Post by Ruud Harmsen
Oh, that article again.
McWhorter originally wrote a more scholarly article on that topic,
"What happened to English?". I remember reading it online, but I
can't find a freely available copy now. Pity.
The article above is his pop-sci treatment of the topic, so it
suffers from oversimplification, overgeneralization (McWhorter may
have never zapped into a French TV channel when a spelling bee was
on, but I have), lack of rigor (notice how he wildly shifts his
point of comparison), addresses an audience that knows very little
about languages or the history of English, and pushes some of his
pet ideas. The hook of English being somehow "unique" fits in well
with the understanding of American exceptionalism that's pervasive
among the intended audience. It's on par with the usual drivel
that is filling the "science" section of newspapers and magazines.
Don't take it too seriously.
Post by Ruud Harmsen
Did you know that using the verb 'to do' for questions and negation
did not originate in English but is from Celtic?
I'm aware that some people are pushing this claim. I find it
unconvincing. I don't know the Celtic languages, which may influence
my opinion, but I'm under the impression little is known in general
about Celtic at the time this language contact would have happened.
Periphrastic do is NOT unusual in West Germanic. Even standard
German resorts to it when you want to put the verb first for emphasis.
Say, you want to criticize the comprehensibility of Chomsky's
Verstehen tut man das nicht.
Uses of periphrastic do similar to that in English are floating
around in the German dialectosphere. Of course that is not something
you'll find in a textbook sketch of German grammar.
Post by Ruud Harmsen
If so, why doesn't French (Vulgar Latin on a Gaulic substrate) have
Oh, people are on and off attributing features of French to Gaulish,
too. Or Frankish.
Generally speaking, it seems very hard to prove or disprove any of
this. There is a remarkable lack of falsifiability. The problem
is that most of our understanding of language change is descriptive;
we see what is happening, but there is no comprehensive theory that
can explain how and why or make predictions. Some processes are
being elucidated, but it's bits and pieces.
McWhorter may be right with his assertion that it is strange that
English marks the third person singular present tense. But does a
historic accident make for a deep mystery? The most interesting
question, to my mind, is why English maintains this personal marker.
Some nonstandard varieties of English drop it, but overall -s is
hanging on. There must be some pressure to keep the distinction.
A lesser question is how Northern -s replaced original -th in that
position. Since it came from the North, blaming the Vikings seems
safe, but the details are murky, starting with the fact that Old
Norse certainly didn't have -s as a personal marker. Also, Northern
use of -s exists in different patterns that don't necessarily agree
with Modern Standard English. Possibly the least interesting
question is how among all the personal markers only -th survived.
A simple sound change may have killed all but -st and -th, and -st
disappeared when "you" displaced "thou".
Which brings me to my very own pet hypothesis about what happened
to English. I'll point out right away that I know virtually nothing
about Middle English. This is bad because it means I may be spouting
nonsense. But it is also good, because it makes my idea falsifiable.
Somebody who knows Middle English can look at it and say whether
it agrees with what is known.
If you look at the inflections of Old English and what remains in
(Early) Modern English, how do you get from one to the other? First,
you collapse all unstressed vowels in the endings to schwa. (Let's
spell it -e-.) That's exactly what also marks the transition from
Old High German to Middle High German, and weakening of unstressed
vowels is an ordinary sound change. Then the crucial step: loss
of final -e and -en, again a simple sound change. Denasalization
of syllabic n to schwa, loss of final schwa. Removing -e and -en
with their high functional load has enormous consequences:
* In the verb system, you immediately get the survival of the
personal endings of Early Modern English: -st, -th.
* The whole system of determiner/adjective marking for gender and
case collapses. Remaining endings like -es and -er can't carry
the load and are leveled out.
* The two most common plural endings disappear, clearing the way
for -(e)s to spread through the noun system.
I don't know if that's what happened, but it would explain a lot.
Incidentally, without resorting to putative Celtic or Norse influence.
Christian "naddy" Weisgerber ***@mips.inka.de