Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English - John McWhorter (2008)
Chapter 2. A LESSON FROM THE CELTIC IMPACT
THE “GRAMMATICAL ERRORS”
EPIDEMIC IS A HOAX
Oh, those lapses, darling. So many of us walk around letting fly with “errors.” We could do better, but we’re so slovenly, so rushed amid the hurly-burly of modern life, so imprinted by the “let it all hang out” ethos of the sixties, that we don’t bother to observe the “rules” of “correct” grammar.
To a linguist, if I may share, these “rules” occupy the exact same place as the notion of astrology, alchemy, and medicine being based on the four humors. The “rules” make no logical sense in terms of the history of our language, or what languages around the world are like.
Nota bene: linguists savor articulateness in speech and fine composition in writing as much as anyone else. Our position is not—I repeat, not—that we should chuck standards of graceful composition. All of us are agreed that there is usefulness in a standard variety of a language, whose artful and effective usage requires tutelage. No argument there.
The argument is about what constitutes artful and effective usage. Quite a few notions that get around out there have nothing to do with grace or clarity, and are just based on misconceptions about how languages work.
Yet, in my experience, to try to get these things across to laymen often results in the person’s verging on anger. There is a sense that these “rules” just must be right, and that linguists’ purported expertise on language must be somehow flawed on this score. We are, it is said, permissive—perhaps along the lines of the notorious leftist tilt among academics, or maybe as an outgrowth of the roots of linguistics in anthropology, which teaches that all cultures are equal. In any case, we are wrong. Maybe we have a point here and there, but only that.
Over the years, some of the old notions have, in truth, slipped away, although this is due less to the suasive powers of linguists than to the fact that the particular rules in question were always so silly anyway.
No one taken seriously thinks it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition anymore, such that That’s a store I wouldn’t go to is “awkward.” Similarly, the grand old rule that one does not split infinitives is on the ropes. In our guts, few of us truly feel that there is anything wrong with where slowly is placed in Imagine—to slowly realize that your language lost all of its suffixes as of this morning!
The preposition rule was cooked up in the seventeenth century under the impression that because Latin doesn’t end sentences in prepositions, English shouldn’t. That makes one wonder when we are going to start cutting our English to conform to Arabic, Russian, Mandarin, and other languages with grand histories and literatures. The split-infinitive business was a nineteenth-century fetish, and may also have been based on the fact that Latin doesn’t split infinitives—because its infinitives are just one word! We say to end; Latin had terminare, period, as unsplittable as the atom was once thought to be.
But the “rules” that have hung around make no more sense than those two, and yet laymen cling to them like Linus to his blanket.
Take the idea that it is wrong to say If a student comes before I get there, they can slip their test under my office door, because student is singular and they “is plural.” Linguists traditionally observe that esteemed writers have been using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for almost a thousand years. As far back as the 1400s, in the Sir Amadace story, one finds the likes of Iche mon in thayre degree (“Each man in their degree”).
Maybe when the sentence is as far back as Middle English, there is a sense that it is a different language on some level than what we speak—the archaic spelling alone cannot help but look vaguely maladroit, as if Middle English speakers were always a little tipsy on their mead.
But Shakespeare is not assumed to have been in his cups when he wrote in The Comedy of Errors, “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend” (Act IV, Scene III). Later, Thackeray inVanity Fair tosses off “A person can’t help their birth.”
Yet the notion that this usage is “wrong” holds on so hard that even linguists have to submit to their publishers’ copy editors’ insistence on expunging it, which answers the question we often get as to why we do not use constructions like this in our own writing if we are so okay with them. My own books are full of resorts to he, which I find sexist, occasional dutiful shes, which strike me as injecting a stray note of PC irrelevance into what I am discussing, or he or she, which I find clumsy and clinical—for the simple reason that I was required to knuckle under. At best I can wangle an exception and get in a singular they or their once or twice a book. (I must note that the copy editor for this book, upon reading this section, actually allowed me to use singular they throughout the book. Here’s to them in awed gratitude!)
Or there’s the objection to nouns being used as verbs. These days, impact comes in for especial condemnation: The new rules are impacting the efficiency of the procedure. People lustily express that they do not “like” this, endlessly writing in to language usage columnists about it. Or one does not “like” the use of structure as in I structured the test to be as brief as possible.
Well, okay—but that means you also don’t “like” the use of view, silence, worship, copy, outlaw, and countless other words that started as nouns and are now also verbs. Nor do many people shudder at the use of fax as a verb.
The linguist notes that in a language with a goodly number of endings showing what part of speech a word is, making a noun into a verb means tacking the appropriate ending onto it. In French, the noun copy is copie; the verb “to copy” is copier. But in a language like English with relatively few endings, making a noun into a verb requires no extra equipment, and so copy becomes just copy. This is not a quirk of English—i.e., a loosey-goosey stipulation linguists make out of “permissiveness”—but typical of countless other languages in the world that don’t make much use of suffixes to mark parts of speech. In Cantonese Chinese, lengjái can mean “good-looking guy,” “to become good-looking,” and “good-looking”: noun, verb, and adjective. No one in China is writing in to newspapers complaining about it.
But somehow, a sense persists that nouns becoming verbs in English is icky, a messy transgression. Told that English speakers have been, as it were, turning fax into fax forever, people remain convinced that there’s still something “wrong” with it. And we won’t even get into how people feel about Billy and me went to the store and the idea that me is wrong because it’s an object pronoun referring to a subject. (Actually, we will get into it, but not just yet.)
Trying to get into the head of how people feel about these things even when presented with linguists’ protestations, I sense that the resistance is based on an understandable pride in having mastered these “rules.” You’ve got your ducks in a row, and except when exhausted or on glass number three of wine, you have no trouble producing Billy and I. You learned what subjects and objects are, you learned your Parts of Speech. As such, you don’t like someone coming along and deeming your effort and vigilance worthless. It must feel like someone telling you that it would be perfectly appropriate, natural even, to give in to the untutored impulse to chew with your mouth open.
The problem is that with all due understanding of that feeling, the “rules” we are taught to observe do not make sense, period. All attention paid to such things is like medievals hanging garlic in their doorways to ward off evil spirits. In an ideal world, the time English speakers devote to steeling themselves against, and complaining about, things like Billy and me, singular they, and impact as a verb would be better spent attending to genuine matters of graceful oral and written expression.
Over the years, I have gotten the feeling that there isn’t much linguists can do to cut through this commitment to garlic-hanging among English speakers. There are always books out that try to put linguists’ point across. Back in 1950, Robert Hall’s Leave Your Language Alone! was all over the place, including a late edition kicking around in the house I grew up in. Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct , which includes a dazzling chapter on the grammar myths, has been one of the most popular books on language ever written. As I write, the flabbergastingly fecund David Crystal has just published another book in the tradition, The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left. But the air of frustration in Crystal’s title points up how persistent the myths are. Maybe we just can’t get through.
However, in this chapter I want to venture one more stab. If you understand that the phrasing of Did you see what he’s doing? was injected into English by non-native speakers, and that there was once an English where no one would have put it that way, and that then, for a while there was an English where lots of people were putting it that way but it sounded quaint and awkward to others, you are in a position to truly “get” the message. The message: the notion that people are always “slipping up” in using their native English is fiction.
Now Versus Then
There is a paradox in how lovers of language often process English and the way it varies from mouth to mouth from decade to decade.
No one has trouble with the fact that the Old English of Beowulf is a different language than Modern English. On the contrary, the pathway from then until now is seen as a noble procession. First, majestic, flinty strophes of Old English handwritten on ancient paper, chronicling kings and battles and laws and such, a language closely akin to German. Then, Middle English: Chaucer, Sir Gawain, a language with a certain queer dignity on the page, not exactly what we speak but obviously related: Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote. Our tendency is to pronounce it with a vaguely Swedish lilt, which makes it pretty to our ear.
Next, Shakespeare—enough said. Shakespeare and Chaucer would have had to work to converse, but we do not see Shakespeare as having deformed the language of the Canterbury Tales. Rather, we might imagine the transformation from Old English to Hamlet with stately medieval-style music on the sound track, full of French horns scored in tidy thirds and fourths. From Shakespeare we pass on to the King James Bible, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, Jane Austen, and pretty soon we’re home.
All of this is seen as noble, “historical,” a matter of our “mighty” and “open” language coming to be. But somehow, there seems to be an idea that the process had an inherent end point, beyond which we are not to go. It’s as if somebody somewhere had been endeavoring to meld a chunky Germanic tongue spoken by some restless warrior tribes into precisely the English we have right now, that they officially declared themselves finished sometime not long ago, and that from now on, we are not to mess up their creation.
Obviously, there is a certain arbitrariness here. And here is where the Celtic influence first helps us. The transformation of Old English into Modern English was not, as we have seen, just a matter of new words. The entire grammar changed—and the sky did not fall in. Today we say that we do not “like” nouns being used as verbs: but there was a time when, surely, a lot of people didn’t “like” that people were walking around saying things like Did you see what he’s doing?
We can get an approximate idea of what English would have been like today if the Celts had not saddled English with their “mistakes.” English’s closest relative is Frisian, a Dutch relative today spoken by some hundreds of thousands in the Netherlands. Frisian, especially since it has lost a goodly number of Proto-Germanic suffixes, can be seen as an approximation of what English might be today if it had not met Welsh and Cornish speakers (or Vikings, but that’s the next chapter).
Do we eat apples? in Frisian is Ite wy appels? (“Eat we apples?”). No meaningless do. If we ask some Frisians with apples in their hands with bites out of them what they’re doing, they answer, Wy ite appels. They do not specify for us that they are in the process of eating the apples at this very instant!!!! As in any normal Germanic language, they would do this only if necessary: Wy binne oan’t iten (“We’re on the eating”).
This business of people plugging in an oddly redundant do all over the place where it didn’t belong, and always sounding oddly caffeinated in describing what they were doing, even though there wasn’t even coffee, must have sounded pretty stupid, really, for a long time in England if you weren’t born to it. But it caught on, and now it’s the only English we know. What was once a mistake is now ordinary. The lesson, quite simply, is that the conception that new ways of putting things are mistakes is an illusion.
But—do people perhaps have specific reasons for thinking that there is something different about our times that made change okay then but anathema now? One senses that when many people look back, they sense that something changed around the mid-1800s. Once we’re somewhere between roughly Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne, English is supposed to stay the way it is except for new words coming in for new things and old ones dropping out as things go obsolete.
But why just then? What is it about our times that makes English inviolable, whereas in the olden days it was okay for English to morph every which way? Late in rehearsals for the musical Call Me Madam in 1950, the writers started to give the star, Ethel Merman, some script changes and she said, “Boys, as of right now I am Miss Birds Eye of 1950: I am frozen. Not a comma!” What is it that made English Miss Birds Eye around a hundred years before Call Me Madam opened? Why just then?
Some might answer that in the old old days, English was transformed by various large-scale historical developments that no language could remain unchanged under, such as the Viking and Norman invasions, the genius of Shakespeare, and the general expansion of English into a language suitable for elevated writing styles. Today, one might suppose, English sails along dominating the world, such that suffering the kinds of abbreviations and distortions it did way back when would be—now I’m guessing what the idea might be—beneath the language’s dignity? An unnecessary source of confusion that modern education can and should retard?
What that answer misses, however, is that a massive proportion of the way a language changes is a matter of chance, unconnected to words or grammar from other languages or the way the language comes out of the mouths of foreign invaders. Namely, much of what constitutes ordinary Modern English today began as random novelties that floated in, despised as mistakes by the elite.
For example, in the nineteenth century, the time about when so many seem to think English was “done,” many grammarians considered the following words and expressions extremely déclassé: all the time (quality folks were to say always), born in (don’t you know it’s born at????), lit (What did I tell you, darling? it’s lighted), washtub (I don’t know why people can’t say washing tub as they should!). Standpoint, to us a rather cultivated word, was spat upon for supposedly not making sense, since you’re not standing anywhere. Believe it or not, it was also considered a tad vulgar to say Have a look at instead of Look at, and to say The first two children instead of The two first!! At classier affairs one would also have been advised to avoid popping up with louche vulgarities such as The house is being built— until then, one said The house is building—and if you said stacked and fixed the way we say them instead of “stack-ed” and “fix-ed,” to many it sounded like you were clipping the end of the word!!
A certain crowd back then were every bit as exercised over those things as so many of us are today over Billy and me and singular they (they didn’t like these either, of course). Yet from our vantage point, these concerns look arbitrary at best and comical at worst—I myself find fusty old complaints about these words and expressions every bit as funny as the late, great television show Arrested Development . (Standpoint, according to one fellow in 1867, was just “not an English word.” Hmm.)
So I hereby make up an English sentence:
Let’s have a look at the first two chapters I have excerpted, where we learn about the period when the Cross-Bronx Expressway was being built from the standpoint of people who were born in East Tremont and lived there all of their lives.
To people who prided themselves on their concern with “proper” English 150 years ago, that perfectly innocent sentence would have been a galumphing mess full of “mistakes.”
The lesson again: the conception of new ways of putting things as “mistakes” is an illusion. It reflects nothing but a natural human discomfort with the unfamiliar, as well as a certain degree of the herding instinct, such that “we” speak properly while “they” do not.
Is it that you can’t abide the fact that so many of the “errors” in question strike you as not just new but illogical?
Stop Making Sense
Well, let’s have a look at that. I get what you mean. Billy and me went to the store breaks a rule. Because it’s I who went to the store, as a subject, me is downright illogical. It should be fixed. They “is” plural. It means two people. If you’re going to start using it to mean one person, then where do you draw the line? Why can’t we just start using we to mean “you”? Or “asparagus”?
An answer to all of this is one that is not exactly tidy, but urgent nonetheless.
No language makes perfect sense.
That’s another way of saying: there is no known language that does not have wrinkles of illogicality here and there. If one is to impose an aesthetic preference upon English or any other language, it cannot be one involving perfect order and endless clean lines, because no language like that has ever been spoken, anywhere, by anyone. Rather, one must revel in disorder. Not chaos, but perhaps the contained disorder of an ideal English garden, where it is considered proper to allow certain plants to ramble here and there, certain flowers to spread, drip, dot, dapple. Call them marks of character.
Pronouns, as it happens, are one of the places where languages tend to drip a bit. Russian, for example, gets weird in the Billy and me zone, too. To refer to yourself and someone else, you refer to yourself as “we.” So Me and my wife is My s ženoj (“We and the wife”). (Don’t be misled by the chance similarity between English me and Russian my; Russian’s my means “we.”) This is no “royal” we—it is the only way to say it. The we usage crept in out of a sense that you are referring to two people of which you are one, which is the definition of we-ness, just as we say Everybody can have their own piece of cake because “everybody” brings to mind lots of people rather than one body. In the same way, in Russian you do not say He and Ivan went fishing, but They and Ivan went fishing. Russians do not consider My s ženoj a mistake: it just is. All languages leak.
In Hebrew and other languages in its Semitic family, there is something that truly makes no damned sense and you just have to deal with it. Adjectives take a feminine ending when used with feminine nouns—no surprise there. Adjectives come after the noun, and so Mazal tov (“good luck,” “congratulations”), but Šana tova (“good year,” “Happy New Year”). But for some reason, numbers above two turn it around: they take a feminine ending with masculine nouns and no ending with feminine ones. Kibbutzes are male in Hebrew, and so three kibbutzes: kibutzim ŠloŠa. Bananas are women, and so three bananas is bananot ŠaloŠ This just is. Israelis don’t “not like” it. It’s been that way forever, it’s that way in Arabic, it’s just that way. All languages leak.
Or then there’s a language in which when, and only when, you use a verb in the third person singular you pin a z sound to the end of it. That is, English: the ending is written as an -s, but if you think about it, it’s usually pronounced as z: tries (you don’t say “trice”), mows, kills, tars, bids, wags, and so on. Having a conjugational ending in the present only for the third person singular is vastly rare, believe it or not (I am aware of it in no other language on earth and am not alone among linguists in that), and surely part of the reason is that it doesn’t really make sense. What’s it there for? Wouldn’t the language be more logical if there were just no endings? Notice that this is exactly where many speakers try to take English in their colloquial speech—only to be condemned as making a “grammatical error”!
Which brings us to an idea some might have that even if all languages to date leak, there isn’t anything wrong with trying to make English the first exception. We, after all, do have things like coffee and broccoli and electricity. We had the Enlightenment. Far be it from us to accept the natural as the inevitable, one might say.
But to plug up all of English’s holes, you’d have to get rid of a lot more than singular they, Billy and me, and a few other blips that happen to attract so much attention. For example, what about good old meaningless do? It doesn’t make a whit of sense. It contributes nothing, and just makes forming negative sentences and questions more involved than it ever was before. Obviously we’re stuck with it—no one expects us to start talking like Frisians. Want youto stop using meaningless do? It’s illogical—but we do not care. Nor do we have much time for splitting hairs over the “logic” of using the progressive marker to express an ordinary present tense that it was not originally used for. We do not, and cannot, care.
The snippy grammar mavens of yesteryear had their “logical” reasons for “not liking” plenty of other things we now have no problem with. For example, first two was thought to connote the first pair of something as opposed to some other pair or trio; otherwise, it was thought that one “should” say two first—i.e., to simply refer to the initial two in a sequence with no comparison intended with subsequent pairs or trios. Even today we can see how that makes a kind of sense—Jane Austen used two first—but we also cannot help sensing it as almost elusively particular. Maybe it’d be kind of nice if we had learned to fashion that little antimacassar distinction. But unsurprisingly, we didn’t, and no one cares today. What’s the big deal about singular they, then?
English is shot through with things that don’t really follow. I’m the only one, amn’t I? Shouldn’t it be amn’t after all? Aren’t, note, is “wrong” since are is used with you, we, and they, not I. There’s no “I are.” Aren’t I? is thoroughly illogical—and yet if you decided to start saying amn’t all the time, you would lose most of your friends and never get promotions. Except, actually, in parts of Scotland and Ireland where people actually do say amn’t—in which case the rest of us think of them as “quaint” rather than correct!
When’s the last time you learned a language where the word for you was the same in the singular and plural always? (Note that I have avoided the street-corner putrescence of all the time!) I don’t mean ones where you can use the plural you in addressing one person to be polite (French vous, German Sie, etc.)—but ones where you really is the only pronoun available in the second person for both singular and plural?
There are, believe it or not, languages where pronouns vary only for person but not number, such that I and we are the same word, he, she, and they are the same word, and as such, singular and plural you are the same word. For some reason this tends to be in Indonesia and New Guinea. But for it to be this way only with the second person? Odd, and, again, illogical, inconsistent, unpretty. And as always, when people try to clean it up and make a plural youwith words like y’all and you’uns and y’uns, they are patronized as “colorful.”
The ending -ly makes an adjective into an adverb, right? Strongly, helpfully, badly. Why, then, does it pop up on adjectives as well? A portly gentleman, my hometown Philadelphia The City of Brotherly Love, an hourly massage (I wish). It doesn’t make sense, but try to clean it up and call Philly a city of “brother-love” and one implies an entirely different affair.
Look at these words:
Notice how they share a certain element in their meanings? All of them have to do with rapid, repetitive movement, a “hummingbird” quality. That means that the -le ending is actually a suffix—it carries meaning.
But if so, it’s a funny kind of suffix. With other suffixes, the words they are used with can also occur by themselves. Strongly, strong. Happiness, happy. Curiosity, curious. But with -le, as often as not the original word doesn’t exist. There are nip, jig, dab, and curd. But nib hangs around only on the margins of the language: I have used it exactly once in my forty-two-year life and that was at the beginning of this sentence. Drib is frozen into the set expression dribs and drabs (one does not say, Look, a drib!). Trick, although obviously a word, is a different one from the one that formed the basis of trickle (which does not mean to pull the wool over someone’s eyes in twittering repetition!), and in the same way we cannot fid, fond, did, gig, wig, rid, tick, or stip.
That is illogical. If wiggle means to squirm rapidly, then why isn’t there a verb to wig that refers to the undulating motion of a hula dance? Why doesn’t the mighty Mississippi River trick majestically along? Why doesn’t tickmean a seductive caress? Or, why can’t we add -le to other words? Why are we never described as knockling on a door? Why don’t we say that a drummer doing a drumroll is tappling?
Well, we just don’t—but if you want to make English the world’s first leakless language, you’ve got your work cut out for you with what linguists call our frequentative suffix -le. Which would include imprinting upon the English-speaking world various other words, such as sprink and chort.
Billy and me, then, is just one more place where English has a wrinkle. In English, when subject pronouns are used after and, they are expressed in the form otherwise used for objects, just like in Russian, when you refer to yourself and someone else as a subject, I is expressed in the form otherwise used for the first person plural. That’s all.
The question is, then, what makes that “error” and the others we hear about so important compared to the ones no one bats an eye about?
Wouldn’t it seem that mere accident has people writing things like I’m correct in viewing the use of they in the singular as incorrect, aren’t I? Or that people who “don’t like” impact as a verb have no problem with the fact that the word fun nonsensically straddles the line between noun and adjective? A fun party, a long party—adjectives. The party was fun, the party was long—adjectives. But then, fun can be a noun: We had fun, I’m sick of fun—but “we had long”??? What “part of speech” is fun?
It bears mentioning that clarity is not an issue with the “errors” in question. Hearing someone say Billy and me went to the store, no one muses, “Hark—who is the person other than Billy that he refers to? I hear no subject!” When Thackeray wrote “A person can’t help their birth,” no one stopped and wondered “But who’s the other person????”
The rub is purely the issue of “logic,” and the fact is that there are no languages that make perfect sense throughout. After all, a language loping along with a meaningless do while dressing up its present tense in progressive clothing sure doesn’t. In a perfectly logical English, you would say, Amn’t I the one who have to sprink the second coat of paint on? I presume that you have no desire to say sentences like this.
The Celtic impact on English, then, shows us that truly novel things can happen to the way a language puts words together and yet its speakers will continue to understand one another, and the language can go on to be the vehicle of a great literature.
My experience suggests that at this point, many people will still have trouble shaking a sense that observing these “rules” is part of being a respectable member of society. And it is true that in the reality of the world we live in, we cannot say Billy and me went to the store in a formal speech without seeming crude and untutored to many audience members; nor will my arguments change the convictions of those who write house style sheets for copy editors.
I would hope, however, that we might think of these things as what they are: arbitrary fashions of formal language that we must attend to just as we dress according to the random dictates of the fashions of our moment. Remember that what is considered “proper” English varies with the times just as fashion does.
There was a time when pedants hoped that English could pattern like Latin and not end sentences with prepositions. That fashion passed.
There was a time when pedants developed a minor obsession over English’s tendency to use expressions like have a look and make a choice rather than look and choose. That fashion passed.
In our time, pedants are engaged in a quest to keep English’s pronouns in their cages instead of me being used as a subject after and and they being used in the singular. Whether that fashion will pass I cannot say, but we do know that it is nothing but one more fashion. Russians happen to prefer smothering their food in sour cream much more than Americans, and in Russia the space occupied in modern American culture by wine is occupied by vodka. These are cultural differences, distinctions of vogue. Similarly, Russians with their “We and the wife” do not know our fashion of policing pronouns to make sure they never venture beyond their original meanings. Today as in the olden days, we are dealing with vogue indeed. People in the seventies did not think sideburns, wide collars, and bell-bottoms were more “logical” than previous fashions. It was just what people were delighted by in a passing sense, then, for a while.
We are taught that these errors are a sign of some possible catastrophe if they are allowed to persist. But I’m not sure people are aware of how languages have a way of holding together. Nothing reminds me of this more than the truly screwed-up English in the funniest book ever written in human history, The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English. It was written in the late 1800s by a Portuguese man described by Mark Twain in the introduction to a latterly printing as an “honest and upright idiot,” who neither spoke nor even read English, and was under the impression that he could render English by just plugging English words into French sentences. The book is almost two hundred pages of the likes of this, one of my favorite bits in it, a vignette about fishing called “The fishing”:
That pond it seems me many multiplied of fishes. Let us amuse rather to the fishing.
I do like-it too much.
Here, there is a wand and some hooks.
Silence! There is a superb perch! Give me quick the rod. Ah! There is, it is a lamprey.
You mistake you, it is a frog! Dip again it in the water.
Perhaps I will do best to fish with the leap.
Try it! I desire that you may be more happy and more skilful who a certain fisher, what have fished all day without to can take nothing.
Now, that’s errors for you. And notice that no native speaker of English ever sounds anything like this and never has, regardless of their attendance to “errors.” I have no idea, for example, what “the leap” referred to. I also submit “you mistake you,” so marvelously erroneous, as a sample of what “wrong” English really can be, in considering whether modern English speakers are prone in any meaningful way to “errors.”
I also submit that that very way of putting it, “you mistake you,” leads us into the next chapter. There is a reason why one puts it as “you mistake you” in Portuguese and French—and normal Germanic languages—but not English. It’s part of a bigger picture—one with Vikings in it.