Friday, January 14, 2011

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, by John McWhorter


An interesting read. McWhorter obviously has pet interests in linguistic history--interests which his readers may not always share (see, e.g., his obsession with the moderately intriguing, but not necessarily fascinating 'meaningless do'). Still, he makes seemingly logical arguments for the influence of Celtic languages on English grammar, the "strip down" of the language as a result of the Vikings, and the possibility that Proto-German finds many of its roots in Phoenician.

In fact, in my opinion, he actually argues too persuasively. If the situation were really as obvious as he claims, how could anyone disagree with him? And yet, linguists do disagree with him--a fact which he freely admits and summarily dismisses. As a result, I felt that I was not being told the whole story; there must be some reason why all these other linguists rejected McWhorter's theories. Rather than convincing me of the soundness of his conclusions, he made me want to read what the opposition has to say.

A side note: I felt McWhorter was overly dismissive of Whorf's hypothesis. While correlation does not always imply causation, or tell us which direction the causal arrow points, McWhorter seems to deny not only causation but any correlation at all. But for whatever reason, languages and cultures sometimes do reflect similar attitudes (rf. Yiddish).

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