Linguist John McWhorter explores the origins and evolution of the English language in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and explains how English managed to differentiate so extremely from other European languages. Many books cover similar topics, but McWhorter sets his scholarship apart by examining the idiosyncrasies and influences of English that other linguists either ignore or barely mention. He expounds on two main points in the book.
The first of his main points is that English isn’t the only language open to influences from other languages. He cites some intriguing - yet unproven - examples, such as a possible connection between Indo-European and Semitic languages, as well as evidence that suggests Phoenician (an extinct Semitic language) may have influenced Proto-Germanic.
McWhorter argues that Welsh had a hand in shaping English. He cites the “meaningless do” (as in “Do we eat apples?” instead of “Eat we apples?”) that is so prevalent in English yet absent in other Germanic languages. This language quirk, he asserts, came from Celtic and Welsh, the only other languages that use a meaningless do. McWhorter goes on at length about the Welsh influence on the English language. He also discusses how English developed into the only genderless European language, with the exception of certain Scandinavian dialects.
Another of McWhorter’s main points is that there is no need for pedantry when it comes to English grammar because of the fluid nature of the language. What is considered proper grammar now will seem strange and outdated in the future. This seems rather obvious, but it leads McWhorter into an interesting discussion of the strange 19th-century misconception that English had somehow completely evolved except for new vocabulary to name new things and the exclusion of obsolete words.
McWhorter presents some compelling arguments and offers up some convincing evidence to support his theories. As someone with an interest in linguistics, I found much to admire about Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. However, this book is very tedious to read at times. McWhorter has a tendency to be repetitive, and this book seems like it could be much shorter and more concise. Anyone with an interest in the history of the English language might want to pick it up, but it is certainly not for light reading.