just about the words, it's about the syntax. Changes to syntax are a lot less common than word-borrowing. For the grammar to change, something has to happen to a language. McWhorter has intriguing theories on what some of those happenings were.
He suggests that English grammar is “in a word, weird.” English not only outsourced a third of its vocabulary, but it shaved off most of its cases and tenses, chucked its gender, and rearranged its word order. He offers a mouthful of words in this example sentence: “Did she say to my daughter that my father has come alone and is feeling better?” It's awkward, but it's very recognizable English.
And it's all wrong. English is a Germanic descendant of Proto-Indo-European, and a good, card-carrying Germanic language is ordered and constructed in a particular way. “Said she to my daughter that my father alone come is and himself better feels?” McWhorter examines those syntactic changes and ties them into historical context, suggesting that English is, “Miscegenated, abbreviated,” and “interesting.”
McWhorter tells a convincing story, the tale of a language battered by contact, crushed under the heel of Viking invaders and Norman French conquerors, and seasoned with Celtic quirks. But he's not content just to examine the weirdness of English. He goes back further, investigating the mother language. He says, “There was a history of bastardy in English long before it was even a twinkle in Proto-Germanic's eye.” Simply speaking, Germanic languages pronounce Indo-European sounds in a way that suggests everyone speaking the language had a speech impediment. Linguists call this, “Grimm's Law,” and it describes sound changes from Proto-Indo-European into Proto-Germanic. “P,” “T,” and “K” turned into “F,” “Th,” and “H.” Pater becomes Vader. Vader becomes Father.
But who messed up Proto-Germanic? Not surprisingly, McWhorter has a suspect for this crime. He hypothesizes a contact situation between Proto-Germanic and some Semitic language in the dark recesses of prehistory. In evidence, he offers a strange structural anomaly in the Germanic languages: strong verbs. These are verbs that indicate a change in tense with a change in internal structure. Come, Came. See, Saw. Drink, Drank. This kind of tense-building is wrong for Proto-Indo-European, but it is de rigueur for Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew.
McWhorter's book reads quickly and easily, but it's jam-packed with information and ideas that are almost unheard of outside the realms of academia. For the layman, it is an excellent introduction to the study of the English language. For the academic, it is an enjoyable survey of some of the latest thinking in the field. Either way, its well worth its price in hardcover.