One of the benefits of being an armchair linguist is that I have absolutely no qualms about veering from, say, Baugh and Cable’s A History of the English Language or the nominally rebellious but practically canonical1 works of David Crystal to less academic but infinitely more pleasurable works of dedicated amateurs like Bill Bryson2. Our Magnificant Bastard Tongue falls into the latter category (though McWhorter sometimes resembles Crystal in tone), not only because McWhorter is a sort of nuovo-linguist, the sort who would wear sneakers before tweed jackets, but also because this particular book was intended to be a shorter and more informational introduction to McWhorter’s sphere… essentially a 250-page brochure for modern linguistics.
McWhorter’s particular niche is creole, but this isn’t a book about creole, as it described a time long before any creole we’d be familiar with. In the context of English’s origins—as in, the displacement of native Britons by Anglo-Saxons and Nordic peoples—his driving passion is a defense of the influence of Celtic. There seems to be a resurgence of linguists jumping on this wagon—rightly, I think—lately, among them David Crystal, but because McWhorter is primarily a linguist (think grammar) rather than an etymologist, most of his defenses have to do with grammatical and syntactical points than morphological ones. In particular, he cites the pervasive use of the “meaningless ‘do'” in English and the existence of the present participial form (words ending in -ing) as features seen only in Celtic and English and nowhere else, including all the other Indo-European languages which form the vast majority of English’s vocabulary and grammar. For example, in modern English we might phrase a question as
Do we derive any language features from Celtic?
But in every other language which touches English, the question invariably becomes something like:
Derive we any language features from Celtic?
Note that this latter form is grammatically correct English as well, although it sounds old-fashioned, like something out of Shakespeare or a bad actor from Medieval Times. More to the point, however, this latter form communicates the same thing without the odd insertion of “do”. So what does do… do? Not much, but because it happened to be a basic feature of Celtic, it found its way into Welsh and Cornish. Consider McWhorter’s examples from Welsh (English on the left, Welsh on the right, obviously):
Did I open? Nes i agor
I did not open. Nes i ddim agor
I opened. Nes i agor.
There are others, of course, but I won’t describe them all. The “meaningless do” is McWhorter’s favorite, and I think his most compelling argument for rethinking Celtic’s linguistic influence on English. Most histories of the language seem to assume that when mainlanders invading the British Isles, the existing Celts were either wiped out, or integrated so quickly and completely into the invaders’ culture that little trace was left to the posterity of language aside from a smattering of Celtic place names. McWhorter points out, rightly, that this notion is unlikely, the former because of recent DNA evidence which seems to indicate that the British don’t share as much genetic legacy with their neighbors across the North Sea as a genocide/displacement would necessitate, and the latter because historical records seem to indicate the subjugated wealhs (Welsh) as a subservient but nonetheless categorical group. The dark time in America’s history when African blacks were brutally subjugated did not see African culture dissolve3, but rather the culture was absorbed to some degree into the host culture.
After coming out strong with an excellent section about Celtic, and additional interesting reading about the Nordic influences on English which are neither new nor controversial, the book sags a bit in the middle by switching tacks entirely to talk about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and why it’s largely bunkum. You might remember this from Guy Deustcher’s Through the Looking Glass, which is a fuller and more effective treatment. McWhorter’s examination lasts only a chapter, and seems like an odd interlude between his exposé on Celtic and his final chapter on the influence of Semitic (the language family that gives us Arabic and Hebrew) on Proto-Germanic.
This latter notion is new to me, and admittedly it isn’t nearly as compelling as McWhorter’s views on Celtic, but it makes for interesting reading nonetheless. He notes a couple of coincidences. First, the Proto-Germanic feature wherein consonants remain constant while vowels change to case, and he asserts the same pattern holds true in Semitic languages as well. It might be a misunderstanding on my part, but based on what I read in And God Said, this seems like an oversimplification of Semitic word construction, and I’m leery of accepting it on face value. To make a long story short, McWhorter’s hypothesis is that Semitic influenced Proto-Germanic by way of the Phoenicians (and that it was at least partially responsible for the shift described by Grimm’s Law). It’s a bit of a wild swing, though admittedly McWhorter understands this and doesn’t phrase this chapter as boldly as his first, instead opting for a lot of “Wouldn’t it be interesting if…” and “What a strange coincidence that…”.
It’s a rather limp-wristed and unfortunate way to end an interesting little book. Though I like a bit of speculation as much as the next guy, I feel like McWhorter had an excellent 150 pages about Celtic and Nordic influences and wanted to ride that wave to his guesswork about Semitic. And inserted a chapter on Sapir-Whorf just for the hell of it? Maybe to get a round 256 pages? In any case, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue was 50% excellent and 50% simply OK. I will say that it was refreshing to get a purely grammatical treatment of English’s history instead of the usually etymological approach4, and I think it shows off McWhorter’s skill as a linguist and a writer. Perhaps one of his other books, such as The Power of Babel, is a more thoroughgoing affair.
- Not to mention profligate[↩]
- See The Mother Tongue and Made in America[↩]
- Admittedly, this is not a perfect example, as the visual disparity between an African-American and a European-American was clearly much greater than that of a Celt and an Anglo-Saxon.[↩]
- I say this even though I heavily favor etymology.[↩]