Monday, August 03, 2009

Three steps to English

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, english language

How often do you say or hear, "Long time, no see", or "Where to?", or even "Look-see"? All three have made their way into "common" English via Chinese-English Pidgin, an incipient Creole spoken by tens of thousands of traders and businesspeople throughout oceanic Asia, from the South China Sea through Indonesia and Malaysia. The crucial insight into how this Pidgin works is that the expressions use English words but Chinese and Malay grammar.

This kind of Pidgin arises when a more numerous people learn the words of the language of less numerous, but economically powerful, neighbors or invaders. A few expressions (e.g. kowtow, gung ho, typhoon) make their way in the other direction, but it is typically incumbent on the poorer people to learn how to speak to the more powerful.

A Pidgin is a second (or third or …) language for all parties involved. When large numbers of people begin to speak it as a first language, the result is called a Creole. Give it a few generations, with a bit of linguistic drift, and it becomes simply another language.

Another way a Creole can arise is among immigrants who learn a language as adults, including some of its grammar, and speak it "broken". When the number of immigrants is large, and when they in turn influence the language of the next generation for both their own children and those of the host country, large grammatical changes can occur. Depending on the extent of mongrelization of the languages, the result can be a Creole, or it may just cause the aggregation of lots of new terms and maybe a grammatical nicety or two from the immigrants' language into the host language. "Spanglish" is a Creole spoken in large areas of the U.S., particularly the Southwest states (more accurately, there are a few dialects of Spanglish already). But "Janglish" in Japan is, at this point, just a cute reference to the large number of English loan words the Japanese young people have picked up. "Franglish" is similar.

I found it fascinating, but altogether not surprising, that English has been Creolized at least twice, and its forbear language, Proto-Germanic, has had at least a strong influence from a Semitic language, possibly Phoenician. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, John McWhorter outlines his reasoning for this series of processes.

The author first demonstrates how Anglo-Saxon, brought to England in the Fifth Century A.D. by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and which we tend to call Old English, morphed into Middle English over half a millennium or so. In the process, its Germanic grammatical constructions were nearly all replaced by a grammar that is seen to be Celtic, resembling Welsh and Cornish, including in particular our tendency to use "do" as a "helper verb": "Do you want to go?" or "I didn't take it!" have replaced "Want you to go?" and "I took it not!". The former are Celtic constructions, the latter, Old English but with modern spelling.

A second "Celtic marker" is our peculiar "-ing" present tense: "I'm running" for "I run". Every language uses "I run", except for English and—you got it—the Celtic languages. Thus Middle English has its roots in a Creole between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tongues.

A second major shift occurred that was not driven by Celtic influences, and came later. Thousands of Vikings, many of them weary of raiding and hoping to take up farming in "fair Britannia", took over large portions of the island. The areas in which the largest numbers of them lived were the first to drop many of the case endings and verb declensions that we find in documents written elsewhere. "Broken" English became the norm. Thus while Anglo-Saxon had five or six noun cases, Middle English shifted rapidly from having four to having two (usually, add "s" to make a possessive), and from a larger number of verb tenses to only three: I sing, I sang, I have sung before. We handle the future by adding "will" or "going to".

Thus, among twelve Germanic languages in use today, only English has the "do" helper verb (which McWhorter calls "meaningless do"); only English uses present progressive with "-ing", and only English has shed nearly all inflections of nouns and much more than half the verbal apparatus. Oh, yeah: English also doesn't "sex" things like books and tables, as all other European languages do. This is why English speakers have a tougher time learning those languages. The extra frills that English has shed must be learned, and are very seldom learned with any perfection, while the Europeans are already familiar with them and just need to learn the words and the differences in how those frills work in a new language.

The other major difference between Old English and Middle English is the large number of French loan words that resulted from 150 years of Norman domination. The Norman elite were quite small in number, and their grammar didn't influence their English servants very much, but the words they required them to use made their way into English as a parallel vocabulary, which is why we have a larger number of synonyms than most languages.

But wait, there's more! The Proto-Germanic language that became Anglo-Saxon, reconstructed from a comparison of all the Germanic languages, was quite a bit different from proto-Indo-European. It actually had only about half the grammatical apparatus of its parent. It had already shed some of the cases and declensions. It also had about a third of its vocabulary derived from a non-Indo-European source. The author deduces that this source was a Semitic language, and he favors Phoenician, because they were the most avid seafaring people of the mid-First Millennium BC. It cannot yet be proven, but I agree with his reasoning, that Proto-Germanic began as a Creole, or as heavy loan-word borrowing from a Semitic language.

So, there you have it. Three mongrelizations that produced first the Germanic family of languages, including Old English, then Middle English, then Modern English. Based on this history, why is anyone concerned that English continues to change, not only its vocabulary, but its grammar also? Remember, "'Ain't' ain't a word, 'cause it ain't in the dictionary."? It is now. Remember the prohibitions against splitting infinitives, or against ending a sentence with a preposition? They were based on Latin grammar, and are no longer followed. What will change next? I don't know. Hang on for the ride!

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