December 4th, 2008 | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

TOME RAIDER: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

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    Six-Word Summary: This December, Indulge Your Grammar Fetish

For some people it's chocolate; for others, leather. But there's a special tribe out there who keep MLA handbooks under their pillows; for whom the proper use of the subjunctive mood constitutes an almost erotic thrill; whose deepest indulgence is a romp through an expert translation of Beowulf.

Maybe you know such a person? Maybe you are such a person? If so, allow me to augment your holiday wishlist. John McWhorter's new book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (Gotham Books, 197 pages, $22.50) is an exuberant overview of all that is funky about English grammar. In this series of essays about the origins of five syntactic quirks, the author reveals that English is hardly the queenly, chaste language most people assume. Rather, in his own words, it is “miscegenated, abbreviated,” and above all, “interesting.”

Miscegenated English

The unique appeal of Bastard Tongue is definitely McWhorter's writing style. He offers just enough evidence to be convincing (or, it might be said, to provoke further study) without straining his readers' patience. He achieves a folksy, colloquial style without sacrificing accuracy, and he even tells the odd (truly odd) joke. Consider the following short paragraph, in which McWhorter considers the role of Scandinavian Vikings in the curtailment of Old English verb endings:
“First, in many places they were quite densely concentrated: in some parts of Danelaw most people were of Danish ancestry. This means that ‘Scandi'-sounding English would have been a matter of not just the occasional Dane or Norwegian here and there (‘Mommie, hwy spæketh he like thæt?'), but a critical mass of people.” (pg. 114)

It's concise; it's easy to understand; there's even a little one-liner. And for anyone who would accuse McWhorter of being a tad lax about presenting evidence and citing sources, I refer you to the author's twelve-page appendix, “Notes on Sources.” Should we take the concentration of Danes in North England on blind faith? No indeed. Interested parties are encouraged to consult John Blair's essay, “The Anglo-Saxon Period,” in The Oxford History of Britain.

McWhorter begins with several linguistic assumptions that run counter to mainstream scholarly thought—for instance, the belief that a grammar can reveal as much or more about a language as its vocabulary; a rejection of the idea that there is a “correct” version of any language; and a refutation of the premise that written English in the middle ages reflected the English that was being spoken on the street. But the two assertions that most fundamentally determine the character of his manuscript (albeit unrelatedly) are the following:
    (a) Academic consensus holds that English is somehow a thoroughbred, “pure” language, having evolved independently of its Germanic relatives, with only an occasional influx of words from neighbor tongues (e.g. French, Latin, Norwegian). McWhorter offers a compelling argument against this hypothesis, demonstrating how its contact with Scandinavian and Celtic (and perhaps even Phoenician) languages fundamentally shaped English. Ever thought about why we use “do” as a helping verb? Well, think about it

    (b) For decades, many linguists—and even the more cerebral among the mainstream media—have operated under the assumption that the peculiarities of a language reflect nuances in the thought patterns and culture of its speakers. An oft-cited (and downright inaccurate) example of this line of thought—called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, after its two architects—is the language of the Hopis.

    The story goes like this: Hopis don't have temporal markers (e.g. future tense, past tense) in their language. That's because they don't conceive of time, as such. For them, time is this fluffy, cyclical thing. Time doesn't pass; things just accumulate.

    The problem is that the Hopis…well, the Hopis DO have temporal markers in their language. They just do; it's been proven, over and over again. And although nobody's going around these days condescendingly describing the beautiful, pretemporal minds of the Hopi tribe, the same discredited hypothesis is frequently applied to English and other languages. For John McWhorter, who makes several compelling arguments against Sapir-Whorf, that's academically irresponsible and morally dangerous.

Overall, Bastard Tongue is a well-researched book that will substantially augment a reader's arsenal of cocktail conversation. Especially don't miss a short section about the frequentative suffix –le; it's a hoot.

But I can't shake the feeling that a book about language should address more universal themes, a la Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker. After all, language is one of the ways we access the world; it shapes how we think and how we express ourselves. Shouldn't linguists be investigating those titillating possible connections between words and the human mind? Or am I just the latest journalist to fall under Sapir-Whorf's malign spell?

Still, for anyone who's ever been titillated by the opening lines of the The Canterbury Tales, or marveled at the antiquated syntax of otherwise eminently modern Jane Austen, ('We are got acquainted?' really?), Bastard Tongue is well worth the price of admission.
 
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