Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

John McWhorter

Created on Saturday, October 15, 2011.
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Another book that examines the changes in English grammar and structure over the centuries (which the author insists is all but ignored in most discourse), and stresses how different English really is from all of its sister languages.


“Thus my frustration with The History of English as a story about words comes from the fact that The History of English is also a story about grammar. To wit, the pathway from Beowulf to The Economist has involved as much transformation in grammar as in words, more so, in fact, than in any of English’s close relatives. English is more peculiar among its relatives, and even the world’s languages as a whole, in what has happened to its grammar than in what has happened to its vocabulary.”


“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. Of course, dolphins are also different from deer in being blue or gray rather than brown. But that is the mere surface of the difference, just as English’s foreign words are just the surface of its difference from German and the gang. English is different in its whole structural blueprint.”


“The preposition rule was cooked up in the seventeenth century under the impression that because Latin doesn’t end sentences in prepositions, English shouldn’t. That makes one wonder when we are going to start cutting our English to conform to Arabic, Russian, Mandarin, and other languages with grand histories and literatures. The split-infinitive business was a nineteenth-century fetish, and may also have been based on the fact that Latin doesn’t split infinitives — because its infinitives are just one word! We say to end; Latin had terminare, period, as unsplittable as the atom was once thought to be.”


“Oh, those lapses, darling. So many of us walk around letting fly with “errors.” We could do better, but we’re so slovenly, so rushed amid the hurly-burly of modern life, so imprinted by the “let it all hang out” ethos of the sixties, that we don’t bother to observe the “rules” of “correct” grammar. To a linguist, if I may share, these “rules” occupy the exact same place as the notion of astrology, alchemy, and medicine being based on the four humors. The “rules” make no logical sense in terms of the history of our language, or what languages around the world are like.”


“Take the idea that it is wrong to say If a student comes before I get there, they can slip their test under my office door, because student is singular and they “is plural.” Linguists traditionally observe that esteemed writers have been using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for almost a thousand years. As far back as the 1400s, in the Sir Amadace story, one finds the likes of Iche mon in thayre degree (“Each man in their degree”). Maybe when the sentence is as far back as Middle English, there is a sense that it is a different language on some level than what we speak — the archaic spelling alone cannot help but look vaguely maladroit, as if Middle English speakers were always a little tipsy on their mead. But Shakespeare is not assumed to have been in his cups when he wrote in The Comedy of Errors, “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend” (Act IV, Scene III). Later, Thackeray in Vanity Fair tosses off “A person can’t help their birth.””


“The problem is that with all due understanding of that feeling, the “rules” we are taught to observe do not make sense, period. All attention paid to such things is like medievals hanging garlic in their doorways to ward off evil spirits. In an ideal world, the time English speakers devote to steeling themselves against, and complaining about, things like Billy and me, singular they, and impact as a verb would be better spent attending to genuine matters of graceful oral and written expression.”


“English is, as always, the odd one out on this. It is the only genderless Germanic language, except for one dialect of Swedish — but then there is another Swedish dialect, and others in Denmark, that retain all three of Proto-Germanics’ genders. No modern dialect of English retains gender — not marked on nouns like Spanish’s -o and -a endings, not in the form of distinct articles like Swedish’s en and ett, and certainly not with endings on adjectives. In fact, English is the only Indo-European language in all of Europe that has no gender — the only one.”


“This was a basically bookless realm, recall, and so a Norseman did not see tables of endings laid out neatly on a page like this, nor did anyone teach him the language formally at all (short of perhaps being told occasional words, but that doesn’t allow you to express yourself). It was an oral world — people just talked; they didn’t write or read. The Norseman just heard these endings being used on the fly. It must have been confusing, and as such, tempting to just leave the endings off when speaking English, since he could be understood without them most of the time. This was the recipe for what eventually became Modern English, where the only remnant of the present-tense conjugations above is the third person singular -s, a little smudge left over from ye olde -th.”


“This is a quirk common in European languages, that often you do things “to yourself” which in English you just do. It tends to be with verbs having to do with moving and feeling. So in English, I have to go, but in Spanish, Tengo que irme (“I have to go ‘myself’ “). With moving, this makes a kind of sense to an English speaker, although it seems a little redundant to us to have to specify that I am exerting the act of go-age upon myself. But the ones involving feelings are something else: I remember in English, Me acuerdo in Spanish (“I remember myself”), meaning not that you are idly recalling a past image of yourself, but that the remembering is something that happens to you, thus affecting not something or someone else, but you. While about the only Modern English versions of these are behave yourself, to perjure yourself, and to pride yourself (upon), many European languages mark hundreds of verbs in that way.”


“To strike an archaic note, in English we start popping off hithers and thithers. Come hither, go thither, but stay here or stay there. Hither, thither, and whither were the “moving” versions of here, there, and where in earlier English. It’s something you still have to pick up in German: “Where’s the coffee?” Hier. But Come here! is Komm her! “Komm hier” marks the foreigner; I’ll just bet that’s one of the things Germans say to imitate English speakers’ schoolboy German. German also has its thither (hin) and whither (wohin), and in fact there is no Germanic language that has no directional adverbs of this kind. These are Germanic languages, after all: precise, specific! But one Germanic language doesn’t care so much about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. And it used to. Old English had a good old-fashioned trio: hider, þider, and hwider. These were passed down into Middle English as hither, thither, and whither. But they eventually blew away like autumn leaves. Today they are gone.”


“Supposedly, what happened to English is so unremarkable. But the 250 languages of Australian Aborigines are known for having lots of suffixes, and even though the languages have been spoken there for several tens of thousands of years, not a single one has drifted into a state like English’s. What this means is that something happened to English. Someone did something to it. If a bike does collapse under its rider, then we know that earlier that day, somebody loosened all of its screws so that it would fall apart after being ridden hard for a while. Somebody unscrewed English. Attention must be paid.”


“But Icelandic stands as virtual confirmation that adult learners screwing things up was a key factor in how English came to be the way it is. The people who can still read ancient sagas live on a remote, undisturbed island. The people whose language became the most user-friendly member of the family live on an island nearer the Continent, that was, due to that proximity, lustily disturbed by invading migrants.”


“They have no way of explaining why this particular car is so banged up, and really, they don’t care. They have done their job to depict this car’s state from one moment to the next and that’s all. Photographers document — but historians explain.”


“Whorf, as it happened, was a fire insurance inspector by day, and perhaps it was partly because of this that he did not know Hopi very well. Quite simply, Hopi has as much equipment for placing events in time as any language. Here is Start sharpening your arrows; we’re going hunting: Um angwu pay ùuhoy tsuku-toyna-ni; you beforehand already your arrow make-a-point-will   itam maq-to-ni. we hunt-go-will”


“Most of the world’s languages have a special word for the first spot, like first, but then just say, as it were, “two-th,” “three-th.” So English’s second, Spanish’s segundo, and Russian’s vtoroj (when two is dva) mean that these languages channel our European language speakers’ thoughts into a heightened awareness of secondness, I suppose. That is, an English, Spanish, or Russian speaker is more sensitive to things being second than a German, a Turk, an Inuit, or an Israeli . . . Come on. We just happen to have a distinct word marking secondness; the Boro just happen to have a word for pretending to love.”


“All Homo sapiens engage in advanced mentation — yes, hallelujah. However, this doesn’t make the Cree speaker a paragon of enlightened selflessness because you comes earlier than I in his way of saying I see you, any more than our ability to explicitly get across If you’d have seen my sister, you’d have known she was pregnant makes us Anglophones wizards of truth versus falsity compared to people in China.”

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.