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John McWhorter’s new book, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English,” aims to explain why English is an oddball among its sister Germanic languages.
“The Power of Babel,” McWhorter’s previous book, was hailed by Steven Pinker as “sharply reasoned, refreshingly honest, and thoroughly original” in its arguments; and as “an entertaining, instructive Henry Higgins of a volume” by Kirkus Reviews.
McWhorter writes in a down-to earth, intelligent way. He’s a linguist, not an etymologist (a “history of words” guy). He’s impatient with standard “history of English” books, which suggest that what’s involved is just waves of Anglo-Saxon and then Celt and then French and then Latinate and Greek-derived words, decorated with the occasional sidebar about how grammar changed a bit here and there.
Etymology is, in fact, just one tiny corner of what modern linguistic science involves. Indeed, most linguists are not formally trained in etymology. “Any of us sought for public comment are familiar with the public’s understandable expectation that to be a linguist is to carry thousands of etymologies in one’s head, when, in fact, on any given question as to where a word comes from, we usually have to go searching in a dictionary like anyone else.”
But linguists are more interested in how words are put together, and how the way they are put together now is different from how they were put together in the past.
We often call it “syntax.” Linguists call it “grammar.” It involves such matters as why conjugational endings (hablo, hablas, habla in Spanish) exist. English exhibits vestiges of conjugational forms too: for example, suffix s .
Linguists are interested in why the English sentence “Craig met his wife in London” would come out in Japanese as “Craig London in his wife met.” And why English has the auxiliary “did” (I did read the book) and “is” (he is reading) when our sibling languages never ever invented such a thing.
In McWhorter’s introduction we learn that English is one of about a dozen languages that are so basically similar in terms of words and grammar that they obviously began in a single language (although English is very much a prodigal son). The languages besides English in this family include German, Dutch, Yiddish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic, plus some less familiar languages like Faroese and Frisian, as well as Afrikaans (which stemmed from the transplantation of Dutch into Africa.)
The parent of all these languages was spoken about twenty-five hundred years ago in what is now Denmark (and a ways southward) and on the southerly ends of Sweden and Norway. Linguists (not knowing what the original speakers called the language) have named it “Proto-Germanic.”
How do we know about this language? We are able to reconstruct a great many of that language’s words by comparing words in today’s Germanic languages and tracing back. For example, English daughter is Tochter in German, dochter in Dutch, datter in Norwegian, dotter in Swedish, dottir in Icelandinc. Using techniques developed by linguists in the nineteenth century and that are still being refined, it is possible to deduce — with the help of now extinct Germanic languages preserved in ancient documents like Gothic, in which the word was dauhtar — that all of these words are the spawn of a single original one, daukhtro.
But English is weird, compared to these other languages, and McWhorter wants to tell us how and why.
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, 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.
(I’ve peeked ahead, and it appears that the Welsh and the Cornish people were involved in the mutation.)
Once we know the real history of English, says McWhorter, we can understand that certain things we’ve been taught are hoaxes. It is not true, he writes, that “Billy and me went to the store” is patently illogical (the French say it that way!) And it is not true that the structure of people’s native language reflects how they think.
It’s not, he wants us to know, all about words that just happened into our language. It’s also about things speakers of other languages did to English grammar. It’s about what happened when Old English was assaulted by Vikings and bastardized by Celts.
It’s about how English is “genuinely weird — miscegenated, abbreviated. Interesting.”
And so he begins Chapter One of the book in the middle of the fifth century A.D. in Britain, after the Romans left, when…
Well, that’s the end of the introduction.
One: “We Speak a Miscegenated Grammar;” Chapter Two: “A Lesson From the Celtic Impact;” Three: “We Speak a Battered Grammar;” Four: “Does Our Grammar Channel Our Thought?;” and Five: “Skeletons in the Closet.”
After its 200 page text there are 14 pages of notes on the sources and an index. The book (hardcover) is a nifty 5″ by 7″ size, nice for tucking into your handbag or backpack. Cost is $22.50.
“Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” by John McWhorter is published by Gotham Books. ISBN 978-1-592-40395-0.
John McWhorter is the author of 12 books including NY Times Bestseller “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America,” “The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language,” and “Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care.” He is an expert on the birth of Creoles. He is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist for the New York Sun, and has appeared widely in broadcast media on Jim Lehrer’s Newshour and Fresh Air.
Two separate lecture courses of his (on the story of language and linguistics) are available from The Teaching Company (www.teach12.com).
tutoring in Columbus OH: Adrienne Edwards 614-579-6021 or email firstname.lastname@example.org