July 27, 2009

BOOKS: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter (2008)

Most histories of English, McWhorter says, are written from the perspective of vocabulary. Why did we see an influx of French words at this point in history, and Latin words at that point? In this short book, McWhorter looks at the history of the language through its grammar.

There is a strong case, McWhorter argues, that our language owes a larger debt than most linguists acknowledge to the Celtic languages, Welsh and Cornish in particular. So strong is the evidence, in fact, that McWhorter practically accuses his fellow linguists of willfully ignoring it and suppressing any research that would support it.

Why has it been so easy to overlook? Largely due to the differences between written and spoken English; in an era when written English meant formal English -- there were no Twitter or blogs to demonstrate more casual use -- some influences on the language were less likely to be documented than others.

Along the way, McWhorter explains why English has changed so much faster than other languages in the Germanic family, and offers a thorough demolition of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- the notion that our language shapes our perception of the world.

He closes with the suggestion that very early English may have been influenced by the now-dead Phoenician language. This, he acknowledges, is more speculative than his arguments on the Celtic influence, but he offers it as an area deserving of further study and research.

McWhorter's writing is lively and not too heavy; he's very skilled at presenting complex linguistic ideas so that they are accessible to the layman.

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