June 5, 2017


English is not normal : No, English isn't uniquely vibrant or mighty or adaptable. But it really is weirder than pretty much every other language (John McWhorter, Aeon)

English started out as, essentially, a kind of German. Old English is so unlike the modern version that it feels like a stretch to think of them as the same language at all. Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon - does that really mean 'So, we Spear-Danes have heard of the tribe-kings' glory in days of yore'? Icelanders can still read similar stories written in the Old Norse ancestor of their language 1,000 years ago, and yet, to the untrained eye, Beowulf might as well be in Turkish.

The first thing that got us from there to here was the fact that, when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (and also Frisians) brought their language to England, the island was already inhabited by people who spoke very different tongues. Their languages were Celtic ones, today represented by Welsh, Irish and Breton across the Channel in France. The Celts were subjugated but survived, and since there were only about 250,000 Germanic invaders - roughly the population of a modest burg such as Jersey City - very quickly most of the people speaking Old English were Celts.

Crucially, their languages were quite unlike English. For one thing, the verb came first (came first the verb). But also, they had an odd construction with the verb do: they used it to form a question, to make a sentence negative, and even just as a kind of seasoning before any verb. Do you walk? I do not walk. I do walk. That looks familiar now because the Celts started doing it in their rendition of English. But before that, such sentences would have seemed bizarre to an English speaker - as they would today in just about any language other than our own and the surviving Celtic ones. Notice how even to dwell upon this queer usage of do is to realise something odd in oneself, like being made aware that there is always a tongue in your mouth.

At this date there is no documented language on earth beyond Celtic and English that uses do in just this way. Thus English's weirdness began with its transformation in the mouths of people more at home with vastly different tongues. We're still talking like them, and in ways we'd never think of. When saying 'eeny, meeny, miny, moe', have you ever felt like you were kind of counting? Well, you are - in Celtic numbers, chewed up over time but recognisably descended from the ones rural Britishers used when counting animals and playing games. 'Hickory, dickory, dock' - what in the world do those words mean? Well, here's a clue: hovera, dovera, dick were eight, nine and ten in that same Celtic counting list.

The second thing that happened was that yet more Germanic-speakers came across the sea meaning business. This wave began in the ninth century, and this time the invaders were speaking another Germanic offshoot, Old Norse. But they didn't impose their language. Instead, they married local women and switched to English. However, they were adults and, as a rule, adults don't pick up new languages easily, especially not in oral societies. There was no such thing as school, and no media. Learning a new language meant listening hard and trying your best. We can only imagine what kind of German most of us would speak if this was how we had to learn it, never seeing it written down, and with a great deal more on our plates (butchering animals, people and so on) than just working on our accents.

As long as the invaders got their meaning across, that was fine. But you can do that with a highly approximate rendition of a language - the legibility of the Frisian sentence you just read proves as much. So the Scandinavians did pretty much what we would expect: they spoke bad Old English. Their kids heard as much of that as they did real Old English. Life went on, and pretty soon their bad Old English was real English, and here we are today: the Scandies made English easier.

I should make a qualification here. In linguistics circles it's risky to call one language 'easier' than another one, for there is no single metric by which we can determine objective rankings. But even if there is no bright line between day and night, we'd never pretend there's no difference between life at 10am and life at 10pm. Likewise, some languages plainly jangle with more bells and whistles than others. If someone were told he had a year to get as good at either Russian or Hebrew as possible, and would lose a fingernail for every mistake he made during a three-minute test of his competence, only the masochist would choose Russian - unless he already happened to speak a language related to it. In that sense, English is 'easier' than other Germanic languages, and it's because of those Vikings.

Old English had the crazy genders we would expect of a good European language - but the Scandies didn't bother with those, and so now we have none. Chalk up one of English's weirdnesses. What's more, the Vikings mastered only that one shred of a once-lovely conjugation system: hence the lonely third‑person singular -s, hanging on like a dead bug on a windshield. Here and in other ways, they smoothed out the hard stuff.

They also followed the lead of the Celts, rendering the language in whatever way seemed most natural to them. It is amply documented that they left English with thousands of new words, including ones that seem very intimately 'us': sing the old song 'Get Happy' and the words in that title are from Norse. Sometimes they seemed to want to stake the language with 'We're here, too' signs, matching our native words with the equivalent ones from Norse, leaving doublets such as dike (them) and ditch (us), scatter (them) and shatter (us), and ship (us) vs skipper (Norse for ship was skip, and so skipper is 'shipper').

But the words were just the beginning. They also left their mark on English grammar. Blissfully, it is becoming rare to be taught that it is wrong to say Which town do you come from?, ending with the preposition instead of laboriously squeezing it before the wh-word to make From which town do you come? In English, sentences with 'dangling prepositions' are perfectly natural and clear and harm no one. Yet there is a wet-fish issue with them, too: normal languages don't dangle prepositions in this way. Spanish speakers: note that El hombre quien yo llegué con ('The man whom I came with') feels about as natural as wearing your pants inside out. Every now and then a language turns out to allow this: one indigenous one in Mexico, another one in Liberia. But that's it. Overall, it's an oddity. Yet, wouldn't you know, it's one that Old Norse also happened to permit (and which Danish retains).

We can display all these bizarre Norse influences in a single sentence. Say That's the man you walk in with, and it's odd because 1) the has no specifically masculine form to match man, 2) there's no ending on walk, and 3) you don't say 'in with whom you walk'. All that strangeness is because of what Scandinavian Vikings did to good old English back in the day.

Finally, as if all this wasn't enough, English got hit by a firehose spray of words from yet more languages. After the Norse came the French. The Normans - descended from the same Vikings, as it happens - conquered England, ruled for several centuries and, before long, English had picked up 10,000 new words. Then, starting in the 16th century, educated Anglophones developed a sense of English as a vehicle of sophisticated writing, and so it became fashionable to cherry-pick words from Latin to lend the language a more elevated tone.

It was thanks to this influx from French and Latin (it's often hard to tell which was the original source of a given word) that English acquired the likes of crucified, fundamental, definition and conclusion. These words feel sufficiently English to us today, but when they were new, many persons of letters in the 1500s (and beyond) considered them irritatingly pretentious and intrusive, as indeed they would have found the phrase 'irritatingly pretentious and intrusive'. (Think of how French pedants today turn up their noses at the flood of English words into their language.) There were even writerly sorts who proposed native English replacements for those lofty Latinates, and it's hard not to yearn for some of these: in place of crucified, fundamental, definition and conclusion, how about crossed, groundwrought, saywhat, and endsay?

But language tends not to do what we want it to. The die was cast: English had thousands of new words competing with native English words for the same things. One result was triplets allowing us to express ideas with varying degrees of formality. Help is English, aid is French, assist is Latin. Or, kingly is English, royal is French, regal is Latin - note how one imagines posture improving with each level: kingly sounds almost mocking, regal is straight-backed like a throne, royal is somewhere in the middle, a worthy but fallible monarch.

To speak English is to help create it.

Posted by at June 5, 2017 5:09 PM