Saturday, April 18, 2009

John McWhorter's "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue": Book Review

Creoles: not only in the tropics do they permeate English. Since Celtic times, and perhaps Proto-Germanic via the Phoenicians, our native language's warped like any other. "While the Vikings were mangling English, Welsh and Cornish people were seasoning it." (xxii) An authority on creolization, McWhorter brings to this little study lots of learning. As with "The Power of Babel" (also reviewed by me), he packs an irrepressible irreverence into a scholarly package. His gifts as a former professor and explicator of linguistics combine into a thoughtful, if rather scattered, series of reflections on how we speak a language that can never be frozen by scolding grammarians into fossilized rules. English no less than sex appeals to whomever wanders by! People may try to hold out, but if in proximity, never for long.

Our hybrid language exists in mongrel form not only due to words imported, but its syntactical bent. Bent because it's been altered from its foundations by those straining to learn it as grown-ups, and who pass along their ESL version to their bastard children-- until the written form catches up with the traditionally unwritten, slangier, less regimented oral mode. This process never stops.

McWhorter's dismissive not only of schoolmarms but those who amass etymological examples of multicultural English while ignoring an explanation of why English adapts such a wealth of disparate forms that tore apart its grammar far more rapidly than its Germanic cousins over a thousand-plus years. It never "just happens" that English took on or discarded unique or rare features that its Germanic cousins did not parallel in their growth and transmission. English creolized early on-- oddly, he never defines this term-- but a creole needs at least three languages to work.

Celtic, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon fought and bought and slept with each other, so they spawned a bastard: English. The Vikings weakened it so much early on, that this combined with the Celtic underlay that infiltrated quirks such as the supposedly forbidden "Billy and me went to the store." Our reversion to such "errors" reflects our recognition of patterns that in fact make sense to McWhorter.

These quirks eventually surface after long illiteracy into the literary form of Middle English that represented centuries later how the spoken vernacular in medieval Britain had been battered into simpler expression by "adult learners screwing things up." (124) The lag into the written representation of how English sounded can be linked to the scriptural bias of recorded English. He's great at using Shakespeare to document such changes later on. The literary register of our earlier language did not bother to capture the changing vernacular any more than, as he says, Time magazine issues its articles through the style of today's rappers.

McWhorter does perhaps overemphasize the "meaningless do and the verb-noun present" progressive as proof of the Celtic impact, but he's convincing that such structures, more than words that failed to enter English from Celtic, built up an overlooked scaffolding that few linguists have accounted for. I've reviewed myself (in short form on Amazon and longer form elsewhere in print) Stephen Oppenheimer's "The Origins of the British" which draws on genetics to reconsider the Saxon incursion upon Britain. McWhorter draws upon this book. Yet, McWhorter, in reverting on pages 11 and 32 to the usual recital that the first contact of British Celts with Anglo-Saxon speakers was 449 AD, does seem to muddle a more nuanced study. Oppenheimer admits that pressures exerted upon the earliest English may have begun before the language moved from Germania into England; he and others also concur that Saxon settlers had already been moving into Romanized Britain. Still, McWhorter's point on the whole stands if implicitly, since earlier Saxon settlers would likely have had little impact on the evolution of English within a Romanized territory.

As an adult learner who screws up Irish and has started to do so in Welsh, I liked his reasoning for the oversight that relegates Celtic influences to a few words at best or worst. After all, few who study English know a Celtic language. I did notice the "Billy and me went" effect in even my toddler Welsh lessons, but had no idea it could be echoed in "bad" English. For McWhorter, what I had sensed in my struggle was a dim echo of a culture clash fifteen hundred years ago. "Celtic was English's deistic God-- it set things spinning and then left them to develop on their own." (9)

He cites and corrects popularizers as David Crystal and the PBS "Story of English" trio who diminish the force of that Celtic impact. He incorporates among his many more recondite sources two other books that will appeal to the same audience. These I have reviewed-- Mark Abley ("Spoken Here" gets a good-natured but well-shaken comeuppance) and Guy Deutscher ("The Evolution of Language"). McWhorter, however, is less clear here than he was in "Power of Babel" or Deutscher is in explaining why grammar gets less rather than more complicated as time passes. It's explained, but the point deserved elaboration for non-specialists. His book compresses so much academic debate and arcane contention that it may, despite its brevity, overwhelm readers less attuned to morphological nicety and etymological controversy.

Basically, we get lazy in speaking our own language, and we begin to clip its endings and elide its sounds. Others who learn our language tend towards interference with their native tongue; their bilingual children move towards an equilibrium that does not have the speakers simplifying their new language, but seasoning it with constructions from their ancestral language. This "stewing" rather than "boiling down" for McWhorter demonstrates how "soon the language they are learning looks like their native one." (119) He confronts those who wonder why Celtic casts so faint a shadow on English vocabulary. He then shifts to spirited attack on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that a culture can be conditioned by the limits of its linguistic capacities of articulating not only its vocabulary but its mindset.

I've always had a weakness for Whorf, so this chapter had to work hard against what McWhorter might blame as my weakness for the "noble savage" romanticization. He castigates Whorf's ignorance of Hopi's temporal markers, and relentlessly ridicules the theory's defenders. I wish he endnoted the source for this deadpan observation: "One sometimes hears how Iran is home to a uniquely vigorous homosexual subculture because its third person pronoun is the same for men and women." (137)

He in the final section tells of Theo Vennemann's fascinating speculations about how early Germanic, before any English had percolated, may have been wrenched from its harder sounds by Semitic speakers into hissier fricatives! Foreigners with heavy accents tend to drag their acquired language through heavy changes, and in time these may leave distortions in the way we all-- natives mixing with learners-- will come to speak the older language.

I wish McWhorter could have applied Vennemann's theory to other IE languages, and Basque, to suggest how a residual substrata may be glimpsed beneath what non-English speakers may preserve in verbal pockets across the continent. But this stretches the scope of a short, engaging, if slightly tendentious and oddly repetitious overview. It carries the pace of a restlessly brilliant lecturer's presentation, it channels the energy of a youngish author with nine other creole-related, sub-cultural studies to his name, and it always conveys a witty tone-- or a stubborn debater's repartee.

He seeks fresh imagery. "Modern English is the current stage of what began as a very different grammar, much like Celtic's. Over a millennium-and-a-half, this grammar had grammatical features from Celtic plugged into it Botox-style, while also being radically shorn of its complexities liposuction-style by adults learning it as a second language." (144) He knows how to make esoteric professorial shoptalk vivid and clever for us, an ignorant audience. A scholar of Black English and creoles, he finds a new entry into the intricacies of medieval English's formation from Celtic-Norse-Saxon collisions via a fresh perspective for how we generated globalized English. He informs us of its twists and turns-- as a German-speaking African American proponent of possibly Phoenician pulls upon Proto-Germanic!

P.S. "Bo" & "Vilges Suola" may love this; they might toss it. They might know of Welsh influence on the Northern Subject Rule or diagnose "linguistic equilibrium" for Old Norse's standoff with Northumbrian dative plurals. But I-- despite my medievalist training once and hapless Celtic grappling now-- had no idea. If you want to learn why these topics effect how we communicate today, read OMBT.

(Posted without postscript to Amazon US today.)

1 comment:

vilges suola said...

Just seen my nickname at the end of your post. I'm flattered that you suggest I might know anything about Welsh, Old Norse or Northumbrian dative plurals but the truth is, unfortunately, I haven't the first clue about any of them. I'm sure Bo could comment authoritatively on them, though.

I always like to hear Whorf's ideas knocked, I have to say. I got so fed up of listening to guff about the superiority of the Greek language and its civilising influence on those who were born into it, what with it's muliplicity of words for 'love' and astonishing ability to create compounds and all. Even some really intelligent people seem to think there is truth (or even Truth) in this hogwash. See the comments from a British Hellenophile on my post 'Pas mi Ellin Varvaros'. If compounding were a sign of linguistic expressiveness, we'd probably have to say Inuktitut was the world's finest language. And the Greeks would be horrified to learn how much better Turkish does it than they do.

Have not read the book you review here but shall order it from Amazon forthwith - if it isn't too expensive. I have a huge backlog of unread books and unplayed CDs from them and it really is time I started to resist temptation.