Posted by: Casey Lybrand | July 16, 2010

A Magnificent Read for Language Lovers – Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter

In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, by John McWhorter, words are only part of the story, and the story is about more than just English. This is a book about linguistics: language and culture. [1]

Talking in Languages

Talking in Languages by zinjixmaggir*, on Flickr

McWhorter starts off the book inviting us to “go back to the middle of the fifth century A.D. in Britain, after the Romans left, and look a little more closely at the landscape than we are usually taught to”; he ends up with the Phoenicians. In between, McWhorter takes us on a journey through linguistic analysis — one which impacts how we view ourselves, as well as those whom we consider others.

Issues in Language

We live in world of language — language makes us human — and McWhorter gives just a glimpse of the totality of that. [2] English is a jumping-in point, a site of access for English speakers. This book brings up differences in our languages, but ends up highlighting our commonality. For example (from a section in which McWhorter challenges the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis elegantly) [3]:

… by and large, all humans, be they Australian Aborigines, Japanese urbanites, Kalahari hunter-gatherers, Cree Indians, Greeks, Turks, Uzbeks, Amazonians, or Manhattanites in analysis, experience life via the mental equipment shared by all members of our species. No one is “primitive,” but just as important, no one is privileged over others with a primal connection to The Real.

He says this not to diminish our differences in language, culture, or lived experience, but rather to emphasize those things which tie us all together — the basic experience of being human. [4] McWhorter builds to important social issues so organically that you are captivated by them before you know it.

Fun and Interesting

Gwyrdd = Green

Gwyrdd = Green by willposh, on Flickr

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is also a book with a lot fun and a bit of whimsy. If you’ve ever worried about using “they” as a genderneutral singular pronoun, McWhorter has a whole section on that. Of special interest to writers, that section includes a brief account of the many struggles McWhorter lost to his copy editors, and the one he won. McWhorter also tackles the question, “Why is English so (comparatively) easy to learn?

One thing I particularly admire about this book is that it is engaging and accessible for folks with various levels of background knowledge. I suspect that even if you are familiar with what linguistics is and is not, you will still be entertained and engaged by McWhorter’s description of it. On the other hand, I know that people who have never read any linguistics before enjoyed this book and found it easy to understand and fun to read. I consider the ability to reach a variety of audiences a mark of a very good book.

The book is well worth a look for anyone who enjoys the English language, etymology, or both. It should also be of interest to folks who want to read about how language and culture shape our experience, how they are shaped by our experiences — and how there’s more to the story than that. I highly recommend John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English for a fun and thought-provoking read.

Feeling the footnotes again:

1: This is not a new book! I read a mix of new books, books which have been out for a while, and classic books. I have no compunctions about offering reviews in any of these categories. Seriously, I am compunction-free. Thought you might like a look at this book, if you haven’t seen it yet.

2: A brief, and I’m sure incomplete, list of the contemporary languages McWhorter turns to — some only for a word or two, some for an entire section — in telling his story: Arabic (many dialects), Boro (a language in India), Cree, Danish, French, German, Hopi, Italian, Mandarin, Montagnais (an Algonquian language, the same language family as Cree), Nanai (a Siberian language), Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Twi (a West African language), and Zulu.

3: If you read McWhorter’s footnotes — yes, there are footnotes, but not too many — you will find lots of useful references, including a couple of what McWhorter calls “plugs” for other books he’s written (they are relevant to his points). I haven’t read his other books on language yet, though they look interesting, too!

4: I don’t always agree with McWhorter’s opinions on political or social issues, but I think he is right, here, to interrogate the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

* UPDATE: Illustration by Markus Koljonen. You can see more of his work at or


  1. Sounds really interesting Casey. Long ago, I read Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue and loved it, so this appears to be right alone the same lines. Will have to have a look to see if it’s in my local library. Which reminds me, I better go join my local library to begin with ha ha.

  2. I think you would like it, Alannah. (It’s a rather different book than The Mother Tongue, though clearly the same general topic.) Oh, and did I mention all the Celtic and Welsh in this book? They’re in there, of course. A brief mention of Gaelic, too. The sections on Welsh and Celtic may include a lot of information you already know, but as I said, the writing is so good in this book, those sections should be fun to read anyway.

    I love our local library. I’ve always been lucky to live places with great public libraries, usually nearby. I buy a lot of books, but I borrow a lot, as well.

  3. Sounds very good. The bit of Gaelic I know is Pogue Mahone…which means “Kiss my arse” – My Irish ex-husband taught me that one ha ha.

    Welsh and Gaelic sound like Martian and their spelling makes you want to cry, no idea how anyone can learn the languages!

  4. Alannah, you always bring fascinating snippets of language! Haha.

  5. I love finding out about the history of English and learning more about how it evolved. Some of the changes being made currently I don’t really like but I love that language can be so fluid and dynamic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. Definitely looks interesting.

  6. Glad you found it interesting, Cassandra. I enjoy the dynamic nature of language as well, and it can be fascinating to take the long view sometimes.

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