English is not normal
November 15, 2015 9:05 AM   Subscribe

English is not normal. "No, English isn’t uniquely vibrant or mighty or adaptable. But it really is weirder than pretty much every other language." (Aeon via Longform).
posted by pravit (102 comments total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
 
What, other people's languages aren't four or five languages bolted together with duct tapes over the gaps and and a written version with no consistent standards whatsoever?
posted by Artw at 9:13 AM on November 15, 2015 [70 favorites]


You think it's bad now? Just wait until the Anglo-Sino Alliance is formed and we start swearing in Chinese.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 9:18 AM on November 15, 2015 [55 favorites]


Hey this essay was fun! Usually this sort of essay is some just-so story nonsense, but in this case the author is a bona-fide linguistics professor. Anyone read his argument against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

I'd love to read more about the section on how Viking invaders simplified the language. The loss of gender seems surprising to me; Scandanavian languages have gender, and so did Old English, so how did the use of gender agreement get dropped? I'd also love to know more about "the Vikings mastered only that one shred of a once-lovely conjugation system: hence the lonely third‑person singular –s". Here's a source on Old English verbs that may illuminate.
posted by Nelson at 9:22 AM on November 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


You think it's bad now? Just wait until the Anglo-Sino Alliance is formed and we start swearing in Chinese.

There's a ton of loan words already, mostly horribly butchered.

"Ketchup" is my favorite example.
posted by Artw at 9:24 AM on November 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


Man, I love English language history more than most — you should see my podcast feed — but McWorter always seems to mix in a bunch of pointless cheerleading with his interesting history.

Like when he says "And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something" my immediate response was "Yeah, I finally started in on that 'Teach Yourself Welsh' book, and they are all about the auxiliary verb." His follow-up is "Unless you happen to be from Wales, Ireland or the north of France, probably.", which concedes the non-uniqueness but comes across as somehow gratuitously dismissive of the other languages.

*Sigh*. All the facts are true and interesting, but I always get a bit irritated half way through reading any of his articles. It's like a convenient fast-food place that makes reliable, high-quality, and reasonably priced burgers, but for some reason their drinks are always off-brand and a little stale tasting. You feel like a bit of an ingrate for always noticing it, but you always do.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:26 AM on November 15, 2015 [12 favorites]


It should be pointed out that John McWhorter has some pretty controversial views about the history of English, mostly when it comes to his claims about contact influences: the Celtic origin of do-support, simplification of morphology due to Viking and Norman French influence, etc...

He has been seriously criticized for these claims; many linguists just do not find them credible because of issues of timeline etc. So while it's nice to see an actual linguist writing these articles, I wish it was more obvious that he's not presenting the "standard" view of English history.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:27 AM on November 15, 2015 [18 favorites]


We should bring Hwæt back.
posted by Artw at 9:29 AM on November 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


This is not a very good article and merely continues some pop–linguistic myths. It’s below a professor to write.
posted by Emma May Smith at 9:36 AM on November 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


And if you're in the market for more podcasts, Kevin Stroud's The History of English Podcast has been really enjoyable. He's taking his time (69 episodes already), but I've learned new stuff, particularly about the Viking influence.

I'd previously had a (simplistic) model of Germanic language + Norman French invasion, which explained a whole lot, but Stroud lists a lot of words that appeared during the Viking settlement where I think "I thought that was just basic English. I never thought it came from anywhere." (Yes, I realize how ignorantly I had been thinking about it, but I was.) Chapters 49 - 51 of the podcast cover this period.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:37 AM on November 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


English is the most successful creole of them all.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:38 AM on November 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Though it's an interesting article, I have to take issue with his translation of the first line of Beowulf, as well as his claim that "eeny meeny" is based on Celtic counting rhymes.

"Gar-dena" is genitive plural, as is "theodcyninga". In the context of that line, the poet is not saying "we Spear Danes have heard...", he's saying "we have heard of the glory of the people-kings of the Spear Danes". That's how I've always read it, and that's how Chickering renders it.

If he's trying to say that "eeny meeny" is somehow descended from a form of the Yan Tan Tethera, or some other Brythonic counting, I'm really not seeing it. Especially since "eeny meeny" isn't attested, as far as I'm aware, prior to the late 19th Century.
posted by curiousgene at 9:42 AM on November 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


English isn't really a creole.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:43 AM on November 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


English speaker here. I have tons of Spanish speaking friends and relatives, and over the years I have picked up a bit of Español.

The gendered nouns thing is completely baffling and ludicrous to me. A chair has a gender? A school has a gender? A boulder? A tree? It's completely arbitrary, and native speakers simply know what gender these things are... and there's no way to figure it out unless you are told.

Only parallel I can think of is when I was a kid (I'm 44) everyone referred to cats as "she," though I don't think that's true today. I remember this because we had 2 male cats and thought this was weird. Anyway, great article, thanks.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 9:43 AM on November 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


You all should check out The History of English podcast. While Kevin is not a linguist, I think he does a good job of tracing the English language from it's beginnings. Currently at the invasion of the Normans. And quite a bit of History of England thrown in also.
posted by jgaiser at 9:47 AM on November 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


jeff-o-matic. I absolutely agree--talk about implicit sexism. I had HS French and Spanish in college--never could remember the proper gender. I guess I was way ahead of my time
posted by rmhsinc at 9:51 AM on November 15, 2015


The loss of gender seems surprising to me; Scandanavian languages have gender, and so did Old English, so how did the use of gender agreement get dropped?

I think the claim is that they managed their own gender system just fine, but since different languages map gender differently, they never got around to learning the genders in English.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:52 AM on November 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


benito.strauss: Man, I love English language history more than most — you should see my podcast feed

Yes... yes, we should.
posted by tzikeh at 9:53 AM on November 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


I can understand how mixing Scandanavian and English with differing genders would result in a mish-mash of genders, and the changing of some words. But eliminating the system entirely? Gender agreement is such a key part of sentence structure in so many languages, how does it get lost entirely?!

Thanks for the context that McWhorter isn't reporting linguistics consensus here. Is it a credible alternate theory though? His PhD is from Stanford and he had tenure at Berkeley before moving to Columbia; it's not like he's an outsider.
posted by Nelson at 9:59 AM on November 15, 2015


Only parallel I can think of is when I was a kid (I'm 44) everyone referred to cats as "she," though I don't think that's true today. I remember this because we had 2 male cats and thought this was weird.

Due to precognitive anticipation of Orville the cat drone by Old English soothsayers, a cat was originally considered a type of sailing vessel.
posted by XMLicious at 10:02 AM on November 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


>The gendered nouns thing is completely baffling and ludicrous to me.

I can see how the gendered noun thing isn't much a cognitive load as long as you get fed the nouns gradually as in growing up into the language. Coming from the outside, it's a colossal PITA of course.

What's baffling to e.g. Japanese speakers is that English nouns can be countable and uncountable ("I have paper" vs. "I have a paper").

And that "to" is generally pronounced "ta" by everyone now, not to mention our jenaral speling iz baysikly a traynrek.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 10:02 AM on November 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


If you do like McWorter, he has some awesomely entertaining lectures at The Teaching Company. If you have an Audible account for audiobooks, the lectures are priced the same as any book (otherwise TTC charges stratospheric prices for their book-length lecture series).
posted by girl Mark at 10:05 AM on November 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


As for linguistic gender.... previously on Metafilter:
posted by girl Mark at 10:06 AM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


As someone who has always been fascinated by language, and through proximity, especially my native English, this essay appeals to me. But as someone who has a fair amount of experience with other languages, I have become wary (or at least weary) of claims of "English exceptionalism," and so I read it with a skeptical eye. Of course there are things about English which are exceptional, but one does tire of wide-eyed wonderment at perfectly normal language features like synonyms from people who have never been in a position to know what features of a language might actually be exceptional.
posted by Nothing at 10:08 AM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


In German the girl, das Mädchen, is neuter. Ha ha ha.

But the article talks about comprende, comprehend, then understand, the German is verstehen, the roots of understand are German. There was a friendship between Göthe and Longfellow. They co-translated each other's poetry. In the eighteenth century that was a lot easier, and the flow of the language is perfect between them. Gender projections of language are weird the table is feminine in German but the girl is neuter. Maybe they were protecting girls. There is a point in the language where girls become gendered, die Jungfrau, the virgin is feminine.

A swedish cousin by marriage was saying that English and Swedish are alike, for instance, potatoes are pronounced "potahtays" in Swedish, and I mentioned, "Sure and cheese slicer is very much like "oost hövel!"

Speaking both fluent German and English, spending time in Sweden was amazing for listening to language roots. The Scottish brogue is very related to the Norse aspects of language acquisition. There is a rhythm or cadence in the Norse languages that became a part of the way Scottish English is spoken.
posted by Oyéah at 10:19 AM on November 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


McWhorter: "There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort".

Glaswegian?
posted by Creosote at 10:28 AM on November 15, 2015 [16 favorites]


Gender projections of language are weird the table is feminine in German but the girl is neuter. Maybe they were protecting girls.

It's because Mädchen is a diminutive form. Those are always neuter.
It's the same in Dutch: we don't use gender as much as we did, and most objects do not really have a gender that anyone is aware of, but words used in their diminutive form are always neuter.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:29 AM on November 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'm hardly one to argue linguistics with John McWhorter, but there is an index of weirdness in languages I've run across a lot on the internet here which places English at #33, with most of the top 32 weirdest languages being outliers like Choctaw; but other languages outdoing English in weirdness include German, Czech, and Dutch.
posted by kozad at 10:29 AM on November 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


That can't be right. Dutch is the only normal language; all others are weird.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:31 AM on November 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


Hwæt, what?

The English Exceptionalism line is annoying, but understandable - if you want to get non-linguists interested in what goes on under the hood, then a bit of that sweetens the deal. How much is responsible and how much is pandering to prejudice... ah, well. That argument is undecidable. If you go the "English is proper weird, all right, but you should see how Basque handles ergativity" route, then you can be accused of perpetrating prejudice through another route. People are generally sensible, so tell them a good story and trust they go on further to find other contexts.

To abuse one of my favourite saws: Everyone thinks other oeople's languages are weird, and everyone's right.
posted by Devonian at 10:35 AM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's completely arbitrary, and native speakers simply know what gender these things are... and there's no way to figure it out unless you are told.

I can't speak to Spanish, but in French this isn't true (or at least not completely true): there are rules for at least some classes of words. With very few exceptions any noun that ends in "-age" is going to be masculine; likewise almost any noun that ends in "-ion" is going to be feminine.
posted by asterix at 10:42 AM on November 15, 2015


English is essentially:
[__] bad Dutch with outrageously pronounced French and Latin vocabulary.
[__] the product of a Norman warrior trying to make a date with an Anglo-saxon bar-maid.
[__] Pictish that was attacked out of nowhere by Angles cohabiting with Teutons who were done in by a drunk bunch of Vikings masquerading as Frenchmen who insisted they spoke Latin and Greek but lacked the Arabic in which to convey that.
[__] l33t with the numbers replaced by letters.
Or maybe all of the above.
posted by Doktor Zed at 10:43 AM on November 15, 2015 [27 favorites]


Devonian, I should have perhaps clarified that while I read it with some skepticism, I enjoyed the article. The attitude that I dislike is that English is so strange, so complex, so amazing, that speaking it excuses a lack of curiosity into how anyone else in the world communicates.
posted by Nothing at 10:45 AM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Claims of exceptionalism are problematic1 because they've been so often used to serve:
  1. Claims that a hegemonic language is linguistically superior to the languages that it's subsuming, which elides the true sociohistorical reasons for that dominance -- e.g. "English is has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world so it's just the best language for talking about science"

  2. Claims that minority languages are backwards and incomprehensible, which is often used to prop up claims of unsuitability for the modern world or exoticizing ideas about the people -- e.g. "Did you know that there are tribal languages in Africa where people talk in clicks and can't recognize colors"
There are a lot of languages with unique properties -- and as a linguist, I find this variety enthralling -- but I think discussions in lay contexts require some care, just because there is this history. And that's the main problem I have with a lot of McWhorter's stuff beyond his presentation of controversial views as fact; he isn't careful with this history. But on the other hand, it gets people to read...

There are other Indo-European languages without noun gender; there are other languages with wacky spelling; and so on and so forth.

1 and I mean this in the sense that they are difficult and can reinforce prejudices if not handled carefully, not in the sense that they are always bad
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:05 AM on November 15, 2015 [17 favorites]


It's false that "there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition" in non-English speaking countries. France has dictées competitions in which students attempt to write a passage that an organizer reads, but afaik the spelling plays a major part. Now French ain't exactly the sanest language either.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:13 AM on November 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the "You have been born English, so have thus won first prize in the lottery of life" attitude is always to be cheerfully mocked. (It's true, of course, but such bad form to bang on about.)

I would thoroughly recommend that anyone who does enjoy English spends some time in Ireland, Wales, Scotland (all parts - there's such linguistic diversity) and Norway/Sweden. And Holland, France, Germany... a lot of the processes that have produced modern English are still alive and can be experienced, even if you don't have much expertise in doing anything other than listening with interest. At one stage, I was lucky enough to go from the Hebrides to Orkney and thence to Sweden in rapid succession, and you couldn't ask for a more engaging demonstration of how living languages cross-pollinate in normal life. I'd love to have the time and opportunity to do the same in the US, which must have some equally intriguing linguistic spectra.
posted by Devonian at 11:13 AM on November 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm not usually a fan of McWhorter, but it's great to see him writing about contact languages, where he's actually a specialist, and this was a pretty cool article about the history of modern English that made me much more aware of its Scandinavian influence. He doesn't actually come out and say "English is a creole", even though he implies it heavily, and indeed other creoles and similar contact languages are the only time when we see the weird incongruence in grammatical features and/or complete lack of grammatical features that you get in English (like how we only conjugate verbs for third person singular and no other persons). It makes a lot more sense if you think of English as a French- and Scandinavian-lexified Germanic creole than as a normal Germanic language.

kozad: different definition of 'weird'; that article is mostly asking "what languages have the most unique features?" whereas McWhorter is saying something more like "you guys ever noticed how English is the only language that seems to apply its features really inconsistently?"

Spelling in particular is interesting as those features go. Though (as a big fan of the anime Chihayafuru) I'd argue that Ogura Hyakunin Isshu karuta is very similar to a spelling bee in a lot of ways, so we're not the only culture that has them unless you go by the strictest definition, English spelling is fairly unique among spelling systems as it's one of the only ones where what spelling gives you is the history of the word, more so than any of its modern phonological features.
posted by capricorn at 11:18 AM on November 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


"you guys ever noticed how English is the only language that seems to apply its features really inconsistently?"

and, on preview, I agree with Kutsuwamushi's comment above; it's not actually the only one. I've just noticed that, IME, most of the others are pidgin/creole/contact languages.
posted by capricorn at 11:22 AM on November 15, 2015


Regarding language gender: it's a form of redundancy. If you've studied Shannon at all, you'll know that redundancy is a way of improving communication through a noisy channel.

Gender is a form of error checking. If the genders don't match (say, between article and noun, or between noun and pronoun, or between adjective and noun) then it indicates a miscommunication. You can think more and realize that you heard the noun wrong, or maybe ask the other person to repeat themselves hoping for a better transmission.

With English dropping gender, it's a bit more susceptible to miscommunication.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:24 AM on November 15, 2015 [20 favorites]


As a native English speaker the way I wrap my head around the gender system in other languages is understanding it primarily as a sound agreement system. Nouns that sound a certain way affect the form of adjectives and verbs that you use with them, e.g. if the noun ends in "o", then all the adjectives you use to describe it should end in "o", etc. It just so happens that "he" and "she" are in different sound classes and it's convenient for us to call these classes "genders." Speakers of "gendered" languages don't actually think that inanimate objects or concepts are intrinsically feminine or masculine.
posted by pravit at 11:33 AM on November 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


There's one feature of English that I think is very unusual: there's a tendency to avoid what I call "ear fatigue". (If there's an official term for it, I don't know what it is.) When, in a sentence, you need to refer to the same concept several times you use synonyms instead of using the same word each time e.g. instead of using "beautiful" three times you would use "beautiful" and then "lovely" and then "attractive".

Other languages I've studied (mainly German and Japanese) don't seem to have that. They don't mind using the same word multiple times. But when an English speaker does that, he comes off as a bit of a maladroit, a bit inarticulate.

One consequence of this for ESL is that it means the working vocabulary of English is relatively large compared to other languages because lots of synonyms are used routinely. You can't just learn one word for a particular concept; you have to learn a bunch of them. (You don't need them in order to speak, but you have to have them in order to understand other people speaking.) And they don't sound the same or look like they're related e.g. "beautiful", "lovely", "attractive". There's no hint in how those words are spoken or written that suggests that they mean about the same thing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:35 AM on November 15, 2015 [36 favorites]


I listened to John McWhorter on the Great Courses series and liked him a lot. I didn't realize what a divisive character he was. When I was talking about it a friend of mine who studied linguistics they stopped the conversation the second his name came up.
posted by lagomorphius at 11:44 AM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Regarding gender, English is the most extreme revolutionary in terms of fighting against it, but not the only one. Latin has three genders but Vulgar Latin only has two. The neuter gender dropped out of Vulgar Latin. Since all the modern Romance Languages are descended from Vulgar Latin, that's why they all have only two.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:48 AM on November 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


this article discusses some research in this area-- it's not at all clear that speakers don't think about notions of femininity/masculinity when thinking about grammatical gender.

Well, of course that won't happen if grammatical gender doesn't map to feminine/masculine. Danish has two genders: common, and neuter.

Another thing learning Danish (and to a lesser extent, French) has taught me is that English isn't the only language where spelling and pronunciation diverge. On the other hand, at least both Danish and French have some actual rules other than "know exactly where and how that word came into English, and sometimes even that won't help".
posted by nat at 11:49 AM on November 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Welcome to the new normal, same as the old normal.
posted by clvrmnky at 11:59 AM on November 15, 2015


He doesn't actually come out and say "English is a creole", even though he implies it heavily, and indeed other creoles and similar contact languages are the only time when we see the weird incongruence in grammatical features and/or complete lack of grammatical features that you get in English (like how we only conjugate verbs for third person singular and no other persons). It makes a lot more sense if you think of English as a French- and Scandinavian-lexified Germanic creole than as a normal Germanic language.

English is not a creole though. There is no evidence that a majority of speakers ever spoke a pidgin from which English could have developed. Although English does have many borrowed words and divergent developments, it is, at heart, a Germanic language. Take, for example, the irregular strong verbs which would be very susceptible to regularization, yet a number survive from their Germanic origin.

There's one feature of English that I think is very unusual: there's a tendency to avoid what I call "ear fatigue". (If there's an official term for it, I don't know what it is.) When, in a sentence, you need to refer to the same concept several times you use synonyms instead of using the same word each time e.g. instead of using "beautiful" three times you would use "beautiful" and then "lovely" and then "attractive".

It is called "elegant variation" and is more a social rather than a strictly linguistic phenomenon.
posted by Emma May Smith at 12:11 PM on November 15, 2015 [17 favorites]


Does anyone know how it is that William appears to have felled Harold with a laser beam?
posted by Segundus at 12:14 PM on November 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


English is like Javascript. Extremely widely used, but full of quirks and pitfalls.
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:22 PM on November 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


I'm learning Dutch, and it often sounds to me like a cross between English and German. That makes sense to me in a common sense sort of way (Belgium and the Netherlands are in-between England and Germany!) but I don't know if that's the actual linguistic explanation.

Also, here's something I learned recently about Dutch that was rather disheartening (since it's a language I'm trying to learn). Mainly: grammatically speaking, Flemish Dutch only has two genders for nouns (masculine/feminine and neuter). But some of the masculine/feminine words still retain a specific gender in the spoken language (i.e. they're actually either masculine or feminine) , so it sounds weird if you refer to a ship as "he," etc. But the gender of those words isn't marked in the dictionary, because it's considered sort of a dialect thing, and sometimes the gender of the masculine/feminine word is even feminine in in one part of Belgium and masculine in another.

Which means that there's this piece of the language that isn't crucial for communication, but that is nevertheless important if you want to speak normal-sounding Flemish, and there's no way to look it up in a dictionary and you won't see it very often written in books, so you just have to soak it up over time. And I know that is really just the way learning a language works--at some point you just have to go around listening and speaking it--but it is rather exhausting to think about.
posted by colfax at 12:25 PM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Regarding gender, English is the most extreme revolutionary in terms of fighting against it

Fenno-Ugric languages (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and many others) don't even have gendered words for people of different genders.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:27 PM on November 15, 2015 [12 favorites]


Chocolate Pickle: When, in a sentence, you need to refer to the same concept several times you use synonyms instead of using the same word each time e.g. instead of using "beautiful" three times you would use "beautiful" and then "lovely" and then "attractive".

Completely normal and common in Dutch, as well. So no, I don't think it's unusual.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:34 PM on November 15, 2015


Icelanders can still read similar stories written in the Old Norse ancestor of their language 1,000 years ago

No, Icelanders cannot read Old Norse. This is a fun but inaccurate myth that has persisted for years, and lead far too many Medieval Studies majors believing that learning Icelandic = learning Old Norse. This is not so. Icelandic has actually changed a lot since the days of Old Norse. Icelanders may be able to "read" Old Norse in the sense that they can pronounce the words (when those words aren't abbreviated, as was often the case in the old manuscripts), but understanding Old Norse is hit or miss at best.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 12:37 PM on November 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


Gender based on male/female is just one special case of noun classification systems. There are also ones based on animacy/inanimacy (which is what Proto-Indo-European had before it split the animate into masculine/feminine), and all kinds of other strange things like shape and movement. Swahili has sixteen noun classes. Navajo has noun classes which are expressed grammatically by means of verb agreement.
posted by edheil at 12:54 PM on November 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort.

I think that's a linguist thing to say. French and Spanish are both about that decipherable imo, regardless of whether they're linguistically related to English: 'je veux un paquet de cigarettes'.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:02 PM on November 15, 2015


It's the history of invasion which has caused this, which makes me wonder: Are there other oft-invaded places with similarly mongrel languages? Maybe something in the Middle East? Aramaic? Armenian?
posted by clawsoon at 1:03 PM on November 15, 2015


> Usually this sort of essay is some just-so story nonsense, but in this case the author is a bona-fide linguistics professor.

I got excited when I read this, but my excitement deflated when I clicked through and saw that the bona-fide linguistics professor was John McWhorter. (Note to posters: please, credit the author. I hate to keep banging on about this, but, well, it's important. Credit the damn author!) Yes, McWhorter is a bona-fide linguistics professor, and he writes well, but he's way too invested in wowing people like a carnival barker, so he's given to wild overstatements like "Much more has happened to it in that time than to any of its relatives, or to most languages on Earth" (plus the ones called out above), not to mention that he's got some theories that are, shall we say, not universally accepted but that he presents as if they were, also as called out above. A couple of juicy bits no one has yet mentioned:

If someone were told he had a year to get as good at either Russian or Hebrew as possible, and would lose a fingernail for every mistake he made during a three-minute test of his competence, only the masochist would choose Russian – unless he already happened to speak a language related to it.

What the fuck is it with McWhorter and Russian? He keeps talking about it as though it were Georgian or Kabardian or something. Did he have a lousy teacher or something? Seriously, John, it's not that damn hard. Give it a rest.

The study of etymology holds little interest for, say, Arabic speakers.

While that appears to be too true for comfort—at least, there aren't any useful Arabic etymological dictionaries (something I've complained about for years; in fact, if you google [arabic etymological dictionary] the third hit is a 2004 LH post)—it's ludicrous to claim it's because Arabic doesn't have loan words. In the first place, Arabic has lots of loan words, and in the second, even if it didn't, Semitic etymological relationships are as complicated and interesting as those of any other language family, and like Indo-European, Semitic has been attested for thousands of years, so there's lots to work with.

*high-fives benito.strauss, Kutsuwamushi, and curiousgene*
posted by languagehat at 1:06 PM on November 15, 2015 [31 favorites]


Note to posters: please, credit the author. I hate to keep banging on about this, but, well, it's important. Credit the damn author!

This should be a mandatory step in the posting process, right after the automatic check for previously linked URLs.

As a non-linguist (and shamefully close to monolingual), I just want to note how much I enjoy the comments in these linguistic FPPs, which routinely strike me as being better informed than the original articles.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:37 PM on November 15, 2015 [7 favorites]



What the fuck is it with McWhorter and Russian? He keeps talking about it as though it were Georgian or Kabardian or something. Did he have a lousy teacher or something? Seriously, John, it's not that damn hard. Give it a rest.


From what I hear, compared to, say, Polish or Ukrainian, Russian is one of the easier Slavic languages to learn.
posted by acb at 2:06 PM on November 15, 2015


Isn't there a distinction between philologist & linguist? I remember being told that philology is the study of the history of languages and a linguist looks at stuff like morphology and structure?

As a native Danish speaker who enjoys languages, a few things strike me as odd about the article - particularly the claim that English is exceptional in terms of how pronunciation/orthography differ. Also, the idea that having left-over snippets of archaic grammar in a language .. Danish has this weird thing about certain prepositions + nouns where an -s is added for no good reaction other than "history, man" .. I'd be interested in hearing if Swedish or Norwegian (especially Bokmaal) carry the same archaic grammatical feature.

So, interesting stuff but so much that rubs me the wrong way for various reasons.
posted by kariebookish at 2:15 PM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


> Isn't there a distinction between philologist & linguist? I remember being told that philology is the study of the history of languages and a linguist looks at stuff like morphology and structure?

There isn't really such a thing as "philology" any more, at least in America—it's a fine old word, but its functions have been subsumed under classics (Greek and Latin) and linguistics (history and structure of languages).
posted by languagehat at 2:20 PM on November 15, 2015


Also by McWhorter, a classic book title: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.
posted by meehawl at 2:25 PM on November 15, 2015


Are there other oft-invaded places with similarly mongrel languages?

Maltese is quite fun. It's basically an Arabic dialect (and the only Semitic language with its standard form written in Latin script), but has an enormous number of Romance and English loan words and lots of other hybridisations. I couldn't say how it compares to English in mongrelality, but it's good and idiosyncratic and most certainly reflects the history of its people.
posted by Devonian at 2:36 PM on November 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'll repeat was I was taught in historical linguistics courses: The word englisc to describe a people is older than the word england and is certainly Germanic, but of the three tribes to settle over the island (Jutes, Angles, and Saxons), only the Angles left behind written record and that the earliest, written version of English is termed Mercian. It's not what I'm reading on Wikipedia right now strangely enough, but what more than one text from my university courses relates.

Many sources relate the origin of the term Angles, or Ingles before that, to Venerable Bede's writing about Pope Gregory having described enslaved people from the island being brought to Rome as appearing as angels. Another etymology refers to the angle of a fishing hook to describe an island people dependent on fishing. I've yet to find a linguistics professor who will accept my intrigue that angelos (Greek for messenger) and mercia (similar to Mercury, messenger of the gods) is more than a coincidence.

I'll state this bluntly: The history of the English langauge is one of conflict, a record of a particular people and contested place. I explain it this way: Before 1066, if you wanted to marry, conduct trade, buy property or leases, your documentation and representation engaged a langauge of officialdom, or the court. After that date, after a lot of bloodshed, it all gets reversed and in the history of England and France, more than once. Between those with class and money, the hoi polloi reflect, mime, and mock as they can.

There's an addage about synonyms: No two words in English mean exactly the same thing.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 2:45 PM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Are there other oft-invaded places with similarly mongrel languages?

Most languages are "mongrel" languages to some degree. English gets singled out in the English-speaking media as one that has undergone some kind of extraordinary amount of external influence - but it really isn't that special. Korean has a bajillion Chinese loanwords, for example, and West Africa is full of areal grammatical features that span different language families.

If you want something extraordinary, look at Mbugu, a language that was most likely once Cushitic, but has been under such intense contact with the regionally dominant Bantu languages that the Cushitic elements have almost - but not quite - been borrowed out of existence.

Even this probably isn't the only one, but it's certainly more extreme than English...
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:46 PM on November 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Maltese is quite fun. It's basically an Arabic dialect (and the only Semitic language with its standard form written in Latin script), but has an enormous number of Romance and English loan words and lots of other hybridisations.

So, basically, Yiddish in reverse then?
posted by acb at 2:48 PM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition.

In China, there's a TV show called 汉字英雄 ("Hanzi heroes") where students compete to write obscure Chinese characters, so pretty much the same concept. Here is an article in English about the show.

Also, as far as irregular standardized orthography goes, I'm pretty sure Chinese (and Japanese) have English beat.

There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort.

This depends on how you define language vs dialect, but I think Scots qualifies. Nowadays, it only exists as one end of a dialect continuum with English, but still. Here's an example of something where English speakers should be able to "get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort":

Robert Burns - Tam O'Shanter

[For extra hilarity, turn on the auto-generated (English) captions.]
posted by water under the bridge at 6:29 PM on November 15, 2015


Danish has this weird thing about certain prepositions + nouns where an -s is added for no good reaction other than "history, man" .. I'd be interested in hearing if Swedish or Norwegian (especially Bokmaal) carry the same archaic grammatical feature.

If I understand what you're referring to correctly, this also exists in Norwegian (including bokmål) in phrases like til sjøs, til blods, etc. as remnants of the genitive case. There are also remnants of the dative in phrases like på tide and i live. I assume Swedish would also have this, but maybe a Swedish speaker can chime in.

Here's a link with some other examples.
posted by flod logic at 7:15 PM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


The title and lead-in for this are some of the most baldfaced fake like-bait clickmongering BS i've seen in a while, when compared to where the article actually goes. There's way too much "look at this ridiculous unique thing here, besides these other places it happens" and leading.

I don't disagree with the premise, but it's really hard as hell to not side eye the article itself. Didn't this sort of lead in used to be called like, flamebait, in the old messageboard days?
posted by emptythought at 7:55 PM on November 15, 2015


It was watching Babette's Feast with subtitles that first "wowed" me with how similar Dutch could sound to English. I picked up a traveling dictionary for awhile and loved the -loos suffix that could be compared to -less in English. Your objection is grondeloos!
posted by lazycomputerkids at 7:59 PM on November 15, 2015


When I have students writing or struggling to speak using big words instead of just saying what they mean, I always say (or write in the margins) "Just say it in English. Don't try to sound fancy." Now it turns out "saying it English" is an entirely accurate description of what I wish they would do.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:12 PM on November 15, 2015


I was a linguistics major in college and I wasn't really overly bothered by this article. I've met quite a few people in my life (and many, if not most, of them were educated or in pretty elite/high positions in organizations) who have the attitude that English is absolutely normal and foreign languages are just weird.

The framing of the article is wrong -- "it really is weirder than pretty much every other language" is really just not a very provable assertion -- but I think there's still some value in it. If you're a monolingual English speaker it can be very difficult and illuminating to realize that some of the things that English does are cross-linguistically very strange. It's not to say that other languages aren't as equally strange, but an article about how Korean or Arabic is strange isn't making quite the same point.

Like, I just had this corporate training at work and while we were chitchatting in a group before the training somehow it came out that Chinese (a language I speak) does not have tenses or plural inflections. This woman, who is presumably a well-educated person and clearly very comfortable in professional, white-collar circles, seemed absolutely amazed that Chinese people are not constantly in a state of confusion about whether something (or is it things?!?!?!) happened tomorrow or yesterday. A bit of perspective on how English can be equally bizarre from an outside perspective would have been nice to have in that conversation.
posted by andrewesque at 8:22 PM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think that's a linguist thing to say. French and Spanish are both about that decipherable imo, regardless of whether they're linguistically related to English: 'je veux un paquet de cigarettes'.

Do you think that if you had never been exposed to any French you could listen to and follow a French conversation or read a newspaper article in French? Spanish and portoguese are the close. Portuguese is basically just Spanish with a funny accent (portuguese people might frame that in reverse order, I imagine). I mean in that sentence "packet of cigarettes" is close enough, but understanding "je veux un" is exposure to french to know what that means.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:24 PM on November 15, 2015


Oh, and a person who knows very little, I would have chosen Hebrew. My thinking would have been "Well, I'll have to learn a new language either way, but at least Russians include all their letters instead of leaving all the vowels out."
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:25 PM on November 15, 2015


England is a German word, meaning narrow land. Englanders or Engls pronounced Angles also, for short spoke English like Engles or Angles do. I have a friend in England, who for sport speaks something called Geordie? That dialect spelled out, I can make out about half-of. How's that for syntax? Carry on. Nothing to see here.
posted by Oyéah at 8:53 PM on November 15, 2015


Chinese (a language I speak) does not have tenses or plural inflections

eh? in Cantonese at least there is 咗 for perfect, 緊 for progressive?
posted by juv3nal at 9:09 PM on November 15, 2015


re: further nuances of tense are designated by a phrase specifying a time (yesterday, last year, etc.)
plurality is often designated with a collective article(?) (kind of like a *bunch* of events, for instance, which I guess in English is a collective noun?).
posted by juv3nal at 9:14 PM on November 15, 2015


What's baffling to e.g. Japanese speakers is that English nouns can be countable and uncountable ("I have paper" vs. "I have a paper").

Wait, this seems potentially mind-blowing depending on what you mean. Do you mean that Japanese speakers are baffled because the same noun can be countable and uncountable, as in "paper", or because English distinguishes between countability and uncountability at all? Because if it's the latter, my mind is definitely blown; that seems like a conceptual distinction that it's very hard (for me, possibly because I'm blinkered) to imagine not being made by speakers of a language.
posted by kenko at 9:41 PM on November 15, 2015


Regarding language gender: it's a form of redundancy. If you've studied Shannon at all, you'll know that redundancy is a way of improving communication through a noisy channel.

Is this a linguistically respectable position regarding linguistic gender? It seems very just-so to me.
posted by kenko at 9:42 PM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


juv3nal, those are aspects... and different from Mandarin, curiously enough-- it has 了 for perfect and perfective, 𡉄 or 着 for progressive, 过 for experiential, etc. To linguists, tense is a grammaticalized marker of time (past, present, future), though non-linguists often use it for any verb form. Any language can use lexicalized expressions of time, of course (e.g. separate words like "yesterday").

Going back to the article, McWhorter does have a slightly annoying way of stating a point way too broadly, then going back and adding the more accurate details. On one point though he stays wrong, I think: he mentions that English only inflects the third person singular, and blames this on the Vikings... but seems to forget that English also inflects the second person singular ('thou thinkest'), and did it long past the time of the Vikings. It's just that, in the last few centuries, we discarded the second person singular.

Also, just to echo Kutsuwamushi, English isn't a creole... or at least if you want to maintain it is, you have to face the demolition of the concept in Thomason & Kaufman's Genetic Linguistics. T&K point out, among other things, that English shares a lot of simplifications with other coastal Germanic languages (some go farther; e.g. Swedish has regularized verb forms even more).
posted by zompist at 9:58 PM on November 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


England is a German word, meaning narrow land. Englanders or Engls pronounced Angles also, for short spoke English like Engles or Angles do.

No, this is not supported fact as it can be borne out by written records because Ang- (Ing-) was affixed by -isc before -land.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 11:02 PM on November 15, 2015


This short film illustrates the absurdity of English spelling and pronunciation perfectly.
https://vimeo.com/17561068
posted by gloturtle at 11:09 PM on November 15, 2015


Some of this material is covered, albeit loosely and differently, in Steven Pinker's Words and Rules, which deals specifically with irregular verbs.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 1:00 AM on November 16, 2015


Japanese has a very formal system for countability, to the point that you use different words for counting flat objects than you do phallic objects. Machines get a different counting word than cups of tea, etc.

But Japanese is also very clearly a few different languages bolted together: they just keep them divided along lines of formality. The equivalent of old-timey rural dialect is a simplified version of the language that sticks more closely to only one of these things. It's as if English were properly formally divided so poor people only used saxon words and elites used the romance words.

But Japanese also splits out into male and female dialects. That's more infuriating to me than headscarves, to be honest.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:35 AM on November 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


Regarding language gender: it's a form of redundancy. If you've studied Shannon at all, you'll know that redundancy is a way of improving communication through a noisy channel.

Is this a linguistically respectable position regarding linguistic gender? It seems very just-so to me.


That bit isn't intrinsically horrible, but the conclusion that English doesn't have similar semantic verification mechanisms and is thus more subject to ambiguity than gendered languages is purest uninformed nonsense.
posted by Wolof at 4:27 AM on November 16, 2015


It was watching Babette's Feast with subtitles that first "wowed" me with how similar Dutch could sound to English.

Babette's Feast is in Danish.
posted by kariebookish at 5:17 AM on November 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


English isn't really a creole.

Yeah, English is pretty much what happens when German and French get together and have a baby who can't spell. And then they're always like, why can't you be more like your nice cousin Dutch, and English says, you two are never proud of me, I'm the official language of more then 60 sovereign states and one of the most commonly spoken second languages in the world, Dutch is spoken in, what, the Netherlands and parts of Belgium and Suriname? And then French says, don't you brag to me about being a lingua franca, young lady, they named the term lingua franca after me, and English is like, I'm not a lady, for the last time, I've dropped grammatical gender, and German says, not in my language family you haven't, I know you have modern ideas but there are rules. To hell with your rules, English says, what did they ever get me but weak and strong conjugation classes, and French interrupts and says well maybe you'd have a more coherent grammatical system if you weren't whoring around with every language that flutters its eyelashes at you, don't think I don't know what you've been doing with Spanish lately. And English says, oh, because you're such a pure language? That's rich. And German says, don't you talk about your parent language that way, but English keeps going, English goes one step too far and says, French wouldn't even be around if Latin hadn't taken Gallic and -- Whack! German slaps English across the face! French is crying and can't stop, and English storms off yelling, and German wants to console French but doesn't know how, they've always been just across a border but worlds apart, back in the Old Franconian days they seemed to have so much in common, but French has changed so much and German can't speak the language of Romance ...
posted by Mayor West at 5:20 AM on November 16, 2015 [12 favorites]


Whatever happened to the idea to turn that comment into a Youtube vid?
posted by Devonian at 5:40 AM on November 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


This depends on how you define language vs dialect, but I think Scots qualifies. Nowadays, it only exists as one end of a dialect continuum with English, but still. Here's an example of something where English speakers should be able to "get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort":

From what I understand, “Scots” can refer to several languages, all of them forked from different versions of English. The Scots of Robert Burns came from Middle English, whereas, from what I understand, the “Scots” spoken today derives from modern English, and there's a continuum between it and Standard English.
posted by acb at 7:06 AM on November 16, 2015


If I understand what you're referring to correctly, this also exists in Norwegian (including bokmål) in phrases like til sjøs, til blods, etc. as remnants of the genitive case. There are also remnants of the dative in phrases like på tide and i live. I assume Swedish would also have this, but maybe a Swedish speaker can chime in.

I only know Duolingo-Swedish, but I know that appending an 's' to a verb in Swedish turns that verb around; i.e., “upptäckte” means “discovered”, whereas “upptäckts” means “was discovered”. Not sure if that's related.
posted by acb at 7:10 AM on November 16, 2015


Mayor West, I don't know if the purpose of that quote is to show that English is a creole - or to give a humorous account of its origins or what - but English is not a French-Germanic creole. It's not what happens when French and German have a baby. It's a Germanic language with a lot of French words, but that doesn't make it a creole.

The kind of grammatical restructuring that creates creoles just didn't happen in English. We lost a lot of morphology - but that's only one part of the grammar, and there were language-internal reasons for the loss of much of it anyway. (Languages lose endings all the time.) Most claims of big grammatical influences on English from Norse or French are (a) unproven, (b) problematic. There are a few voices promoting the idea that English is a creole - and these tend to be the loudest, because they're also the voices that go for the "sexy" ideas in their articles for laypeople. It's more exciting if English is a creole.

But Japanese also splits out into male and female dialects.

This is really common across languages. It's really a matter of degree and codification. Japanese is more extreme in its gendered split than English, but English also varies by gender.

In addition, usages in English that are associated with women more than men are often stigmatized. I wonder, is it the same for Japanese? When it's actual pronouns and such that are a part of the standard grammar, do you still get the same degree of stigmatization? Angry op-eds about Japanese women using lady language? People saying lady language can't be taken seriously? Etc?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:14 AM on November 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


Most claims of big grammatical influences on English from Norse or French are (a) unproven, (b) problematic.

Funny that you should mention that; a Norwegian linguist has claimed that English is a North Germanic language, and that Old English, rather than being modestly influenced by Old Norse, died out and was supplanted by it, and that, grammatically, English has more in common with Scandinavian than German/Dutch for that reason.
posted by acb at 8:22 AM on November 16, 2015


This page has a man speaking Geordie*, and it took me a while, though I'm familiar with the dialect, to get back into the rhythm of understanding it. I've heard on some unrecoverable Radio 4 programme that Geordie and a certain dialect of Friesian are pretty much mutually intelligible, as discovered by fisher-folk washing up on each other's coasts.

Really didn't know how to take that article. Some of the generalisations seemed a bit too large to be credible, and some of the conclusions a bit too neat.

In terms of understanding other European languages, Italian seems so lucid and musical to this English speaker it's always a pleasure watching Inspector Montalbano on the telly and noticing the subtitles line up with what you thought they must have said. "E alora?" "E morto!" "O Mama Mia!" etc. Of course without the subtitles this wonderful ability vanishes like dust in the wind.

* Warning: comic monologue.
posted by glasseyes at 10:12 AM on November 16, 2015


> scrolls down looking for mythical podcast list, is disappointed

It ended up being more blogs than podcasts, but here you go.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:31 AM on November 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I just want to thank Kutsuwamushi for the contributions to this thread. Your comments are really appreciated. I'm only about around, what, 1/6 of a linguist myself (because these things easy to put into proportions of course!) I do semiotics myself, for which linguistics is inescapable but in the end it's rather different, especially for us doing it in a biological vein. The original article really rubbed me in the wrong way, so basically, yes, thanks, what you said.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 10:55 AM on November 16, 2015


Funny that you should mention that; a Norwegian linguist has claimed that English is a North Germanic language

Is this an example of unproven and problematic claims? Because this particular resarch team is widely considered to be, if not cranks, at least not doing credible research in this area. They cherry-pick evidence that supports a North Germanic claim, while ignoring the massive evidence that English is actually West Germanic. They do not even use reliable methodologies.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:43 PM on November 16, 2015


at least Russians include all their letters instead of leaving all the vowels out

Hebrew does actually spell out about half of all vowels. But, the way it spells them is often ambiguous, so e.g. you know there's a vowel there but you don't know if it's [o] or [u] (unless you're reading a text with nikud).
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 12:46 PM on November 16, 2015


Regarding language gender: it's a form of redundancy. If you've studied Shannon at all, you'll know that redundancy is a way of improving communication through a noisy channel.

Is this a linguistically respectable position regarding linguistic gender? It seems very just-so to me.


I think it's somewhat valid. Twain mocked the redundancy of German gender.

"A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds inn, and that stands for Englishwoman — Engländerinn. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: "die Engländerinn," — which means "the she-Englishwoman." I consider that that person is over-described." -Twain

As for the other posters wondering about gender in languages, my pet theory is that gender assignment is all about the sound of the speech. It has a direct effect on which endings are used. Or which articles are used. This is also tied in with stress. For example, in German, words that end in -e are almost always preceded by the definite article "die". Further, one syllable nouns are most often preceded by a "der" or a "das". These things "just sound right" to a German ear, which still might seem baffling, is still a far cry from "this gendered language assigns gender willy nilly and there's just no way to learn it other than memorization". Rather, they are akin to how we can readily tell you in English that it's "three dollars an hour" not "three dollars a hour". It's the sound!

Interestingly, where we are reducing some gendered words sometimes thanks to feminism (referring to actresses as actors like their male colleagues), the German feminists have decided that they *prefer* having the two terms to demonstrate their femininity, as a source of pride.
posted by readyfreddy at 2:56 AM on November 17, 2015


There isn't really such a thing as "philology" any more, at least in America—it's a fine old word, but its functions have been subsumed under classics (Greek and Latin) and linguistics (history and structure of languages).

Philology also used to (and still does, in some countries) encompass scholarly editing of the Western European classical languages and vernaculars. It also included elements of what became folklore, from which anthropology and cultural history are scions of a sort. It's a branchy history, like that of the languages that it studied, and adding up all of its scions doesn't quite add up to what it once was.

This has been on my reading list for a while.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 1:36 PM on November 17, 2015


Nietzsche started as a philologist. I've taken that as a warning.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:58 PM on November 17, 2015


I think it's somewhat valid. Twain mocked the redundancy of German gender.

While Twain is delightful on German, I'm not sure he's the best source for modern linguistic thinking.
posted by kenko at 10:46 AM on November 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Philology also used to (and still does, in some countries) encompass scholarly editing of the Western European classical languages and vernaculars.

Not only Western European; my mother, for example, received a degree in Oriental Philology (taking in Japanese, Chinese and Korean) in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
posted by acb at 2:23 PM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


The gendered nouns thing is completely baffling and ludicrous to me. A chair has a gender? A school has a gender? A boulder? A tree? It's completely arbitrary, and native speakers simply know what gender these things are... and there's no way to figure it out unless you are told.

My favourite high school French teacher was fond of saying "You have to remember that French is a very sexist language."
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:12 PM on November 21, 2015


<nigel>What's wrong with a language wanting to be sexy?</nigel>
posted by clvrmnky at 5:53 PM on November 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


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