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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue
The Untold History of English

John McWhorter

ARJ2 Chapter: Evolution of Consciousness
Published by Gotham Books/NY in 2008
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2011

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I pride myself on speaking English. I really do speak English. I also do write English. I'm writing English right now. I rejoice in writing English, but I do not rejoice myself in the same way that I pride myself. Something is going on in English and we native speakers do it all the time without noticing that we're doing it. We talk about something being in progress using [-ing] form of verbs and we use the verb "do" frequently even though it has no meaning when used as an auxiliary verb as in "I do rejoice". What is the difference between "Why do I write English?" and "Why I write English?"? None, except we usually use the word "do" in such sentences. How is it we say "I pride myself on my work" but I rejoice sounds funny if you add myself to it? Why does the author McWhorter spend the first 27 pages of this book discussing the meaningless word "do" which is indispensable to our way of talking? If you disagree that do is indispensable, try spending a day doing without the verb do, and you'll soon understand how valuable and useful the meaningless verb do is. It does not make sense, or does it?

If this sounds like useless gobbledygook to you, you won't enjoy this wonderful book, so stop reading the review now and return to speaking English and using do without any idea of how or why you do. At one point in this book, I imagined some lady embroidering a sampler with instructions for embroidering and wondering at some point how many stitches there were in the word stitches as she worked on that word in her sampler. That may give you an idea of what reading this book is like.

Why did he write this book in the first place? I knew James McWhorter from taking his Teaching Co. course, The Story of Human Language several years ago. In it he looked at how the 6,000 languages of the world evolved with special emphasis on English which evolved along with many other languages, influenced by the peoples who used those foreign tongues and who incorporated many words from them into English. I had already learned elsewhere that the Anglo-Saxons words in English like hat, house, and boat had more elegant words from the French which supplanted them like chapeau, chateau, and bateau, but now I learn that Latin slips in alongside to form a third level:

[page ix] And then even cuter are the triplets, where the low-down word is English, the really ritzy one is Latin, and the French one hovers somewhere in between: Anglo-Saxon ask is humble; French-derived question is more buttoned up; Latinate interrogate is down-right starchy.

Germanic languages are more like each other than any one of them is like English. Some examples will help illustrate and the author provides many examples.

[page xv] For example, English daughter is Tochter in German, dochter in Dutch, datter in Norwegian, dotter in Swedish, dottir in Icelandic. With techniques developed by linguists in the nineteenth century and refined since, we can deduce with the help of now extinct Germanic languages preserved in ancient documents, like Gothic, in which the word was daúhtar that all of these words are the spawn of a single original one, daukhtrô.
      In all of the Germanic languages but English, their descent from that same ancient language is clear first, it is true, from their words. No Germanic language's vocabulary happens to be as mixed as English's, and so the others' vocabularies match up with one another more than English's does with any of them. German's word for entrance is Eingang, Dutch has ingang, Swedish ingdng, Yiddish areingang, Icelandic innganga. Before the Invasion of the Words, Old English had ingang, but later, English took entrance from French.

Other Germanic languages will easily recognize our word daughter but not our word entrance. But the syntax which determines word order is dramatically different as I quickly learned when I studied German for the first time in college. Here's a dramatic example of several of the differences between German and English in one sentence which also illustrates our usage of the verb do.

[page xvi, xvii] To see that English is the oddball, take a look at a sentence in English and German, where all of the English sentence's words happen to be good old native ones, having come down from Old English. No Old Norse, French, or Latin:
      Did she say to my daughter that my father has come alone and is feeling better?
      Sagte sie meiner Tochter, dass mein Vater allein gekommen ist und sich besser fühlt?
      The words, you see, are not a problem. Even if you have never taken German, you can match up the German words pretty well with the English ones. Sagte is said, Tochter is daughter, allein is alone, and so on.

The author breaks down the words to reveal the structure of the German sentence which matches the structure (syntax) of most Germanic languages, but is strikingly different from English in several ways demonstrated by this one sentence.

[page xvii]
      Sagte sie meiner Tochter,
      said she to-my    daughter
      dass mein Vater allein gekommen ist
      that my father alone    come           is
      und sich        besser fühlt?
      and himself better feels

Do we usually start a question with a verb? No, but the Germanic languages do. Instead we usually use the meaningless word "do" to help us get started on a question, while a German might ask, "Start we usually with a verb? Ja!"

In English we always say, "I have arrived" as if we possessed our arrival, whereas many other languages say, "I am arrived" as if arrival were a state of being. A condition of being does make better sense than a possession, however, language rarely follows logic, but rather something else, and that something else is exactly the subject of McWhorter's book.

[page xvii, xvii] Word for word, the German sentence is "Said she to my daughter that my father alone come is and himself better feels?" The way German puts the words together is a whole new world for an English speaker. English has Did she say, . . ? German has Said she. . . ? Why does English have that business with Did she say. . . ? Why did? "Did" what?
      English has to my daughter; German bundles the "to-ness" onto the end of the word for my, meiner i.e, German is a language with lots of case marking, like Latin. In English, case marking remains only in shards, such as the possessive 's and moribund oddities like whom. In English, one has come, but in German one is come (just as many will recall from French's grand old passé composé: je suis venu ).

The author has laid down the gauntlet in his Introduction and if we aren't interested in how we came to use "do" or "-ing" words or "to" instead of endings of words, no need to proceed into the book proper. I know that many people never read Forewords or Introductions to books, so I often spend a lot of time reviewing the material in those sections as authors reveal their plans for books in exactly those places.

[page xx] 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 enjoyed McWhorter's comparison of English to it closest relatives as dolphins to deer. Clearly something happened during the evolution of dolphins which didn't happen to four-legged mammals. His use of the word "echolocating" in his description of dolphin activity should be replaced with phizualizing as I describe in my book The Spizznet File. To phizualize is to create a visual image of one's surroundings from the ultrasonic waves bouncing back. Since dolphins have two phonation devices and the visual images they create are in the same bandwidth as their phonation or speaking devices, dolphins, I postulate, are able to speak pictures, i.e., spizualize images to other dolphins. Since we have ultrasonic imaging devices which create images for us to view, is it so hard to believe that dolphins can do the same thing with their own built-in equipment? After all, the portion of their brain devoted to processing audio input is the same portion of our brain devoted to processing visual inputs. And no one would deny that our brain creates better images than our machines do. If dolphins speak pictures, humans should be able to create machines to view those pictures and the first example of inter-species communication could occur!

Humans speaking in English are handicapped compared to dolphins speaking images. We must use our hands as we speak about some object we have seen to help create the three-dimensional object. Watch engineers speaking you'll notice how they use their hands to create the shape of the object they're describing, like where the on-off switch is located in relation to the valve it controls on a mechanical skid. A dolphin would simply transmit the 3-D image to another dolphin without need for words.

As for how all the changes got into English, it seems that English got chopped up by the Vikings and seasoned by the Welsh and Cornish people and we've been enjoying the language stew which resulted ever since.

[page xxii, xxiii] While the Vikings were mangling English, Welsh and Cornish people were seasoning it. Their rendition of English mixed their native grammars with English grammar, and the result was a hybrid tongue. We speak it today. . . . The real story of English is about what happened when Old English was battered by Vikings and bastardized by Celts. The real story of English shows us how English is genuinely weird miscegenated, abbreviated. Interesting.

One of the ways of coming to terms with an author is to discover the origin of the title of the book, the eponymous inspiration, and for this book, the revelation comes in the penultimate paragraph of the Introduction, which if the readers skipped, would be lost on them forever. They might be left thinking the author merely wanted to shock potential readers into buying his book, instead of sharing the origin of the unique aspects of English in a memorable way.

[page xxii, xxiii] It's not, then, all about words that just happened into our vocabulary. It's also about things speakers of other languages did to English grammar, and actions speak louder than words. The real story of English is about what happened when Old English was battered by Vikings and bastardized by Celts. The real story of English shows us how English is genuinely weird miscegenated, abbreviated. Interesting.

The verb form write is the present tense, but it is never used to indicate present tense except by the addition of the -ing ending, e. g., I write everyday, but I am writing right now. This is a distinction which other European languages do not make. A Spaniard would say "Escribo" and a Frenchman would say, "J'écris" while an Englishman, "I'm writing." (Page 3) A similar situation for our usage of "do" as an auxiliary verb it happens only in English. Other languages have words for "do" but it is not used as an appendage to another verb as in English. In this next passage we see "do" and "-ing" together in one sentence, a rather common sentence to us, but very strange to foreigners hearing it for the first time and trying to learn what it means.

[page 4] English, then is the only Germanic language out of the dozen in which there could be a sentence like Did you see what he is doing? rather than Saw you what he does? Since none of the other offshoots of Proto-Germanic seems to have sprouted oddities like these, one might ask whether there is a reason English has.

The author explains the Welsh/Celtic roots of do and -ing usage and how the natives of Britain were speaking sentences using the two forms before the roots of English were ever planted in its soil.

[page 10] So: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes brought a language to Britain in which a sentence like Did you see what he is doing? would have sounded absurd. The people already living in Britain spoke some of the very, very few languages in the world and possibly the only ones where that sentence would sound perfectly normal. After a while that kind of sentence was being used in English as well.

One of my favorite songs that my mother sang to me as a very young boy was "Bye, Bye, Baby Bunting, Daddy's gone a'hunting." I had no trouble understanding it, but what was the reason for a' in front of hunting? There was a drift in language which led to our saying simply, I am hunting, which went through the stage of saying I am a-hunting.

[page 9] It went like this. In Old English one could say "I am on hunting" to mean that you were hunting. This was, obviously, just like the Welsh "Mary is in singing." Then in Middle English, the on started wearing down and one might say "I am a-hunting," just as we now say "Let's go" instead of "Let us go."

One of the key precepts that McWhorter uses in his layout of the evolution of English is that written language rarely reflected the actual way people of the time talked.(1) Writing until recent centuries was reserved mostly for religious texts and that language, while understandable to the average person, was never spoken outside of churches. Often in pioneer days in America, the Bible was the only book in a frontier home. Anyone who spoke the language written in the Bible would be ridiculed or called a Preacher.

[page 53] In ancient times, few societies had achieved widespread literacy. Writing was primarily for high literary, liturgical, and commercial purposes. Spoken language changed always, but the written form rested unchanging on the page. There was not felt to be a need to keep the written form in step with the way people were changing the language with each generation.

Even so, the official "History of Language" which McWhorter derides in this book claims things about language to be true based only upon the written languages at the time. To do so is to miss completely the fruitful changes occurring over long periods of time in the spoken language which doesn't appear in written form for many centuries. Basically the challenge for McWhorter is to postulate those changes, lacking written records, and he does so admirably by using his several principles to show how languages intermixed in verbal spoken form long before any written records of the changes appeared.

Our modern sense of the closeness of spoken language to written language can lead us to mistaken conclusions about language usage in the past.

[page 34] . . . there was always a natural tendency, which lives on today, to view the written language as the "legitimate" or "true" version, with the spoken forms of the language as degraded or, at best, quaint certainly not something you would take the trouble of etching onto the page for posterity with quill and ink. As such, the sense we moderns have that language on the page is supposed to more or less reflect the way the language is spoken would have seemed peculiar to a person living a thousand years ago, or even five hundred.

We make a huge mistake if we read Old English and imagine this was the way people of the time spoke in their daily conversations.

[page 40, 41] The Old English in writing, then, is the language as it was when the Germanic invaders brought it across the North Sea, preserved as a formal language, a standard code required on the page, kept largely unchanging by generation after generation of scribes and writers imitating the language of the last. The language used every day was quite different, not policed and preserved the way the written language was, free to change naturally as all spoken language does, such as by losing suffixes one by one.

When the Normands invaded England and insisted on French being used by everyone for 150 years, this blackout of written English, when it ended, was followed by an English being written close to the way people of the time spoke. No one alive remembered anything written in the old way. Now we can understand how the Celtic/Welsh innovations of the language only began to show up a thousand years later in writing. These changes that had gradually entered the spoken language over those ten centuries were appearing for the first time in written form in Middle English.

[page 42, 43] 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 the 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.

It is as if languages bruise by knocking into each other in the course of everyday speech. The Celtic language bumped into English for a thousand plus years and two prominent bruises remained behind, our usage of do and -ing. After the continental armies had conquered the Celts in Britain in every way visible, the people who remained behind had been invisibly conquered by the Celtic language which exists today in the language we call English, which is the most prevalent and widespread language in the world of the Internet today, due in no small part to the bruises of simplification it endured from the Celts. Score a huge victory for the Celts.

[page 61] Celtic grammar is underneath all of those utterly ordinary utterances in Modern English. Our language is a magnificent bastard.

Want to gracefully split an infinite? Is ending a sentence with a preposition a length you simply would not go to? Well, McWhorter reminds us that our English lost all of its suffixes in the morning of our Western Civilization! (page 65) Give it a rest, he seems to be saying. Write English to be comprehensible not to impress people or otherwise coerce them into rules. Everyone deserves to have their own way of writing without having to klutz it up with "his or her own way of writing." As Winston Churchill famously said when asked about whether he thought it was okay to end a sentence with a preposition, "That is an absurdity up with which I shall not put!" Mangling our English because of grammatical rules is exactly such an absurdity, so long as the language is comprehensible. Want to use a plural pronoun for a singular noun as I did above? Go ahead. That usage has been around for 700 years at least.

[page 65] 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 Iche mon in thayre degree "(Each man in their degree").

Verbs in all the Germanic languages, except one, need to be in second place. You can say in German "I saw a movie." But if you wish to say "Yesterday I saw a movie." the verb "saw" has to rocket into second place crossing over the subject "I", like this "Yesterday saw I a movie." All this sounds natural in German, but in English it is simply not done! Linguists call this peculiarity of the verb rocketing into second place, aptly, V2. (Page 103) This was too tantalizing for me to pass up writing a short poem about.

      Does the English Channel grammar?
      Do the English Channel?
      Is the English Channel arrived?
            Did V2 Rockets cross the English Channel?
            Did V2 rocket across the English Channel?
      Why is it the English Channel
      instead of the French Channel?
It split the French coast into Lesser and Greater Brittany, did it not?

Let's summarize what we have learned from McWhorter's magnificent book. Our English arrived from across the channel as a new schoolmarm all dressed in ornate ruffles, with multilayered petticoats, and a feathery bonnet. Over time she began to sway to the music of the Vikings and the Celts, and one by one she stripped off her outer garments as she danced to her audience of rough seamen, fighters, and farmers who demanded that she reveal her inner charms to them, or else. She peeled away her frilly suffixes and dropped them to the floor. She tore away the frivolous feminine and masculine endings from all of her undergarment nouns. Soon her beauty, remaining almost naked on the stage, revealed to everyone the English we all speak and write so lovingly today. To paraphrase page 124, "the people whose language became the most user-friendly member of the family of Germanic Languages lived on an island that was lustily disturbed by invading migrants." English may be a bastard language, but the Bastard is user-friendly and has been adopted as the lingua-franca of the entire world since the advent of the Internet.


---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. Many were shocked to read, in Mark Twain's writings, a dialect written down that most people had heard spoken but had never seen written down before.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne

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