Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

  • by John McWhorter
  • Narrated by John McWhorter
  • 5 hrs and 22 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

A survey of the quirks and quandaries of the English language, focusing on our strange and wonderful grammar. Why do we say "I am reading a catalog" instead of "I read a catalog"? Why do we say "do" at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue distills hundreds of years of fascinating lore into one lively history. Covering such turning points as the little-known Celtic and Welsh influences on English, the impact of the Viking raids and the Norman Conquest, and the Germanic invasions that started it all during the fifth century A.D., John McWhorter narrates this colorful evolution with vigor.Drawing on revolutionary genetic and linguistic research, as well as a cache of remarkable trivia about the origins of English words and syntax patterns, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue ultimately demonstrates the arbitrary, maddening nature of English - and its ironic simplicity due to its role as a streamlined lingua franca during the early formation of Britain. This is the book that language aficionados worldwide have been waiting for. (And no, it's not a sin to end a sentence with a preposition.)

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Audible Editor Reviews

There is something about the English language. Belonging to the Proto-Germanic language group, English has a structure that is oddly, weirdly different from other Germanic languages. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, John McWhorter has achieved nothing less than a new understanding of the historic formation of the English language — in McWhorter’s words “a revised conception of what English is and why”. The linguist and public intellectual McWhorter accomplished this scholarly feat outside the tight restrictor box of academic publications. He did it with a popular book and thoroughly convincing arguments framed in richly entertaining, informal colloquial language.
The audiobook production of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue takes McWhorter’s transformation of scholarship to a new level. The book is about the spoken word and how and why the English language’s structure — that is the syntax, and which linguists term the “grammar” — changed through time. McWhorter tells the story the way it should be told: in spoken English by a master of the subject of how the languages under study sounded. The author has a remarkable, animated narrative voice and his delivery has an engaging and captivating personal touch. He is a great teacher with a world-class set of pipes, who clearly has developed a special relationship with studio microphones.
McWhorter’s intent is “to fill in a chapter of The History of English that has not been presented to the lay public, partly because it is a chapter even scholars of English’s development have rarely engaged at length”. The changes of English under study are from spoken Old English before 787 C.E. and the Viking invasions and the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the Middle English of Chaucer’s time. (With Chaucer we are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the English we easily recognize today.) The influences that altered the language, in McWhorter’s new formulation, include how, beginning in 787 C.E., the Viking invaders “beat up the English language in the same way that we beat up foreign languages in class rooms”, and thus shed some of the English grammar, and the native British Celtic Welsh and Cornish “mixed their native grammars with English grammar”. After the Norman Invasion, French was the language of a relatively small ruling class and was thus the written language. But with the Hundreds Years’ War between England and France, English again became the ruling language, and the changes that had been created in spoken English found their way into written Middle English.
Listening to McWhorter articulate his points with his extraordinarily expressive, polemically powerful voice, and cutting through and continually upending the scrabble board of flabby etymological presumptions of the established view — it is like nothing you’ve ever heard. The audio edition of this groundbreaking work, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue – an otherwise scholarly study twice transformed into a popular book and then into the audiobook that gives such impressive expressive voice to the changes of the English language — is a milestone in audiobook production. —David Chasey

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What the Critics Say

"McWhorter's iconoclastic impulses and refreshing enthusiasm makes this worth a look for anyone with a love for the language." (Publishers Weekly)
"McWhorter’s energetic, brash delivery of his own spirited and iconoclastic text will appeal to everyone who appreciates the range and caliber of today’s audio production. In some ways, audio is superior to printed text in portraying tone, attitude, values, and in this case, a discussion whose theme is the sound and grammar of words." (AudioFile)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Great for casual linguists

For those with only a passing interest in the history of English, I recommend "The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language". It's a more casual overview of the English language that focuses more on history and vocabulary (a very good listen).

That being said, "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue" is a great listen for those interested in the origins and evolution of the English language told not only through history and vocabulary but also through grammar and linguistics.

Don't freak out, the treatment of grammar is fairly straightforward and mostly limited to examples of case endings or nouns having genders. This will be familiar to anyone who has studied a Romance or Germanic language. (Basically, the Vikings helped kill off our case endings)

Etymologies tend to be fairly straightforward too, e.g. the author provides examples of how sounds from Indo-European words (e.g. "peter" (can't do the correct symbols) tend to change in fairly predictable ways in various languages, cf. Latin "pater" or French "pere") to Old Norse "fadir", or Germanic "vater" (pronounced "fah-ter").

That's about as scary/difficult as the etymologies get.

There is also a big chunk of a chapter dedicated to unique English peculiarities like our use of the (mostly) meaningless word "do" (e.g. "this doesn't work" instead of "this not work") and our use of "ing" to convey a present state of doing something, rather than just the present active indicative ("I'm typing" instead of "I type") (The Celts are responsible!)

The author also addresses how and why written English was different from spoken English, the theory that language shapes the way we think (he mostly disagrees), and the Semitic influences on the proto-Germanic language.
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- Anderson

Brilliant Linguist makes his case

Not many authors read their own work very well, but McWhorter is superb - and who else could read snatches from so many languages and get them right (or at least plausible!)? The content of the book is outstanding. McWhorter makes his case for the strong Welsh influence on English despite the low number of Welsh words, and when he gets to the Carthaginian influence on ancient proto-Germanic, I was delighted. Unlike many scientists, McWhorter never overclaims; where the evidence is thin and the ideas are speculations, he says so and never lets you forget it. When you're through listening to this book, you understand the bones of our language better than ever.
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- Orson

Book Details

  • Release Date: 11-03-2009
  • Publisher: Audible Studios