Mutt language

A thoroughly enjoyable "Great Courses" lecture got me interested in John McWhorter's many books on liguistics.  This week I've been reading "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue" and "The Power of Babel."  The first is about the mixed-up roots of English, while the second treats more generally the theories of how languages evolve, but still with a lot of emphasis of English's peculiar history.

Most of us notice early on, I suppose, that English generally has three broad choices in expressing an idea:  an earthy Teutonic word, a polite French alternative, and a technical Latin expression.  We think, reason, and cogitate; we fight, combat, and altercate.  It's easy enough to see how Old English arrived on the shores of Great Britain in an early Germanic form with Anglo-Saxon invaders who overwhelmed the native Celts; later, we got another dose of Germanic influence from the Vikings.  Latin came over with Julius Caesar and was preserved by the Church.  French enjoyed a brief supremacy after the Norman invasion.  These influences explain much of English's "hybrid" flavor.

McWhorter makes a case, however, for two additional influences that are more controversial and get less press.  First, he believes that English grammar, if not its vocabulary, was heavily influenced by Welsh and Cornish.  These Celtic languages, which are Indo-European but from a completely different branch from either Latin or the Germanic languages, share a highly unusual grammatical structure with English:  the "meaningless do" that causes modern English speakers to say "do you see the bird," whereas King James or earlier English styles would have followed the trend common to the rest of Europe, and said "saw you the bird."  Welsh and Cornish also share with Enblish a heavy reliance on the progressive tense to express ordinary action in the present, such as "I'm drinking the coffee," whereas our Germanic and Romance cousins (and our Old English ancestors) would say "I drink the coffee."

Second, McWhorter traces a surprising fraction of English vocabulary to a very old collision in Northern Europe between the proto-Germanic language and certain unidentified settlers who may well have been Phoenician/Carthaginians.  This influence is strongest in vocabulary having anything to do with the sea or fishing; thus, we have Latin-rooted words like mariner right alongside "seafarer," though (according to McWhorter) "sea" is of a mysterious linguistic ancestry neither Latin nor Germanic.  The Phoenicians are known for some surprisingly wide-ranging navigation.  As McWhorter acknowledges, however, the specific archeological evidence for Phoenician inroads into Northern Europe is quite slim.  Still, he makes an interesting linguistic case.

Much of "The Power of Babel" describes a long, slow, inevitable background of cyclical change that's something like the predictable but opposed geological forces of erosion and uplift.  Over centuries, auxiliary words abbreviate and glue themselves as prefixes and suffixes to other words, often in the form of case and gender endings.  (He gives the example of the French "pas," which originally signified merely a step, as in "he didn't walk a step," but later transformed itself into a piece of abstract grammatical machinery expressing general negation, not limited to physical motion, as in "il ne parle pas.")  At the same time, the natural tendency to swallow an unaccented syllable tends to erode many prefixes and suffixes over time, leaving word roots scraped clean again and ready to undergo the next cycle of accretion.

Against this background is another kind of change that results from the collision of cultures.  In McWhorter's view, vocabulary often is shared any time two languages rub up against each other, but the most fundamental grammatical shifts happen when large numbers of influential people are forced to learn a language as adults, as often happens when invaders take root and settle down.  People who learn a language in adulthood rarely master its most subtle intricacies, and one of the first things to go is a lot of fussy case and gender endings.  English's proto-Germanic ancestor may well have undergone such a simplification in the very distant past.  The evidence is even clearer that the Vikings more recently left English a less inflected language than its European neighbors, with scarcely anything remaining of that nominative-genetive-dative-accusative-male-female-neuter-singular-plural business that afflicts students of Latin, Greek, Russian, German, and to a lesser degree the modern Romance languages like French or Spanish.

Like most linguists, McWhorter is impatient of the notion of a "correct" form of any language.  He analogizes it to the idea that a popular song can have a canonical form.  The only thing he would characterize as an "error" is a usage that marks a speaker as non-native, like saying "We'd all prefer to go to the store now, isn't it?"  (He calls it talking like a Martian.)  Other variations in spelling, vocabulary, or grammar merely reflect local variations in dialect that are slowly developing into independent languages in the same imperceptible way that species differentiate from common ancestors.  At the same time, he's a great believer in the difference between clumsy and skillful communication within a particular dialect, and both writes and speaks in an extremely clear and standard English.

No comments: