Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue
The Untold History of English
By John McWhorter
Gotham Books, 2008
This is a fairly brief (200 pg.) book on the history of the English language written for the interested layman -- it is not quite written at the low reading level expected by most of the popular press these days, but does explain the jargon it uses and sprinkles the technical arguments with lots of interesting odds and ends.
McWhorter is primarily interested in explaining some theories on the origin of English vocabulary and grammar that are often ignored by mainstream academia and the popular press. But he aims to make these explanations intelligible and interesting to the average reader, so he also has to explain a lot of background in these areas, and for the most part does so quite well, although generally not as thoroughly as he might.
One of his main themes is that English picked up a lot of its current features, such as meaningless do and present tense -ing from Celtic languages rather than them having appeared spontaneously. He spends quite a lot of time arguing this, and does so quite successfully, in my opinion. He also spends some time 'debunking' the classical, strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and recounting the theory that Proto-Germanic was strongly influenced by a Proto-Semitic language, possibly Phoenician.
Some parts of the book are written with more passion than logic -- for example, his attack on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is generally correct and convincing, but includes a fair-sized chunk of straw man examples. But he does bring his arguments together in the end, and he does tell us when, and exactly how, his arguments fall short themselves.
McWhorter also tries to spice up his writing with some scatterings of humor -- dumb dad jokes, mostly, which really don't add anything to the book. His audience will be only those people who are interested in this sort of material, and the jokes will not garner him any additional readers. But they aren't too annoying, and you may well find them entertaining, so this is a minor nitpick.
Overall, this is a good read for people interested in a good introduction to some of the issues currently under debate in the history of English, and a good scattering of background knowledge in the field of linguistics. It is certainly more entertaining than it is thorough, but McWhorter does a very good job of exploring the subjects he chooses to focus on, and makes them accessible to readers who have little background in this area. A worthwhile read for those interested in the subject matter.