Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Image from Barnes and Noble.

Author: John McWhorter

Publisher: Gotham Books

A favorite professor suggested this book to me about seven or so years ago. I bought the book, proceeded to read it, and then some life event (I think a move) resulted in this book finding companionship with Jimmy Hoffa and Nessie, and I forgot about it. Then a couple of weeks ago, some friends were talking about the unique nature of the English language. I suggested they read this book as I found it interesting, and I thought to myself, “You know, I should read that book again.” So I did. And I realized that I NEVER finished it. I am ashamed of myself. Here I am, a lover of words whose hobby is looking up obscure etymologies, and I forgot to finish this awesome book. Oh well. All I can say is, don’t make the same mistake I did. Get this book, and READ it.

I will admit, this is probably one of the nerdiest books I have read, and I am saying this as someone who has read a LOT of apologetics and scientific books and articles for fun. This one is pretty niche, and yet, it is approachable. The author makes a note in the acknowledgments section of the book to his wife, thanking her for reading his book and for helping him write it in such a way as to not be overbearing or obnoxious. I get that. And I appreciate it. As someone who can fall down the rabbit hole with a well-loved topic, it is easy to get over a reader’s head (and interest). McWhorter doesn’t do that. Yes, he’s getting into the details of a specific subject, but he won’t give too much, and you’ll enjoy the journey along the way. He’s an approachable academic, so you’ll laugh while you learn.

And you will learn a lot from this book. While I already knew a good chunk of the information he presented because of the aforementioned professor, if you haven’t had such great teachers, you probably haven’t heard most of the information McWhorter presents regarding the history of the English language, or language in general (or why that matters). He does make some interesting points on grammar, some of which make me cringe, but I also have a difficult time arguing with him. And while I can’t agree with the author on every point as I am a Christian who doesn’t believe in “proto” anything or an evolution of language, he gives the reader a lot to think about. 

In addition, he points out the evolutionary bias that many linguists have because they assume language was once less-evolved (because they assume the people were) and therefore belittle both the people and the etymology they are supposedly studying. McWhorter also calls out most of academia for only teaching ideas that are “interesting to them” rather than finding out if those ideas are true or false and teaching actual history. I appreciate his honesty, and it made me enjoy the book even more.

While I do wish McWhorter would have talked more about the deterioration of language, he gives you a more plausible history of language than you have probably ever heard before. And because of that, it is more interesting. He has also given me some things to think about, and prodded me to continue working on a companion to my previous book. But in the meantime, check out this brief book on the (ignored) history of the English language. We have a pretty amazing language; we should learn about it. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue will help you understand language better and perhaps help you appreciate what a fantastic history we all share in it. Best of all, you’ll get a kick out of this engaging read.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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