Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter ★★★½
Source: Audible (Daily Deal)
Edition: Audible (2009), Unabridged MP3; 5h22
Original publication date: 2008
Foreword: I should start out by saying that the last few days were probably not the best time for me to be reading or listening to a book about language and grammar. At the best of time, the notion of grammar seems like Chinese to me, having missed all or most of the lessons on grammar in the three languages I was fluent in at any point as I was travelling from one continent to the other, and for another, one of the features of my migraines is I tend to “lose” words, that is, perfectly familiar words disappear into a black vortex and become temporarily irretrievable unless I go searching for them via a thesaurus equivalent, making the simplest of concepts difficult for me to comprehend when I’m in serious pain.
This being said, McWhorter has managed to write a short book which is obviously aimed at the public at large and in the audio version at least, is a narrator who is engaging and fun and obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously, which kept me going even the more arduous bits (I’ve always had a hard time with grammar). He uncovers some links in the English language which are surprisingly overlooked by most linguists, among others, the connection between the spoken languages of the Celts as well as the Welsh and Cornish who had populated Britain before the invasion of the Germanic tribes, pointing out that not only words, but grammar itself was influenced by these origins. Why historians have ignored these particular linguistic connections is anyone’s guess, and he advances some theories which are interesting.
A noteworthy reminder is for the modern reader is the fact that language was historically transmitted purely orally and on the fly, with no formal schooling in existence and was almost never put in writing, with the bulk of the population being illiterate, besides which written and oral versions of languages were often vastly different (for example, Latin exclusively in many Mediterranean countries for written matter, and Arabic, even to this day different in daily speech and printed matter).
He also goes over quite a bit of ground in this section about the use of “unnecessary do” in the modern English language, as in “do you think this is a good idea?” It took me a while to understand this concept, because we use (unnecessary) ‘do’ so much in our regular speech that we don’t even think about it, but it seems no other Germanic languages use it this way.
The end section was of particular interest to me, because having studied in grade school in Israel, I learned how Hebrew was a semitic language which at one point evolved from Phoenician, and here McWhorter argues that even the proto-Germanic language, from which modern languages such as English, German and Dutch evolved, through the extended sea travels of the Phoenicians, probably had similar influences as well.
An overview more than anything, but fascinating in parts.