On the English Language as Informed by the Battle of Hastings

Dr. Mead is turning out some good pieces lately. Many of you will enjoy this one.
If we hadn’t cleared all this useless rubbish out of the language we would still be spouting nonsense like this: I sit on thi biggi rocki, I throw thum biggum rockum, tho rocko is bigo. Tha girla, however, is biga and I go with thai biggai girlai to thi picturi showi. And so on.
The girla is biga? My guess is that we probably wouldn't have been saying that out loud even if we hadn't simplified the language.


Joseph W. said...

An essay by a very interesting scientific character I used to read suggests that the simplification of the language -- getting the inflections and genders out -- is something we owe to illiteracy. After a conquest, when the native language isn't in favor, people using it will simplify its rules. (This, he explains, is why Bulgarian is the only Slavic language that dropped the inflections and went to simpler articles, as all the Romance languages did after the fall of Rome. As he puts it, "Czech pays the price of having an old literature by having one more case than Russian.")

I was glad to find this online - but it's in a long pdf about something else; if you're interested, go to here and scroll to the phrase, "In 1971 or so."

Texan99 said...

Bigga girlis? "Talk about mudflaps, my baby's got 'em."

I just finished listening to a series of lectures on linguistics from The Great Courses. The lecturer said if you want to encounter a truly horrible challenge to learning a language, find a small, isolated people. You'll get weird sounds that no one can make properly unless he learned how when he was three, and every kind of misbegotten inflection and conjugation you can imagine based on by person, number, gender, tense, aspect, mood, voice, whim, creed, relative social status, or sexual perversion. He quoted a bit of some obscure Caucasian language that sounded like a cat coughing up a half-dead frog -- it includes three or four completely distinct guttural consonants. It also included every nasty grammatical stumbling block that's ever been encountered in a long-suffering linguistics student's study of exotic tongues.

English, on the other hand, was subjected to a vigorous pruning at the hands of a series of conquerors (especially Vikings) who had to learn it as adults, and without much devotion to fussy accuracy or trembling respect for native dialect. Almost all of our endings got scraped off, a natural progression in any language that was accelerated in ours. Of course, at the same time, English has a heavy freight of fairly recent borrowings from languages all over the Indo-European tree, so it has some of the worst spelling of any modern language.

Grim said...

Chinese, in spite of the Mongol and Manchurian experience, remains defiantly complex. However, it has developed a series of hand signals that allow people from different regions, dialects, or even non-Chinese speakers to do business easily. I had to learn almost no Mandarin to live easily in Hangzhou.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Texan99 has it right. But it's not just conquest, it is virtually any contact that creates an advantage for people to learn your language. So trade and conquering others also qualify.

As to spelling, writing things down slows their change, and we had the unfortunate combination of English words being written into dictionaries (which standardised spelling) just as worldwide trade was causing the language to lose a lot of its funky extra sounds. There are letters in English that have been silent for centuries. If we could have just held off a coupla decades in the 18th C...