Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

One online site where I was doing work asked for a book recommendation.  I wrote the title of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter, and it automatically changed the title to Our Magnificent @#!%#$^! Tongue.

Professor McWhorter is using the word “bastard” in its original sense.  As someone who recently gained access to the OED online, I can share that this is correct – an illegitimate child is the original, first usage of the word “bastard.”  To wit: 1297 R. GLOUC. 295 Of Fulke blode Wyllam bastard com. Fulke, of course, seems to be the 13th century guy of like mind to Tiger Woods!

That’s not a “dot com,” that’s a “com” as in “come” (or today, past tense – “Of Fulke’s blood William his bastard came”).  It’s middle-like English.

A linguist, formerly with UC Berkeley, and now with the Manhattan Institute (Dr. Manhattan’s friend, I have to figure), Dr. McWhorter suggests a few elements of English syntax and grammar that he sees at odds with story-of-the-language traditionalists.  I am not exhaustively read in linguistics, so his approach of viewing language at the syntax and grammar level and conducting experiments by omission might be standard operating procedure for linguists.

Briefly, one of Dr. McWhorter’s main arguments is that English owes a lot to the Celtic languages, particularly Welsh and Cornish (a language that died prior to the start of the 20th century, but which is now revived again).  He gives as an example the “useless ‘do'” which is present in Welsh and Cornish – and current English.  As in “Do you see what they are doing?”, and “Do you know how to speak Cornish?” and “I did do what you told me to do.”

Cornish, as in a formerly-deceased, now-revived language.  McWhorter also discusses the use of participial verbs for the present and future perfect tenses – this is not common, either.  He has a very thought-provoking example of encouraging the reader to picture coming upon someone working at a computer screen and asking, “What are you doing?” and the person replying, “I am writING.”  I am in the act of writing – and I have enough German, French and Spanish to instantly understand what he is getting at, and even remember my awful old Latin.  No, nobody else does say it that way.  It’s expressing a state of action that most other languages are content to express with a simple present tense statement of action. 

People do not have enough grasp of English grammar, in many cases, to understand what McWhorter is getting at.  (One Amazon review uses a participle and calls it a gerund to describe the syntax I just described).  I don’t have the linguistics background to know whether or not the book is a brief discussion of strongly-held, yet highly debatable points of view.  I do know that “do” isn’t REALLY useless, and that the use of the -ing verb construction does have a meaning and does express a subtlety of time, continuation, and action that’s different from saying “I write,” or “Escrito,” in Spanish.  McWhorter is easygoing about various grammar bugaboos, such as the use of the genderfree they as the singular indefinite pronoun.  I teach otherwise; however, my reason is not to destroy student freedom, it is to get them to pay attention to the words and what they write.  Thinking about the “meaningless” (vaguely meaningful ‘do’) and all – very interesting.  This book is highly recommended.

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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue — 5 Comments

  1. I had occasion to go to Tangier Island this summer. it is a small island in the center of the Chesapeake Bay, accessible only in summer by ferry. The residents support themselves by crabbing and fishing, and have been so isolated that they’ve retained the Cornish flavor of their English. You can understand them, but you have to concentrate.

  2. Well you can always crash here, if schedules work out. (And, if you want to visit Tangier, it is a day trip. People mainly go for the crab cakes and the softshell crab. I have eaten the Best Crab Cake in the World on Tangier.)

  3. Well, you let me know via email. I have many relatives rising college age, and I expect to see them all as they make their college tours.