This is, by far, the most peculiarly written book that I’ve ever read about linguistics. McWorther wants to upend existing notions about the origins of English best represented by that standard encyclopaedic graphic of a wide river and its tributaries. He brands us naive for believing the pleasant story of how a guttural tongue called Anglo-Saxon came under the influence of French after one Monsieur Guillaume conquered English in 1066, transforming the language’s pronunciation and bloating its lexicon, with healthy injections for Latin, Greek and a range of other languages giving rise to the English of today. His take on it involves far more convoluted, bastard origins.
Much of his argument rests on the underestimated Celtic influence on English. English comprises very few words (mostly toponyms) of Celtic Brythonic origin i.e. from the Celtic dialects that were spoken in Britain (as opposed modern Celtic languages like Welsh and Scottish Gaelic) before the invasion by Germanic tribesmen. This is surprising because the process of displacing these Celtic languages ought to have resulted in a stronger influence on Anglo-Saxon through assimilation. As a result, most experts believe for whatever reason that English is not at all affected by its Celtic predecessors. McWorther rues this view and offers us an analogy from India where Indic languages contain a Dravidian substratum despite negligible lexical influence. “It’s interesting – the work that argued that Dravidian languages decisively shaped Indo-Aryan grammar is today cherished as sage, classic, and incontrovertible. Yet a very similar argument about Celtic and English is received as quirky, marginal and eternally tentative.” Therefore, McWorther takes up this cause by portraying English as some sort of uppity transvestite; “English, however, is kinky. It has a predilection for dressing up like Welsh on lonely nights.” He goes on to explain how English sustains the impact of Celtic syntactic structures particularly with what he calls the meaningless “do” (as in Did you reach on time? vs. Had you reached on time? which is the way most European languages including Old English would have expressed it) and the use of the present progressive in the noun form. These two examples he does to death and to the detriment of his overall argument. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is unexpectedly concise but McWorther rambles (or is it nags?) on and on, often about the same things, perhaps in the hope that repetition would reinforce and convince us of his views.
McWorther also theorizes that the Viking influence on English facilitated the simplification of its grammar. “To wit, the pathway from Beowulf to The Economist has involved as much transformation in grammar as in words, more so, in fact, than in any of English’s close relatives. English is more peculiar among its relatives, and even the world’s languages as a whole, in what has happened to its grammar than in what has happened to its vocabulary.” I think this idea is valid. When people complain about the complexity (and more often the irregularity) of English grammar, I am always quick to point its relative simplicity when compared with other languages. He also cautious us against celebrating English as the acme of linguistic openness because according to him “throughout the world, languages have been exchanging words rampantly forever. Languages, as it were, like sex.” He goes on to tell us that there is nothing special about English. “Over half of Japanese words are from Chinese, and never mind how eagerly the language now inhales English words. Almost half of Urdu’s words are Persian and Arabic. Albanian is about 60 percent Greek, Latin, Romanian, Turkish, Serbian and Macedonian, and yet it is not celebrated for being markedly “open” to new words.” I accept that English is not unique in the way that it has borrowed vocabulary but I think it is relatively more open than other languages (like French) because it’s not policed. We see this most explicitly since the early 20th century because of socio-economic and technological changes when languages have been under immense pressure to adopt new words to describe things that are foreign to their culture. The Academic Française banned the word e-mail used widely among native French speakers and replaced it with the Gallic sounding “courriel”. Standard Hindi is particularly obnoxious in this respect producing Sanskritised neologisms to avoid incorporating foreign words including lohpath gamini (iron path vehicle) for train and a range of obscure words for computer. I think English has less of an issue adopting foreigners into its standard form.
McWorther also has an opinion about standard English grammar. “Perhaps the contained disorder of an ideal English garden, where it is considered proper to allow certain plants to ramble here and there, certain flowers to spread, drip, dot, dapple. Call them marks of character.” So, he considers the idea of good vs. bad grammar farcical. “English is shot through with things that don’t really follow. I’m the only one, amn’t I? Shouldn’t it be amn’t after all? Aren’t, note, is “wrong” since are is used with you, we and they, not I. There’s no “I are.” Aren’t I? Is thoroughly illogical – and yet if you decided to start saying amn’t all the time, you would lose most of your friends and never get promotions. Except, actually, in parts of Scotland and Ireland where people actually do say amn’t- in which case the rest of us think of them as “quaint” rather than correct!”
In the rest of the book, McWorther attacks the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which I am quite partial to). This theory proposes that language affects the way we think. McWorther pooh-poohs the whole idea by saying that the “idea that the world’s six thousand languages condition six thousand different pairs of cultural glasses simply does not hold water.” He provides the following example from French to illustrate his opinion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
“Journalist Mark Abley, engaging writer though he is, falls into this trap in his enthusiasm for Whorfianism. In French and many other Western European languages, there are two words for know: savoir means to know a fact; connaître means to know a person or to be familiar with something. Abley has it that: My language allows me, somewhat clumsily, to get the distinction across: on the one hand, factual knowledge; on the other, acquaintanceship and understanding. But to a French speaker, that distinction is central to how the mind interacts with the world.
Really? Is Abley really so sure that the difference between knowing the capital of Nebraska and knowing a friend is more immediate to Gérard Depardieu than to Judi Dench? It’s a cute idea, yes—but does Abley actually have any grounds for supposing that it is true?
How does it sound when it’s French that has one word where English has more, and when it isn’t something as immediately evident as the European know verbs? In French, sortir means “go out,” but also covers what English would express with come out (in the earthquake, le tiroir est sorti de la commode, “the drawer came out of the dresser”), get out (someone is in a hole and says, “Sors-moi d’ici!” “Get me out of here!”), and stick out as in one’s tongue (“Sors la langue,” “Stick out your tongue”).
So—are we English speakers more attuned than French speakers to the difference between leaving home, something slipping out of place, being yanked out of a hole, and sticking out our tongues? I would venture that the answer is no. To be a reasoning representative of Homo sapiens is to understand those four processes as radically different, whether or not your language happens to have the same word for them. The same applies to how your language happens to mark knowing.”
I have to admit that he presents a very persuasive argument but I am not convinced. I still think that language alters perception in some way. This idea is gaining currency again after being out of vogue for decades primarily due to the potential for a chauvinistic or xenophobic interpretation. McWorther too sings this tune, “It’s just so wonderful that people who aren’t like us can think and process reality as richly as we do!” The original hypothesis had many flaws and to suggest that it’s motivated by a sinister need for ranking languages based on their perception of the world is crude and simplistic. I think languages trigger unique emotional responses best summarized in this New York Times article and I feel that McWorther comes across as unprofessional in demonizing the idea in an effort to discredit it.
Lastly, what I found really peculiar about Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is its language. In a bid to be accessible to the lay reader, McWorther uses a disagreeably conversational style, which informs and annoys in equal parts. I understand his rationale but it was a case of too much of an allegedly good thing. He starts sentences with “but check this out”. The oddest bit is his penchant for what can only be described analogies for the common man.
“Treating scripture as the only valid or interesting evidence in studying how English changed in ancient centuries risks leaving untold forever an interesting chapter in the saga of English. This is especially unsavory in that treating the peculiarity of Modern English as a matter of chance is like walking past cars parked along a street and happening upon one with the windshield broken in, three hubcaps gone, and no license plates, and deciding that all of this must have happened via ordinary wear and tear.
Maybe lightning did in the windshield. The hubcaps could have fallen off of their own accord and been picked up by trash collectors. But what about the other cars sitting intact? Okay, one car up the street is missing one hubcap. Another one has a hairline crack in its back window. But obviously, someone broke into this particularly smashed-up car. Something happened to it. Attention must be paid. We should report this car. Especially since this happens to be a neighborhood well known as a favored haunt of—oh, let’s just toss the analogy and say Vikings!
Those who are uninterested in reporting this car are playing Monopoly, while those who are interested in reporting the attack on it are the ones bringing in a game of Clue and finding little interest. The Monopoly players like Monopoly; Clue just doesn’t happen to be their bag. But as with the Celtic case, the Clue players happen to be in a better position to identify the truth than the ones enjoying Monopoly.
The Monopoly players are, to bring back the car analogy, like municipal photographers assigned to make snapshots of each street in the city every five years. They have no way of explaining why this particular car is so banged up, and really, they don’t care. They have done their job to depict this car’s state from one moment to the next and that’s all. Photographers document—but historians explain.”
For Pete’s sake! We get it. At times, I felt like I was only reading on to discover what new analogies McWorther’d used to illustrate his diatribe.
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is an interesting if idiosyncratic work.