Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English - John McWhorter (2008)
Chapter 3. WE SPEAK A BATTERED GRAMMAR
WHAT THE VIKINGS DID TO ENGLISH
English, as languages go, and especially Germanic ones, is kind of easy.
Not child’s play, but it has fewer bells and whistles than German and Swedish and the rest. Foreigners are even given to saying English is “easy,” and they are on to something, to the extent that they mean that English has no lists of conjugational endings and doesn’t make some nouns masculine and others feminine.
There is a canny objection one sometimes hears out there, that English is easy at first but hard to master the details of, while other languages are hard at first but easy to master the details of. Purportedly, then, Russian means starting out cracking your teeth on its tables of conjugations and case markers and gender marking, but after that it’s smooth sailing.
Nonsense. English really is easy(-ish) at first and hard later, while other languages like Russian are hard at first and then just as hard later! Show me one person who has said that learning Russian was no problem after they mastered the basics—after the basics, you just keep wondering how anybody could speak the language without blacking out. English is truly different. Why?
Not because so many immigrants have learned it, either amid the British slave trade or later in America. We must always ask: in our modern world, how would the way the language is spoken by subordinate people, usually ridiculed as “bad grammar,” make its way into how middle-class native-born people spoke, and especially how they wrote? Some words, maybe—but as always, grammar is key. There is the way the Bosnian cabdriver speaks English now—and then there is the way the people on National Public Radio talk. Just how would Zlatko the cabdriver’s locutions affect how Terry Gross expresses herself? Obviously, not at all—even if there were millions of Zlatkos.
Besides, English drifted into its streamlined state long before the colonial era, when it was still a language only occasionally written in, and spoken by only some millions of people on a single island. The reason English is easy is a story which, like the Celtic one, traditional linguists have missed most of, in favor of seeing an uncanny number of developments in the same direction as “just happening,” though they are unheard-of in any other Germanic language or, often, anywhere on earth.
Namely, the Danes and Scandinavians who invaded and settled Britain starting in the eighth century battered not only people, monasteries, and legal institutions, but the English language itself.
Before we go on, by the way, don’t worry that “Germanic” means keeping track of twelve vastly different tongues. Really, just think of it as four.
The first “language” is Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, sometimes called Mainland Scandinavian. These three are variants of the same language; their speakers can converse.
The second language is Dutch. “Dutch” for us can include Frisian, a close relative, and Afrikaans, which is Dutch after centuries of separate development in South Africa.
The third language is High German. Yiddish is an offshoot of what also became High German, and is in essence a German dialect with a lot of words from Slavic and Hebrew. Some Yiddish scholars bristle when you say that, but it’s true, with all due respect for Yiddish’s position in a culture quite separate from the Teutonic one. So you can just think, for our purposes, of “German.”
Finally, there is Icelandic. Faroese is so similar to it that you can just think of a general “Icelandic.”
That really is all you need: Volvos, Vermeers, Volkswagens, and Volcanoes.
The Tip of the Iceberg: Suffixes
Traditional scholarship on The History of English recognizes that the Vikings played a part in a single thing that happened to English besides words, words, words. Namely, as we have seen, Old English shed a lot of endings in its day, such that in comparison Middle English seems like one of those nearly hairless cats.
It happened on verbs as well as nouns. Where in Modern English we have I love, you love, he loves, we love, where the only ending is the third person one with its -s, Old English had ic luf-ie, þū luf-ast, hē luf-að, wē luf-iað.(Quick sidebar on something we’ll see a lot of in this chapter—nothing hard: in Old English spelling, þ was the th sound in thin, and ð was the th sound in this.)
It is more or less accepted that the Vikings must have had something to do with this. Modern Danish and Norwegian didn’t exist yet; rather, the Vikings spoke the ancestor of those languages, an early branch of Proto-Germanic called Old Norse. Old Norse was, like Old English, a language all ajangle with suffixes like Latin.
When the Vikings came, one of their first tasks was to communicate with the Anglo-Saxons. This was not as tough a proposition for them as the one they would have faced had they invaded Greece. It is assumed that speakers of Old English and speakers of Old Norse could probably wangle a conversation. To ask “Do you have a horse to sell?” an Old English speaker would say “Haefst þu hors to sellenne?,” which would have made some kind of sense to an Old Norse speaker since in his language it went Hefir þu hross at selja?
Understanding was one thing, but reproducing what he heard was another. For the Old Norse speaker, Old English was familiar but different, kind of like driving on the wrong (I mean, left!) side of the road in England feels to an American at first. Old English had endings in the same places and used in the same ways—but different endings. Take the word for “to deem, to judge”:
This was a basically bookless realm, recall, and so a Norseman did not see tables of endings laid out neatly on a page like this, nor did anyone teach him the language formally at all (short of perhaps being told occasional words, but that doesn’t allow you to express yourself). It was an oral world—people just talked; they didn’t write or read. The Norseman just heard these endings being used on the fly. It must have been confusing, and as such, tempting to just leave the endings off when speaking English, since he could be understood without them most of the time. This was the recipe for what eventually became Modern English, where the only remnant of the present-tense conjugations above is the third person singular -s, a little smudge left over from ye olde -th.
Yet, as always, the ancient world left us no actual descriptions of Vikings making their way in English and how well they did at it. We can infer a little from things like an eleventh-century inscription on a sundial, written in Old English by someone with a Scandinavian name, “Orm Gamalson”:
Orm Gamalsuna bohte Sanctus Gregorius minster tobrocan & tofalan & he hit let macan newan from grunde . . .
“Orm Gamalson bought St. Gregory’s minster broken and fallen down and had it made anew from the ground . . .”
Thus a Scandinavian was writing in English: that’s one glimpse at one Viking who wrapped his head around the language. But we’ll never know anything about Orm, including how he learned English, much less how he actually rendered it in his everyday speech. And that historiographical lacuna has allowed some linguists to propose that the Orm Gamalsons had nothing to do with English taking it all off.
They point out that Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish have lost almost as many endings as English has, and Dutch and Frisian are not too far behind them. In the present, for example, Swedish and friends even surpass English; here is how to conjugate “to call” in Swedish—i.e., you don’t!
But this observation misses the forest for the trees. While other Germanic languages have sloughed off a certain number of endings, they have never done so to the radical degree that English has. For example, the kallarconjugation business acknowledged, not a single one of them in Europe does without classifying their nouns according to gender.
Gender, to an American English speaker, is like water fountains. An American in Paris may notice after a while that there are virtually no water fountains: long before bottled water became commonplace in America, having to buy it in Paris was a minor inconvenience that an American had to get used to. However, it was a mistake to think that an absence of water fountains was something particular to Paris, or even France. Water fountains are uncommon in Europe in general; it’s America that has been a little odd in having them in such proliferation.
In the same way, an English speaker trying a European language runs up against gender in Spanish’s el sombrero for the hat but la luna for the moon and thinks of it as something annoying about Spanish, but then will also encounter it in French, Russian, Greek, Albanian, Polish, Welsh even! It’s English that is odd in not having gender,4 even among the Germanic languages.
Proto-Germanic had not one but three genders—masculine, feminine, and neuter—and in some cases modern Germanic languages retain all three, in such user-hostile cases as each piece of silverware in German having a different gender: spoons are boys, forks are girls, knives are hermaphrodites. Usually, just two genders remain—but remain they do, showing no signs of going anywhere. In Swedish, a big goose is masculine, en stor gås, but a big house is what is called common, and comes out ett stort hus, where ett is the common form for a and the adjective takes a common ending -t.
English is, as always, the odd one out on this. It is the only genderless Germanic language, except for one dialect of Swedish—but then there is another Swedish dialect, and others in Denmark, that retain all three of Proto-Germanics’ genders. No modern dialect of English retains gender—not marked on nouns like Spanish’s -o and -a endings, not in the form of distinct articles like Swedish’s en and ett, and certainly not with endings on adjectives. In fact, English is the only Indo-European language in all of Europe that has no gender—the only one.5
Here is where we come back to the question as to whether we can usefully say that English’s loss of suffixes “just happened.” If that’s all there was to it, why did it happen only to a single Indo-European language in Britain and nowhere else in Europe?
“But Wait, There’s More!”: The Rest of the Iceberg
And in any case, the issue goes way beyond endings. There is a great deal more about English that is curiously “easy” as Germanic goes.
This occurred to me several years ago when I was spending a month in Germany, trying to bone up on my vocabulary by reading a German translation of one of my favorite books. I kept trying to maintain the fiction that the only significant difference between German and English is that German has der, die, das, and a bunch of endings while all English has is little old the and just a few endings. But it just isn’t true.
Beyond endings, German grammar is “busier” than English’s. You have to watch out for more things, split more hairs. And that’s also true of the Scandinavian languages, regardless of their scanty little old verb conjugations. It’s true of any Germanic language, from Proto-Germanic on down over these past three thousand years. Except English.
For example, I said that You mistake you for You’re mistaken from the wacky English example would be germane to the Viking issue. What I meant was that the misled Portuguese gentleman thought of you mistake you as normal because you mistake yourself is the way you put it in French (Tu te trompes) and Portuguese (Tu te equivocas) (both meaning “You ‘yourself’ mistake”).
This is a quirk common in European languages, that often you do things “to yourself” which in English you just do. It tends to be with verbs having to do with moving and feeling. So in English, I have to go, but in Spanish, Tengo que irme (“I have to go ‘myself’ ”). With moving, this makes a kind of sense to an English speaker, although it seems a little redundant to us to have to specify that I am exerting the act of go-age upon myself. But the ones involving feelings are something else: I remember in English, Me acuerdo in Spanish (“I remember myself”), meaning not that you are idly recalling a past image of yourself, but that the remembering is something that happens to you, thus affecting not something or someone else, but you. While about the only Modern English versions of these are behave yourself, to perjure yourself, and to pride yourself (upon), many European languages mark hundreds of verbs in that way.
It’s a frill—a language doesn’t need to mark that things obviously personal in fact—Golly!—involve the person in question. But some languages just do, especially in Europe. Germanic languages are included: in German Youmistake you comes out as Du irrst dich (“You mistake yourself”), and to remember is sich erinnern. In Frisian, if I am ashamed, Ik skarnje my (“I shame me”); to have the same feeling in Iceland is to skammast sín, or among Yiddish speakers to shemen zikh. In Dutch, one does not just move, one bewegt zich (“moves oneself”). In Swedish to move is similar: röra sig.
All of this would have been same-old same-old to an Old English speaker. Today’s behave yourself and pride yourself are fossils from a time when, for example, if I was afraid Ic ondrēd mē, i.e., in a way, “bedreaded myself,” and to look at something was to, as it were, “besee oneself to” it: Beseah he hine to anum his manna (“Looked he himself to one of his men”). But over a few centuries in Middle English documents, we watch this “self”-fetish mysteriously blow away like autumn leaves. Today it is gone, while alive and well in all the other Germanic languages.
To strike an archaic note, in English we start popping off hithers and thithers. Come hither, go thither, but stay here or stay there. Hither, thither, and whither were the “moving” versions of here, there, and where in earlier English. It’s something you still have to pick up in German: “Where’s the coffee?” Hier. But Come here! is Komm her! “Komm hier” marks the foreigner; I’ll just bet that’s one of the things Germans say to imitate English speakers’ schoolboy German. German also has its thither (hin) and whither (wohin), and in fact there is no Germanic language that has no directional adverbs of this kind. These are Germanic languages, after all: precise, specific!
But one Germanic language doesn’t care so much about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. And it used to. Old English had a good old-fashioned trio: hider, þider, and hwider. These were passed down into Middle English as hither, thither, and whither. But they eventually blew away like autumn leaves. Today they are gone.
Quite a few European languages have a word that refers to people in a generic sense. Spanish’s Se habla español is the most familiar example: se here means “you” in the sense of “one.” In French this is on. In German it is man: Hier (not her!) spricht man Deutsch (“One speaks German here”). As it is in most of the other Germanic languages (an exception is that in Icelandic the word for men, maður, subs for man). This means that in Germanic languages there is almost always a nice, filled-out array of pronouns making lots of distinctions, like in Swedish:
In comparison, English settles for making poor you do an awful lot of work:
Notice that while Swedish has its “se habla” pronoun man, in English we drag you in to do that job: You have to be careful with these big corporations. In Old English, though, there was a man pronoun, too. But in Middle English documents, over three hundred years it blows away like autumn leaves. Today it is gone.
Learn a European language, including any Germanic language but Swedish, and note that quite often, while most verbs form their past perfect with the verb have—Ich habe gesprochen (“I have spoken”)—a good little bunch do it with the verb be, too—Ich bin gekommen (“I ‘am come’ ”). Just like in Old English: Learning had fallen away was “Learning was fallen away”: Lār āfeallen wæs.
Marking some verbs with be instead of have is a matter of being explicit about a certain nuance: in the perfect, the verbs marked with be refer, technically, to a state rather than an action; i.e., something that bes. When you say you have arrived, you mean that you have now achieved the state of being there: “I’m here, so let’s get started.” On the other hand, when you talk about how you raked leaves this afternoon, you usually are getting across that you performed the action of raking leaves, not that you have achieved the state of having raked the leaves and are now ready to have your picture taken.
We English speakers think, “Well, yeah . . .” but hardly feel it necessary to split that hair. The other Germanic languages do split it—and Old English did.
But something strange started happening in Middle English, as usual; now it was the be-perfect that was falling away (like autumn leaves). By Shakespeare, be is used with only a few verbs (“And didst thou not, when she wasgone downstairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with such poor people?” Henry IV, Part II, II, i, 96) and today, it lingers on only in a frozen form such as The autumn leaves now are gone. Even there, you may well have thought of gone as an adjective (The leaves are red, The leaves are gone), and in any case you can also say The autumn leaves have gone, which, in this case of the grand old Old English be-perfect, they have, as always in English.
In any self-respecting member of the Germanic family, one (man?) puts the verb in the second slot in the sentence, hell or high water. So for I saw a film, German has Ich sah einen Film—nothing odd there. But if you want to say Yesterday I saw a movie, “saw” has to stay in that second slot, and so “I” has to come after it: Gestern sah ich einen Film (“Yesterday saw I a film”). The verb sits tight in that second slot and everything else has to manage. In all the Germanic languages it has to be “Yesterday saw I . . .” to keep the verb in second place. Swedish for Today she’s driving the car has to be:
which gets kører (“drives”) into that number two slot after I dag (“today”).
I dag kører hun bilen
today drives she the car
This quirk of word order, which linguists call “verb-second” or “V2” for short, is by no means common in the world, and to my knowledge is only a family trait today in Germanic, in which it is as normal as Apfel pie. The details differ from language to language, but all Germanic languages have it—except one. Its absence in that one (guess which one!!) is odd. Although, given that the one it is absent from also shucked off so much else, maybe it’s not odd. Maybe there is a reason behind all of this.
English’s autumnal leaf-dropping quality involves even more cases,6 but I need not list them all: you get the point. No Germanic language has shed as much of what Proto-Germanic passed down to it as English, by a long shot. Of course some drop a stitch here and there more than others. Afrikaans has no gender, because it is what happened when Dutch was learned by so many Africans that, unlike any Germanic language on the Continent, it went as far as English did and lost gender. However, in terms of the many other features that make a language a descendant of Proto-Germanic, Afrikaans is very much a card-carrying member: in Afrikaans, you “remember yourself,” you come hither, there is a nice man pronoun, a be-perfect, and the V2 tic. Swedish, as noted, has lost its be-perfect (although it holds on in Norwegian and Danish). However, Swedish is otherwise as Germanic as, well, German.
English’s grammar, then, is “easier” than the other Germanic languages’. The Grand Old History of English describes these “difficult” features as just mysteriously melting away. But none of these authors have had occasion to consider how very many such features just melted away, and that nothing similar was happening in other Germanic languages. The question beckons: why has English been so strangely prone to just letting it all go?
Back in the twenties, pioneering linguist Edward Sapir groped at the question in an elegantly put discussion of the whither/hither/thither case:
They could not persist in live usage because they impinged too solidly upon the circles of meaning represented by the words where, here and there. That we add to where an important nuance of direction irritates rather than satisfies.
Sapir’s writing, as always, satisfies—but it does leave a question as to why, oh why, speakers of this and only this Germanic language found nuance so irritating. Scholarship on English has proceeded with about as little interest in that question as Sapir evidently had. Yet the question has an answer. It’s as much a part of the story of the English language as Chaucer and Caxton.
When I was about eight, I remember letting a neighborhood friend take a spin on my bike. He was a more highly spirited fellow than me and gave it a good zip up and down hills, bumping it down some curbs, doing “pop-a-wheelies” and so on. Finally he skidded to a stop in front of me and some of our pals. We heard some screw or washer from somewhere in the bike clink to the ground. Then, a pedal fell off, followed by the handlebars. The seat screws went loose and the seat tipped limply forward, and finally the back wheel fell out. My friend ended up squatting on a mangled heap of bars and gears, and we and our friends watching howled with laughter for the next fifteen minutes.
I swear I remember this, and yet upon reflection I can’t help suspecting that the memory has been distorted in my mind over time. After all, bicycles do not just fall to pieces like that—it would be like something out of a Looney Tune. Maybe something happened just to the seat, or just a wheel slipped—but with all due acknowledgment of entropy, the bike cannot have completely disintegrated right under him. Why, after all, would a bike do that?
Languages are no more likely to toss off massive amounts of grammatical features than bikes are to fall to dust. For example, in language groups other than Germanic, there is never one language that just miraculously becomes a stripper. Supposedly, what happened to English is so unremarkable. But the 250 languages of Australian Aborigines are known for having lots of suffixes, and even though the languages have been spoken there for several tens of thousands of years, not a single one has drifted into a state like English’s.
What this means is that something happened to English. Someone did something to it. If a bike does collapse under its rider, then we know that earlier that day, somebody loosened all of its screws so that it would fall apart after being ridden hard for a while. Somebody unscrewed English. Attention must be paid.
Let’s pay some, and line up the suspects. It has, actually, been bruited about that English was turned into a simpler language by the Norman French. The idea is tempting, but impossible. There were, for one, never all that many Normans on the ground in England—one estimate is about ten thousand amid a British population of one or two million. The Normans were an elite living amid masses of ordinary people speaking English as they always had. Thus, even if Normans tended to speak English in an inaccurate way, there is no reason that English-speaking folk would imitate them—if they ever even met them.
This even includes people as influential as the kings of England who, for a while, were men of Norman birth who likely did not even speak English. Think about it—let’s imagine that the king does speak English, but as a second language, like, say, Maurice Chevalier. You, on the other hand, talk like Eric Idle. If you ever actually heard the king speak—and that’s a big “if,” especially since there’s no radio or TV—no matter what esteem you hold the king in, why would you start walking around talking like him, so consistently that your children hear you talking only that way? If by chance you really were so odd a person, what would the chances be that whole villages would take to doing what you were doing, 24/7, for a century?
Besides, evidence suggests that the Normans didn’t speak funny English for long anyway. By a hundred years and change after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, there are reports of Normans needing to have French taught formally to their children, and of people of Norman ancestry speaking good English like anyone else. By the early 1300s, William of Nassyngton famously had it that:
And somme understonde wel Englysch
that can nother Latyn nor Frankys.
Bothe lered and lewed, olde and gonge,
Alle understonden english tonge.
Lewed, by the way, meant “unlearned”—neat how the word has evolved into its modern Hustler connotation. And gonge, by the way, was young.
We can assume, then, that the Norman impact on English was in terms of words, and lots of them. That’s old news. Who beat up English’s grammar?
The Viking Impact
Here is where our Vikings come in. Grown men raised on Old Norse were suddenly faced with having to do their raggedy best speaking Englisc on a regular basis whenever they spoke with anyone besides the guys they came over with. The simple fact is that adults have a harder time learning languages than children and teenagers—and this was an era when there was no Berlitz, no language instruction beyond someone on the fly telling you, “Here’s the word for . . . ,” and for the most part, not even any writing.
They came in one wave after another over a century—for generations there were ever new hordes of men from across the sea not speaking the language right. Crucially, whereas French came to England as an elite language spoken by rulers living remotely from the common folk, the Vikings took root on the ground, often marrying English-speaking women, such that their children actually heard quite a bit of their “off” English. All of this had an effect on the English language.
The waves in question started in 787, Danes on the eastern side and Norwegians round the western one. For the next hundred years England coped with increasing numbers of these invaders, culminating in an agreement in 886 that the Vikings would confine their dominion to the northern and eastern half of England, thence termed the Danelaw.
The power that the Vikings wielded is clear in traditionally noted things such as the proliferation of Scandinavian-derived place names in the Danelaw area ending in -by and -thorp, and names ending in -son (like Orm Gamalson, he of the sundial), as well as transformations of bureaucratic procedure. These things alone, however, cannot, in the strict sense, tell us much about whether these people were passing their rendition of English down to new generations of people of both Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon (and Celtic) descent. Power can be wielded by almost counterintuitively small numbers of people, and thus have no effect on how everyday language is spoken.
For example, China was ruled by foreigners for much of its history, including the famous Mongolian regime of Genghis Khan, as well as Manchus from 1644 to as recently as 1911. However, the languages of the rulers had no effect on Chinese. The foreigners ruled from their compounds, using interpreters to communicate with the outside. Actual Chinese people largely encountered the foreigners in occasional interactions with soldiers—if at all. Chinese as spoken by millions across a vast land was unaffected.7 In Africa, colonial languages, like English, French, and Portuguese, have certainly poured words into small local languages—but they have had almost no effect on these languages’ grammars. How one uses the grammar in, say, Chichewa in Malawi has nothing to do with the English Malawians learn in school and see in the movies.
As such, even the fact that the very king of England was Danish for a spell (Cnut, from 1016 to 1035) can tell us nothing as to whether his native Old Norse had any significant effect upon the grammar of English as spoken by everyday people. What we need is evidence that Scandinavians speaking incomplete English would have been so common that children would have heard this faulty rendition as much as, if not more than, regular English—to the extent that “foreigner” English affected what they grew up using as everyday speech.
Imagining this requires putting on our “antique” glasses: children in this era did not go to school, did not read, and there was no “standard English” that they encountered in the media, because in ordinary daily life there was no media to speak of. To children in Anglo-Saxon Britain, language was something you heard people around you—and no one else—speaking. You didn’t see it on the page. In getting a sense of how in such a setting the Vikings would have passed on their rendition of English to the ages (and, eventually, to the page you are reading), three things are useful.
First, in many places they were quite densely concentrated: in some parts of the Danelaw most people were of Danish ancestry. This means that “Scandi”-sounding English would have been a matter of not just the occasional Dane or Norwegian here and there (“Mommie, hwy spæketh he like thæt?”),8 but a critical mass of people.
Second, in documents, we clearly see that English gets simpler first in the north—where the Scandinavians were densely settled. Old English came in at least four dialects. The one usually written in was West Saxon, which is to us today “normal” Old English. But one of the dialects spoken in the Danelaw region was Northumbrian. In Northumbrian toward the end of Old English, as the Battle of Hastings was looming, the conjugational endings were already wearing out, as if someone were having trouble keeping them apart. Sometimes, all the endings in the present tense except the first person singular were the same, -as. This is Old English? And by Middle English, in the north, this erosion continued—in the plural the final consonant flaked away, leaving a mere -e:
But take a look at what Southern Middle English was still like, where there had been no Vikings—normal Old English:
So it’s not that the endings just fell apart all over England out of some kind of guaranteed obsolescence. They fell apart in a particular place—where legions of foreigners were mangling the tongue!
It was the same with gender: it starts flaking away in Northumbrian Old English, while down south all three genders held on possibly into Middle English. Even as recently as the late nineteenth century, rural folk in the extreme southwest in Dorset were still dividing things between a “personal” and an “impersonal” gender. “Personal” things were not only people but all living things and, for some reason, tools. So, of a tree, He’s a-cut down. But of water, It’s a-dried up. Even demonstratives still came in two genders: this water was impersonal, but in the personal one, said theäse tree. Also, the V2 rule started unwinding, predictably, in the north; it held on in the south, including in Kent in the southeast, for much longer.
Finally, our friend Orm Gamalson even left us a crucial window into English as rendered by speakers of Old Norse. Gamalson was writing in the Northumbrian dialect, in which noun suffixes were as much a mess as the verb ones were. In other dialects of Old English, when one wrote of something happening on a ship, ship was in the dative and took an -e ending: scipe. But in Northumbrian, one just said in scip: the -e was gone. In the same way, in Gamalson’s inscription, as it goes on from where we left off with it earlier, he places the rebuilding of the minster “in King Edward’s days,” which he wrote as in Eadward dagum. There are two interesting things about those three words.
First, Orm left off the possessive ending. Just as today, in other Old English sources Eadward would take an -s suffix to indicate the possessive: in Eadwardes dagum. In Orm’s part of England people were leaving off endings—but not elsewhere. Orm’s part of England was, also, where, well, Orm was. It was Scandi-land, where people not raised in English were speaking it as part of the everyday routine, leaving the niceties off.
But second, the -um suffix on dagum is revealing. It is a dative plural, and in Northumbrian, this solid suffix hangs on even while the others are wearing away in cases like scip for scipe and Eadward for Eadwardes. Even as the Old English era is winding down and even in other Old English dialects, this -um suffix is starting to undergo natural wear and tear and morph into the likes of -en, in Northumbrian it’s always right there as -um, shining like a star.
And there’s a reason. You can see it in this table. We come back to Old English’s stān for stone, and armr in Old Norse meant (get ready . . . !) “arm”:
Notice that, usually, Old Norse’s endings are different from Old English’s. An Orm Gamalson learning English found a little stumbling block almost every time he started to use a noun. But—the dative plural was one of the only places he got a break: the -um suffix was one of the only ones that Old English and Old Norse happened to have in common.
It was predictable, then, that people like Orm Gamalson had a way of holding on to -um for dear life as the rest of the noun endings burned off: it was familiar to them from Old Norse. The persistence of -um only in the Northumbrian dialect, then, was a calling card from the Vikings.
Why Not the Celts?
In terms of dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s, we must assess whether another group of people speaking something other than English were the ones who beat the grammar up. If the Celts gave English meaningless do and progressive -ing, then maybe they also, as non-native speakers, knocked off the bells and whistles, right? After all, if they added things like do, then why wouldn’t they, speaking “Englisc” as a second language, also leave off endings and such? This is, in fact, the opinion of the small school of linguists arguing for the Celtic impact.
The problem with this idea is that, as we have seen, the eclipse of endings correlates so perfectly with just where Vikings settled. If the Celts were responsible, then the endings would have dropped away throughout England, or at least in regions where Celts, rather than Vikings, were more densely settled. They did not. Rather, where something is clearly traceable to Celtic, it is a Celtic construction being added to English, such as meaningless do and the Northern Subject Rule.
According to theory on what happens when languages encounter one another, this negative evidence re the Celts is just what we would expect.
The Celts had a different experience with English than the Vikings did. The Vikings settled and coped with English, and all indications are that Old Norse in England lasted not much longer than the first generation of invaders. History records no enclaves in England where Old Norse was spoken for generations after the invasions. The Vikings spread themselves out, and wherever an Orm Gamalson settled down, what was se habla’ed was English—and Orm’s children likely had the same orientation toward Old Norse as Jewish immigrants’ children in America in the twentieth century had toward Yiddish. Old Norse was the Old Country; English was the native tongue—cool, in a word. The difference between then and now was that for Orm, Jr., writing was an elite, marginal decoration in daily life; he likely never went to anything we would call school. As such, the “off” English of his dear old Hagar-the-Horrible Dad was what he spoke, too. This was the root of the curiously simplified Germanic language I am writing in.
In contrast, Welsh and Cornish were spoken in England long before the Angles and Co. came, and lived on beside English for a millennium plus. Celtic and English have been set on a long, slow Crock-Pot simmer with one another in the mouths of bilinguals over all of that time. This stewing phenomenon has a technical name: linguistic equilibrium, as granted it since the nineties by linguist R. M. W. Dixon.
In situations like this, as a group slowly picks up a new language over centuries but continues to use its native one more usually, they do not simplify the new language. Rather, they season it with constructions they are used to, but otherwise learn that new language fine. The two languages stew together. Soon, the language they are learning looks a little like their native one.
One sees this all over the world. Because of high rates of intermarriage between groups, the aboriginal languages of Australia as well as of South America tend to be deeply mixed with one another in terms of grammar. One language’s endings will pattern like the ones from the language spoken down the river, even though the languages are not closely related. Another language will belong to a group where verbs come at the end of a sentence, but its verbs come in the middle because the languages of another group down in the valley are like that, and on and on. Clearly, the people have been learning one another’s languages since time immemorial. But—none of the languages are “broken down” or streamlined in the way that English is, compared with its Germanic family members. The languages stewed—they did not boil down.
It’s the same in other situations. In India, the Indo-Aryan languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali) and Dravidian languages (Tamil, Telugu) have been stewing for millennia—but none are particularly simplified. African languages like Xhosa and Zulu inherited click sounds from nearby Khoisan languages—more stewing over long periods. Yet Xhosa and Zulu are decidedly not simple. This is part of the South African constitution in Zulu, namely, the sentence “We recognize the injustices of our past”: Siyakukhumbula ukucekelwa phansi kwamalungelo okwenzeka eminyakeni eyadlula. We don’t need to break that down to see that there’s nothing precisely user-friendly about Zulu (and the c in ukucekelwa is a click sound!).
Linguistic equilibrium is what happened between the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts. Celts blanketed the land and had done so forever. Suddenly they were dealing with bands of marauding Germanic speakers, who ended up never leaving. Life changed, but the land remained blanketed with Celts being the Celts they had always been. The Celt could still use their Welsh or Cornish with the people around them whom they had always known—there was no “genocide,” after all. Over generations, the flavor of Welsh and Cornish bled into their way of speaking Englisc—not just in words, but in grammar. The result after a while was that the typical Celt could speak English just fine—but with a Celtic infusion in the grammar. That was Chapter One. But meaningless do and progressive -ing are complications, not simplifications. They are stewings.
Many scholars arguing for Celtic influence suppose that Celts would have had particular trouble with English in places where Old English had something in its grammar that Celtic did not. For example, Welsh does not have case marking on its nouns. There are those who assume that this meant that Welsh speakers would have been inclined to omit them when speaking Old English. This is reasonable on its face, but it isn’t what happens in situations of linguistic equilibrium. People amid linguistic equilibrium learn the new language just fine, even the hard stuff.
For example, in China, there are dialects of Mandarin developed by speakers of languages of a different family, Altaic (the shop-window rep is Turkish, but the family stretches far, far eastward). Altaic speakers were encroached upon gradually by Mandarin speakers over long periods. Mandarin is a tonal language—tone is part of how you tell one word from another. Altaic languages do not have tone. The exotic Mandarin dialects created by Altaic speakers dealing with Mandarin-speaking new-comers have Altaic word order and other grammatical features from Altaic—but they also all use tones just as Mandarin does, despite how hard tones are to learn. That is, speakers of tone-free Altaic languages learned thoroughly decent Mandarin, including the tones, while seasoning it with some Altaic things they were used to.
In the same way, the Celts would have seasoned English, but otherwise learned it, including English cases even if, say, Welsh had none. The Celts’ impact on English was what we saw in Chapter One. In this chapter, we must focus on other people.
The Big Picture
As with the Celtic influence on English, we must deduce what the Vikings did to English. No one was on-site chronicling how the language was changing decade by decade. Orm Gamalson might record that a minster was “tobrocan & tofalan”—broken and fallen down—but kings, monks, bureaucrats, and scribes in ancient England, to whom writing was scripture rather than scribbling, hadn’t the slightest inclination to get down on paper for posterity observations of the likes of “Yon Vikinges Englisc is most tobrocan & tofalan!”
Comparison reveals what was going on even if no one at the time bothered to describe it. Among Germanic languages, Icelandic, spoken on a remote island, has (1) rarely been learned by foreigners and (2) is also the least simplified member of the family. Even today, its grammar is so little changed from Old Norse that Icelanders can read the epic eddas in Old Norse written almost a thousand years ago. Icelandic has three genders; most of those case endings and conjugations we saw in Old Norse are still used in everyday language in Reykjavík; and it’s got the “you mistake you” quirk, hithering and thithering, V2, a be-perfect, and most everything else the well-dressed Proto-Germanic descendant wears.
Icelandic shows that there is nothing inevitable about a language tossing off its suffixes and what linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir called “nuance” over time. Linguists call a language that has a way of holding on to what is passed down to it “conservative.” Ordinarily, languages’ grammars are rather conservative—like Latin, Greek, and Russian.
In comparison, even the other Germanic languages besides Icelandic are less conservative. It surely isn’t an accident that they also, roiling around on the Continent, where populations have been mixing and conquering one another forever, have been learned by foreigners much more than Icelandic. This is why German, Dutch, and Swedish have shed a lot more of Proto-Germanic’s suffixes than Icelandic. However, that’s pretty much all. Suffixes—small and usually pronounced without stress (or, in the term more common among laymen, accent)—are uniquely fragile. But otherwise, these languages retain the other complexities of Proto-Germanic. Largely, their coexistence with other languages (including one another) has been a matter of linguistic equilibrium—stewing, but not boiling down.
English, in this light, is the odd one out, and what distinguishes it from its relatives is that it underwent marauding hordes of Vikings who never went home, and proceeded to speak the language, as they did so much else, Their Way. They never wrote down that they were doing so—most of them couldn’t write anyway. But Icelandic stands as virtual confirmation that adult learners screwing things up was a key factor in how English came to be the way it is. The people who can still read ancient sagas live on a remote, undisturbed island. The people whose language became the most user-friendly member of the family live on an island nearer the Continent, that was, due to that proximity, lustily disturbed by invading migrants.
The Establishment View
There is no body of traditional objections to the claim that Vikings remodeled English grammar, for the simple reason that the claim has not been made in any sustained way. There is a wan kind of acceptance that Vikings had something to do with one thing: the decay of the suffixes. But even here, most writers mention it only in passing, and as we have seen, there are those who deny even this and argue that the decay “just happened.” And otherwise, it is accepted that English lost all of the other Proto-Germanic frills just by chance.
One reason this seems plausible to so many linguists is that they think the suffixes and maybe another thing or two are all English has lost from what Proto-Germanic passed down to it. The specialization endemic to modern academia means that few of these scholars do their work with grammar sketches of all of the Germanic languages and their histories in their heads, much less of languages around the world. They write mostly about English alone and, as often as not, just single features of its grammar.
One scholar, for example, looks at how the “you mistake you” kind of sentence flakes away throughout Middle English, and announces that among Germanic languages, English has “an individual tendency to treat overt reflexivity as redundant.” But charting this as a mere “individual tendency” means stipulating that this eclipse happened in just one out of a dozen-plus languages, all the others of which were quite happy to require speakers to be utterly redundant in specifying that fear, remembrance, anger, and the like are something involving yourself just like washing and shaving are. To this scholar, for this to have happened by chance seems plausible because it’s only one thing. But we have to pull back the camera: “you mistake you” is only one of a dozen “individual tendencies” in English in the same direction. She is certainly aware of the loss of suffixes—but that means she thinks it’s just a matter of two things.
Then other scholars see something flaking away in Middle English and propose an ad hoc explanation, without addressing the fact that the explanation is contradicted by all the other Germanic languages. One writer describing the eclipse of the generic pronoun man opines that when it morphed into a shorter form pronounced “muh,” it was “too weak” to survive—which leads to the question as to why weak forms even in English like y’ for you (Y’know?) will be with us forever, or why similarly “weak” short pronouns in all the other Germanic languages have been holding on for a thousand years.
Or, one of the History of English stars I generally swoon to falls into what I regard as a rare lapse, describing step by step how English became the only Indo-European language in Europe without gender, and analyzing it as a “cumulative weighting of ‘decisions’ in favour of natural gender.” By “natural gender” he means biological gender (e.g., actor/actress) as opposed to the random kind of gender that assigns sex to silverware in German and operated in similar fashion in Old English. But the question is why English underwent the effect of this “cumulative weighting” while none of the other Germanic languages—and all but a few languages in all of Europe—did.
Then there is the idea that even if English has lost some features, it has stayed at par in complexity with the other Germanic languages by developing new ones. Here, the problem is that the traditional scholars are not aware of how very much Proto-Germanic equipment English has tossed off. They do not realize what a long road English would have to travel to give German a run for its money the way Old English did.
What they think brings English back to par with German and the rest is, for example, the tricky English future tense. Future tense marking in English is a highly subtle affair, much more so than in other Germanic languages. Could you explain what the difference in meaning is between I will go, I’m going to go, and I’m going? They are not just interchangeable ways of expressing futurity. Try this: you tell someone that you’ve always wanted a pair of argyle socks and they say, “Okay, tomorrow we’ll buy you some.” Now, imagine if they said instead, “Okay, tomorrow we’re going to buy you some.” Notice how that second sentence has a different meaning—it sounds vaguely confrontational. Nobody taught you that—it’s a subtlety of English grammar. It’s hard, this English future—I am so thankful I learned it from the cradle. A non-native speaker I knew whose English was truly spectacular once said when I asked her age, “I turn twenty-five.” Mmm, not quite. It has to be “I’m turning twenty-five.” Only if you started with a time expression could you use the bare verb: “Tomorrow I turn twenty-five.” Subtle—or, to a non-native, hard.
But this does not make English as grammatically complex as German or any other Germanic language, nor would another thing or two. This is first because English is a good dozen or more features behind the other languages, not just two or three. And then, on top of this, new little complexities have crept into the other Germanic languages as well, as happens to all languages.
In German, one example is a passel of little words that convey nuances of personal attitude. Using them is indispensable to sounding like an actual human being in the language—and mastering them is possible only via a year or more’s exposure to the spoken language. Do you have your socks? is, in a vanilla sense, Hast du deine Socken? But you can also stick in the word auch—Hast du auch deine Socken?—in which case the sentence conveys “You have your socks, don’t you?” In this usage, auch conveys a subtle, personal note of warning, impatience, correction—and there are a bunch of little words in German with subtle, untranslatable meanings of this kind (e.g., schon, eben, doch, mal, etc.).
In Swedish and Norwegian, it’s tone—the comic lilt that we often use to imitate these languages is not only a matter of a cute “accent,” but also conveys what words mean. In Swedish, anden can mean two things. Say it in the way that feels most natural to an English speaker—AHN-den—and it means “the duck.” Say it with a certain lilt impossible to convey on the page but not a mere “Swedish chef” singsong, more like sliding down the “ahn,” then leaping up higher onto the “den,” and then dropping off a bit (something like “ahn-DEn”), and it means “spirit.”
All the Germanic languages have morphed into quirks of this kind, while also retaining so much more of their core Proto-Germanic equipment than English. English may be at a certain point along the complexity scale, and may inch a bit ahead now and then, but the rest of Germanic will always be several steps ahead—in Icelandicness plus their own driftings into further complexity. For example, linguists also often parry a claim that English is “easy” by mentioning what we call in this book meaningless do. But that’s only one more thing, and it was a copy from Welsh and Cornish, not something that morphed into the grammar on its own.
Finally, something else that obscures the Vikings’ responsibility for English’s undressing is the old issue of scripture versus writing. To the traditional History of English specialist, what would show that the Vikings did more to English than shave off its endings would be if as far back as Old English—or more precisely, the dialects of Old English spoken in the Danelaw, like Northumbrian and Mercian—right around A.D. 800, I feared myself started being rendered as I am afraid, hither and thither dropped out of usage, V2 and the generic man pronoun were unknown, and all perfects were expressed with have instead of be. Instead, as we have seen, in Old English, all we see is the endings eroding. The other things start appearing only in Middle English, and fall away gradually.
But in a world where writing was really scripture, this is what we would expect. The way Vikings rendered English sounded at first, to anyone without Scandinavian ancestry, “other” at best and “wrong” at worst. People writing Old English, poised to engrave the high, “proper” language on the page, would have been loath to waste ink on what they would have regarded as come-as-you-are colloquialisms that not all people use. Only after the post-Norman Conquest blackout of written English, when institutional memory of fashions in how one scribed the language had dissolved, would people allow themselves to put a more honest version of the language on paper. That is, what appears to be a stepwise evaporation of Proto-Germanic features in Middle English is actually a record of writers’ increasing comfort with putting things in writing that had happened to the language before the Norman Conquest.
Apparently, one feature, the erosion of suffixes, was something that had a way of creeping into the writing even of Anglo-Saxon scribes committed to presenting the language in its Sunday best. Thus we see the suffixes already falling off rapidly in the northeasterly dialects Vikings were exposed to. Suffixes, after all, are little. Using one rather than another does not always feel terribly disruptive. Do you say roofs or rooves? Whichever you prefer, does the alternative you “don’t like” sound foreign, or just not “what you like”? If you engaged in an act of sneaking last week, would you say you sneaked or snuck? And again, whichever one you “don’t like,” do you hear the other one as “not English”? Suffixes give you wiggle room.
But the other things, to people writing Old English, felt more disruptive. If the “right” way was I feared me of financial ruin, then I feared financial ruin was not just a matter of some little ending being different, but a whole different way of casting the sentence. This, like Did you see what he’s doing?, was the kind of thing that would make it onto the page only at the dawn of a new day.
The scholars who are even skeptical that the Vikings were responsible for suffix decay miss this crucial difference between scripture and writing. In a classic monograph, two of them address “schwa drop.” “Schwa” is the technical term for the muddy little sound in the a of about or the o in lemon. By “schwa drop” they refer to Old English endings written as -e that were pronounced like the a in about, which in the Northumbrian dialect can be seen to disappear in documents closer to the Battle of Hastings. They note “Schwa drop occurred in the North long after Norse had died out there, so even though there is ‘simplification’ here, it can’t be blamed on a language contact situation.”
But yes, it can. These scholars are assuming that Anglo-Saxons lived in a world where things happening in everyday speech were immediately committed to the page. They neglect that even after Vikings’ descendants were no longer speaking Old Norse, what a scribe would feel appropriate to engrave for posterity onto vellum with quill and ink would not be the “off” way that these Viking descendants were speaking English, whether or not they still spoke Old Norse. There would be something analogous to a seven-second delay.
Of course, we need not assume that the original Anglo-Saxon constructions were utterly dead as of Middle English. After all, the Vikings had occupied only half of the country. Rather, as often as not, the Viking impact rendered things that had once been required into things that were just optional, after which there was a snowball effect.
For example, when Jane Austen uses be-perfects that sound weird to us now—I am so glad we are got acquainted—we certainly will not assume that she was genuflecting to Beowulf. She really talked that way. But the key point is that in all the other Germanic languages but one, as Austen wrote, the be-perfect was much more vital than it was in her English, and in those languages it lives today, going nowhere. Why, in Austen’s time, was it on the ropes at all in English, while thriving elsewhere in Germanic and beyond? French and Italian show no signs of letting it randomly “disappear.” The Viking impact—i.e., what distinguishes English from the other Germanic languages as well as French and Italian—got the dissolution started.
Monopoly Versus Clue
To traditional History of English scholars, my claim about what the Vikings did may seem hasty. But as with the Celtic issue, this is largely a matter of what we see as proof.
When it comes to charting how English got to be the way it is now from what it was in Beowulf, the common consensus is all about describing rather than explaining. “The such-and-such suffix -en eroded into -uh, then x centuries later it is gone entirely except in this document, likely written in a conservative register due to influence from factor y; meanwhile -um eroded into -en; see in Figure 7 how the erosion took place at such-and-such a rate in documents from this region but more slowly in documents from that region . . .”
That is, this kind of work shows us what happened decade by decade in the English scriptures. Treating scripture as the only valid or interesting evidence in studying how English changed in ancient centuries risks leaving untold forever an interesting chapter in the saga of English. This is especially unsavory in that treating the peculiarity of Modern English as a matter of chance is like walking past cars parked along a street and happening upon one with the windshield broken in, three hubcaps gone, and no license plates, and deciding that all of this must have happened via ordinary wear and tear.
Maybe lightning did in the windshield. The hubcaps could have fallen off of their own accord and been picked up by trash collectors. But what about the other cars sitting intact? Okay, one car up the street is missing one hubcap. Another one has a hairline crack in its back window. But obviously, someone broke into this particularly smashed-up car. Something happened to it. Attention must be paid. We should report this car. Especially since this happens to be a neighborhood well known as a favored haunt of—oh, let’s just toss the analogy and say Vikings!
Those who are uninterested in reporting this car are playing Monopoly, while those who are interested in reporting the attack on it are the ones bringing in a game of Clue and finding little interest. The Monopoly players like Monopoly; Clue just doesn’t happen to be their bag. But as with the Celtic case, the Clue players happen to be in a better position to identify the truth than the ones enjoying Monopoly.
The Monopoly players are, to bring back the car analogy, like municipal photographers assigned to make snapshots of each street in the city every five years. They have no way of explaining why this particular car is so banged up, and really, they don’t care. They have done their job to depict this car’s state from one moment to the next and that’s all. Photographers document—but historians explain.
English’s simplicity is, in terms of explanation rather than mere documentation, weird. It is evidence of a blind-siding by adults too old to just pick up English thoroughly the way children of immigrants do. The Scandinavian Vikings left more than a bunch of words in English. They also made it an easier language. In this, in a sense, they clipped Anglophones’ wings. The Viking impact, stripping English of gender and freeing us of attending to so much else that other Germanic speakers genuflect to in every conversation, made it harder for us to master other European languages.
To wit: so many people spoke English the way a lot of us speak French and Spanish that “off” English became the seedbed for literary English. I’m writing in it now. We speak not only a bastard tongue, but one with roots in its own mangling. English is interesting in much more than which words we use.
And knowing that, we are in a position to understand why it isn’t true that, as we are often told, our grammar indicates what kind of people we are. To be a modern Anglophone is not to be a psychologically abbreviated version of an Anglo-Saxon villager. If you doubt that anyone has ever implied such, read on.