Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Posted by Neal on November 3, 2009

Rhymes with "mustard"?“Hey, Doug, listen to this,” I said. “This guy’s writing about how different English is from related languages like German and Swedish. He says:

English’s Germanic relative are like assorted varieties of deer — anteloopes, 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.

Doug and I were sitting in the front hallway of Adam’s school, waiting for his class to let out. While we waited, I was reading John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. (Not to be confused with Derek Bickerton’s Bastard Tongues; see below.) Now I understand that new FCC rules require me to notify readers when I’m reviewing a piece of blog swag — i.e. free stuff that people from marketing departments send to bloggers in hopes of favorable mentions or reviews. So I’ll say right now that I got this book courtesy of the publicity department at Gotham Books. And to make the existing record clear, I also received free copies of The Unfolding of Language and Forbidden Words, as noted in the reviews I wrote. I also got Grammar Girl’s first book this way, though I didn’t mention this fact in the review. Books that I’ve bought or borrowed myself and reviewed or mentioned include:

That last one was also by John McWhorter, and I liked it so much that when I was offered a review copy of his latest book, I accepted right away. But, you ask, if I was so eager to read it, why didn’t I lay hands on a copy of it myself last year, when it came out in hardback? The fact is that I just wasn’t terribly interested in reading another history of English. I watched the PBS miniseries on it in the late 1980s; I have my own copy of Baugh and Cable’s history; shoot, one of the things that really got me interested in linguistics was reading the history of English in that World Book Encyclopedia supplement back in high school (which I’ve mentioned once). And if I wanted to read another one, I could borrow my wife’s copy of Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue (though I’ve been warned that Bryson’s works tend to contain a lot of errors, and I see this one perpetuates the Eskimo snow-vocabulary fiction in its first chapter). “Untold history?” I thought. “No, it’s been told a lot.” But with a free copy, delivered to me, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.

When I read the first page of the introduction, I suddenly realized that McWhorter really did have a different plan for his story. He observes that the usual story is almost always just about the different words that English acquired during its ~1500 years: its original Anglo-Saxon lexicon, the Viking additions, the flood of French, and the classical additions from Latin and Greek, and of course all the words from languages around the world that it’s taken in. He’s right. As I thought back on the histories of English I’d read, they always focused on the words, with occasional excursuses into topics like the Great Vowel Shift or the loss of a lot of inflectional endings. McWhorter’s complaint about this story is twofold. First, lots of languages borrow vocabulary from other languages, to an extent comparable with English. Second, when you focus on just the words, you miss what really does make English unusual: the large quantify of syntax and morphology it has lost compared to other Germanic languages, and the truly rare syntax that it has picked up from some decidedly un-Germanic source. This oversight reminds McWhorter of

…someone who has fitted out their ranch house with a second floor, knocked out all the nonsustaining walls, and added on a big new wing on both sides, and yet month after month, all any of their friends mention when they come over is two new throw rugs. [NW: Hey, did you notice the wide-scoping relative pronoun in there?]

There; that makes two analogies that were so good I thought them worthy of blockquotes, and they’re both just from the introduction. McWhorter has a gift for coming up with these (or more likely, he works really hard at it, like I should do). Elsewhere in the book, he explains concepts and arguments by way of:

  • the first McDonald’s
  • male hair loss
  • Monopoly vs. Clue
  • a family that plays the piano with their feet
  • autumn leaves
  • a bike that falls apart under its rider
  • a trashed, vandalized, and burglarized car
  • Botox and liposuction

…not to mention the best mnemonic I’ve heard in a while: Volvos, Vermeers, Volkswagens, and volcanoes. I won’t explain here what any of the analogies or the mnemonic is trying to explain, because that would just spoil them for you.

So what is McWhorter’s untold story of English, then? In Chapter 1, he presents arguments that the source for two of English’s odd syntactic features — progressive tenses and do-inversion in questions and negation — are imports from the Celtic languages spoken in England before the arrival of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. This is a disputed conclusion, and McWhorter doesn’t try to hide this fact. He does, however, make his arguments passionately and persuasively. Furthermore, he gives an intelligent presentation of (as far as I know) each argument against his position, and not only rebuts it, but also offers his hypothesis as to why intelligent people would find it convincing in the first place.

In Chapter 3, he tackles the wholesale loss of inflectional endings in English, as well as a handful of other peculiarities of Germanic syntax that English alone has lost. Where other histories note that the endings were lost or reduced, McWhorter goes on to ask, why? Sure languages change, but why is it English alone among its Germanic relatives that has lost so many of them? He lays the blame on the Vikings. Their language was similar enough to Old English in vocabulary for speakers to get by, but different enough in its case- and tense-markings that when the Viking settlers spoke it, they reduced them to the lowest common denominator. Again, he presents objections, and not only rebuts them but takes his best shot at explaining why people would have these objections in the first place if they’re so wrong.

In Chapter 5, McWhorter jumps back in time to consider not English but its ancestor Proto-Germanic. Among the Indo-European languages, the Germanic branch has some peculiarities of its own that are well known, but as yet unexplained: primarily Grimm’s Law and the “strong verbs” that mark past tense by a change in vowel and nothing else (e.g. sing/sang). He argues that the same kind of thing happened here as happened with Celtic and Norse: circumstances arose such that a language (English, or in this case, Proto-Germanic) came to be spoken by a large population of adults who had grown up speaking some other language. This other language’s syntax infected the Proto-Germanic or English as spoken by these new speakers, and these new speakers were numerous enough that their “wrong” way of speaking it became the future mainstream variety. The other language suspect this time is a Semitic language, probably Phoenician. (It reminds me of what Michael Erard wrote about Chinese speakers of English.)

A fascinating story, and even if it’s speculative, it’s necessarily so, given that the action takes place either before written records existed, or among speakers who didn’t write. But for each speculation, McWhorter offers well-documented examples of similar things that are known to have happened with other languages: Xhosa, Jamaican patois, Russian, Dravidian languages, Hebrew, Manchu vs. Chinese, Mandarin vs. Altaic. I did have some minor objections, though. For one thing, McWhorter seems to say that historical linguists don’t like to use clues to piece together stories of what happened to a language (that is, they prefer playing Monopoly to playing Clue), but the entire comparative method of historical linguistics is based on doing just that. ample, McWhorter seems to claim that Russian is unusual among Indo-European languages in indicating possession by saying something is “to me” instead of saying “I have” something. But I remember learning about this “dative of posession” in high school Latin and French.

Meanwhile, what about chapters 2 and 4? These chapters strike me mainly as filler, in order to make a full book out of his Celtic/Norse/Phoenician bastardization story, albeit entertaining filler. Chapter 2 is yet another (he admits) probably doomed attempt to show why many prescriptive grammar rules have no rational basis. The connection to the rest of the story is that none of the currently popular complaints about English grammar concerns anything close to the kind of profound changes in grammar described in Chapter 1, which still resulted in a language deemed to have correct grammar. In this chapter McWhorter makes a curious observation about what he claims is a frequentative suffix: -le. Listing words such as nibble, wiggle, fiddle, and juggle, he notes that “[a]ll of them have to do with rapid, repetitive movement….” One of the words on the list is nipple. The semantic connection between nipples and rapid, repetitive movement probably says more about McWhorter than about the suffix -le.

Chapter 4 is a thorough debunking of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, with some of the material mined from his well-written rant on Language Log. The connection to the rest of the story is that … well, I can’t remember what the connection is.

Lastly I’ll note some petty annoyances with Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: There are too many repeated question marks for rhetorical questions, and McWhorter repeatedly (and almost exclusively) uses as such as a pure connective. These and my earlier complaints, however, were outweighed by the fascinating and entertainingly presented pieces of the history of English that were completely new to me.

Update, 3 Nov. 2009: One addition to the list of analogies, and the sentence discussing Clue vs. Monopoly.

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31 Responses to “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

  1. Frogman said

    After this review, I feel like buying the book.

    The beginning is a bit of a red herring, though. After you mentioned Doug, I expected one of those charming accounts of how your kids are learning and using English. I understand your point was just that McWhorter’s vivid analogies could appeal even to a child, but I feel frustrated that you didn’t mention how Doug reacted.

    One point surprised me. You write “I remember learning about this “dative of posession” in high school Latin and French.” I remember Latin expresses possession this way (Mihi est canis), but French?? Could you please give me an example? Are you thinking of sentences like “C’est à moi”?

    • Ran said

      There are a number of situations where French uses a dative-y construct (either à + object, or an indirect object pronoun) for a possessor. Examples of various types include « C’est à moi », as you mention, as well as « ma chambre à moi » (“my room”, with special emphasis), and « il m’a coupé les cheveux » (“he cut my hair” or “he gave me a haircut”). I’ve never heard any of these called a “dative of possession” — I imagine that by the time I learned French (late 90s), Latin-y terms like “dative” were not in vogue among French teachers — but it seems like a fairly reasonable name for them. (As far as that goes, anyway. Anglophone learners of French never sit around wondering what case to use, so it seems rather pointless to list, let alone name, the various uses of each.)

      • Frogman said

        Thanks Ran. The “il m’a coupé les cheveux” example makes perfect sense to me. The verb has got a direct object: “les cheveux” (“the hair”, not “my hair”) and an indirect one: “m'” (“to me”), and there is a relation of possession between the indirect object and the direct one.

      • Neal said

        Actually, the term I learned for “m’a coupé les cheveux” is the Greek accusative, not the dative of possession. Ran’s other examples are in fact what I had in mind, and I don’t think I’ve heard the term dative of possession applied specifically to them: I just imported that name from what I learned about Latin and Greek.

      • Ran said

        Wouldn’t “Greek accusative” imply that it’s a direct object? With me/m’- you can’t tell, but it is definitely indirect: « je lui ai coupé les cheveux », « il a coupé les cheveux à son amie », etc.

      • Neal said

        Hey, you’re right. I was only thinking about the commonality of expressing something like “his/her hair” as “him/her … the hair”, and forgetting the little detail about the pronoun being an indirect object instead of direct.

      • In that regard, doesn’t Spanish (and, by extrapolation, all Romance languages) have them, too?

      • Neal said

        I know Spanish does; not sure about the others.

  2. The Ridger said

    I find it odd to think of the Russian construction as a ‘dative of possession’ – the preposition (U) doesn’t govern dative, but genitive. Russian is loaded with dative constructions (I’m cold = to-me cold), but this isn’t one of them.

  3. For those of us not planning to buy the book, any chance of a summary of how he debunks the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

    I’ve just read the “well-written rant” on Language Log and I’d say it isn’t actually an argument against Sapir-Whorf, it’s just a warning against reading too much into polysemy. Which is a fair point but it doesn’t debunk Sapir-Whorf.

    Does he reveal any new weapons in the book?

    PS: By the way, I agree that this guy has a talent for smart metaphors and generally for smart writing. The “rant” *is* exceedingly well-written.

    • Neal said

      OK, for you, I’ll do it. Let’s see…
      The overall idea is that Sapir-Whorf is an interesting and profound-sounding hypothesis in broad, general terms, but the closer you look at it and try to see how it applies to specific languages, the more ridiculous it gets.

      First of all, some of Whorf’s data was simply wrong. Whereas he said Hopi had no means of indicating tense, in fact it does have the means.

      Second, languages change. Do the changes in English syntax reflect changes in speakers’ attitudes? For example, he asks, did our use of do with questions and negation come about because English speakers became “uniquely alert to negation and questionhood”? Not likely. Conversely, cultures that really have changed do not have grammars that have radically changed from earlier generations. For example, McWhorter notes that Russia has gone “from brute feudalism under the tsars to Communism to glasnost to the queer blend of democracy and dictatorship of today. Yet Russian grammar during that time has always been the marvelous nightmare that it is now.”

      The part that you saw in his LL post fits into his argument like this: It’s silly to claim that some other culture is uniquely attuned to some exotic, nuanced concept because of (or as evidenced by) the existence of some word that has no simple English equivalent. English has words for concepts just as specialized, and it’s no big deal.

      McWhorter also notes that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was born in a time when many non-Western cultures were often labeled as primitive. In its proponents’ attempts to counter these claims, it becomes paternalistic in its own way, such that it’s always the exotic, less familiar language whose speakers have the more interesting or enlightened worldview. The one time a guy did a study showing that compared to Chinese speakers, English speakers were better at discerning degrees of hypotheticality (presumably because of its more explicit marking in English: if I am/were/had been, etc.). The conclusion was of a piece with other Sapir-Whorfian conclusions, yet “people shot at [him] like he was a varmint.”

      About the most that can be said about Sapir-Whorf these days is that experiments show “language does have some glimmers of effect on thought”; “perceptual differences of a subtle, slight, and subconscious nature, not ‘world views.'”

  4. kip said

    So if I want to read one of these “history of English” books, which one would be better to start with?

    • Neal said

      Shoot, I’d say start with this one! But if you want to try one of the others, I’d recommend MacNeil’s The Story of English (companion to the TV series), and maybe even Bryson’s The Mother Tongue. Even with the warnings I’ve heard about him, he’s still an entertaining writer, and the broad outlines are probably accurate. Can’t say more there, since I haven’t read the book yet.

      • John Cowan said

        The Mother Tongue has about one error per page, as you can see by examining the available snippet at Google Books. When I got as far as I was going to in it, I didn’t even donate the book to Goodwill, as I usually do — I wouldn’t want any virgin minds contaminated by its rubbish. I threw it in the trash, something I have not done with a physically intact book in more than 30 years.

  5. What is this word, “excursuses”? Excursions? Excuses?

    (I promise I’m not grumpy today.)

  6. The notion of proto-Germanic being influenced by a Semitic language is completely new to me, and something I’d be interested in learning more about (e.g. why Semitic; why Phoenician; where would the encounter have occurred geographically; how does that fit in with our knowledge of migrations; etc).

    The other topics hold far less fascination for me, in many cases because I’m already familiar with the basic idea.

    • John Cowan said

      Well, there’s a confluence (okay, a small confluence) of evidence that Germanic was once part of Eastern Indo-European. When Don Ringe’s team at Penn did their (very careful, comparative-method-based, not to be confused with various idiots who have tried it and us) phylogenetic analysis of the branching order of Indo-European, they found that there was no consistent tree unless they treated Germanic specially. The best and safest assumption turned out to be that Germanic was once a satem language, or at any rate the nearest sib to the satem core group, but that its speakers migrated west and massively replaced their vocabulary with Celtic and Italic cognates. Their main paper (71-page PDF) lays this out in detail; more recent papers here.

      The other point is a snatch of very archaic Old Norse verse in the Saga of Heidrek the Wise, which refers to hunting under Harvaða-fjǫllum. If we run Harvað- through Grimm’s Law backwards, we get *Karpat-, showing that the remote ancestors of the Germanics spent time hunting under the cliffs of the Carpathians.

      Which at least makes the notion of a Semitic contact somewhat more plausible.

  7. Jason Bontrager said

    For some reason, this post reminds me of a line from _Little Fuzzy_, by H. Beam Piper.

    “And you know what English is? The result of the efforts of Norman men-at-arms to make dates with Saxon barmaids in the Ninth Century Pre-Atomic, and no more legitimate than any of the other results.”

  8. Neal said

    Amy West posted the following on the American Dialect Society listserv:

    I’ve been reading the first chapter of McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, where he lays out the argument for meaningless-do coming into English from Welsh. (As a medievalist I bristle at his characterizations of the Middle Ages.) The part of the argument dealing with why it doesn’t show up in writing until the 1300s is, I think, tortured and unnecessarily convoluted. My suggestion is that it doesn’t show up until then because that’s about when it entered Middle English. I think it is more likely related to England’s occupation and conquest of Wales in the 1200s and the use of Welsh troops in English campaigns from that point on (Adam Chapman of U of Southampton has been investigating the Welsh soldiers in the English armies) than to the Anglo-Saxon settling of England in the 400s-500s. I can buy meaningless-do coming in from Welsh. I just can’t buy it not being reflected in the written language for hundreds of years.

  9. Neal said

    Amy West also had this to say:

    My problem with the “it was in the spoken
    language long before it was in the written language” part of the argument is that in Old Norse we see a similar situation on the Isle of Man, and the Manx runic inscriptions show mixing of the Celtic and Norse languages within a short time period of the Norse settlement. I also have a problem with his “there was a 150 year gap in the writing of English” — we have stuff that is late OE and early ME. It’s not a gap: it’s a dip, but not a gap.

    I also read the chapter on the argument for contact with Old Norse leading to the levelling of the OE inflectional system. I have trouble with the argument that he presents because a) it looks to me like that levelling starts before contact with ON b) he tries to stretch out the ON contact period by going back to the early raids in the late 700s, but contact isn’t significant until the settlement of the Danelaw mid-to late 800s c) he doesn’t recognize that the conservatism of Modern Icelandic is due to a conscious reform of the orthography, morphology, and syntax in the 1600s/1700s. And it just seems counter-intuitive to me that an inflected language would influence another one to lose inflections, especially when the two cousin languages are somewhat mutually intelligible (to a limited degree). Finally, he assumes that the Norse Orm Gamalson in the sundial inscription is the one composing/writing the OE inscription, when that is not necessarily the case. Ottar’s report on Norway being preserved in the OE Orosius is another instance where we’re not sure if Ottar reported the stuff in Norse and it was translated by the OE scribe, or if Ottar knew OE.

  10. Neal said

    John McWhorter writes in response to Amy West:

    Interesting. These are things I address in the academic versions.

    For one, big picture is key: it’s not whether Old English was shedding some inflections before there were that many Vikings (of course it was, and certainly more, by chance, in some places than others) but why it eventually lost so very MANY when NO other Germanic language did. If the reason wasn’t chance (i.e. no reason) then we look to the Vikings — for the other reasons that I also spell out.

    Also, as counterintuitive as it seems, closely related languages with lots of inflections, when they meet, often shed inflection. Examples include Koine Hindi in Fiji, Kituba “creole” Kikongo in Africa, Chinook Jargon, and countless others. The result of such meetings is not, as one would almost expect, mixing he inflections. So I don’t just make that up for English — it’s a regular aspect of language contact.

  11. Neal said

    Amy West had some more to say after reading the book. With her permission, I’m pasting in her email message to me.

    We talked maybe a year ago about McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue; specifically, I had some problems with his take based on my own knowledge of [Old English] and [Old Norse].

    Well, I finally read the chapter where he takes on Sapir-Whorf, and while I agree with his overall argument, I once again have a problem with his bringing the historical linguistics into it.

    I’m pretty sure you’ve already read it, so you know that that he has one section where he takes a diachronic look at Sapir-Whorf, comparing OE to modern English, and frankly, I think that’s the weakest part of his argument. First, he’s wrong in asserting that modern English is simpler than OE. I disagree: there’s just been a shift in where the complexity lies — the loss of inflectional endings leads to a need for tighter word order, for example. Second, there is a change in the culture and worldview from the OE period to the modern English period: he can’t dismiss that fact, which he tries to. Now, change in one (either language or culture) is not necessarily the cause or effect of the other, but changes in both did happen during the same period of time. In studying the Middle Ages we moderns often take one of two approaches: emphasizing the similarities or emphasizing the differences, and a position at either extreme is flawed. I think McWhorter’s position is flawed.

  12. [...] condensed history of English, including a summary of the relevant parts of McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and the obligatory excerpts from Beowulf and The Canterbury [...]

  13. Reblogged this on Blinding Light By Which We See and commented:
    Reblogging because I need to read this book. Eventually.

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