From Then to Now: John McWhorter’s Revisionist History of English

Written by John Calvin Pierce

“English is more peculiar among its relatives…in what has happened to it grammar than in what has happened to its vocabulary” (XII). The story of English and how it has lost a “perplexingly vast amount of grammar” is the main concern of John McWhorter’s book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English. McWhorter re-emphasizes the role of Celtic influence in the formation of English grammar, specifically regarding the “meaningless do” construction, as well as the present progressive tense “-ing.” He then re-examines the role of the Viking invasion and settlement in Britain as a potential suspect in the case of English’s extreme loss of “grammatical richness”that is, inflectional endings and a complex case system, both of which Old English has plenty. In both the case of the Celts and Vikings, McWhorter argues, there are social and political factors that have obscured our understanding of their influence within the traditional histories.

The “meaningless do” described by McWhorter is of course English’s use of do in questions and negative statements: “Did you ever notice…” and “I did not notice…” respectively. Did has no semantic meaning in these contexts, serving only as a grammatical verb. The matter of the “–ing thing” is English’s use of the present progressive tense to describe current action, instead of the bare present tense (I am going vs. I go). McWhorter points out that if one were to “step beyond English, you look for do [or –ing, for that matter,] used that way and come up short” (2).

With, of course, one notable exception: “There are…features in which Celtic marches to the beat of its own drum, and two of them are the way it uses do and –ing” (5). Mainstream language scholars, however, dismiss the importance of the Celtic influence on English, pushing us to believe that “chance alone could have nudged English into coming up with meaningless do and a verb-noun present” (17). McWhorter cites archeological evidence of a convergence of cultural practices, with “a burial site both in the style of Germanics…and in the style of the Celts,” which “suggests not genocide, but Celts living alongside Germanics” (13). From what we know about how languages form, we know that when two groups of people speaking different languages interact over extended periods of time (enough to exchange cultures), like the Germanics and the Celts in Britain, their languages interact with both vocabulary and grammar. “This means that even without recordings of seventh-century Celts…peppering [English] with phrasings copying Celtic grammar, we can assume that this was the case, because it quite simply must have been…The way that English use do and -ing just like Celtic, then, is predictable” (15-17).

To further strengthen his defense, McWhorter presents what his critics suppose is damning evidence against him: “[T]here is not a hint of meaningless do in any English document until the late 1300s, in Middle English…Why does it show up so late,” centuries after AD 449, the supposed time when “Celts started learning and transforming the English language?” (32). Where was it hiding all these years? In response, McWhorter reminds us that “writing and talking are very different things,” and, in ancient times, “spoken language changed always, but the written word rested unchanging on the page,” since most societies were illiterate, and “writing was primarily for high literacy” (33). When the Norman French conquered England in 1066, “for the next century and a half there is almost no written English that has survived” (38). The social and political gaps between the French-speaking Normans and the English-speaking lower classes meant that only French was used in most law and higher social activities, like art and theater. After this 150 year “blackout period…people started writing English once more” and we see Celtic’s influence shine through: the meaningless do finds itself in writing, when “the written Old English standard could not exert the pull it once had” (41). Here we see an example of societal pressures preventing the record from reflecting the truth of the matter. Contrary to the “traditional literature,” McWhorter argues that the Celtic influence on the development of English grammar was significant, and extended much further than a loan word here and there, as is traditionally suggested.

Similarly, McWhorter reinvigorates the idea of Viking involvement in the development of English grammar by noting that they “took root on the ground, often marrying English-speaking women, such that their children actually heard quite a bit of their ‘off’ English” (110). The Vikings settled most densely in the north and east (the Danelaw) where the English speakers spoke the Northumbrian dialect. Crucially, “English gets simpler first in the northwhere Scandinavians were densely settled” and interacted with speakers of Northumbrian English (113). Documents show a falling off of the conjugational endings, “as if someone were having trouble keeping them apart” (113). About the same time, gender “starts flaking away in Northumbrian English” and “the V2 rule start[s] unwinding, predictably, in the north” (114). McWhorter makes it clear that it is hard to argue that the correspondence between Viking settlement patterns and the locations of the systematic simplification of grammar is merely a coincidence.

West Saxon Northumbrian

(Viking influence)

Northern

Middle English (Viking influence)

I deme -o -e
you demest -es/-as -es
he/she demeθ -es/-as -es
we demaθ -as -e
y’all demaθ -as -e
they demaθ -as -e

 

Southern Middle English

(no Viking influence)

-e
-st
θ
-eθ
-eθ
-eθ

(Figures from McWhorter, 113.)

Just like in the case of the Celts, there is something that “obscures the Viking’s responsibility for English’s undressing”: most of our English writing, even before the Norman Conquest, was scripture and other formal writing. That means that these Northumbrian expressions, which later became our simpler, modern versions, would not have been found in the writing we have retained over the years. The few people actually writing down Old English “would have been loath to waste ink on…colloquialisms that not all people use,” since they sounded odd and even wrong, like many distinct regional colloquialisms do today to those outside that community. But as time wore on, Middle-English writers became more comfortable “with putting things in writing that had happened to the language before the Norman Conquest” (130). What does this mean for the future of Modern English? If the pattern is to persist, which we assume it will, those expressions that seem outlandish and wrong, such as text abbreviations and Tumblr speak, may become the standard speech of the future. The English language is in a period of real linguistic changegood thing it’s always been that way.

 

John Calvin reviewed: McWhorter, John H. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2009.

 

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