You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

My Photo
Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

John McWhorter's short book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English is a treatise on why the English language changed over the centuries to pick up grammar that is far different from any other Germanic language, or even any other language in the world. I found it to be a great complement to the English language history lecture course.

McWhorter questions why our language has some strange features. He names two in particular. The first is what he names the meaningless do: where we say "Do you see that?" instead of "See you that?" The "do" doesn't add anything to the sentence. The other feature is using the -ing suffix to indicate present tense. When we talk about our current actions we say "I am reading" instead of "I read." Both these features are rare in language, and McWhorter expresses dismay that many linguists dismiss them as "just happening." McWhorter points out that Celtic languages like Welsh have similar structures in their grammar, yet linguists consider Celtic influence minimal since English has so few Celtic words. Yet McWhorter makes a convincing case that the Celtic people of the British Isles introduced elements of their grammar when they learned Old English.

The author also argues that English, like all languages, has always been in flux, so one eras grammar mistakes are the next eras standard usage. Another point he brings up is the lack of gender in English, which lost it since Old English. And he points out that our verb conjugations have been wrung down to a simple "s" for the third person singular. These two features he attributes to the Norse and Danes who invaded England and ruled over the north and east for decades. His contention is that English's constant use by non-native speakers has "battered" the language down to simpler components.

McWhorter mentions the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language shapes how different cultures think and perceive reality, and how it has been disproven. And just when I'm thinking, "but there's got to be something to it," he admits that it does . His final theory, only sketched with thin evidence, is that Proto-Germanic, an ancestor of Old English, was influenced by the Phoenicians.

I found this book informative and entertaining. I was impressed by McWhorter's breadth of knowledge and his strong arguments about the influences on English. And I was glad to see him discuss something that I hadn't learned much about: the difference between spoken language and written language. It is fun to learn about other languages and their idiosyncrasies. And it is fun to learn about the language that shapes our thoughts. A-


Post a Comment

<< Home