I Love This Book

“English’s Germanic relatives are like assorted varieties of deer–antelopes, springboks, kudu and so on–antlered, fleet-footed, big-brown-eyed variations on a theme. English is some dolphin swooping around underwater, all but hairless, echolocating and holding its breath. Dolphins are mammals like deer: they give birth to live young and are warm-blooded. But clearly the dolphin has strayed from the basic mammalian game plan to an extent that no deer has.”

I’m rereading John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. Pa bought it for me a year or so ago–a random pickup at Barnes & Noble. (He does this from time to time, like when you see a new product in the supermarket and think, “Oh, I think she’ll like that.” He also scored big with 1066.) I loved it so much that I turned around and bought him a copy for his birthday this year. Then I bought it for my kindle, because the hard copy is packed away somewhere.

I had it last night at O’Leary’s, and half hoped someone would come up and ask what I was reading so I could go all super-nerd on them. (But alas, the only person who approached me was Drunky McSmokesalot at the counter, who approved of my Beam. I should think so; he smelled like it was his preferred aftershave.)

Essentially, the book looks at how the English language developed over the last, say, 1,500 years. McWhorter’s first premise is to explore the language from syntax and grammar instead of etymology. In other words, he’s not focusing on how the William the Conqueror and his French buddies gave us French-derived food words like beef and pork, while the poor Anglo-Saxon farmers who were supplying the fancy food were dealing with Germanic-derived words like cow and pig. Instead, he’s looking at the changes and influences in how sentences are formed, how words work together and conjugate, and why we have little oddities like “the meaningless ‘do’.” (“I go to the store.”/”I do not go to the store.”)

McWhorter’s a linguist, so the book is chock full of examples from hundreds of languages from all around the world. (In most other languages, for example,  it’s “I no go to the store.”)  And it’s really cool to see how English compares, and how different languages take different routes to expressing the same universal concepts. And it’s cool to become so aware of the language we use.

Shut up, it is cool.

But yeah, the material could still be dry, even for someone as cool as I am. (One man’s dryness is another man’s…moisture?) So what makes it is that McWhorter is actually, sincerely offended by certain presumptions in his field, and he takes a madman’s glee in breaking them apart and proving that he’s right instead. He likes colorful analogies and has a wonderfully odd, occasionally dark sense of humor that surfaces out of nowhere in the middle of impassioned arguments about suffixes and pronouns. He doesn’t have an academic’s reverence for it. He’s conversational. He’s weird.

“Show me a person who has said that learning Russian was no problem after they mastered the basics–after the basics, you just keep wondering how anybody could speak the language without blacking out.”

Or, one of my favorites:

“So: imagine if now and then you fall into moods where you enjoy taking a knife and stabbing pillows open. Suppose you run out of pillows but you still have that nagging urge, and then you see a laundry bag bulging full of clothes. A thought balloon pops up over your head: Maybe I’ll cut the bag open!

Stabbing pillows. And even just now I’m using bland examples about going to the store. (Although McWhorter can get a little too cute at times, and I hate hate hate the frequency with which he uses multiple exclamation points!!!!)

Well, anyway. I’d love to go into his arguments about Celtic influences on sentence structure, or the absolute absurdity of all those grammar rules we learned in elementary school (including…the ones to which I adhere religiously at my job–and still he gets me on his side), but I’m having trouble believing that I’m entertaining anyone but myself right now, sooooo I’ll just go back to sitting quietly with my Beam and my book, at the picnic table by the water.

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