Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue
Posted by Neal on November 3, 2009
“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:
- Bastard Tongues
- Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes
- Dreaming in Hindi
- Just a Phrase I’m Going Through
- Biting the Wax Tadpole
- Word Myths
- Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (children’s version)
- The Power of Babel
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.