Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue {book review}

John McWhorter is a regular contributor of language commentary for the masses with a special interest in the evolution of creoles and grammar. Though not infallible, he offers a great deal of accessible information about language to a broad audience. You might have heard about some of his other books like The Power of Babel and What Language Is.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue book cover

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English is McWhorter’s treatise on the various roots of the English language and how it got to be what it is today. This book is a great general introduction to the many ways languages can change, with English being an all-encompassing case study. (He uses plenty of examples from non-English languages to help illustrate his points, too.) Think of it as an English-language, slightly more academic answer to The Story of French.

McWhorter’s style is plain enough for non-scholars (or non-native speakers) to enjoy, and intelligent enough for language professionals to appreciate it, too. I especially enjoyed his multi-lingual humor. For example, in his gentle push for the grammar police to just let.it.go, he reminds them:

Shitte happens (pg. 182).

My only quibble with Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue comes up in chapter 4. All of a sudden, the book turns into a rant against Whorf’s hypothesis on language and thought. Whereas previous chapters skimmed merrily along, flitting from one reasoned argument to the next, keeping a lively rhythm and pace, this chapter plunged me into a bog of antagonism against a man who has been dead for over seventy years. After a decent sample size of pages for review purposes, I exercised one the basic rights of every reader and skipped ahead.

That incident aside, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the development of English through McWhorter’s writing. It was fascinating to learn how language history can be pieced together over gaps in written record. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue also offers a great review of English grammar, explaining the reasons behind some of our more mysterious writing rules.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue book cover

To purchase a copy of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, click here (or seek it out at your favorite book store).

For additional reading on language changes and “bastard tongues,” try this book recommended by Catherine Smart (@Smart_Translate).

Note: This post contains some affiliate links, which means if you purchase something from Amazon after clicking through from this post, I receive a very small commission for your purchase. It does not affect your purchase price, nor my affection for your readership.

5 thoughts on “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue {book review}

  1. Thanks for bringing that book to my attention: very tempting.
    Re. the basic rights of every reader, I wonder whether you know Daniel Pennac’s “Comme un roman”, in which he defines le qu’en lira-t-on (ou les droits inprescriptibles du lecteur), of which the second is the right to skip pages?

    • Hi, Victoria! I hadn’t heard of that, actually. Thank you! I think I heard that phrase in English first on the Happiness Project (link). I’ll have to try the French version!

      (Incidentally, for readers interested in Daniel Pennac’s book/essay, I found some copies on Amazon. Bonne lecture!)

  2. I bought Comme un roman several years back for an English friend: the title was Reads Like A Novel. Maybe that’s the British translation?Thanks for that link: I didn’t know the Happiness Project, which in turn (though I was initially frustrated because the link on that page doesn’t work) introduced me to Quentin Blake’s illustrated version. Pennac + Blake = happiness, indeed!

  3. Pingback: All things legal | translation, untangled

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