Every week, the digital magazine Aeon publishes several ambitious essays, by competent writers, on culture, philosophy, science, technology and other interesting subjects. One of last week’s authors is John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University; the topic is the English language. The essay is entitled “English is not normal”. Professor McWhorter argues not only that English is genuinely “weird” (anyone who has followed his publications already knows it) but makes a stronger claim that it “really is weirder than pretty much every other language”. Now that is a really weird thing to say, so let’s see how it is argued.
|English is not normal|
The next claim is that English is not similar enough even to closely related languages to guarantee partial mutual comprehensibility. Well, this depends on what we regard as a “related language”. If, for example, we treat Scots as a close cousin rather than a variety of English, we have to agree that English and Scots are partly comprehensible to each other’s speakers (more so, I presume, than Standard Dutch and High German). English and Frisian are more closely related to each other than either is to the rest of Germanic, but they became separated geographically more than 1500 years ago and, unlike Dutch and German, or Spanish and Portuguese, have not remained in contact or been connected by a continuum of intermediate dialects. If that makes English weird, Greek, Albanian and Armenian are even weirder (not to mention such orphan languages as Japanese, Burushaski or Basque).
According to McWhorter, English is the only Indo-European language without grammatical gender. This sweeping statement is simply false. Let’s begin with the observation that the “classical” three-way distinction (masculine : feminine : neuter) probably did not exist in Proto-Indo-European itself, which only distinguished neuters from non-neuters (a state of affairs thought to be preserved by the extinct Anatolian languages such as Hittite). Once the three-gender system emerged in the rest of the family, it was reduced again in some branches. For example, although Latin had three genders, all the modern Romance language descended from it have only two, having eliminated the neuter. Among the Scandinavian languages, Danish and Swedish have merged the feminine and masculine into one “common” (non-neuter) gender. English has gone one step further. Already at the Early Middle English historical stage all morphological markers of gender were abolished in nouns and adjectives. The only trace of the former three-way system is a “natural gender” distinction in the third person singular of personal pronouns (he : she : it). But even within the Germanic group we find the same development in Afrikaans. If anything is “weird” about gender in English and Afrikaans, it isn’t its loss in nouns, but rather the survival of natural gender in pronouns: having pronominal but no nominal gender is very rare cross-linguistically. As for the rest of the Indo-European family, there is no grammatical gender in modern Persian, Balochi, Ossetic, and several other (though not all) Iranian languages. Armenian (also Indo-European) has no gender either. Both the genderless Iranian languages and Armenian are more consistent than English in their elimination of gender: their personal pronouns are genderless too. Armenian na means ‘he/she/it’; literary Persian has u ‘he/she’ (used only of humans) contrasting with ân ‘it’ (non-human), but the latter has taken place of the former in spoken Persian. As we can see, English is by no means alone even in Indo-European. And since more than 50% languages worldwide have no morphological gender or noun-class system, it is in good company.
The next feature is genuinely weird – here I completely agree. No other language known to McWhorter or to me marks the third person singular of present-tense verbs and leaves all the other forms unmarked (the sole exception is the present tense of to be). This is of course due to a historical accident caused by extralinguistic factors – the generalisation of the originally plural polite pronoun ye/you, which led to the disappearance of 2sg. thou/thee together with all the verb forms associated with it (art, wilt, dost, hast, drink(e)st). Nevertheless, it’s strange, though hardly strange enough to justify the claim that English is “deeply peculiar in the structural sense”.
Less convincing is the case for the weirdness of do-support in questions requiring inversion (does she smoke?), in negation (she doesn’t smoke), and in emphatic statements (she does smoke). Professor McWhorter has for a long time argued that the construction is due to Celtic influence and found exclusively in Brittonic Celtic and English. This is doubtful for several reasons. Constructions regarded as precursors of do-support occur sporadically in 14th-c. English, but fully assume their modern functions and begin to spread rapidly after ca. 1500. That’s 1000 years after the initial contact between the Anglo-Saxon and the Brittonic Celts. Why so late? Perhaps the construction existed in informal spoken English and didn’t make it into the written standard until the sixteenth century? Such an explanation could work for Old English, but hardly for the Middle period, from which we have a vast corpus of documents representing different genres, styles, and grammatical registers. There is, furthermore, no evidence of analogous constructions in Celtic pre-dating their début in English, so the direction of influence is uncertain (if it’s influence at all, rather than accidental convergence made likelier by the fact that inversion is used as a syntactic device in both cases). The fact that the Celtic analogue of do-support can also be found in Breton does not prove its great age. Contacts between the Celtic populations of Brittany and Cornwall were regular and intensive until the decline of an independent Duchy of Brittany in the 16th century. Anyway, even if we are dealing with a pattern borrowed from Celtic, English shares it with Welsh, Cornish and Breton, and so can’t be regarded as exceptionally weird in this respect. Again, the claim that such a construction does not occur anywhere else is exaggerated. Do-support analogues have been reported from some Lombard dialects of Northern Italy (the use of the auxiliary fa ‘do’ in questions), and even from Korean (in negation). A related construction (with Old Norse gera ‘prepare, do’) was used in Old Icelandic negation. Even if the English-specific combination of functions is “special”, its components can be found here and there.
The rest of McWhorter’s essay is devoted to the “mongrel vocabulary” of English (with most of it being actually French, Latin or Scandinavian), the richness of synonymy resulting from layers of borrowing, and the impact of Latinate loans on the development of a complex stress system. Though remarkable, these features are hardly unique of even rare. Plenty of languages have been relexified with foreign elements to a comparable degree, and with equally dramatic consequences for their morphology and phonology.
Of course the essay is pop-linguistics, addressed to a general audience, so the author has every right to simplify things for didactic convenience. He justly debunks the all-to-popular idea of English as the “model” language, so ordinary that it can be regarded as a safe testing-ground for linguistic theories (“let’s consider any language – for example, English”). However, in doing so, he errs on the opposite side, trying to make English look more extraordinary than it really is. English does have its structural idiosyncrasies, but so does just about any other human language. Tsakhur (a Northeast Caucasian language) has ‘tourquoise’ as a basic colour term (it’s also weird in having at least about 70 consonant phonemes); Czech is pretty much unique in having a fricative alveolar trill as a phoneme (a sound so rare that the International Phonetic Association has not yet come up a convenient symbol to transcribe it); Hawaiian has [t] and [k] as variants of the same phoneme in its extremely small inventory of consonants; the West !Xóõ language (in Namibia) has 43-111 different clicks (depending on how you analyse the system) in addition to a few dozen other consonants; Winnebago (Siouan) places the main stress on the third mora in longer words, while Macedonian (Slavic) regularly stresses the antipenultimate syllable; in Imonda (in Papua New Guinea) singular and dual nouns are marked with special endings but plurals are expressed as bare stems; Hungarian has 18 noun cases and two basic colour terms for different kinds of ‘red’. Pirahã (in Amazonas, Brazil) has a dozen phonemes (at most), no numerals, and no basic colour terms; the jury is still out on whether it has embedded clauses. On the other hand, it has a rich verb morphology, with an unusually large number od aspects and several shades of evidentiality (expressing the source/reliability of information). There’s a lot of weirdness out there.
The fact is that the total weirdness of a language is not a quantifiable notion. It makes little sense to say that one language is generally weirder than another (as opposed to being weirder in some particular respect). Caprices of history have elevated English to the status of global lingua franca. It doesn’t owe its unique position to any structural features, although the fact that it has an enormous population of speakers is relevant for its current and future evolution. Yes, it has many eccentric features but hardly represents an extreme type of language. “English is not normal”, while a catchy title, is at best a trivial statement that could be true of any language (if you concentrate exclusively on a few selected oddities).