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April 08, 2009

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

I love the English language. It is my native tongue and I find it rich in nuances and possibilities.

I also freely acknowledge that English as we know and use it can be incredibly confusing, contradictory and frustrating. I often tell my students, half-seriously, that....

...I feel sorry for anyone learning English as a foreign language.

John McWhorter's book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The untold history of English explores the territory that is unique to English.

One area where English differs from the base line languages of Europe is the lack of gendered nouns. This is a grammatical structure where each noun (chair, table, shoe, etc.) is masculine, feminine or neutral. There is much debate about why, how or when English departed from French, German, Latin and other languages with gendered nouns.

However it happened, we should all be thankful that we have standard nouns - and verbs - and especially articles. In German for example, there are three definite articles (der, die, das) whereas in English we just have one (the). For once, English keeps it simple.

English is inherently complex for as variety or reasons. One reason is that our language is flexible enough to absorb (sometimes with changes - sometimes not) words from other languages and therefore is continually changing as it encounters new cultures, technologies or even ideas or fashions.

Those of us who use English (and may love or hate it) need to carry it lightly.There are words that fall out of use, some disappear and reappear, and many change their meanings.

As I teach English and refer to written texts (especially classic literature) I am often struck by the sheer numbers of words that I virtually never hear - or use. This is usually one of the "markers' of an English language learner which I try to point out to my students. My personal goal as an English language teacher is to get my students to blend seamlessly into the English speaking community.

And then there is the opposite case of words that, however despised by most English teachers, never seem to go away. "Ain't" is only one example of these words that, however improper or maligned, never seems to go out of use.

For more back stories on English, be sure to check out Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The untold history of English, John McWhorter, Gotham Books, 2008.

I welcome your book recommendations - books related to language, teaching, travel or anything related to the ESL teaching & learning experience.

My best to you,


Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf currently teaches English and writing for a local technical/vocational college with many international students.

Posted by mmorf at April 8, 2009 09:53 AM

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