Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

Caveat: I’m an ESL teacher and grammar tutor who’s been playing with and thinking about the oddities of English grammar for years. Also, I listened to the audiobook (read by the author).

That being said, while it is an academic historical study, McWhorter’s book is eminently approachable. His witty, colorful narration can carry one over the technical grammar discussion—English’s odd use of the negative and interrogative “do” verb, or its use of the “-ing” verb ending, for starters. Even as he engages in the grammar, McWhorter provides references and perspective on where such oddities came from, ultimately arguing that the English we know was influenced by many other languages and demographies.

One section of the book stands out wherein the author describes the implications of his reading of English’s history. Recognizing how language is more often a practical tool than a means of cultural influence, McWhorter debunks the common claims that a culture’s language is key to understanding their unique perspective and that changes in language necessarily imply cultural conflict or oppression. Rather than language dictating culture, he argues, cultural change among the shared practical needs of people groups (who interacted, mixed, and lived simultaneously much more than current perspectives might suggest) affected the grammar and vocabulary of language, both spoken and written. In other words, while a language’s grammar and vocabulary might tell something of what its culture considers important enough to name, record, or label, they probably don’t imply a completely different metaphysical “worldview.” McWhorter then goes on to articulate why this might be a good thing—for people in general and grammaticians in instance.

Whether to non-academics or for use in a grammar or cultural studies curriculum, I definitely recommend the book, especially the audio version (read by McWhorter himself, it captures the wit of his off-hand comments and at times admittedly bad pronunciation).

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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