Monday, December 17, 2012

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, by John McWhorter

So many histories of the English language focus on etymology:  Look at all the fascinating languages from which we've borrowed vocabulary!  I love words. John McWhorter loves words. But a language cannot function on its lexicon alone -- there must be a grammar, or a set of rules to put the words into a meaningful pattern.  English has some fascinating grammatical eccentricities which set it rather far apart from its Germanic kin, and Mr. McWhorter is one of very few linguists to discuss them in terms that a general audience will enjoy.
English's Germanic relatives are like assorted varieties of deer -- antelopes, 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, echo-locating 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.
He starts by examining our 'meaningless do'.  Why do we use it?  Other Germanic languages do not use it. In these sentences, the do has no function, yet it's required to avoid sounding like a foreign tourist, asking "Have you not a passport?" (That would be the exact translation from most European languages.)  When and from where did English pick up this quirk?

The other Germanic languages have grammatical features that English has shed, such as gender and case inflection. When and why did English drop these things when none of its cousins did so?

McWhorter reminds us that when it comes to detective work on ancient grammars, we must accept a certain amount of circumstantial evidence and extrapolation. In early times, reading and writing were limited to the very few educated and clerical men. In England, Christian writing would have been in Latin, although that's not the language the people were speaking. One of our earliest works in Old English, Beowulf, showed a language that "had been jangling with case markers, and nouns had three genders as in Latin, Greek, and Russian."  Where did they go? By the time Chaucer penned The Canterbury Tales in what we now refer to as Middle English, they had vanished.

The Normans, as we know, invaded in England 1066, bringing with them 150 years of Norman French as the official language. Surely the natives continued to speak English at home, but all official documents were written in French.  When English re-appeared, it reflected the spoken language, stripped of its case markers and genders, and with the 'meaningless do'.  How did such massive changes occur over such a seemingly short time? Well, McWhorter says, they didn't.

The 'meaningless do' is found in Welsh and Cornish, a couple of Celtic languages native to the British Isles.  When the Anglo-Saxons invaded, they did not slaughter all the Celts nor even completely subjugate them, and thus, this oddity made its way into English over centuries.  It appeared in writing about a thousand years later, because only then did the written language reflect the popularly spoken one.
However, starting in the Middle English period, when it became acceptable to write English more like it was actually spoken, this would have included not only virtually case-free nouns, but also our Celticisms. Therefore, it is not that Celticisms only entered English almost a thousand years after Germanic speakers met Celts in Britain. It is merely that Celticisms did not reach the page until then, which is quite a different thing. People writing the way they actually spoke. 
Likewise, it took centuries for English to rid itself of the genders and case markers. Where did they go?  Mr. McWhorter suggests that the Vikings axed them. When they came down to the British Isles in their ships, they found the English spoken there to be very complex. What do we do when we can't deal with a complex system of suffixes?  We tend to drop them.  And once again, the spoken language at that time would never have appeared in print, so when Middle English appeared after the 150 years of the Norman invasion, the absence of all those suffixes appears to be a much more abrupt change that it really was.  In the following excerpt, McWhorter uses a lovely analogy to illustrate the limited view of more conventional linguists who insist that the written record is the only acceptable proof of a language's changes over time.  Usually in stultifying academic prose, no less. They want facts, evidence, hard proof. That, however, is the problem with language -- in the absence of sound recordings or written records, we must gather the circumstantial evidence and surmise.  It does not really seem like such a stretch to reach McWhorter's conclusion that the Vikings lopped off all of Old English's pesky suffixes.
When it comes to charting how English got to be the way it is now from what it was in Beowulf, the common consensus is all about describing rather than explaining. "The such-and-such suffix -en eroded into -uh, then x centuries later it is gone entirely except in this document, likely written in a conservative register due to influence from factor y; meanwhile -um eroded into -en; see in Figure 7 how the erosion took place at such-and-such a rate in documents from this region but more slowly in documents from that region . . ." That is, this kind of work shows us what happened decade by decade in the English scriptures. Treating scripture as the only valid or interesting evidence in studying how English changed in ancient centuries risks leaving untold forever an interesting chapter in the saga of English. This is especially unsavory in that treating the peculiarity of Modern English as a matter of chance is like walking past cars parked along a street and happening upon one with the windshield broken in, three hubcaps gone, and no license plates, and deciding that all of this must have happened via ordinary wear and tear. But obviously, someone broke into this particularly smashed-up car. Something happened to it. Attention must be paid. We should report this car. Especially since this happens to be a neighborhood well known as a favored haunt of -- oh, let's just toss the analogy and say Vikings! ...
I suppose we should thank the Vikings for simplifying our language, but in rendering it such a misfit amongst its European relatives, they have made life a bit more challenging for us, as well. McWhorter of course cites Mark Twain's brilliant satire, The Awful German Language, as one example of an Anglophone struggling madly to re-learn the genders and cases that our language shed centuries ago.
English's simplicity is, in terms of explanation rather than mere documentation, weird. It is evidence of a blind-siding by adults too old to just pick up English thoroughly the way children of immigrants do. The Scandinavian Vikings left more than a bunch of words in English. They also made it an easier language. In this, in a sense, they clipped Anglophones' wings. The Viking impact, stripping English of gender and freeing us of attending to so much else that other Germanic speakers genuflect to in every conversation, made it harder for us to master other European languages.
Being very old, Bookface first encountered the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that the grammar of one's language colours one's world view and thinking processes) in her introductory Linguistics course in 1984.  I don't remember the professor endorsing it, but I don't recall her denouncing it, either. McWhorter completely discredits it and yet marvels at its durability.
The hypothesis has .. failed. Repeatedly and conclusively. Decade after decade, no one has turned up anything showing that grammar marches with culture and thought in the way that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claimed. At best, there are some shards of evidence that language affects thought patterns in subtle ways, which do not remotely approach the claims of Whorf. Yet the Sapir-Whorf idea is cited enthusiastically in textbooks even today, and is a favorite approach to language by journalists. In 2004 a New York Times writer supposed that the language of the Kawesqar tribe in Chile has no future tense marking because, having been nomads traveling often in canoes in the past, they would usually have been so unclear on what was going to happen in the future that there was no need to ever talk about it (!). Never mind that Japanese has no future markers either, and yet the Japanese hardly seem unconcerned with the future.
Whorf, as it turns out, was a fire inspector by day, and an amateur linguist in his spare time.  I don't mean to suggest that such a person has nothing of value to offer.  Einstein, of course, dreamt up his theory of general relativity during his quiet times at the patent office where he worked as a clerk. Unfortunately, Mr. Whorf based his hypothesis on a very limited knowledge of the Hopi language and some very flawed extrapolations from that.  

Why, the author wonders, do we still cherish such a flawed hypothesis, and yet reject the ideas that the Celts and Vikings moulded English grammar, when there is much more substantial indication that they did so? Besides being a thoroughly enjoyable read, this book was an effective prod to ask questions.  Question theories, hypotheses, theses and those who present them. Ask why one language has certain characteristics, and why another does not. And probe your language more deeply than its collection of words.  

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