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5 Minutes, 5 Questions With… John McWhorter, author of Our Magnificient Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

JoeyPinkney.com Exclusive Interview
5 Minutes, 5 Questions With…
John McWhorter, author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

john mcwhorter headshot
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue book cover

(click on the above picture to see reviews of this book on Amazon.com)

After English was transported by land-seeking Germanic invaders to Britain in the fifth century, A.D., three things happened to make it the vastly different language we speak today. One was that it took on many words from Old Norse, French, and Latin.

The other two things are less known. First, when Welsh and Cornish speakers took on English, they mixed in their own grammatical features, such that today we say “Do you walk?” instead of “Walk you?” Then, when Scandinavian Viking invaders settled among the English speakers, they rendered English like we render Spanish in a first-year class — and children grew up hearing so many people speak English that way that pretty soon, English was that way.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue describes how all of this happened with observations along the way about whether people make “mistakes” when they speak English, whether English channels the way we think, and whether even Old English was bastardized and beaten up by an earlier language.

Joey Pinkney: Where did you get the idea and inspiration to write Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English?

John McWhorter: Over the years I have been doing some academic study of how Modern English came to be. I gradually realized that the things I was discovering were not only insufficiently attended to by other academics, but were also things the general public might find interesting. Generally, I have always been slightly bored by the typical account of English’s history that is all about words, since for linguists, grammar is usually more interesting. This book is a way of getting across why linguists care about grammar — or at least why I do.

JP: In terms of ebonics, isn’t ebonics to “American” English as “American” English is to the English that is spoken in England?

JM: Not quite. American and British English differ in terms of accent and words, primarily. Grammatical differences are tiny. Black English is different from both not only in accent and words, but in grammar. “He don’t be tellin’ folks things like dat not more” is a thoroughly “proper” Ebonics sentence. In both American and British English, it would be “He doesn’t tell people things like that anymore.”

JP: How are Barack Obama and John McCain using English differently to effectively run their campaigns?

JM: Barack Obama has a way of spicing his speeches with Black English traits here and there — “dropping his g’s”, using an imprecise but familiar terminology and certain intonation patterns, and so on. It makes his speech style seem approachable, genuine. John McCain, from what I have seen, is not especially comfortable with the presentational spoken word, which has made running against Obama especially difficult as Black English is a kind of American vernacular lingua franca today across race lines, if only in terms of how people hear it.

JP: What’s your take on Urban Fiction and its use of the English language?

JM: It would seem that these books are making it ever more normal for people to see “Ebonics” written on the page, without seeing it as an interesting “technique” as it was when Alice Walker and Toni Morrison first became popular. This is, overall, a good thing. When people without access to good education feel that the only legitimate writing is in a different code than the one they are comfortable in, they are, effectively, barred from participation in written discourse. (I don’t usually write about “discourse” but you got me going!)

JP: What’s next for John McWhorter?

JM: I’m moving into adjunct teaching at Columbia and see no books in the immediate future, depending on what you call a book. I picture myself writing columns, doing academic research, and having the live experience of teaching for the time being. After a while, one has written enough books — and with the internet and such, one wonders how many people are actually reading them. So, we shall see …

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