Izzit? – ‘English is weird,’ and here’s the evidence

The strangeness of the English language is a matter of historical contingency, migration, conquest, and adaptation – this is the take out from an article on the abnormality of English by professor of linguistics at Columbia University John McWhorter. Writing in aeon, McWhorter fleshes out what English speakers, especially monolingual ones, may not be aware of: English is odd.

English does not have any close linguistic neighbours that would allow us to understand “half of what people are saying without training and the rest only with modest effort” as is the case with, say, German and Dutch, and Spanish and Portuguese. In fact, the closest one can get to English is Frisian, but even then that language is more like German than like English.

McWhorter takes us through a taxonomy of the weirdnesses of English, from a lack of gendered nouns; through the odd present-tense suffix for the third person singular (“She walks”) – and only that tense-person combination; to the use of “do” to express negation or questioning. In the first two cases, among the European languages derived from Indo-European, it’s only English that does this in this way; in the last, it’s an inheritance from Celtic languages (and it’s pretty much only English and the Celtic languages that do this). There’s also the atypical mismatch between pronunciation and spelling. While French may be said to suffer a similar problem, at least in French that mismatch is fairly standard, whereas in English it is definitely not – consider the now familiar examples of “though,” “through,” “thought,” and “thorough.”

In order to explain these eccentricities, McWhorter whips out a brief yet illuminating history of the English language. In summary, English started out as “a kind of German,” and first took influences from other languages when Angles, Saxons, and Jutes arrived in Britain. The people who were already there – and who remained in the majority – originally spoke Celtic languages, but pretty shortly they were speaking Old English. Old English and Celtic are quite different, and soon a fair amount of mangling was taking place.

Next, McWhorter writes, more people, this time speaking Old Norse, “came across the sea meaning business.” However, instead of foisting their language on the locals, they married native women and began to use English. Here’s the thing though: these were adults, and in an oral society it was never going to be easy for them to learn to speak the local language like a local. So they ended speaking “bad Old English” (mangling #2). As their children grew up they were faced with both this “bad Old English” and “real Old English” – “and pretty soon their bad Old English was real English” (mangling #3).

All these twists account for the “weirdnesses” – the dropped genders and the partial conjugations – mentioned above. The Vikings made English easier because they didn’t learn it “properly” (consider the effects of this history the next time someone talks to you about “proper English”). They also introduced a lot of new words, and half-broke the grammar, which is why today it’s okay to use dangling prepositions (i.e. ending a sentence with “from” or “with,” etc.)

Then the Normans arrived, conquered, and ruled for some time. They gave English myriad more new words, this time from French and Latin. One of the examples McWhorter uses is the addition of specific words for the meat of animals that have been slaughtered for food, such as pork from a pig and beef from a cow. This too has material social origins: “generally in Norman England, English-speaking labourers did the slaughtering for moneyed French speakers at table” – at the time it was a matter of class distinctions. From French and Latin, English also got, among many others, “existence” in addition to “life,” and “comprehend” in addition to the local “understand” – here too one can feel the heightened formality of the former terms of the pairs.

The result has been a “mongrel” vocabulary, a “firehose spray of words” from a number of distinct languages, and hence a high degree of lexical hybridity relative to most other European languages. (There were also other effects, like the different accenting of syllables depending on the grammatical form of the word, e.g. “TEM-pest,” but “tem-PEST-tuous”.)

Nearing his conclusion, McWhorter writes:

“Thus the story of English, from when it hit British shores 1 600 years ago to today, is that of a language becoming delightfully odd. Much more has happened to it in that time than to any of its relatives, or to most languages on Earth.” (Icelandic, on the other hand, has not changed much relative to its Old Norse origins more than a millennium ago.)

What makes English so different from other, related languages is that “it is deeply peculiar in the structural sense. And it became peculiar because of the slings and arrows – as well as caprices – of outrageous history.”

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