“I would hope, however, that we might think of these things as what they are: arbitrary fashions of formal language that we must attend to just as we dress according to the random dictates of the fashions of our moment. Remember that what is considered ‘proper’ English varies with the times just as fashion does.”
When this little gem of a language book fell into my possession after being found dirt-cheap on a bargain shelf, I was pretty stoked. Not stoked enough, as is usually the case, to dig right into it, but stoked to know, all the same, that it wound up in my TBR pile to eventually rise to the top to be devoured. As a writer, I’m a great lover of language and words, and McWhorter’s slim little volume promised to open my mind to a dramatic new approach to the way we view the development of English, and it naturally brought to mind one of my favorite quotes from James D. Nichol: “English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” and the subsequently similar poster/t-shirt.
Alas, McWhorter seems more interested in beating down fellow grammarians and linguists than he does beating down the actual language, and yet I did not find anything remarkably note-worthy in the volume. It was an incredibly nice breath of fresh air to encounter another of the opinion that language is fluid, what is ‘proper’ in language is sometimes a suggestion of fashion more than actual language, and it’s nice to have someone promising not to go all grammar-nazi on a person who uses “they” when speaking of an generic individual and might even go easy on you if should you misuse “he and I” (something I am not nearly as forgiving about).
While I find McWhorter’s exploration of certain oddities about the English language and where these were most likely developed (Celts, Vikings, Icelandic origins) fascinating and interesting, it never came across as anything new. Perhaps it’s my own Germanic language background, but the connections he made seemed fairly obvious to this particular scholar, which made the fact that so much of the book’s energy spent on debunking things contrary to these points pretty unwieldy. Vikings and Celts butchered the original English language? We have weird quirks that are similar to Welsh? English is related to these languages? Are people actually contending that? Apparently they are, and that boggled my head a little bit.
Either way, the contentions that I wasn’t really aware about in the world of English language history aside, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is an amusing little volume expounding the things I pretty much already believed. That language is fluid and liquid and completely changeable, that what we know as “proper” language today is usually a reflection of society and that change in language is inevitable based on what’s going on around it, what it’s being used for, and by who.
Or is that by whom?
Books read: 31/100.
And, on another note, I’d love to welcome Word Fusion to the blog as my latest subscriber! Thanks so much for coming along!