Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English - John McWhorter (2008)
Chapter 5. SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET
WHAT HAPPENED TO ENGLISH
BEFORE IT WAS ENGLISH?
The final chapter in our new History of English takes us back before English was even English. It’s a trip we need to take, because it reinforces two lessons I have tried to get across in this book. First, there is nothing unique about English’s “openness” to words from other languages. Second, there is no logical conception of “proper” grammar as distinct from “bad” grammar that people lapse into out of ignorance or laziness.
We’re going to go back before Old English, to Proto-Germanic, the ancestor to English and the other Germanic languages. It would appear that long before Something Happened to English, Something Happened to Proto-Germanic as well. There was a history of bastardy in English long before it was even a twinkle in Proto-Germanic’s eye.
Froto- (I mean, Proto-) Germanic Sounded Strange As I noted earlier, Proto-Germanic was never written, but we can hypothesize what its words—and also a lot of its grammar—were like by deduction from its modern descendants. Proto-Germanic was one of several branches of an even earlier language linguists call Proto-Indo-European, which was reconstructed in the same way, by comparing all of its branches. As it happens, Proto-Germanic was a distinctly weird offshoot of Proto-Indo-European. There was something not quite right about it.
For one thing, something had happened to its consonants. Where Proto-Indo-European words began with p, t, and k, for some reason in Proto-Germanic, they began with f, th, and h, respectively. We know this because only in Germanic languages today do the words come out that way, whereas in normal Indo-European languages they still have p, t, and k. Where Latin has pater, English has father—just as German has Vater, with the v pronounced “f,” etc. Why? Where Latin has tres, English has three. Why? Where Latin has canis, English has hound. Why?
There are some sound changes that are so common you can almost guarantee that they will happen sooner or later in any language. For example, the standard Italian cappicola has morphed in Sicilian Italian to sound like this: “gabagul.” The g sound is a version of the k sound of the c’s in cappicola—say g and k to yourself and see how similar they are. In the same way, the b sound in the middle of “gabagul” is a version of the p sound. So k sounds become g sounds all the time, as do p sounds become b ones. It’s also typical for vowel sounds that carry no accent to drop off over time, such that “gabagul” doesn’t have the old -a on the end of cappicola.
But p to f? Imagine a generation starting to say “fopcorn” instead of popcorn—weird. And even t to th: we pronounce the t in water more like a d because d is similar to t (try it). But it’s hard to imagine someone saying “thop” instead of top. Yet this is what happened in Proto-Germanic, and it passed down into all of today’s Germanic brood. As the way sounds change over time goes, k morphing into h is not all that odd, but p morphing into f and tmorphing to th are not things your typical Indo-European language pulls. They aren’t utterly unheard-of: worldwide, for example, p’s becoming f’s is not something a linguist is flabbergasted by, any more than it is mesmerizingly counterintuitive that Americans make lemonade while Finns don’t (and they don’t—it’s weird; I couldn’t find any during six weeks in Helsinki). But p becoming f wasn’t the fashion within the Indo-European family. Why did the Germanic branch go its own way?
The process by which Proto-Indo-European sounds regularly changed into these other ones was discovered, as it happens, by one of the Grimm brothers famous for collecting and penning fairy tales (Jacob), and is known to linguists as Grimm’s Law. Beyond our little circle, it should just be known as something weird about Germanic consonants.
Now, as always, there are some people inclined to assume this was just an accident. Then, again as always, others seek an explanation, and those who do suppose that Proto-Germanic must represent a branch of Proto-Indo-European that was learned by speakers of some other language. Because foreigners typically render a second language with an accent—that is, they filter it partially through the sounds of their own language—we might have an explanation as to why p, t, and k were distorted so abruptly in Germanic while they weren’t in the Slavic, Greek, Celtic, or so many other branches of Indo-European.
But what language would these foreigners have been speaking? Well, f, th, and h have something in common: all of them are “hissy” sounds. P, t, and k are clipped sounds, called stops by linguists (hissy sounds are fricatives). Crucially, Proto-Indo-European was quite poor in hissy sounds—all it had was s, which came out as z here and there. It would seem that whoever took up Proto-Germanic spoke a language with a lot of hiss in it.
Linguists and archaeologists assume that Proto-Germanic was being spoken in the last several centuries B.C. If we look for a language family other than Indo-European that was being spoken in or around Europe at this time, it happens that the Semitic family of the Middle East had good hissy languages.
Today, Semitic’s most prominent representatives are Arabic and Hebrew. In the last centuries B.C., however, these were both obscure languages of small groups, and the shop-window Semitic representatives, used as lingua francas in the Middle East and/or beyond, were other ones. Akkadian is often mentioned via the names of its dialects Assyrian and Babylonian. Aramaic was once so entrenched as the language of note in the Middle East and beyond that it was the language of administration under the Persian Empire, run in Persia vastly eastward of where Aramaic had arisen, despite the native language of Persia’s rulers being, well, Persian, completely unrelated to Aramaic. It lives on today among small groups, termed, for one, Syriac. Akkadian had z, s, sh, ts, and an h sound that you made with your uvula. Aramaic at the time had sh, dz, ts, and h. Snaky sounds.
So, just hypothetically, if speakers of languages like these wrapped their tongues around Proto-Germanic, we might expect that their rendition would have more hissy sounds than Proto-Indo-European passed down to it. But this alone can be so compelling only as a speculation. For one thing, one other Indo-European branch went hissy, too, apparently all by itself: Armenian, which occupies its branch all alone. Pater ( father) in Latin, hayr in Armenian. Cor(heart) in Latin, sirt in Armenian.
Proto-Germanic Had Strange Verbs
But there was something else about Proto-Germanic.
To an English speaker it feels pretty normal that as often as not, we put a verb into the past by changing the vowel in it instead of adding -ed: see, saw; drink, drank; come, came; etc. And in Germanic in general, it is indeed normal: in German, those verbs are sehe, sah; trinke, trank; komme, kam. But in Indo-European, beyond Germanic, this is not normal at all.
You may know this from taking French or Spanish: there are certainly irregular verbs, but the irregularity is only rarely just a matter of switching a vowel. In Spanish, you start with an innocent infinitive form like tener (“to have”), and then cut your teeth on mastering that he has is él tiene but he had is él tuvo. It’s not just the u vowel—there is also that random v that comes out of nowhere. Typical—and not just a matter of vowel switches alone, like come, came; drink, drank. These, where it’s all about the one vowel, are Germanic’s kink. In all Germanic languages, there is a long list of verbs whose pasts are formed like this, traditionally termed “strong verbs.”
The reason this is not the case in other Indo-European subfamilies is because Proto-Indo-European was not like this. Its grammar did involve switching vowels—but to do an array of things such as helping to indicate case: if you asked a Proto-Indo-European speaker what a dog was called, they would have said it was a kwōn, with a long o. But in the genitive it was kun-és with a u, and in the accusative, kwón-ṃ with a short o instead of a long one. Indicating past tense was only one thing vowel switching was used for (know, knew was wid, woid)—and only so much. In other branches of Proto-Indo-European, this vowel-switching machinery was passed down in assorted renditions reflecting that array of functions it had in Proto-Indo-European. Only in Proto-Germanic did the all-over-the-place vowel-switching of Proto-Indo-European morph into something as distinct and particular as a long list of past tense verb forms indicated with a vowel change and just that.
Once again, Proto-Germanic is odd. That’s in two ways now. Might there be a reason? Well, what about those Semitic languages again? Interesting—their kink is that they form the past tense by changing the vowels inside the word. In Hebrew today, he writes: hu kotev. But he wrote: hu katav. The consonants stay the same: the vowels change: write, wrote; kotev, katav. All Semitic languages have had this feature, ancient and modern, including good old Akkadian and Aramaic. Hmm.
Even these two things are not quite a smoking gun, but there’s something else.
Proto-Germanic Packed Light
Amid early offshoots of Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Germanic was like English amid Germanic languages in how much frippery it had lost. Proto-Indo-European marked its nouns with eight cases. Latin, the early Indo-European language most learned in modern times, held on to six: nominative, genitive (“of the table”), dative (“to the table”), accusative (table as object), ablative (“by the table”), and vocative (if you were moved to say “Oh, table!!” but more usually, of course, with names), and then some words had a locative (Romae, “in Rome”). The ancestor of today’s Slavic languages, Old Church Slavonic, had seven cases, as Lithuanian still does. Old Irish, an early Celtic language, had five, like Ancient Greek then and Albanian now.
But Proto-Germanic had just four. Those four cases in German wear out Anglophone learners today, but in the grand scheme of things, they are a broken-down half of what Proto-Indo-European had.
In the same way, as Indo-European languages go, it’s weird that in English the only verb endings are ones for present and past tense. I wait, I waited, and that’s about it. German, as busier as it seems to us Anglophones, is pretty much the same: ich warte, ich wartete. There are no endings that mark the future, for example: English does future with a word, will; German uses its werden in the same way. That’s how it is in all Germanic languages; that’s how it was in Proto-Germanic.
Note, however, that in Spanish, you use endings to mark not only the present (yo hablo) and past (yo hablé), but imperfect (hablaba), future (hablaré), conditional (hablaría), subjunctive (hable), and imperfect subjunctive (hablase). Spanish is not unique here, but normal: it has stayed like Proto-Indo-European was, in which there were separate tables of endings to place things in time according to very specific gradations almost imposingly baroque. In fact, Spanish has taken this even further than Proto-Indo-European did in some ways, sprouting its own new endings. Proto-Indo-European, for example, did not have conditional endings.
This anality about assembling sentences very precisely regarding time and hypotheticality with endings was already de rigueur way back when Spanish was Latin. While Latin was spoken, when Proto-Germanic endings were down to just marking whether something was happening now or already had, Latin endings were painting a much more particular picture of how one experienced actions in time: portō (“I carry”), portābam (“I was carrying”), portāvi (“I carried”), portāveram (“I had carried”), portābo (“I will carry”), portāverō (“I will have carried”).
Where did all of this go in Proto-Germanic? Some descendants of Proto-Indo-European have held on to more of this stuff than others, but in Proto-Germanic it fell away to a peculiar extent, such that we Germanic speakers have dragooned little words like will and would to pick up the slack.
After what we have seen in this book, the reader will intuit that this suggests that Proto-Germanic was not just bastardized by some other language, but beaten up by it. The streamlining of Proto-Germanic, with its four little cases, and suffixes marking just two little tenses, is the sign of busy adults making their way in the language as best they could but never quite mastering the subtleties. Proto-Germanic seems to have been a kind of schoolboy Proto-Indo-European.10
At this point, many will see it as at least worth asking: just who might these people stirring up Proto-Germanic have been?
Proto-Germanic Was Full of Orphan Words
A final and conclusive piece of evidence that there were, at the very least, some people of some kind stirring things up is that no less than a third of the Proto-Germanic vocabulary does not trace back to Proto-Indo-European.
With the other two-thirds, we can first figure out what the Proto-Germanic word was, like daukhtrô for daughter, and then we can compare that word to daughter words in the other Indo-European subfamilies, and work out that the Proto-Indo-European source root was dhugəter.
But with a mysterious many of the Proto-Germanic words, we just hit a wall. There are no cognates of these words in other Indo-European languages, and thus no ancestral Proto-Indo-European word can be reconstructed. Earlier than Proto-Germanic the trail runs cold. The words quite often refer to seafaring (sea, ship, strand, sail), war-making (sword), fish (carp, eel), and formal social institutions (knight). Note, for example, that there is no word akin to sea in any other European language you might be familiar with. In Romance, it’s words like French’s mer and Italian’s mare. In the Slavic languages, Russian has more, Polish morze. Over in Celtic, in Welsh the word is môr. From the shape of all those words, it is no surprise that it is thought that in Proto-Indo-European there was a word mere that referred, at least, to something like a lake. But in English we instead have this sea thing, with cognates like German’s See and Dutch’s zee. Why don’t we English speakers refer to eating something like “Mar-food” instead of seafood? Sure, Germans, for example, also have Meer as an alternate. But where did their See come from?
Now, one way of approaching this is to just treat it as an accident. Who knows, after all, whether in other Indo-European languages, words related to the seemingly orphan ones in Proto-Germanic were once alive, but happened to drop out of use by chance? Maybe it happened that a Proto-Indo-European root now survives only in one of the many branches of the family. Although we would have to wonder why it would have blown away in so many branches so uniformly—but still.
Or, the meanings of words can change so much over time that a Proto-Germanic word could possibly trace to a Proto-Indo-European root with a completely different meaning, such that no one would suspect the connection. The word punch, when referring to a drink, comes not from a Proto-Indo-European word for some kind of liquid, but from its word for five—through Hindi’s five word, used because the original recipe was developed in India and used five ingredients. Shitte happens.
And besides, when scholars put their heads to it they can often figure out a Proto-Indo-European root that the Proto-Germanic words could have come from, via likenesses that no one happened to notice before.
So one leading scholar of how languages change has only this to say about the issue in a recent work:
Shifts in the meanings of words and the replacement of old lexemes by new ones are universal types of language change; it is therefore not surprising that the lexicon of PGmc [Proto-Germanic], like that of all language, included many words of doubtful or unknown origin (e.g. *blōþa “blood,” *bainą “bone,” *handuz “hand,” *regną “rain,” *stainaz “stone,” *gōdaz “good,” *drinkaną “drink,” etc).
Well, yes. But what about when the mysterious words look—mysteriously—like ones in other language families? Like, say, Semitic?
For example, one of those words that does not trace before Proto-Germanic is fright. Its spelling reflects that there was once an extra consonant sound before the final t, and its rendition in other Germanic languages often gives us a better sense of the original, such as German’s Furcht, pronounced “foorkht.” The extra consonant was the sound of ch in Bach: the Proto-Germanic form was furkhtaz.
But check this out. The Proto-Semitic verb for “to fear,” as it happens, had the consonants p-r-kh. I give no vowels because Semitic verbs are their trios of consonants; the vowels change to mark tense and other distinctions, as in kotev/katav (“write/wrote”) above, and there is no “default” vowel pattern that means nothing and signifies a “basic” form. Thus, the closest we can come to what “the word” for fear in Proto-Semitic was is p-r-kh.
Now, we can compare p-r-kh with the consonants in furkhtaz:
The f and the p don’t look related at first, but then remember that in Proto-Germanic, p got turned into f! The p-r-kh root for “to fear” just might have also ended up as the word fright in England, and hence, on this page.
Or, folk started in Germanic as a word referring to a division of an army, and only later morphed into meaning a tribe or a nation. The Proto-Germanic word was fulka; the early Semitic root for divide—i.e., as in making a division—was p-l-kh:
In the early Semitic language Assyrian, that root was used to mean district (i.e., a division of land), with the kh softening into a g (puluggu). In Hebrew today, a detachment is a plaga. Maybe in Northern Europe, that root came out as fulka in the same meaning.
Maiden was, in Old English, mægden and mægþ. The same word in Old Scandinavian was magað, in Old High German magad, in Gothic magaþs. Based on them, a plausible Proto-Germanic form would be magaþ. To which we can compare what can be reconstructed as an early Semitic form, makhat:
As we saw with puluggu in Assyrian, kh easily becomes g. Then, the change from t to th is that Proto-Germanic kink again.
Of course one must be careful making too much of it when words with the same meaning have similar shapes in different languages. As often as not, it’s just an accident: the word for “hang down” is sagaru in Japanese, but not because Germanic-speaking Vikings made a hitherto unrecorded swing over to Japan and married a bunch of the women!
But the Semitic parallels with the orphan Proto-Germanic words get more interesting when it’s relationships between words that are paralleled as well. Biblical Hebrew had a word ʕeƀεr that meant “to cross,” and the three-consonant root was also used in the word for shore. Interesting that in Old English, ofer was the word for both shore and over, as in the direction one goes when crossing.
ʕeƀεr and ofer are more similar than they may seem at first. The ʕ at the beginning of ʕeƀεr was something we can treat as trivial, a sound produced back in the throat, similar to the one we would make if we were talking about apples and someone insisted on thinking we were talking about pears, and we said, “I’m not talking about pears. I’m talking about apples. Apples, damn you—apples!!!!” Note that especially on that final utterance of apples, you would begin the word not with the a vowel itself, but with a catch in the throat, just like you utter at the start of both syllables in “uh-oh!” The ʕ sound is just farther back in the throat, but for our purposes we can imagine the Biblical Hebrew word as “eƀεr” just as English has no “letter” for the catch in the throat before the two syllables in “uh-oh!”
And then, the ƀ sound in Hebrew was rather like blowing—the v-inflected b sound that you often learn in Spanish classes—which was quite similar to the f in ofer. German even maintains the connection between shore and over: shore is Ufer, while over is über.
Another one: normally, Indo-European languages’ word for seven has a t in it. French’s sept, Spanish’s siete, Greek’s heptá, Polish’s siedem (note that in your mouth d is a kind of t)—the Proto-Indo-European form was likelyseptṃ. But not in Germanic, where you get things like German’s sieben, Dutch’s zeven, Danish’s syv. Why? Well, Semitic languages have a seven word that sounds rather like Indo-European’s but lacks that t: Biblical Hebrew’s, for instance, was šéƀaʕ. Again, the ƀ sound was a blowing, close to the v in seven, or the f in the Old English form seofon. And in Old High German, it came out as a straight b (sibun).
Phinding the Phoenicians
Okay—maybe. But what we want now is evidence that speakers of a Semitic language from way down in the Middle East actually migrated to the northern shore of Europe, namely, what is now Denmark and the northern tip of Germany, or the southern tips of Sweden and Norway right nearby. Here, the evidence helps us only so much.
We can know which Semitic speakers are of interest: it would be the Phoenicians, whose homeland was in today’s Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Their language, now extinct, was especially similar to Hebrew. The Phoenicians were one of those peoples of ancient history who were seized with a desire to travel and colonize, and they did so with great diligence on both the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, taking advantage of their advanced sailing technology. This included major colonies in North Africa, at Carthage, as well as one as far west as Spain, in what is now called Cádiz.
The Phoenicians even rounded the bend northward up into Portugal a tad . . . but there, the record stops. Did they sail up past the British Isles and round past the Netherlands to hit the neck of land shared today by Denmark and Germany?
There is no record that they did so. Apparently they were very secretive about their ship routes. Also, many of the northern European coastal regions they would have occupied have since sunk under the sea. This leaves us having to make nimble surmises.
The time, at least, was right. The Phoenicians had reached Portugal by the seventh century B.C., and were vanquished by the Romans by about 200 B.C. This would mean that if they reached Northern Europe, it would have been around the middle of the final millennium B.C.—when we know Proto-Germanic was in place. We do know that technology of the time allowed people to travel from the Mediterranean all the way around to that Danish-German necklet of land, because a Greek named Pytheas recorded having done exactly that in the late fourth century B.C. We do know that the Phoenicians’ technology was up to the voyage, because the Vikings later sailed from Northern Europe down to Britain and France in ships much less sturdy. Then, remember that so many of the orphan Proto-Germanic words are about sailing . . . and fish.
The hints get ever more tantalizing. What’s up, for example, with the passing references to two gods, Phol and Balder, in a magic spell written in an ancient German ancestor, Old High German? The Phoenicians’ god of gods was Baal. About which we note three things.
First, as it happens, when Proto-Germanic’s sounds went weird, words that came into the language starting with b ended up starting with p instead. So, from Baal—if you can think where I’m going, “Paal,” anyone?
Second, one thing that happened to sounds after that, when Proto-Germanic turned into Old High German, was that p became a pf sound, written as ph. Not that I want to give it away, but, ahem: not Paal but Phaal.
Finally, another thing about sounds in Proto-Germanic was that what came in from Proto-Indo-European as a long a (aa, written ā) ended up as a long o (ō). So Phaal became Phool.
Put all of that together, and if you wondered what the earlier form of a word Phol in Old High German was, then even if you had no intention of drawing a connection to Phoenician or anything else, you would trace it backward to—Baal, with a long a sound.
And then, the Phoenicians were also given to referring to Baal as Baal ‘Addīr (“God great”)—that is, Great God. Sometimes they would write it as one word, Baliddir, or even a shorter version, Baldir. And there in that Old High German document is a god called Balder.
Finally, get this: not long ago, an intrepid German renegade archaeologist trawling the shallows of the North Sea found artifacts from between 1500 and 500 B.C. They were from, for one, Ancient Greece and the Minoan civilization of Crete, and then there were also remains of a Phoenician cooking pot! These findings were on the shore of Germany’s northerly Schleswig-Holstein province: precisely one of the areas where Proto-Germanic is thought to have arisen.
Theo Vennemann of the University of Munich puts it that in light of all of the various indications pointing in one direction, “it would be amazing if the Phoenicians had excluded Germania from their frame of reference.” In modern times, Vennemann has been the proponent par excellence of the hypothesis that Phoenician reshaped Proto-Germanic. All of the evidence in the previous paragraphs, as well as most of the Semitic-Germanic etymologies I have presented, is his work,11 and I cotton to the lawyerly kind of argumentation from fragmentary evidence that he excels at.
However, unlike in the other chapters, this will not be the place where I muse as to why linguists have not accepted Vennemann’s case hands down. Part of why his work is not mentioned in traditional sources is that most of it is published in obscure venues and often in German, while the main other source on the subject argues for influence from Semitic on Germanic only within a larger case for Semitic’s impact on Indo-European as a whole, in two magnum opuses so majestically magnum as to ward off all but super-specialists and obsessives.
However, the truth is that even if the Phoenician case had been presented in Anglophone reader-friendly articles in prominent journals, it would stand as a mere intriguing possibility until there are etymologies of a good several dozen of the orphan Proto-Germanic words. At this point, there are only about fifteen Semitic etymologies, and many of them are not of orphan words, but proposed as alternative etymologies for words long considered ordinary descendants from Proto-Indo-European.
More archaeological evidence would also help. That scholars have so far not been even looking for such evidence means that the effort may be fruitful, but it must be put forth. Moreover, scholars uninterested short of detailed historical documentation of how many Phoenicians settled exactly where, and whether or not they picked up Proto-Germanic and passed their rendition down to future generations, would be unclear on the scripture versus writing issue we have seen in this book: in 500 B.C. no Phoenician could have conceived of committing such mundane observations into writing. The linguistic data would have to be allowed to clinch the case, as with the Celtic and Viking impacts on English.
However, in those cases, we at least know that the relevant people were in England at the right time. One broken pot cannot make the case for the Phoenicians, especially since Phoenician goods could easily have been carried to Northern Europe amid trade, without the Phoenicians themselves traveling with them, much less settling there for good and transforming the local language forever.
Yet I cannot resist tossing in one more thing pointing in a certain direction. One of the Phoenicians’ main colonies was at Carthage in North Africa. Carthaginians were champion travelers; as much Phoenician migration started there as from today’s Middle East. In the Phoenician dialect spoken in Carthage, Punic words could not begin with p. The words that began with p in earlier Phoenician had come in Punic to begin with—three guesses—f. Fopcorn in Tunisia!
What Proto-Germanic Was, What English Is
Unsettled though it currently is, the Phoenician case is worth ending this book with. First, I think the evidence is suggestive enough that it demands wider airing than it has gotten thus far. Second, however, even if there never emerges enough evidence to support the specific idea that Proto-Germanic was Proto-Indo-European as rendered by Phoenician adults, the sheer difference between Germanic and other branches of Indo-European makes a strong case that Proto-Germanic, before it split into today’s Germanic languages, was already a language deeply affected by adults of some extraction learning it as a second language. “Fopcorn.” Sleep, slept, write, wrote. Every second case and tense marker from its ancestral language lost to the wind. Every third word unknown in the language that gave birth to it.
The lesson: the idea that there was once an English somehow pristine, a pure issuance, is false. Even the Proto-Germanic language that gave birth to Old English was one that had seemed, to those who spoke its own Proto-Indo-European ancestor, perverted by speakers of something else.
Long before Old English started taking on words from Old Norse and then French and Latin, in a fashion that we today read as so cosmopolitan, Proto-Germanic had taken on countless words from some other language. Yet the isolated, parochial tribespeople who spoke it were not cosmopolitan in the least. They knew and cared little of the world beyond them except as a prospect for land and plunder. They were not hoarding new words as part of building a mighty literature, as they were illiterate. They took on new words because there were new people among them who used those words—as humans have done worldwide since the dawn of our species, and as Old English speakers did—passively, unremarkably. The diversity of the English vocabulary is something we should celebrate as evidence of Anglophones’ universal humanity, not as a feather in our cultural cap.
Meanwhile, Old English’s grammar was not, in any logical sense, an untainted system later ill-used by lazy moderns. It was the product of the distortion of Proto-Indo-European by adults ill-equipped to master it fully. People today bemoan the eclipse of whom’s marking of the accusative, unaware that Proto-Germanic speakers let go four of the cases that Proto-Indo-European speakers used. The world kept turning. You don’t like nucular? Well, how do you think the likes of “fopcorn” sounded to a Proto-Germanic speaker watching that kind of pronunciation spread? Yet we today have no interest in undoing the “damage” and saying “pah-ther” instead of “father.”
For all of the pleasures of contemplating photographs of ancient manuscripts, reading about shirt versus skirt and pig versus pork, savoring strophes of Chaucer and reminding ourselves how good Shakespeare was, The History of English we are usually given is rather static. Some marauders brought Old English to Britain. The Celts scampered away. Pretty soon the Brits went cosmopolitan and started gathering baskets of words from assorted folks, such that now we have a bigger vocabulary than before. The only thing that happened to English grammar during all this time, other than minutiae only a linguist could love, is that it lost a lot of endings, and this made word order less flexible.
The History of English is more than that. An offshoot of Proto-Indo-European borrowed a third of its vocabulary from another language. That language may have been Phoenician; certainly, there was some language. Its speakers submitted the Proto-Indo-European offshoot to a grammatical overhaul. As adults, they could not help shaving off a lot of its complications, and rendering parts of the grammar in ways familiar to them from their native language. This left Proto-Germanic a language both mixed and abbreviated before it even gave birth to new languages—and meant that it passed this mixed, abbreviated nature on to those new languages.
One of them was Old English, which morphed merrily along carrying the odd sound patterns, vowel-switching past marking, and mystery vocabulary from Proto-Germanic, just as organisms morph along through the ages carrying and replicating mitochondrial DNA patterns tracing back to the dawn of life. Old English was taken up by speakers of yet another language—or in this case, languages: Celtic ones. As Celts started using English more and more over the decades, English gradually took an infusion of grammatical features from Welsh and Cornish, including a usage of do known in no other languages on earth.
Not long afterward, speakers of yet one more language filtered English yet again. Vikings speaking Old Norse picked up the language fast, and gave it a second shave, so to speak, after what had happened to Proto-Germanic over on the Continent more than a thousand years beforehand. English’s grammar became the least “fussy” of all of the Germanic languages, impatient with “nuance” as Edward Sapir had it, and leaving its speakers, like Mark Twain, with a special challenge in mastering the complexities of other Germanic languages.
The result: a tongue oddly genderless and telegraphic for a European one, clotted with peculiar ways of using do and progressive -ing—with, in addition, indeed, a great big bunch of words from other languages. Not only Norse, French, Latin, and Greek, but possibly Phoenician—or if not, some other language, but surely that.
The vanilla version of The History of English will live on. But its proponents have not had occasion to engage with the underground stories I have attempted to share with you, or, having done so briefly, have opted to sweep them under the rug in favor of continuing in their accustomed grooves, to adopt the terminology of the Whorfian cited in the previous chapter.
Understandable. But the actual History of English is not only more scientifically plausible, but also more interesting—worthy of engagement, retention, and further study—than the traditional one all about the supposedly miraculous fact that people who invaded England left a lot of their words behind. Who has ever been truly moved by that?
To bring the book full circle by quoting the Introduction, English is miscegenated, abbreviated. Interesting.