Book Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter

John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is one of the most interesting books about the English language that I have read. That’s saying a lot since books about the English language is all I seem to read. I don’t review them enough since they’re usually textbooks (fun!), but Tongue definitely deserves a review, even if it’s just me telling you to go out and buy it.

Go out and buy Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.


Tongue attempts to answer a few questions about English that have either been overlooked or brushed aside by linguists. One of them is the mysterious nature of our meaningless do in phrases such as Do you realize…?. R.L.G. at the Economist’s blog Johnson has described Mr. McWhorter’s stance much better than I could, so I’ll link to that post (Hint: the existence of meaningless do in Welsh and Cornish, as well as English, is not a coincidence).

McWhorter also takes on the Viking impact on English and the pesky notion that our words channel our thought, but what I liked best about his book is when he points out that there is a problem when linguists focus solely on one aspect of one language. He says,

The specialization endemic to modern academia means that few of these scholars do their work with grammar sketches of all the Germanic languages and their histories in their heads, much less of languages around the world. They write mostly about English alone and, as often as not, just single features of its grammar.

It’s an unfortunate reality. Specialists in any field can’t be expected to know everything about their field (which is why they’re called “specialists”). So I enjoyed how McWhorter refrained from going on a witch hunt and faulting the linguists who overlooked the topics of Tongue.

As I said before, you should read Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. It is well written and well researched. Moreover, it’s a great book for people who can’t be bothered to read linguistics textbooks and journals – or for those of us who wish to read something in between the textbooks and journals.

Up next: A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene and Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly