By John McWhorter
English speakers know that their language is odd. So do people saddled with learning it non-natively. The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.
Spelling is a matter of writing, of course, whereas language is fundamentally about speaking. Speaking came long before writing, we speak much more, and all but a couple of hundred of the world’s thousands of languages are rarely or never written. Yet even in its spoken form, English is weird. It’s weird in ways that are easy to miss, especially since Anglophones in the United States and Britain are not exactly rabid to learn other languages. But our monolingual tendency leaves us like the proverbial fish not knowing that it is wet. Our language feels ‘normal’ only until you get a sense of what normal really is.
There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort. German and Dutch are like that, as are Spanish and Portuguese, or Thai and Lao. The closest an Anglophone can get is with the obscure Northern European language called Frisian: if you know that tsiis is cheese and Frysk is Frisian, then it isn’t hard to figure out what this means: Brea, bûter, en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk. But that sentence is a cooked one, and overall, we tend to find that Frisian seems more like German, which it is.
We think it’s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family – Indo-European – and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.
More weirdness? OK. There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third‑person singular. I’m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk–s – why just that? The present‑tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something. Do you find that difficult? Unless you happen to be from Wales, Ireland or the north of France, probably.
Why is our language so eccentric? Just what is this thing we’re speaking, and what happened to make it this way?
English started out as, essentially, a kind of German. Old English is so unlike the modern version that it feels like a stretch to think of them as the same language at all. Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon – does that really mean ‘So, we Spear-Danes have heard of the tribe-kings’ glory in days of yore’? Icelanders can still read similar stories written in the Old Norse ancestor of their language 1,000 years ago, and yet, to the untrained eye, Beowulf might as well be in Turkish.
The first thing that got us from there to here was the fact that, when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (and also Frisians) brought their language to England, the island was already inhabited by people who spoke very different tongues. Their languages were Celtic ones, today represented by Welsh, Irish and Breton across the Channel in France. The Celts were subjugated but survived, and since there were only about 250,000 Germanic invaders – roughly the population of a modest burg such as Jersey City – very quickly most of the people speaking Old English were Celts.
Crucially, their languages were quite unlike English. For one thing, the verb came first (came first the verb). But also, they had an odd construction with the verb do: they used it to form a question, to make a sentence negative, and even just as a kind of seasoning before any verb. Do you walk? I do not walk. I do walk. That looks familiar now because the Celts started doing it in their rendition of English. But before that, such sentences would have seemed bizarre to an English speaker – as they would today in just about any language other than our own and the surviving Celtic ones. Notice how even to dwell upon this queer usage of do is to realize something odd in oneself, like being made aware that there is always a tongue in your mouth.
At this date there is no documented language on earth beyond Celtic and English that uses do in just this way. Thus English’s weirdness began with its transformation in the mouths of people more at home with vastly different tongues. We’re still talking like them, and in ways we’d never think of. When saying ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’, have you ever felt like you were kind of counting? Well, you are – in Celtic numbers, chewed up over time but recognisably descended from the ones rural Britishers used when counting animals and playing games. ‘Hickory, dickory, dock’ – what in the world do those words mean? Well, here’s a clue: hovera, dovera, dick were eight, nine and ten in that same Celtic counting list.
The second thing that happened was that yet more Germanic-speakers came across the sea meaning business. This wave began in the ninth century, and this time the invaders were speaking another Germanic offshoot, Old Norse. But they didn’t impose their language. Instead, they married local women and switched to English. However, they were adults and, as a rule, adults don’t pick up new languages easily, especially not in oral societies. There was no such thing as school, and no media. Learning a new language meant listening hard and trying your best. We can only imagine what kind of German most of us would speak if this was how we had to learn it, never seeing it written down, and with a great deal more on our plates (butchering animals, people and so on) than just working on our accents.
As long as the invaders got their meaning across, that was fine. But you can do that with a highly approximate rendition of a language – the legibility of the Frisian sentence you just read proves as much. So the Scandinavians did pretty much what we would expect: they spoke bad Old English. Their kids heard as much of that as they did real Old English. Life went on, and pretty soon their bad Old English was real English, and here we are today: the Scandies made English easier. I should make a qualification here. In linguistics circles it’s risky to call one language ‘easier’ than another one, for there is no single metric by which we can determine objective rankings. But even if there is no bright line between day and night, we’d never pretend there’s no difference between life at 10am and life at 10pm. Likewise, some languages plainly jangle with more bells and whistles than others. If someone were told he had a year to get as good at either Russian or Hebrew as possible, and would lose a fingernail for every mistake he made during a three-minute test of his competence, only the masochist would choose Russian – unless he already happened to speak a language related to it. In that sense, English is ‘easier’ than other Germanic languages, and it’s because of those Vikings.
Old English had the crazy genders we would expect of a good European language – but the Scandies didn’t bother with those, and so now we have none. Chalk up one of English’s weirdnesses. What’s more, the Vikings mastered only that one shred of a once-lovely conjugation system: hence the lonely third‑person singular –s, hanging on like a dead bug on a windshield. Here and in other ways, they smoothed out the hard stuff.
They also followed the lead of the Celts, rendering the language in whatever way seemed most natural to them. It is amply documented that they left English with thousands of new words, including ones that seem very intimately ‘us’: sing the old song ‘Get Happy’ and the words in that title are from Norse. Sometimes they seemed to want to stake the language with ‘We’re here, too’ signs, matching our native words with the equivalent ones from Norse, leaving doublets such as dike (them) and ditch (us), scatter (them) and shatter (us), and ship (us) vs skipper (Norse for ship was skip, and so skipper is ‘shipper’).
But the words were just the beginning. They also left their mark on English grammar. Blissfully, it is becoming rare to be taught that it is wrong to say Which town do you come from?, ending with the preposition instead of laboriously squeezing it before the wh-word to make From which town do you come? In English, sentences with ‘dangling prepositions’ are perfectly natural and clear and harm no one. Yet there is a wet-fish issue with them, too: normal languages don’t dangle prepositions in this way. Spanish speakers: note that El hombre quien yo llegué con (‘The man whom I came with’) feels about as natural as wearing your pants inside out. Every now and then a language turns out to allow this: one indigenous one in Mexico, another one in Liberia. But that’s it. Overall, it’s an oddity. Yet, wouldn’t you know, it’s one that Old Norse also happened to permit (and which Danish retains).
We can display all these bizarre Norse influences in a single sentence. Say That’s the man you walk in with, and it’s odd because 1) the has no specifically masculine form to match man, 2) there’s no ending on walk, and 3) you don’t say ‘in with whom you walk’. All that strangeness is because of what Scandinavian Vikings did to good old English back in the day.
Finally, as if all this wasn’t enough, English got hit by a firehose spray of words from yet more languages. After the Norse came the French. The Normans – descended from the same Vikings, as it happens – conquered England, ruled for several centuries and, before long, English had picked up 10,000 new words. Then, starting in the 16th century, educated Anglophones developed a sense of English as a vehicle of sophisticated writing, and so it became fashionable to cherry-pick words from Latin to lend the language a more elevated tone.
It was thanks to this influx from French and Latin (it’s often hard to tell which was the original source of a given word) that English acquired the likes of crucified, fundamental, definition and conclusion. These words feel sufficiently English to us today, but when they were new, many persons of letters in the 1500s (and beyond) considered them irritatingly pretentious and intrusive, as indeed they would have found the phrase ‘irritatingly pretentious and intrusive’. (Think of how French pedants today turn up their noses at the flood of English words into their language.) There were even writerly sorts who proposed native English replacements for those lofty Latinates, and it’s hard not to yearn for some of these: in place of crucified, fundamental, definition and conclusion, how about crossed, groundwrought, saywhat, and endsay?
But language tends not to do what we want it to. The die was cast: English had thousands of new words competing with native English words for the same things. One result was triplets allowing us to express ideas with varying degrees of formality. Help is English, aid is French, assist is Latin. Or, kingly is English, royal is French, regal is Latin – note how one imagines posture improving with each level: kingly sounds almost mocking, regal is straight-backed like a throne, royal is somewhere in the middle, a worthy but fallible monarch.
Then there are doublets, less dramatic than triplets but fun nevertheless, such as the English/French pairs begin and commence, or want and desire. Especially noteworthy here are the culinary transformations: we kill a cow or a pig (English) to yield beef or pork (French). Why? Well, generally in Norman England, English-speaking laborers did the slaughtering for moneyed French speakers at table. The different ways of referring to meat depended on one’s place in the scheme of things, and those class distinctions have carried down to us in discreet form today.
Caveat lector, though: traditional accounts of English tend to oversell what these imported levels of formality in our vocabulary really mean. It is sometimes said that they alone make the vocabulary of English uniquely rich, which is what Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil claim in the classic The Story of English (1986): that the first load of Latin words actually lent Old English speakers the ability to express abstract thought. But no one has ever quantified richness or abstractness in that sense (who are the people of any level of development who evidence no abstract thought, or even no ability to express it?), and there is no documented language that has only one word for each concept. Languages, like human cognition, are too nuanced, even messy, to be so elementary. Even unwritten languages have formal registers. What’s more, one way to connote formality is with substitute expressions: English has life as an ordinary word and existence as the fancy one, but in the Native American language Zuni, the fancy way to say life is ‘a breathing into’.
Even in English, native roots do more than we always recognize. We will only ever know so much about the richness of even Old English’s vocabulary because the amount of writing that has survived is very limited. It’s easy to say that comprehend in French gave us a new formal way to say understand – but then, in Old English itself, there were words that, when rendered in Modern English, would look something like ‘forstand’, ‘underget’, and ‘undergrasp’. They all appear to mean ‘understand’, but surely they had different connotations, and it is likely that those distinctions involved different degrees of formality.
Nevertheless, the Latinate invasion did leave genuine peculiarities in our language. For instance, it was here that the idea that ‘big words’ are more sophisticated got started. In most languages of the world, there is less of a sense that longer words are ‘higher’ or more specific. In Swahili, Tumtazame mbwa atakavyofanya simply means ‘Let’s see what the dog will do.’ If formal concepts required even longer words, then speaking Swahili would require superhuman feats of breath control. The English notion that big words are fancier is due to the fact that French and especially Latin words tend to be longer than Old English ones – end versus conclusion, walk versus ambulate.
The multiple influxes of foreign vocabulary also partly explain the striking fact that English words can trace to so many different sources – often several within the same sentence. The very idea of etymology being a polyglot smorgasbord, each word a fascinating story of migration and exchange, seems everyday to us. But the roots of a great many languages are much duller. The typical word comes from, well, an earlier version of that same word and there it is. The study of etymology holds little interest for, say, Arabic speakers.
To be fair, mongrel vocabularies are hardly uncommon worldwide, but English’s hybridity is high on the scale compared with most European languages. The previous sentence, for example, is a riot of words from Old English, Old Norse, French and Latin. Greek is another element: in an alternate universe, we would call photographs ‘lightwriting’. According to a fashion that reached its zenith in the 19th century, scientific things had to be given Greek names. Hence our undecipherable words for chemicals: why can’t we call monosodium glutamate ‘one-salt gluten acid’? It’s too late to ask. But this muttly vocabulary is one of the things that puts such a distance between English and its nearest linguistic neighbors.
And finally, because of this firehose spray, we English speakers also have to contend with two different ways of accenting words. Clip on a suffix to the word wonder, and you get wonderful. But – clip on an ending to the word modern and the ending pulls the accent ahead with it: MO-dern, but mo-DERN-ity, not MO-dern-ity. That doesn’t happen with WON-der and WON-der-ful, or CHEER-y and CHEER-i-ly. But it does happen with PER-sonal, person-AL-ity.
What’s the difference? It’s that –ful and –ly are Germanic endings, while –ity came in with French. French and Latin endings pull the accent closer – TEM-pest, tem-PEST-uous – while Germanic ones leave the accent alone. One never notices such a thing, but it’s one way this ‘simple’ language is actually not so.
Thus the story of English, from when it hit British shores 1,600 years ago to today, is that of a language becoming delightfully odd. Much more has happened to it in that time than to any of its relatives, or to most languages on Earth. Here is Old Norse from the 900s CE, the first lines of a tale in the Poetic Edda called The Lay of Thrym. The lines mean ‘Angry was Ving-Thor/he woke up,’ as in: he was mad when he woke up. In Old Norse it was:
Vreiðr vas Ving-Þórr / es vaknaði.
The same two lines in Old Norse as spoken in modern Icelandic today are:
Reiður var þá Vingþórr / er hann vaknaði.
You don’t need to know Icelandic to see that the language hasn’t changed much. ‘Angry’ was once vreiðr; today’s reiður is the same word with the initial v worn off and a slightly different way of spelling the end. In Old Norse you said vas for was; today you say var – small potatoes.
In Old English, however, ‘Ving-Thor was mad when he woke up’ would have been Wraþmod wæs Ving-Þórr/he áwæcnede. We can just about wrap our heads around this as ‘English’, but we’re clearly a lot further from Beowulf than today’s Reykjavikers are from Ving-Thor.
Thus English is indeed an odd language, and its spelling is only the beginning of it. In the widely read Globish (2010), McCrum celebrates English as uniquely ‘vigorous’, ‘too sturdy to be obliterated’ by the Norman Conquest. He also treats English as laudably ‘flexible’ and ‘adaptable’, impressed by its mongrel vocabulary. McCrum is merely following in a long tradition of sunny, muscular boasts, which resemble the Russians’ idea that their language is ‘great and mighty’, as the 19th-century novelist Ivan Turgenev called it, or the French idea that their language is uniquely ‘clear’ (Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français).
However, we might be reluctant to identify just which languages are not ‘mighty’, especially since obscure languages spoken by small numbers of people are typically majestically complex. The common idea that English dominates the world because it is ‘flexible’ implies that there have been languages that failed to catch on beyond their tribe because they were mysteriously rigid. I am not aware of any such languages.
What English does have on other tongues is that it is deeply peculiar in the structural sense. And it became peculiar because of the slings and arrows – as well as caprices – of outrageous history.
John McWhorter is a linguistics scholar and professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of a number of books on language and race relations, including Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English.