by Weston Cutter
John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is one of at least three books regarding the English language that I’ve read about recently (David Wolman’s and Roy Blount Jr.’s being the other two). Though I’ve only read one of the three (though Blount’s got a great review in the NYTimes this past weekend), McWhorter’s delightful, quick, rigorous look at English has got to be not just one of the best books on English to come out recently, but one of the best, period.
One of the best aspects of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is that McWhorter’s such an ideal guide. He’s got the intellectual chops to dig deep and hard at the hoary, thorny academic issues, but the dude’s astoundingly fun to read: there’s not a dry passage in the whole book, and the whole time you get the feeling that McWhorter’s one of those people whose passionate curiosity doesn’t die off or calcify after x-number of hours spent researching that curiosity.
The book, ultimately, is a study of how English grammar came to exist as we now know it, which means, of course, looking at other languages and how those languages organize nouns and verbs and etc. If this stuff sounds dull in description, it’s anything but in McWhorter’s hands: part of the book’s real fun is his guiding thesis regarding from what other languages English picked up the strange tics it has (he ‘blames’ Celtic and Welsh). More snazzy, though, is that, according to McWhorter, nobody’s cited all this stuff yet. I don’t have the energy to time to read other grammatical histories of English, so I’m happy to take him at his word.
So, on the one hand, the thrill of the book’s just in finding out something that’s actually new about this language we all abuse daily. Cooler, though, is the meta-idea behind that: that there really is new stuff to be known about English. Coolest, though, is reading about it, through McWhorter’s words and ideas, and getting a sense of the overwhelming richness of stuff just as simple as language, as the words we keep trying to make do with. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, this book, and it’s got to be one of the easiest-to-read books on language I’ve ever read.
I don’t usually write about literary magazines here (the place for that stuff’s New Pages), but I got to meet the folks who run Cave Wall this week (Rhett Iseman Trull and her husband Jeff), and not only is R. I. Trull a dynamite poet whose work is some of the best in the Best New Poets 2008, but this magazine, Cave Wall, is really pretty hugely good. Really, really great, and still new enough to feel like a fresh and brilliant discovery, and you really just need to send them your money and buy a subscription and then you should go ahead and pat yrself on the back at how hip you are to new literary journals.