Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English - John McWhorter (2008)

Notes on Sources


The translations of the oh-so-spontaneous sentence rendered in German, Dutch, and Norwegian were confirmed for me by Sean Boggs, Peter Bakker, and Kurt Rice, respectively.


Welsh do: Gareth King, Modern Welsh: A Comprehensive Grammar (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 189.

Welsh progressive: Ingo Mittendorf and Erich Poppe, “Celtic Contacts of the English Progressive?” in The Celtic Englishes II, ed. by Hildegard L. C. Tristram (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 2000), p. 118.

Cornish do: Henry Jenner, A Handbook of the Cornish Language (London: David Nutt, 1904), pp. 116-17.

Cornish progressive: Mittendorf and Poppe, p. 118.

Bryson quote: Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1990), p. 49.

Genetic data on England: Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006), pp. 379, 412-13.

Burial styles: Heinrich Härke, “Population Replacement or Acculturation? An Archaeological Perspective on Population and Migration in Post-Roman Britain,” in The Celtic Englishes III, ed. by Hildegard L. C. Tristram (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 2003), p. 19.

King Ine’s laws: Referred to in Härke, consulted in John M. Stearns, The Germs and Developments of the Laws of England Embracing the Anglo-Saxon Laws (New York: Banks & Brothers, 1889). (Kessinger Publishing reprint)

Crystal quote: David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 8.

Jamaican patois sentence: Robert LePage and David DeCamp, Jamaican Creole (London: MacMillan, 1960).

Twi sentence: Rev. J. G. Christaller, A Grammar of the Asante and Fante Languages Called Tshi. (Basel: Basel Evangelical Missionary Society, 1875), p. 118.

Germanic do: Unfortunately the most thorough examination and the closest one to being handy is in German: Werner Abraham and C. Jac Conradie, Präteritumschwund und Diskursgrammatik (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2001), pp. 83, 87.

Nanai sentence: V. A. Arvorin, Sintaksicheshie Issledovania po Nanaiskomu Jazyku (Leningrad: Nauka, 1981), pp. 79-80.

Italian do-support: Paola Beninca and Cecilia Poletto, “A Case of Do-support in Romance,” Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 22 (2004): 51-94.

“Regularity” account of meaningless do: Andrew Garrett,

“On the Origin of Auxiliary Do,” English Language and Linguistics 2 (1998): 283-330.

Meaningless do and verb placement: Tony Kroch, John Myhill, and Susan Pintzuk, “Understanding Do,” Papers from the Chicago Linguistics Symposium 18 (1982): 282-94.

Old High German sentence: Erich Poppe, “Progress on the Progressive? A Report,” in The Celtic Englishes III, ed. by Hildegard L. C. Tristram (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 2003), p. 71.

Colloquial Indonesian versus written Indonesian: David Gil, “Escaping Eurocentrism: Fieldwork as a Process of Unlearning,” in Linguistic Fieldwork, ed. by Paul Newman and Martha Ratliff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Dante and Italian: Daniel J. Boorstin, The Creators (New York: Vintage, 1992), pp. 258-59.

Arabic dialects: Alan Kaye and Judith Rosenhouse, “Arabic Dialects and Maltese,” in The Semitic Languages, ed. by Robert Hetzron (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 309.

Spanish in Ecuador: John Lipski, Latin American Spanish (London: Longman, 1994), p. 251.

Old English speakers’ culinary options: Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, The Year 1000 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1999), pp. 136-38.

Uralic and Russian: Valentin Kiparsky, Gibt es ein Finnougrisches Substrat im Slavischen? (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1969), p. 23.

Dravidian and Indo-Aryan: Thomas Burrow, The Sanskrit Language (London: Faber & Faber, 1955), pp. 380-86.

Possible Celtic loanwords: Andrew Breeze, “Seven Types of Celtic Loanword,” in The Celtic Roots of English, ed. by Markku Filppula, Juhani Klemola, and Heli Pitkänen (Joensuu, Finland: University of Joensuu Faculty of Humanities, 2002), pp. 175-81.

Northern Subject Rule: Juhani Klemola, “The Origins of the Northern Subject Rule: A Case of Early Contact?” in The Celtic Englishes II, ed. by Hildegard L. C. Tristram (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 2000), p. 337.

Passage from traditional judgment of Celtic contribution: Tauno F. Mustanoja, A Middle English Syntax, Part I (Parts of Speech) (Helsinki: Société Néophilologique, 1960), pp. 584-89.

Going to history: Culled from an especially accessible account, Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language (New York: Metropolitan, 2005), pp. 146-51.

Dalby: Andrew Dalby, Dictionary of Languages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 675.

McCrum et al. quote: Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil, The Story of English (New York: Viking, 1986), p. 61.

Crystal quote: David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.8.


Cantonese data: Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip, Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 56.

Frisian data: Pieter Tiersma, Frisian Reference Grammar (Dordrecht: Foris, 1985), pp. 55-56, 77, 116.

Nineteenth-century “errors”: Richard W. Bailey, Nineteenth-Century English (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 215-61.

Portuguese-English book: Pedro Carolino, The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1883), p. 120. (This source is usually encountered today in abridged editions; I refer to an ancient copy of the entire book.)


Old English and Old Norse sentences: Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, The Year 1000 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1999), pp. 33-34.

Sapir quote: Edward Sapir, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1921), pp. 169-70.

Number of Normans: John Gillingham, “The Early Middle Ages,” in The Oxford History of Britain, ed. by Kenneth O. Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 121.

William of Nassyngton: David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 31.

Linguistic equilibrium: R. M. W. Dixon, The Rise and Fall of Languages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Welsh case markers and Old English: An example is Hildegard L. C. Tristram, “Attrition of Inflections in English and Welsh,” in The Celtic Roots of English, ed. by Markku Filppula, Juhani Klemola, and Heli Pitkänen, (Joensuu, Finland: University of Joensuu Faculty of Humanities, 2002), pp. 111-49.

Altaic-Mandarin hybrid languages: Examples most handy are three consecutive articles on the Hezhou, Tangwang, and Wutun dialects, on pp. 865-97 in a volume commonly available in university libraries: Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the

Americas (Volume II.2), ed. by Stephen A. Wurm, Peter Mühlhäusler, and Darrell T. Tryon (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1996).

Concentration of Danes: John Blair, “The Anglo-Saxon Period,” in The Oxford History of Britain, ed. by Kenneth O. Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 107-8.

Northern English suffixes: Sarah Grey Thomason and Terence Kaufman, Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 278.

Dorset gender: William Barnes, A Glossary of the Dorset Dialect with a Grammar of Its Word Shapening and Wording (London: Trübner & Co., 1886), p. 17-18.

Case markers in Gamalson inscription: Tamas Eitler, “An Old Norse-Old English Contact Phenomenon: The Retention of the Dative Plural Inflection -um in the Northumbrian Dialect of Old English, in The Even Yearbook 5, ed. by Laszlo Varga (Budapest: Eotvos Lorand University Department of English Linguistics Working Papers, 2002), pp. 31-48.

“You mistake you” observation: Kirsti Peitsara, “The Development of Reflexive Strategies in English,” in Grammaticalization at Work, ed. by Matti Rissanen, Merja Kytö, and Kirsi Heikkonen (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997), p. 337.

Matti Rissanen, “Whatever Happened to the Middle English Indefinite Pronouns?” in Studies in Middle English Linguistics, ed. by Jacek Fisiak (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997), pp. 513-29.

Favorite star: Roger Lass, “Phonology and Morphology,” in The Cambridge History of the English Language (Vol. 2), ed. by Norman Blake (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 23-155.

Schwa-drop observation: Thomason and Kaufman, p. 277.

Funny passage on gender in English: Chun-fat Lau, “Gender in the Hakka Dialect: Suffixes with Gender in More Than 40 Nouns,” Journal of Chinese Linguistics 27 (1999): 124-31.

Hashimoto on Chinese: Mantaro Hashimoto, “The Altaicization of Northern Chinese,” in Contributions to Sino-Tibetan Studies, ed. by John McCoy and Timothy Light (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986), pp. 76-97.


Standard go-to Whorf text: John B. Carroll, ed., Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee

Whorf (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956).

Kawesqar: Jack Hitt, “Say No More,” The New York Times, February 29, 2004.

“Users of markedly . . .”: Carroll, p. 221.

“Newtonian space . . .”: Carroll, p. 153.

Hopi data: Ekkehart Malotki, Hopi Time: A Linguistic Analysis of the Temporal Concepts in the Hopi Language (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1983), p. 534.

“No words . . .”: Carroll, p. 57.

“Potential range . . .”: Carroll, p. 117.

“We cut nature up . . .”: Carroll, pp. 213-14.

“It might be said . . .”: Carroll, p. 151.

“The thought of the individual . . .”: Dorothy Lee,

“Conceptual Implications of an Indian Language,” Philosophy of Science 5 (1938): 89-102.

“It is clear that linguistic determinism . . .”: Carroll, p. 117.

Clark: Herbert H. Clark, “Communities, Commonalities, and Communication,” in Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, ed. by John J. Gumperz and Stephen C. Levinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 343.

Wilson on Russian: Lewis A. Dabney, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), p. 409.

French verbs: Mark Abley, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), p. 48.

Boro verbs: Abley, pp. 122-27.

Second in European languages: Martin Haspelmath, “The European Linguistic Area: Standard Average European,” in Language Typology and Language Universals: An International Handbook, ed. by Martin Haspelmath, Ekkehard König, Wulf Österreicher, and Wolfgang Raible (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2001), pp. 1495, 1503.

“Does the Hopi . . .”: Carroll, p. 85.

“Our objectified view . . .”: Carroll, p. 153.

Montagnais: Abley, pp. 276-77.

Cree: Thomas Payne, Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 211.

Hypothetical Chinese sentence: Charles N. Li and Sandra A. Thompson, Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 647.

Bloom study: Aldred H. Bloom, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the West (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1981).

Sign language: Leah Hager Cohen, “Deafness as Metaphor, Not Gimmick,” The New York Times, August 23, 2003.

Guugu Yimithirr: Stephen C. Levinson, “Relativity in Spatial Conception and Description,” in Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, ed. by John J. Gumperz and Stephen C. Levinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 180-81.

Pirahã: Dan Everett, “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language,” Current Anthropology 46: 621-46.

Everett on language as thought: He told me, on April 13, 2007.

Gender and thought: Lera Boroditsky, Lauren A. Schmidt, and Webb Phillips, “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics,” in Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and

Thought, ed. by Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), pp. 79-91.

Imagining gendered voices: M. Sera, C. Berge, and J. del Castillo, “Grammatical and Conceptual Forces in the Attribution of Gender by English and Spanish Speakers,” Cognitive Development 9: 261-92.

Kay quote: Paul Kay, “Intra-Speaker Relativity,” in Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, ed. by John J. Gumperz and Stephen C. Levinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 110.

Paul Kay and Willett Kempton, “What Is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?” American Anthropologist 86 (1984): 66.

Barnard and Spencer: Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer, eds., Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology (London: Routledge, 1996).

Textbook: Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002).


Statement on orphan words: Don Ringe, From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 295-96.

Semitic etymologies of frightfolk, and maiden: Theo Vennemann has presented these in many places; the handiest is in German (“Zur Entstehung des Germanischen,” Sprachwissenschaft 25 [2000]: 233-69). However, the most accessible English-language source is Vennemann’s website, which includes a handout outline of a comprehensive presentation Vennemann has given on the topic.

Historical evidence for Phoenicians’ travel northward: The handiest source in English is Theo Vennemann, “Phol, Balder, and the Birth of Germanic,” in Etymologie, Entlehnungen und Entwicklungen: Festschrift für Jorma Koivulehto zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. by Irma Hyvärinen, Petri Kallo, and Jarmo Korhonen (Helsinki: Mémoire de la Société de Néophilologie de Helsinki LXIII, 2004), pp. 439-57; see also Vennemann’s website.

Hebrew cross and shore and Old English ofer: Saul Levin, Semitic and Indo-European: The Principal Etymologies, with Observations on Afro-Asiatic (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995), pp. 367-75.

Semitic source for Germanic seven: Levin, pp. 409-12.

Magnum opuses: Saul Levin, The Indo-European and Semitic Languages (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1971); Saul Levin, Semitic and Indo-European: The Principal Etymologies, with Observations on Afro-Asiatic(Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995).

Artifacts in North Sea: Matthias Schulz, “Göttertränen im Watt,” Der Spiegel (December 4, 2006): 160-62.


To those who are up on their colloquial German and feel that Germans are no stranger to meaningless do, we’ll get to that in a little while. Preview: Germans are, indeed, strangers to meaningless do.


Actually, you might notice that there are indeed verbs where you don’t use the progressive to speak of the present: I know the truth (you don’t say I am knowing the truth), I love dinosaurs, I have a scanner. The issue here is that these types of verbs fall into a class linguists call stative: knowing, loving, and having are ongoing conditions, not actions—one does not say “I shall hereby perform the action of right now having this pencil!”; rather, having is something that just “bes” in an ongoing fashion. As such, these verbs are inherently habitual, and habitual verbs in English are bare.


There was also an indigenous people in present-day Scotland called Picts. Most likely they spoke a Celtic language, too, but we have no evidence to be sure of this.


Indeed, English has what is called biological gender: actor/actress and that sort of thing. All languages do. What we lack is what is called grammatical gender—words assigned to “genders” for little or no predictable reason. On biological gender, I can’t resist sharing one of my favorite sentences ever, in an article written by a fine but non-native writer: “Like English, Chinese is a language without gender, i.e., apart from the natural sex of the nouns such as manwoman, boy, waitress, cock, bitch, etc.”


There are, however, genderless Indo-European languages beyond Europe. Armenian has no gender “just because”—but has seven cases (!), and so has hardly undergone an English-style sloughing-off experience. Persian has no gender—but then this is almost definitely because of a drive-by in its history similar to the one English underwent, upon which if you’re really interested, if I may be forgiven for plugging myself, see my Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Among Germanic languages, Afrikaans has no gender, but it is Dutch filtered through southern African peoples transforming it in like fashion to, but to a lesser extent than, what Vikings did to English (and thus retains almost everything otherwise that German and the gang do, as we’ll see as we go on).


For those who care, in “normal” Germanic languages: you say “She washed me the hair” rather than She washed my hair when talking about things done to your person; there remains alive a bouquet of prefixes that are long dead or fossilized in English, like be- (bedecked) and for- (forbear—did you ever think about what for- “means”?); the word become is used to mark the passive voice instead of just be; there is a pronoun especially for singular you like English’s thou now gone in the standard dialect; and then on top of that lots of endings are retained, such as to mark adjectives or the subjunctive.


There have been arguments that Chinese grammar was affected by the languages of its foreign rulers (most prominently some work by Mantaro Hashimoto). I find this hard to support, and highly suspect that most evaluators would agree with me in light of advances in the study of language contact since Hashimoto wrote. I present an alternate analysis of the history of Chinese grammar (indeed based on contact, but long before Genghis Khan and the Manchus) in Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)(sorry for plug number two).


This is a mock sentence.


A useful summary of the record of this hypotheses from its inception up to the eighties is John A. Lucy, Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). It should be noted that since then, there has been work faintly favorable to the hypothesis, albeit in no way bearing it out as proposed by Whorf and his followers. This has included work by Lucy, as well as work by scholars such as Paul Kay, Lera Boroditzky, and Daniel Colasanto.


In fact, there was one other ancient Indo-European branch that was about as slim around the waist as Proto-Germanic. Hittite, a long-extinct language spoken in what is now Turkey, had two genders rather than the classic three that Proto-Indo-European is thought to have had, and less verb-marking equipment than a card-carrying early Indo-European language typically hefted around. However, many heavy-hitting scholars of Indo-European have long argued that Hittite was what Proto-Indo-European itself was like, and that languages like Latin came later. That is, at first Proto-Indo-European, a language about as elaborated as Hittite but nowhere near as elaborated as Latin, split into two languages. One was Hittite itself, or more properly, the small family of now extinct languages Hittite was a part of, called Anatolian. Hittite and company stayed like Proto-Indo-European, which would have had, for example, just two genders rather than three. Call that “Proto-Indo-European Number One” or PIE1. But then there was the other first branch of Proto-Indo-European, which we will call PIE2. PIE2 happened to sprout a bunch of new conjugations, and a new gender alongside the original two. This busy language then morphed into all of the modern Indo-European families, including Germanic. Among these families, if grammar were foliage, only Germanic proceeded to clip the hedges into bushes instead of letting them become trees. Thus Proto-Germanic remains the odd one out, having alone shed so much of what Hittite, albeit looking similar to it, cannot have shed since it never had it.


Vennemann also called my attention to the article in Der Spiegel reporting the discovery of the artifacts in Schleswig-Holstein.

I have not included Vennemann’s argument that the reason Germanic languages (except English) keep the verb up front in second place because early Semitic languages put their verbs first, such that Phoenicians would have preferred keeping verbs as close to the beginning of sentences as possible in rendering Proto-Germanic. Although the argument is interesting, my intent has been to maintain a focus on what made for Modern English, and Modern English lacks the V2 rule (although Old English had it).

Similarly, Vennemann is devoted not only to the Phoenician argument, but to one stipulating that Proto-Germanic vocabulary and accent patterns were affected by relatives of Basque once spoken across Europe before Proto-Indo-European spread across the continent and marginalized Basque. (Today, Basque is spoken in a small region straddling France and Spain and has no living relatives.) Vennemann’s work in this vein is also admirable, but I have not included it because it applies to other Indo-European language families as well, including Celtic and the Romance languages. For the sake of keeping the throughline as focused as possible, I have restricted this book to issues unique to English.