English is a strange language in more ways than just vocabulary. In “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”John McWhorter, a linguist author and professor at Columbia University, explores this. Having initially devoting his research toward the Creole languages, McWhorter was led to investigating why English is so weird. With good humor, a thought provoking topic, and adequate examples for comparison, McWhorter has crafted a great book that I believe every English-speaking person as well as Anglophones that are bilingual should read.
The journey begins as McWhorter explains why English grammar has so been so corrupted from all the other Germanic languages that it shares its kinship with. As the Anglo-Saxons migrated west across the North Sea, they encountered the Britons, a Celtic speaking people. First, why do we say do and did like we do — meaningless –when other Germanic languages and most languages in general would omit it?
For example, in German, if you were to say Did you see what he is doing? you would say Hast du gesehen, was er macht? which comes out as have you seen what he makes? Not exactly the best translation and it’s because of English’s do. Another example: in German Ich habe es nicht means I do not have it. No do, just I have it not. Why do we need it at all in sentences like that? Why not take German’s example? Why do we also occasionally say You did do that instead of simply You did that? Just to clarify, did is just another form of do. When looking at other languages we notice the same thing; they all have no sense of do like English, that is, until you get to the Celtic languages, specifically Welsh and Cornish. In fact, the only Indo-European language family to have meaningless do like English is the Celtic one.
McWhorter believes that as the Anglo-Saxons migrated west, they encountered and assimilated the Britons (natives in England and Wales at the time) leading to the Britons making mistakes when learning English and passing their mistakes down until even Anglo-Saxons began making them. There are first a few misconceptions with the migration as a whole and McWhorter’s understanding of it, though it doesn’t harm his point or argument
The Common Misconception:
When talking about the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, you would be hard-pressed to find someone that would claim anything other than that the native Britons were completely wiped or driven out of England. Yet, modern research has proven otherwise. DNA research in 2016 revealed that today’s English people are on average only about 40% Anglo-Saxon. Here are the results:
Note: British means Anglo-Saxon, Irish means Celtic, most likely from the native Britons, and Europe West means from France, Germany, and the low countries
After this, it’s clear that the Anglo-Saxons did not completely wipe out the native population, but rather they interbred with them and after several centuries, assimilated them into the common English identity. Due to select writings by Anglo-Saxon scholars and kings, we can then assume that the Britons retained their identity well into the 9th century (though they most likely were increasingly unaware of their ethnic heritage) as a sort of lower class, though many did have higher status as nobles and part of their lord’s retinue.
McWhorter is right to have issue with the claim of a Briton genocide; however, he claims that the migration consisted of only about 250,000 Anglo-Saxons, most of which, were men. He then claims that the migration would have been insignificant when it comes to genetics but as we can see above, that certainly was not the case. The Anglo-Saxons obviously moved in robust numbers, large enough to become the majority or near to it, but they failed to entirely eliminate the Britons from the land.
So, the Britons spoke a language (Welsh) from an entirely different set of languages, survived the Anglo-Saxon migration in numbers large enough to rival the Anglo-Saxons, and assimilated before long, which meant having to learn Old English, a language foreign to them. Still, linguists deny that the Celtic languages influenced English’s grammar at all, instead dismissing it as an accident or unknown.
McWhorter expresses in the book that it is naive and perhaps even ignorant to dismiss English’s meaningless do as simply a mere accident and English’s close proximity to languages with the same thing as simply a coincidence. No reasonable person would ignore and dismiss that.
One reason linguists doubt it is because of the absence of Celtic words in English. However, not all languages pick up new words from new speakers. Russian didn’t do it when Uralic speakers learned it and neither has English really gained all that many words from Hindi speakers or even Spanish speakers (excluding food items and words depicting cultural aspects of Spanish-speaking countries, of course). Furthermore, in Southern India there is the presence of the Dravidian languages which have successfully infiltrated the grammar of Indo-Aryan languages but not the vocabulary. Taking this into account, the fact that hardly any English words have Celtic origins seems irrelevant in light of grammatical similarities.
Moving on, McWhorter also addresses the impact the Vikings had on English and why English does not have articles like other Germanic languages do. English only has the while German has der, die, and das to describe masculine, feminine, and neutral nouns respectively. Most languages have this yet, for some reason, English has shed its genders almost entirely except for when it comes to biological sex. We no longer describe all dogs and trees as male, they can now be both depending on their sex while trees are neutral and always referred to with the same article as human women and males, the.
Not only this, but English no longer uses verb second (V2) order anymore (verbs always come second). Now English uses Subject-Verb-Object for sentence structure. Imagine in millions of Englishmen learned German but not the correct sentence structure and invaded Germany and occupied it for about a hundred years. They would go around saying “The kids played football in the park”, when it should be, “Football played the kids before school in the park.” The Germans would probably scoff at the English but after several decades and generations went by, it would be normal and by the time the English left, the language would have been changed forever. Now add in the fact that the English had been doing that about a hundred years before actually occupying Germany and would continue frequently visiting for 200 more years, the German language would get butchered grammar-wise.
That’s what happened with the Vikings and English. Again, the claims that it happened all on its own are easily dismissible with the fact that English lost a great deal of its grammar rules while other languages in the world kept rolling along with the ones they have had for millennia.
McWhorter explores all that as well as the false thinking of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, modern-day grammatical errors, speculation on why the Germanic languages are so different from the other Indo-European languages, but I will leave you to discover that on your own.
In conclusion, anyone who wonders about the History of English and why our language is so unique and at times, confusing when on the grand stage of the whole world’s languages, should read this book as well as any Anglophone learning another language, especially a Germanic one as it will help you to better understand Germanic grammar.
English is like a language of no other. I’ll leave off with McWhorther’s last quote of the book, “English is miscegenated, abbreviated. Interesting.”